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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: When did scientists first discover that carbon dioxide levels were rising in the atmosphere due to human activity and that this could cause global warming?
  -- Barbara Mickelson, Sumter, SC

The Earth’s climate is continually changing. Since the planet was born some 4.5 billion years ago, it has undergone ice ages and warm periods due to natural changes in its orbit around the sun and other factors on its surface. But since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been the main factor in the Earth’s warming. Since pre-industrial times, the Earth’s surface has warmed some 1.5 degrees celsius. And with 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the air every second, we are on track to get a lot warmer still. So when did we realize climate change was happening and who is responsible?

The science behind climate change was first understood by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896; he thought the results would be positive for humans. Arrhenius realized that burning fossil fuels would have a greenhouse effect on the planet and would likely warm the planet by several degrees. Throughout the 20th century, the planet’s human population increased by more than 280 percent and CO2 production increased by more than 1160 percent. As the climate warmed, more and more scientists started to realize that human activity must be to blame. By 1959, worry among the scientific community increased as some scientists projected that CO2 would increase with potentially “radical” effects on climate.

But it wasn’t until 1995 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a definitive statement that humans are responsible for post-industrial global warming. As of 2010, there was a 97 percent consensus among scientists that climate change was caused by humans.

So why haven't we fixed the situation? The answer may partially lie in the part large energy corporations played in swaying public opinion. As InsideClimate News reports, ExxonMobil was aware that anthropogenic climate change was likely as early as 1977. Since then, ExxonMobil has spent more than $30 million on think tanks that promote climate denial. While it can perhaps be pardoned for opposing climate change research when the science was still inconclusive, ExxonMobil continued funding climate change denial groups as late as 2009—well after our carbon emissions were established as the cause of climate change. ExxonMobil even helped found the “Global Climate Coalition,” a lobbying group that prevented the U.S. from taking action against limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

And ExxonMobil isn’t alone. Koch Industries, a Kansas-based multinational with big investments in oil and other fossil fuels, has donated over $88 million to climate change denial. Chevron, BP and others also fund such efforts. The actions of these companies have had a profound impact on public opinion. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. has the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world but “is among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impact.”

Confronting ExxonMobil and other corporations that give misleading information to the public is important because this issue affects all of us. Non-profits like Greenpeace are trying to make sure oil companies stop obfuscating the truth and start promoting cleaner energy. Regardless, our commitments at the Paris climate accord have the U.S. and the rest of the world on the right path toward reducing emissions, no matter what the oil companies say about it. 

CONTACTS: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, www.ipcc.ch; ExxonMobil, corporate.exxonmobil.com; Koch Industries, www.kochind.com; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; Pew Research Center, www.pewresearch.org.


Dear EarthTalk: What are “smoke waves” from wildfires and how can they be hazardous for our health? -- Doug Jenkins, Big Sandy, TX

Smoke waves are just what they sound like: huge waves of smoke. Perhaps more dangerous than the fires themselves from which they radiate, smoke waves can cause health problems for people hundreds of miles around. Forest fire flames licking at homes and neighborhoods are always scary, killing dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in property damage across the U.S. every year. But it’s typically the risk from the smoke waves that causes school closures and confines people indoors for days or weeks on end while more frequent and more intense wildfires rage on.

What makes smoke waves so dangerous is that they carry particulate matter (tiny dust particles smaller than 2.5 microns) that people can breathe into their lungs where they can cause respiratory problems and aggravate pre-existing medical conditions. Forest fires and other forms of combustion are the main source of these tiny dust particles—so the more forest fires, the more particulate matter risk. Asthmatic children are especially sensitive to smoke waves; hundreds were hospitalized in California this summer during one of the worst fire seasons on record. The elderly, especially those with heart or lung conditions, are also highly vulnerable to pollution from smoke waves. Smoke waves are most severe for those directly under or in the wave, but pollution can travel for hundreds of miles, poisoning the lungs of people nowhere near the actual fire.

A recent study of smoke waves across the Western U.S. by researchers from Harvard and Yale universities concluded that climate change “will likely cause smoke waves to be longer, more intense, and more frequent.” They found that between 2004 and 2009, smoke waves affected 57 million Americans—more than 15 percent of the U.S. population. But even more troubling is their projection for that number to ramp up another 45 percent by mid-century as the planet continues to warm up. That will mean about 13 million more kids and seniors will be impacted by smoke waves compared with today.

As the climate changes and most places get hotter and drier, forest fires are projected to increase significantly—and with more fire comes more smoke. Anyone living in fire-prone areas needs to be informed and prepared. Sites like AirNow.gov can give current data on air quality and warn of any dangers from smoke waves or other forms of pollution. If a smoke wave is in your area, stay indoors or wear protective clothing and masking to avoid inhalation. 

Because smoke waves are a direct result of human-caused global warming, the best way to minimize them is to slow or stop carbon emissions. While slowing or stopping global warming is a global effort, individuals need to do their part too. Do what you can to minimize energy use and waste, upgrade to more efficient cars, appliances, systems, homes and offices, fly and drive less, walk and bike more... But also vote for carbon taxes and other warming mitigation measures and urge your lawmakers to support sustainability-oriented policy initiatives. If you live in a fire-prone area, you’ll be doing yourself and your loved ones a favor.

