Cancer-Causing Chemical Found in Drinking Water Following Pipeline Spill into Yellowstone River

Published on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 by Common Dreams

The cancer-causing chemical benzene has been detected in the drinking water supply of a Montana town after a pipeline ruptured on Saturday, sending up to 50,000 gallons of Bakken shale crude oil into the partially-frozen Yellowstone River.

The second Yellowstone River pipeline spill in less than four years, the environmental disaster has raised alarm among nearby residents, some of whom say they can smell oil in the air, according to a statement from the Northern Plains Resource Council.

Dena Hoff, whose land borders the River and is crossed by the breached pipeline, toldCommon Dreams by phone, “The nasty truth is that pipelines leak and pipelines break. “It is a disaster for everyone and everybody downstream. Until we start valuing water more than we value oil, this is going to happen.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling for residents of Glendive, Montana, which has a population near 5,000 people, to avoid any ingestion of municipal water, because it has shown “an elevated level of volatile organic compounds, predominantly benzene,” according to the municipality.

According to the CDC, “Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.”

City officials are urging residents to use bottled water, which they have reportedly shipped in for public distribution.

The warning, however, comes two days after the spill took place and directly contradictsinitial assurances from state officials on Sunday that there is no evidence of environmental or public health hazards.

Dawson County Disaster and Emergency Services officials say that, as early as Sunday, they received complaints of “odor in drinking water.”

According to a statement (pdf) released by Bridger Pipeline Co., which operates the Poplar Pipeline, the breach occurred approximately nine miles upstream from Glendive, Montana. The company claims that no more than 1,200 barrels, or 50,000 gallons, of crude oil were released and stated that an “unknown amount of that total has spilled into the Yellowstone River.” It is not clear whether this estimate has been independently verified.

Furthermore, there are reports that the spill has quickly spread, including from the Environmental Protection Agency, which says that oil has been spotted near the town of Sidney, Montana, nearly 60 river miles from Glendive.

In July 2011, a breach of an ExxonMobil Corp. pipeline near Laurel, Montana unleashed at least 63,000 gallons of oil into the same river. State and federal officials are still seeking millions of dollars in damages from Exxon, including resources to conduct studies on the long-term impact of the environmental disaster.

Some of the people impacted by the spill are slated to have the controversial Keystone XL pipeline pass through or near their property, if it is approved. According to a statementfrom the Northern Plains Resource Council, this latest spill raises concerns about risks posed by more pipelines.

“People have to understand it is not just the impact of the person next to the spill; it impacts everyone and everything downstream for a long time,” explained Hoff, who is a member of the NPRC and says she is concerned about plans to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline upstream from her property.

“The whole question is, should we continue to be having pipelines under aquifers and under surface water?” she added. “It is not a good idea and not safe. There is no fail-safe pipeline.”




Richest 1% Percent To Have More Than Rest of Humanity Combined

Published on Monday, January 19, 2015 by Common Dreams

In less than two years, if current trends continued unchecked, the richest 1% percent of people on the planet will own at least half of the world’s wealth.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from Oxfam International, released Monday, which states that the rate of global inequality is not only morally obscene, but an existential threat to the economies of the world and the very survival of the planet. Alongside climate change, Oxfam says that spiraling disparity between the super-rich and everyone else, is brewing disaster for humanity as a whole.

“Do we really want to live in a world where the one percent own more than the rest of us combined?” asked Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International. “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”

According to the report—titled Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More (pdf):

Global wealth is becoming increasing concentrated among a small wealthy elite. Data from Credit Suisse shows that since 2010, the richest 1% of adults in the world have been increasing their share of total global wealth . Figure 1 shows that 2010 marks an inflection point in the share of global wealth going to this group. Figure 1 : Share of global wealth of the top 1% and bottom 99% respectively ; Credit Suisse data available 2000 – 2014. In 2014 , the richest 1% of people in the world own ed 48% of global wealth , leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. 1 Almost all of th at 52% is owned by those included in the richest 20%, leaving just 5.5% for the remaining 80% of people in the world. If this trend continues of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people in just two years with the wealth share of the top 1% exceeding 50% by 2016.

