In the News: August 6, 2015

Extinction linked to Warming Events through Time

Scientists have discovered that rapid warming events led to extinction of multiple species, including mammoths, throughout time by the analysis of fossils and climate data from ice and sediment.

Companies Investing Money to Fight Climate Change

More than a dozen US companies, including Google, Bank of America, and Walmart have pledged to invest $140 billion to fight climate change, such as financing renewable energy plants or purchasing 100% of their energy from renewable resources.

Scientists Say Fires in Alaska is Yet Another Sign of Climate Change

This summer, Alaskan wildfires have burned nearly 5 million acres, an area larger than Connecticut. Climate change is leading to the wildfires and other phenomenon such as the erosion of Alaskan coastlines and the destabilization of permafrost.

Obama Unveils the Clean Power Plan

The Obama administration unveiled a new plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Find out more here.

Scientists Look Into How Drought Affects Trees

Drought affects trees’ ability to grow and intake carbon, which could speed up climate change.

Greenpeace Members Protest Arctic Drilling

Greenpeace members rappelled down a bridge in an attempt to block Shell’s icebreaker.. Greenpeace has been fined $17,500.

The Phenomenon of Ghost Fishing

Fishermen’s discarded nets threaten wildlife.

Climate Change Past the Point of No Return

From heat waves to drought, the world is suffering from climate change in scary ways.

Tragic Record-Setting Polar Bear

A polar bear made a record setting dive of 3 minutes, but only out of necessity.


Clean Power Plan

Announced by President Obama on Monday, the Clean Power Plan aims to lower carbon emissions for the first time ever.

Power plants are responsible for one third of the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions. Power plants will be required to cut emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. States have until 2018 to devise a plan, which must be implemented in 2022 (although they get incentives to start earlier). The plan is part of the Clean Air Act which was implemented in 1963.

The plan was not released solely as a way to slow global warming, but also as a public health initiative. Asthma has more than doubled in the past thirty years, and other health risks and natural disasters can be linked to high carbon emissions. The plan will cost about $8.4 billion, but the plan will save much more. It is estimated that the average annual family electric bill will have decreased $85 by 2030.

While politicians such as Hillary Clinton approve of the plan, many do not. A group of attorney generals are preparing to file a lawsuit against the plan they feel will hurt the economy. The public face of the lawsuit is Patrick Morrisey, attorney general of West Virginia. Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush are all against the Clean Power Plan. Half a dozen states, including Texas and Oklahoma, are refusing to follow the plan.

However, other states are preparing to put plans in place. Many view this as a good measure to reduce our carbon footprint and to stand as a role model to other countries in our global fight against pollution and climate change.


What’s Going on in Our Environment? News Update

US wastes way more on electronics than anyone else

Find out if dumping electronics in the trash is illegal in your state here.

Bring your electronics to recycle at your nearest Best Buy, Staples, or other electronic store.

Weird Creatures Rolling onto Beaches

Certainly not a fix to climate change, but also doesn’t hurt.

US Proposing to Protect Streams from Mining

Shell gets the go-ahead to drill in the Arctic

Fishing banned in Arctic due to climate change

Teens suing companies over climate change


Big Stores Turn Organic

This year, it’s been announced that Costco has passed Whole Foods in organic food sales. Whole Foods sells approximately $3.6 billion worth of organics each year, whereas Costco exceeded $4 billion. In percentages, this is not much of Costco’s $114 billion in sales, but it shows that customers are relying on other stores to provide them with organic produce. With the US selling $36 billion worth of organic food each year, one out of ten dollars spent on organic food is spent at Costco.

A shopper pushes a cart outside Costco Wholesale in Danvers, Mass. Wednesday, May 27, 2009. Costco Wholesale Corp. said Thursday that its fiscal third-quarter profit fell 29 percent, partly because of a charge, as sales of bigger-ticket discretionary items continued to soften. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Between 2013 and 2014, the market for organics has increased 12%. Now organic foods account for over 4% of US food sales. Stores not associated with organics are starting to jump on the bandwagon.

Most controversial has been Walmart’s announcement of a relaunching of the Wild Oats brand in April of 2014. The prices of Wild Oats are intended to compete with conventional food, giving customers affordable organic food and also driving down the prices of other organic foods.

There are mixed feelings about Walmart going organic. Initially, it seems like good news, but Walmart’s reputation has others anxious about the move. In 2006, Walmart’s Horizon organic milk was accused of not providing cows enough pasture and adding illegal additives to the milk. The same year, Walmart was also caught hanging organic food signs in non-organic food sections of their stores. Now that Walmart is trying to profit on the organic food market, we wonder if they might compromise the organic label. Stores tend to keep food suppliers as a trade secret. The secret locations may not be producing food according to organic standards, and the consumer would never know. The lack of farmland in the US also means that much of our organic food is grown overseas, making the label even less transparent. While we hope Wild Oats and Walmart will join the organic market honorably, we will have to wait and see.


Other big stores have been joining the organic bandwagon. Over half of the country’s Kroger’s have a store within a store called Nature’s Market, which is devoted solely to natural foods. Kroger’s also has its own natural food line – Simple Truth. Target has its own natural brands: Archer Farms, Market Pantry, and Simply Balanced. Shaw’s and Star Market has Wild Harvest. Hannaford has Nature’s Place.