CONTACTS: “Particulate air pollution from wildfires in the Western US under climate change,” link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-016-1762-6; AirNow.gov, www.airnow.gov.


Dear EarthTalk: Why are many environmentalists against artificial cloning of living organisms? Isn’t it a good way to save endangered species? -- Louis Bachman, Chico, CA

As many endangered species near extinction, cloning seems like a viable solution to rebuild populations. Using DNA from already deceased animals, cloning can even increase the diversity of a gene pool. There are only seven white rhinos confirmed to be alive today, for example, so adding only a few more through cloning could mean the difference between extinction and survival of the entire species. Why, then, do many environmentalists oppose the artificial cloning of endangered species?

Cloning is often thought of as unnatural and inhumane, but it was, in fact, the first method of reproduction and is still very common in nature today. Asexual reproduction, the oldest form of cloning, is used by aspens, stick insects and Kentucky Bluegrass.

Artificial cloning began in 1928, when Hilde Mangold took a first step: injecting DNA into an egg. By 1952, the first animal was successfully cloned. It was a tadpole. Perhaps the most notable clone in recent history, Dolly the Sheep, was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. The first endangered animal to be cloned was the Gaur in 2001. But along with these successes were many failed and forgotten clones. Even the cloning of common, well-understood animals is difficult. Dolly the Sheep was the result of the 434th cloning attempt and only lived to just over half the average lifespan of a sheep. When the animals are endangered and their reproductive physiology is not well understood, cloning gets even more difficult.

Cloning of endangered species has a wildly low success rate; usually under one percent. Even successful clones are often not able to themselves reproduce and usually live shorter than average lives. Because of the potential for reducing the already low numbers of existing population of endangered species, scientists often use close relatives for eggs and as mothers to gestate the cloned embryos. This often results in the mother rejecting the egg or if the clone is born, reproductive complications.

Due to such inefficiencies, most environmental leaders are not bullish on cloning endangered species. “The potential of cloning is intriguing, but it's been very little tested in terms of its practical application,” says Oliver Ryder, an endangered species expert at the San Diego Zoo. “The way to preserve endangered species is to preserve them in their habitat.” 

Despite not being a viable current method for saving endangered animals, cloning could very well be effective in the future. “Frozen zoos” in San Diego and Brazil hold the genetic material of extinct and endangered animals and could be used if need be and if the technology improves. In the meantime, and as Ryder points out, efforts to stop poaching and the destruction of habitats—rather than high-tech fixes like cloning—could go much further to preserve species.

CONTACT: San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, institute.sandiegozoo.org.


Dear EarthTalk: I recently moved into a new rental house and the water from the tap tastes kinda funny. Can you suggest some easy and inexpensive ways to test the water for contaminants? 
  -- Wanda Belinski, Bridgeport, CT

Chances are your tap water is fine—a recent survey of public data by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 95 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas without any past or present water contamination issues—but of course it can’t hurt to check. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most of us get our water from a community/public water system that provides its customers with an annual water quality report, also known as a Consumer Confidence Report. Typically this report comes out once a year—often with your July water bill. These reports contain information on contaminants in the system and in the water’s source—and what the potential health effects could be. Your water utility should be able to provide this report on request as well.

If your water provider’s report doesn’t bring you solace, or if you are suspicious about the water pipes into your house, you can order a home water test kit and analyze for common contaminants yourself. National Testing Laboratories (NTL) is one of many companies that will mail you a complete test kit which you can use to test for various contaminants. NTL’s basic kit to evaluate water from your public water supply retails for under $150 and tests for the most common contaminants in public water supplies, including five metals and minerals such as copper and lead, seven inorganic chemicals including fluoride and nitrates, four physical characteristics including pH and hardness and 16 disinfectants and disinfection by-products including chlorine, trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. Meanwhile, NTL’s deluxe option costs another $100 but includes tests for dozens of additional contaminants including arsenic, mercury, benzene, MTBE and even Glysophate (RoundUp).

If you are one of the 15 percent of the U.S. population deriving their water from a private supply, such as from a well on your property or a common source shared by a small neighborhood, it behooves you to test your supply on an annual basis (or more frequently if you have a new well or recently replaced or repaired pipes, pumps or well casings) to watch out for coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids and unhealthy pH levels. Your local health agency can refer you to testing labs in your area that can provide sample containers or even come out to your property to take their own samples, or firms like National Testing Laboratories can mail well water test kits your way.

If your water supply is contaminated, contact your city, town or county health agency to find out what you can do to remedy the situation—and in the meantime, boil any water you intend to drink, or get bottled water.  If you are on a public water supply, chances are your home isn’t the only one affected, so band together with neighbors and demand your water utility clean up its act. The silver lining to the Flint, Michigan water debacle is that Americans no longer take for granted that their water supplies are safe. Hopefully that will translate into more public vigilance regarding end-of-the-faucet monitoring of our precious water.

CONTACTS: NRDC’s What’s in Your Water,” www.nrdc.org/resources/whats-your-water-flint-and-beyond; National Testing Laboratories, www.watercheck.com; EPA Ground Water & Drinking Water, www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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