The report also shows that even among the über-rich there remain divisions, with an outsized majority on the list of the world’s wealthiest people hailing from the United States. And it’s not an accident. The world’s most wealthy, as the Oxfam report documents, spends enormous amounts of their money each year on lobbying efforts designed to defend the assets they have and expand their ability to make even more.

The world’s wealthiest, reads the report, “have generated and sustained their vast riches through their interests and activities in a few important economic sectors, including finance and insurance and pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Companies from these sectors spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying to create a policy environment that protects and enhances their interests further. The most prolific lobbying activities in the US are on budget and tax issues; public resources that should be directed to benefit the whole population, rather than reflect the interests of powerful lobbyists.”

Released on the eve of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam says that the world’s financial and political elite can no longer ignore, and should no longer perpetuate, inequality at this scale.

“Our report is just the latest evidence that inequality has reached shocking extremes, and continues to grow,” said Byanyima, who was invited to act as co-chair for this year’s Davos summit. “It is time for the global leaders of modern capitalism, in addition to our politicians, to work to change the system to make it more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable.”

She continued, “Extreme inequality isn’t just a moral wrong. It undermines economic growth and it threatens the private sector’s bottom line.  All those gathering at Davos who want a stable and prosperous world should make tackling inequality a top priority.”

Contained in the paper is a seven-point plan of specific proposals which Oxfam says must be added to the agenda of all world leaders:

  1. Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals
  2. Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education
  3. Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards    capital and wealth
  4. Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers
  5. Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal
  6. Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee
  7. Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

On her role as co-chair at the WEF summit this week, Byanyima told the Guardian she was surprised to be invited, because Oxfam represents a “critical voice” to most of the others who attend. “We go there to challenge these powerful elites,” she said. “It is an act of courage to invite me.”

However, part of the message contained in the report is that economic inequality of this magnitude is not just threat to the poor and disadvantaged but also to those who have traditionally benefited from the model of pro-growth capitalism. As growing amounts of research have shown—most prominently in the work of French economist Thomas Piketty—the nearly unprecedented levels of inequality is hurting modern capitalism even on its own terms.

But just as these levels of inequality are the result of government policies that have benefited the rich, Oxfam believes that a change in such governing structures is the key to reversing the trend.

As Byanyima told the Guardian, “Extreme inequality is not just an accident or a natural rule of economics. It is the result of policies and with different policies it can be reduced. I am optimistic that there will be change.”




Don’t Buy the Hype: 20 Years of Data Reveals ‘Free Trade’ Fallacies

Published on Thursday, January 15, 2015 by Common Dreams

Fast-tracked international trade deals have led to exploding U.S. trade deficits, soaring food imports into the U.S., increased off-shoring of American jobs, and an “unprecedented rise in income inequality,” according to new data released Thursday by the watchdog group Public Citizen.

The report, “Prosperity Undermined” (pdf), compiles and analyzes 20 years of trade and economic data to show that the arguments again being made in favor of providing the Obama administration with Fast Track trade authority—effectively handing over extensive new executive powers and delegating away core congressional constitutional authorities—have repeatedly proved false.

As an example, Public Citizen points to the damaging consequences of a 2011 trade deal with Korea, which expanded on the NAFTA model:

Since the Obama administration used Fast Track to push a trade agreement with Korea, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has grown 50 percent—which equates to 50,000 more American jobs lost. The U.S. had a $3 billion monthly trade deficit with Korea in October 2014—the highest monthly U.S. goods trade deficit with the country on record. After the Korea FTA went into effect, U.S. small businesses’ exports to Korea declined more sharply than large firms’ exports, falling 14 percent.