While not all big supermarkets have jumped on the organic train, we are seeing more and more organics under the fluorescent lighting of American supermarkets, which will draw more attention to the organic movement, inspire more farmers to grow organically, and ultimately drive prices down until we can all afford to eat organically.



Plastic is everywhere. It packages our food, it makes the utensils we use to cook our food, it makes the plates we eat our food on. It’s inescapable. So what’s an alternative?

While plastic is made from petroleum and natural gas, bioplastics are made from renewable biomass, including sources such as animal fats and cornstarch. The idea of these bioplastics is not biodegradability (not all bioplastics biodegrade, although some do) but to create items from sustainable resources, so that we can continue to make them even when fossil fuels run out. Bioplastics tend to require less fossil fuel in production, and usually introduce fewer greenhouse emissions when biodegrading.

While these are all good things – renewable resources, less emissions, etc. – we are still relying on fossil fuels. We use them to power farm machinery, to produce fertilizers, to transport the crops to a factory, and even to craft them into bioplastics. The use of fossil fuels has become so ingrained in our society that one green invention still relies heavily on a system that is much less green. But it’s a small step, and a start, and sometimes it takes these small steps to get the ball rolling.



What Makes Something USDA Organic?

Have you ever wandered through the aisles of the supermarket and spotted food that was labeled “USDA organic”? Have you ever wondered what that really meant?

The US has three levels of organic food: “100% organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients.” To be “100% organic,” the food must be made entirely with certified organic ingredients. To be “organic,” the food must have 95% organic ingredients. “Made with organic ingredients” means the food consists of at least 70% of organic ingredients, but it cannot display the USDA seal. The multi-ingredient foods under these labels cannot have any artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. Certain processed additives are approved, such as enzymes for yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, and baking soda in baked goods. All non-organic ingredients cannot be produced with genetic engineering or other prohibited practices.USDA-organic

In crops, no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or additives can be used. No organic crops can be genetically modified. The farmland on which crops are grown must be free from prohibited chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) for at least 3 years. All non-certified organic crops must be kept separate from organic ones. Farmers are subject to periodic on-site inspections as well as random, surprise inspections. These may include tests on soil, water, and plant tissue.

For animals, all livestock must meet health and welfare standards. They cannot have antibiotics or growth hormones. They must be 100% organically fed. All animals have a minimum pasture time, depending on the species.

The title “organic” is legally restricted. If there is a product not meeting organic standards, you can file a complaint with the USDA; all complaints are investigated. But you can rest assured that if something says “organic” it will meet these standards.


Santa Barbara Oil Spill 2015

On Tuesday May 19, 2015 a 24-inch pipeline owned by Plains All American ruptured 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. The pipeline was underground, running along the coastal highway, carrying 1,300 barrels of crude oil per hour. When the pipe burst, 101,000 gallons rushed out, and 21,000 gallons made their way down a storm culvert and into the Pacific Ocean.

photo from LA times - photographer Brian van der Brug

photo from LA times – photographer Brian van der Brug

As of May 22, the oil has spread across 9.5 square miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline. Many animals are affected. This area of ocean is home to dolphins, seals, sea lions, birds, fish, and it serves as a migratory passage for whales. The brown pelican, one of the area’s birds, was just removed from the endangered species list in 2009, and it dives into the oily water to hunt for fish. When the oil is warmed by the sun, it sinks, endangering plants and animals at the bottom of the ocean as well. Oil also blocks light from reaching kelp and coral, which need the light for photosynthesis.

El Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach have been closed until June 4. Fishing has been stopped in the area.

photo from LA times - photographer Brian van der Brug

photo from LA times – photographer Brian van der Brug

This weekend saw 650 people working on cleanup. The Coast Guard has been monitoring the cleanup and Plains All American is actively involved. Animal casualties include a sea lion, 9 pelicans, 2 dolphins, and numerous fish.

The pipeline, owned by Plains All American, was built in 1987, and inspected in 2012. There were no previous problems. Plains All American has 6,000 miles of pipeline carrying hazardous liquid, going through 20 states. They transport 4 million barrels of crude oil and other liquid fuels daily. Operations in the burst pipeline have been suspended until safety improvements are made, and the company is launching an in-depth analysis of factors contributing to the spill.

Since 2006, Plains All American has committed 175 federal safety and maintenance violations. They have spilled 725,500 gallons of hazardous liquids and have damaged $25 million worth of property. 80 accidents were due to corrosion and 70 were due to failures in materials, welds, and other equipment. Since 2007, the company has spent $1.3 billion on maintenance and repair. Of 1,700 operators in the country, Plains All American was 5th in safety and maintenance infractions.

The Santa Barbara oil spill is likely gaining more media attention because in 1969, there was a giant oil spill in the same area. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara was the 3rd largest oil spill in US waters, behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. In its time, it was the biggest oil spill to ever touch US waters. 3 million gallons of crude oil spread across 30 miles of coastline, and it helped spread environmental awareness, spurring the creation of the first Earth Day in 1970.

oil spill chart

Does this oil spill measure up to previous oil spills? No. But no oil spill is small. The casualties are great, and it makes us reconsider the value of oil if it comes at such high environmental costs.