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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: How can it be that climate change—the major planetary issue of our time and a primary issue for Democrats—isn’t even on the agenda for Republicans in the upcoming elections?

-- Will Harris, Bridgeport, CT

Americans, regardless of political affiliation, all live on this planet together and share its ecosystems and resources. Yet there is a deep divide among us with regard to environmental policies and climate change. Nothing underscores this divide more than Donald Trump’s rolling back of nearly 100 mostly Obama-era environmental regulations since 2017. And during the 2020 Republican National Convention, climate was not mentioned once, apart from Trump’s bragging about leaving the Paris Climate Agreement.

Climate and environmental issues were once a bipartisan concern. As early as 1900, Republicans and Democrats in Congress were passing bills on environmental issues together. One of these bills, for example, was the Endangered Species Act which was passed unanimously in 1973 by the Senate and later by a 390-12 vote in the House (another bill President Trump is in the process of dismantling).

Even up until 2007-2008, the GOP supported many of the environmental regulations passed. Republicans such as George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich (former Republican Speaker of the House), Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain all agreed verbally that protecting our planet from climate change was not a partisan issue. It wasn’t until 2008 when Obama tried to pass policies to help reverse and mitigate climate change that special interests began to really intercede in U.S. environmental politics.

That being said, there is reason for hope in the generations of Republican youth joining the table who are dedicated to making climate change a prominent issue for the Republican party. One recent study found that millennials and younger Republicans are more likely than older Republicans to view government efforts to reduce climate change as insufficient (52 percent versus 31 percent). Similarly, 78 percent of younger Republicans (against 53 percent of older ones) agree that alternative (non-fossil-fuel) energy sources should be a priority, numbers that bring hope to those already working on climate change issues.

The American Conservation Coalition (ACC) is an advocacy group started by Benji Backer and other young Republicans in 2017. Backer said his drive to start this group after his freshman year of college came from his love of nature that was inspired by his family. "They were Audubon members, Nature Conservancy members. But they were conservative, and I grew up not thinking that the environment should be political at all," says Backer.

Another youth-led advocacy group that has emerged is the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends (YCCD), which supports carbon taxes to reduce greenhouse gases. Founder Kiera O’Brien grew up in Alaska and says that she and fellow Republicans have seen the impacts of climate change first-hand in the rapidly warming region.

As things worsen globally, many others, despite party affiliations, will likely come to similar realizations. The question is, can each and every one of us band together to make impactful change before it’s too late?

CONTACTS: ACC, acc.eco; YCCD, yccdaction.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What on Earth is “plant blindness?” – Betsy Carlucci. New York, NY

Botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler coined the term “plant blindness” in 1998 to describe “the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” An additional aspect of plant blindness is the “inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features” of plants and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”

Wandersee and Schussler coined the term after years of discussion back and forth about a fundamental problem: if we don’t pay attention to plants and their role in supporting the rest of the lives on the planet including our own, how will we ever agree on the need to conserve them, much less support plant science research and education? Also, letting plants die out poses an existential threat to humanity and the rest of life on the Earth. Researchers believe one in eight plant species around the globe are threatened with extinction as our (plant-dependent) human population continues to swell.

What causes plant blindness? According to Wandersee and Schussler, social and educational biases are definitely a big factor, with so-called “zoo-chauvinistic” educators at all levels tending to use animal (instead of plant) examples to teach basic biological concepts in the classroom, lab or field.

Of course, there is likely more to it than educational biases. Wandersee and Schussler argue in an article in Plant Science Bulletin that another major contributor to plant blindness is the nature of the human visual information-processing system, in that our brains can’t possibly process everything around us immediately just because our eyes are open, and we are hard-wired to prioritize certain visual cues (like movement that may signal an animal threat) over others.

One study they cite concludes that over the course of a single second, the eyes generate more than 10 million bits of data for visual processing, but the brain can only extract 40 bits during this timeframe and can only fully process 16 of them that reach our conscious attention. Another study found that participants more accurately detected images of animals than plants in an “attentional blink” study designed to test people’s ability to notice one or two rapid-fire images. And yet another study found that children recognize that animals are living creatures before they can tell plants are also alive, and that they remember images of animals much better than images of plants.

To Wandersee and Schussler, devoting more of our educational resources to teaching kids and adults about plants and their role in supporting life is the key to overcoming plant blindness. Indeed, seeing the plants all around us could be key to our survival on the planet, so it behooves each and every one of us to learn more about the environment around us and start appreciating not just the other fauna we share life with but also the flora that helps make it all possible.

CONTACTS: Plant Blindness, academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/53/10/926/254897; “Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness,” www.botany.org/bsa/psb/2001/psb47-1.pdf; “Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation,” conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/cobi.12738.

Dear EarthTalk: Where I live in Southeast Michigan, an invasive insect called the Emerald Ash Borer is wreaking havoc on our forests. Are other parts of the country dealing with this pest or others that are killing large numbers of trees? — John D., Sterling Heights, MI

In a growing number of U.S. states, residents have been dealing with a different kind of quarantine that began back in the early 2000’s and continues on today. But this one involves wood, not people, and the perpetrator is a beetle, not a virus.