President Barack Obama is expected to push Fast Track for the corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has been negotiated largely in secret—with significant input from Wall Street and big business interests. Even in the face of evidence that prior trade deals are not working, Public Citizen says, Obama has “doubled down on the old model with TPP.”

“It’s not surprising that Democrats and Republicans alike are speaking out against Fast Track because it cuts Congress out of shaping trade pacts that most Americans believe cost jobs while empowering the president to sign and enter into secret deals before Congress approves them,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “In their speeches and commentary, the administration, corporate interests and GOP leadership disregard the real, detrimental impacts that previous fast tracked trade deals—which serve as the model for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—have had on America’s middle class over the past 20 years.”

President Obama is likely to use next week’s State of the Union address to push for TPP passage and Fast Track authority, Dave Johnson predicts in an op-ed published Thursday. Echoing many of Public Citizen’s criticisms of NAFTA and the Korea-U.S. trade deal, Johnson notes: “The reason our trade policies are working out this way is because the beneficiaries of this kind of trade deal are the ones controlling and negotiating these trade deals.”

He continues:

The giant, multinational corporations and Wall Street make money from offshoring U.S. jobs and production—partly because our tax laws encourage this activity. The rest of us, including our “Main Street” businesses and the country at large, are net losers. This is obvious to anyone who drives through much of the country or who talks to regular, working people. This is obvious to anyone who looks at the timeline of that trade deficit chart and compares that to the economic shifts of our last few decades.

Our trade negotiating process is rigged from the start. Giant, multinational and Wall Street corporate interests are at the negotiating table. Consumer, labor, environmental, human rights, democracy, health and all the other stakeholder representatives are excluded and the results of these negotiations reflect this. A rigged process called “fast track” is used to essentially force Congress to pre-approve the agreements before the public has a chance to analyze and react to them.

Obviously the giant, multinational and Wall Street corporations would want the public to believe that everyday small businesses gain from our trade deals, when in fact they do not. It is less obvious why President Obama would want to present at the State of the Union the story of one small business that does not reflect the reality of the trade deals he is promoting.

While Public Citizen’s report focuses on Fast Track authority, it is at its core opposed to the so-called free trade pacts that authority is designed to promote.

“Economists across the political spectrum agree that trade flows during the era of free trade pacts have, in fact, contributed to rising U.S. income inequality, including Vice President Joe Biden’s former economic adviser, Jared Bernstein,” the analysis reads. “The only debate is the extent of the blame to be placed on trade. Even the pro-NAFTA Peterson Institute for International Economics has estimated that 39 percent of observed growth in U.S. wage inequality is attributable to trade trends.”




‘Something Momentous is Happening’: Hundreds of Stanford Professors Call For Full Fossil Fuel Divestment

Published on Monday, January 12, 2015 by Common Dreams

Hundreds of Stanford University professors published an open letter on Sunday demanding that the university divest the entirety of its holdings from all fossil fuel companies.

“If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?” asks the letter addressed to university president John Hennessy and the school Board of Trustees.

Coming in the wake of the May 2014 Board of Trustees announcement that the school would not invest in publicly traded coal companies—a decision the university faculty praised for setting a “precedent of responsibility and integrity”—the letter reasons: “Given that the university has signaled its awareness of the dangers posed by fossil fuels, what are the implications of Stanford’s making only a partial confrontation with this danger?”

The letter notes that in order to stay beneath the scientifically designated 2-degree warming threshold, beyond which we face cataclysmic climate disruption, scientific consensus says we must cap fossil fuel emissions at 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Current fossil fuel companies claim holdings sufficient to produce 2795 gigatons.

Even after coal “is taken out of the equation,” the world’s oil and gas holdings still represent 978 gigatons of carbon, or nearly double the 565 gigaton cap. Thus, the decision to divest from coal, the group argues, is not enough.

“The urgency and magnitude of climate change call not for partial solutions, however admirable: they demand the more profound and thorough commitment embodied in divestment from all fossil-fuel companies,” the letter states.

The letter was signed by 303 Stanford faculty members from a wide range of academic departments. Among the signatories are former Stanford president Donald Kennedy, and two Nobel Prize winners, Professor Douglas Osheroff (Physics, 1996) and Professor Roger Kornberg (Chemistry, 2006). Also included is Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, who was among the 2014 recipients of the Fields Medal, which is known as the ‘Nobel Prize of Mathematics.’

According to the Stanford Daily, as of August 2013, the university’s investment has an approximate value of $18.7 billion.

The faculty letter comes just weeks after the student campaign Fossil Free Stanford pledged that they would make 2015 the year they “finished what they started,” by calling on the university to “divest the rest” after the coal divestment. On their Facebook page, Fossil Free Stanford praised the faculty support.

“When university faculty get this organized, you know something momentous is happening,” said university senior Michael Peñuelas, who serves as the faculty liaison for Fossil Free Stanford.

The Stanford letter follows a series of similar faculty initiatives, including a Harvard Faculty for Divestment letter with 226 signatories, and a Faculty Association resolution at the University of California, Berkeley.

You can read the full Stanford faculty letter here.




Senator Demands Answers on Red Cross’ Finances

by Justin Elliott and Jesse Eisinger ProPublica, Jan. 9, 2015, 11:51 a.m.

Citing an investigation by ProPublica and NPR, Sen. Charles Grassley is asking the American Red Cross to explain more clearly how it uses public donations, specifying how much money goes to services and how much to overhead.

“The public’s expectation for an important, well-known organization like the Red Cross is complete, accurate fundraising and spending information,” Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. “In reaction to the news reports on this topic, I’m asking the Red Cross to elaborate on how it calculates the facts and figures given to the donating public.”

Americans typically look to the Red Cross whenever disaster strikes, giving generously. The iconic charity took in over $1 billion in donations in 2013.

In response to Grassley’s request, the Red Cross said it is setting up a briefing for the senator’s staff that will happen sometime later this month. “We welcome and look forward to the opportunity,” Red Cross spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis said.

Grassley’s request was first reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

At issue are statements made by Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern and echoed on the charity’s website and in other published materials that “91 cents of every dollar that’s donated goes to our services.”

But that oft-repeated figure is not borne out by the charity’s statements in annual reports and tax filings. These documents show that fundraising expenses alone have eaten up as much as 26 cents of every donated dollar in recent years.

After our inquiries last month, the Red Cross removed the statement from its website. The Red Cross said at the time that the claim was not “as clear as it could have been, and we are clarifying the language.”

Grassley has long pushed for tougher regulations of nonprofits and has a history with the Red Cross. In 2007, he pushed through legislation that overhauled the governance structure of the charity, which was chartered by Congress over a century ago.

Grassley isn’t the only one nosing into the Red Cross’ operations. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is looking into the charity’s troubled response to Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey in late 2012.

The GAO’s inquiry, which was first reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, began last February after a request from the staff of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee. Since then, the GAO and the Red Cross have been discussing the parameters of the study. The GAO says it plans to finalize its methodology “within the next couple of weeks” and then begin working on the inquiry itself.

The scope of the GAO’s probe is expected to encompass more institutional questions, including “What are the nature and extent of the oversight to which the organization is subject, and is it sufficient?”

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In ‘Epic’ Chase, Sea Shepherd Vows to Pursue Poachers to ‘Ends of the Earth’

Published on Friday, January 09, 2015 by Common Dreams

The international marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd is engaged in “epic” pursuit of an alleged poaching vessel in the Southern Ocean, about 2,300 nautical miles from South Africa, or about 80 nautical miles outside of Australian Antarctic waters.

The dramatic chase, which has gone on for 22 days, is thought to be the world’s longest sea chase of an illegal fishing vessel.