The problem started in 2002 when the Emerald ash borer, an exotic green beetle that probably hitched a ride to the U.S. with wood materials from Asia, began decimating ash forests in Michigan. Since then, this little invader has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees across 35 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. Ecosystems where these ash trees play a pivotal role are decimated, while forest products industries and property owners in these areas are also worse off. And wood coming out of affected regions is being quarantined to make sure it isn’t harboring the invasive pest before being shipped out to other parts of the country or world.

While the Emerald ash borer is found almost exclusively on ash trees, several other invasive bugs are also plaguing other types of forests across the continent. Asian long-horned beetles, Spotted lanternflies, Banded elm bark beetles, Brown spruce long-horned beetles, Common pine shoot beetles and European oak bark beetles are just a few of the bugs preying on our native forests.

A new Asian gypsy moth strain is another emerging threat to U.S. coastal forests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) warns, “If established in the United States, Asian gypsy moths could cause serious, widespread damage to our country’s landscape and natural resources.” In May 2020, Washington governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency order in response to the infestation. These moths have wrought havoc before, and scientists have offset infestations using a special kind of moss on different East Coast strains. Hopefully similar measures are that a measure can counteract impacts on the West coast soon as well.

There are many factors driving the spread and growth of harmful species to trees in North America. Clothing imported from China, wood brought from Canada, sugar transported from Brazil, and much else of what we consume here that comes from abroad brings with it the transport of species, whether on purpose or by accident, with potentially catastrophic effects.

Climate change is also a factor. Insects live in specific environments based on weather, and their ranges expand and breeding seasons increase as global temperatures rise. Mountain pine beetle numbers, for example, have grown rapidly in recent decades due to the warming climate. Cold winters that usually drive beetles to hibernate, protecting pine forests for a spell, are growing shorter. Beetles can now complete two reproductive cycles in the expanded warm seasons, leading to increased tree mortality in affected regions. If warming continues at the current rate, trees won’t be able to adapt fast enough to survive.

There’s not much individuals can do to prevent the spread of invasive tree pests except by buying wood products produced by local logging operations or wood lots. Likewise, procure firewood from local sources, as many pests hitchhike into new terrain on firewood in back of the family station wagon.

CONTACTS: USDA Emerald Ash Borer Info, invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/invertebrates/emerald-ash-borer; DontMoveFirewood.org, DontMoveFirewood.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the best Instagram feeds to follow lately if I’m into environmental activism and fighting climate change? -- Bill S., New Orleans, LA

It’s amazing how dominant Instagram has become in the world of social media. Eco-advocates would be remiss to not make use of it to raise awareness and spur action on behalf of the planet. Given Instagram’s limited functionality, activists and groups have to be creative to make the most of the photo-dominant platform to stand out from the crowd. Here are a few of our favorite sustainability-oriented accounts:

Indigenous Climate Action uses its @indigenousclimateaction account to motivate and empower both youth and adults on climate activism by reminding them of the human connections to land, water, community, culture and the sense of responsibility towards future generations exemplified in Indigenous communities. Recent posts featured celebrations of indigenous knowledge, art and culture, and the group also hosts “virtual visits” and information-packed livestreams on Instagram.

Another enlightening account is @intersectionalenvironmentalist, which spreads awareness about how and why injustices happening to marginalized communities and planet health are connected. Posts focus on social justice, environmental justice, art, and community-building around inclusion and sustainability. The producers of the account also platform inspirational speakers on IGTV, Instagram’s video network.

If you’re looking for informative posts displayed in eye-catching styles, check out @futureearth, which cites all its sources and will keep you updated via a variety of different post styles. Their periodic Climate Talks feature informative videos with activists, educators, scientists and green business pioneers.

Meanwhile, activist Isaias Hernandez populates his @queerbrownvegan account with aesthetically-pleasing posts on environmental justice, veganism and zero-waste. One recent post defined the term “conscious consumerism” while another addressed why climate activists tend to burn out so young.

Another timely account to follow is @sunrisemvmt, the Instagram outlet for the Sunrise Movement. Organizers have used Instagram to spread their message to millions of young people who have in turn showed up at rallies, marches, sit-ins, Congressional visits and other direct-action events designed to lever those in power to make smart decisions with climate change, green jobs, sustainability and equity in mind.

Finally, @climemechange uses humor to lighten the mood within the climate movement. After all, laughter has been proven to boost antibody-producing cells, reduce stress and increase blood flow, all important to make sure we keep ourselves healthy while fighting the good fight. Following this account is a good way to fight the eco-depression and climate anxiety we all suffer from, even if just a little.

One way to be an eco-activist on Instagram is to share these accounts’ posts on your own stories, an easy way to spread awareness about the issues made possible by the social platforms we have today.

CONTACTS: Indigenous Climate Action,
instagram.com/indigenousclimateaction/; Intersectional Environmentalist, instagram.com/intersectionalenvironmentalist; Future Earth, instagram.com/futureearth/; Isaias Hernandez’ Queer Brown Vegan, instagram.com/queerbrownvegan/; Sunrise Movement instagram.com/sunrisemvmt/; Climemechange, instagram.com/Climemechange/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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