On December 17, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship Bob Barker intercepted a known poaching vessel, the Nigerian-flagged Thunder, a trawler on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources’s black list of illegal operators. TheThunder is known to utilize gillnets in its poaching operations—a method of fishing outlawed by CCAMLR due to the risks it poses to marine mammals, sea turtles, and other oceanic species.

The Telegraph reports that “[t]he poachers, who are on an Interpol wanted list for illegal fishing, were on the hunt for the endangered Patagonian toothfish, whose buttery fillets are sold in high-end restaurants as Chilean Sea Bass.”

Once the ship was within radio distance, Bob Barker captain Peter Hammarstedt ordered the Thunder to Fremantle, Australia, to report to Australian law enforcement authorities.

“I have notified the Captain of the Thunder and his crew that they have been placed under citizen’s arrest; that they must cease their illegal fishing activities immediately and report to the Australian authorities,” he said at the time. “Should they ignore this order, I have notified the Thunder that Sea Shepherd has no choice but to directly intervene in order to obstruct their continued illegal activities.”

And intervene it did. The trawler failed to heed Hammarstedt’s order and instead attempted to evade its pursuers by sailing through waters dotted with ice floes and beset by heavy storms.

Bob Barker claims to be currently on the stern of the alleged poachers, some 1,000 nautical miles southeast of South Africa.

“Certainly we are prepared to chase these poachers to the ends of the Earth and back if we have to,” Hammarstedt told Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd’s sister ship, the Sam Simon, has begun a recovery operation to remove the Thunder‘s illegal gillnet from the Antarctic waters. In late December, it retrieved what it described as a “monster” gillnet more than 30 miles long.

“This monster net has entangled and suffocated marine life, killing them in the most undignified way imaginable,” said Sam Simon captain Sid Chakravarty. “My decks look like a battlefield with many of the recovered creatures in advanced stages of decomposition. The large number of dead animals that we have documented is proof of the wide-spread destruction that the Thunder has wreaked over its decade-long onslaught on the Southern Ocean.”

For the crew, there was a silver lining to the nefarious episode: In the course of their pursuit, Sea Shepherd conservationists encountered a pod of ‘Ecotype D’ orcas, a rare species of killer whale characterized by large bulbous foreheads and tiny post-ocular eye markings. There have been just 13 sightings of this type of orca, ever.

“The crew watched in awe as the 13 killer whales, including a small juvenile and a large male, used the six-meter swell to surf across the bow,” reported Erwin Vermeulen, chief engineer on the Bob Barker. “For almost an hour the surf-show continued and was accompanied by bow riding, tail-slaps and breaches.”

Watch never-before-seen footage of the orca pod below:




Texas Rattled by 11 Earthquakes in Less Than 48 Hours

Published on Wednesday, January 07, 2015 by Common Dreams

The Irving, Texas area experienced 11 earthquakes between Tuesday and Wednesday, prompting further speculation about the role of fracking in seismic events.

The first, a 2.3 magnitude quake, hit around 7:30 AM on Tuesday; the last, a 2.7 magnitude quake, came Wednesday morning around 10. The strongest of the 11 was a 3.6 magnitude quake—classified as “significant” by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Earthquake experts with Southern Methodist University, who are installing more more seismographs in the area, say it’s too soon to pinpoint the cause.

In November, Irving was hit by another series of earthquakes—five in a four-day period—an event that sparked some to question whether fracking operations were responsible.

Such increased seismic activity appears to be a historic anomaly. From the National Geographic:

“It’s premature to speculate on the causes of the earthquakes,” says Brian Stump, a seismologist and professor at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, who is studying the recent temblors.

Earthquakes in the area had been virtually unknown until relatively recently. “If we go back prior to October of 2008, the historical record indicates there might have been one earthquake in 1950, but that was about it,” says Stump.

Since then, there have been more than a hundred seismic events in the area, known as the Fort Worth Basin.

Though the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state,dismissed any such connection, Stump added that fracking wastewater injection wasn’t being ruled out as a possible cause.

“Historically, it has shown that in some places that they’ve triggered small to moderate earthquakes,” local fox4news.com reports Stump as saying.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey stated last year that fracking wastewater injection was “a likely contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes” in Oklahoma, and a study released this week found that a strong quake that hit Ohio in March 2014 was likely caused by fracking.




Groundbreaking Study Confirms: We Must Leave Fossil Fuels “In the Ground”

Published on Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A groundbreaking new study is confirming what green campaigners have long argued: in order to stave off climate disaster, the majority of fossil fuel deposits around the world—including 92 percent of U.S. coal, all Arctic oil and gas, and a majority of Canadian tar sands—must stay “in the ground.”

The research is a boost to world-wide green campaigns, from the bid to stop the Keystone XL pipeline to grassroots protest against Arctic drilling.

The new findings were published in the journal Nature and authored by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, both of whom hail from the University College London.

They write, “Policy makers have generally agreed that the average global temperature rise caused by greenhouse gas emissions should not exceed 2 °C above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times.”

The researchers explain that they employed a “single integrated assessment model that contains estimates of the quantities, locations and nature of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves and resources” to determine what it would take to stay below this limit.

“Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2 °C,” the researchers explain.

While this is not the first study to note that fossil fuels are being dangerously over-exploited, the research is unique in that it pinpoints the national locations of specific reserves that must remain untapped.

The scientists find that 92 percent of U.S. coal reserves, and 100 percent of Arctic gas and oil, and 90 percent of Australian coal reserves, must be left alone. In addition, 100 percent of Arctic oil and gas must remain beneath the earth. Furthermore, most Canadian tar sands must remain unexploited, the study concludes.

This graphic created by the Guardian summarizes other location-specific findings by researchers:

leave_it_in_the_ground

The researchers note that their findings, ultimately, mean that, despite the industry drive for exploitation, staving off disaster requires a different course. “[P]olicy markers’ instincts to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels are, in aggregate, inconsistent with their commitments to this temperature limit.”




Enforcing the ‘Will of the People,’ Dozens of Pipeline Protesters Halt Operations in Pennsylvania

Published on Monday, January 05, 2015 by Common Dreams

Developing…

Dozens of people in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County brought work towards a natural gas pipeline to a halt on Monday, charging that the project threatens a Native American cultural site and their rural way of life.

The protesters, who include area residents and a local chapter of the American Indian Movement, gathered along the Conestoga River and encircled a rig which was drilling for core samples at the site of a proposed pipeline, according to a statement from the group.

The drilling was for part of the Oklahoma-based Williams Partners’ proposed $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Project, a pipeline network that would pass through ten Pennsylvania counties, bringing gas from the Marcellus Shale to as far south as Georgia. It is slated to be in service in 2017.

The project has met strong opposition from area communities, and Lancaster County resident Carlos Whitewolf of the American Indian Movement vowed in November: “We will stand in front of your bulldozers. We will show up in big numbers, and you will have a war on your hands.” But the pipeline opponents were dealt a defeat last month, when a Community Bill of Rights Ordinance that would have blocked the pipeline from Conestoga Township failed.

Monday’s action, the protesters say, marks the first time they’re using civil disobedience to disrupt Williams Partners’ operations. But it might not be the last.

“Well over half of registered voters in Conestoga support an ordinance outright banning this pipeline,” Leslie Bunting of Conestoga said in a media statement. “This action is an enforcement of the will of the people of Conestoga Township. The people of Conestoga Township are stopping this drilling today and any day in the future that Williams attempts it.”

Follow NoPipelinesLancaster’s Twitter feed as the action unfolds:




NASA: Tropical Forests Key to Fighting Greenhouse Gases

Published on Sunday, January 04, 2015 by Common Dreams

Tropical forests have emerged as a crucial factor in the fight against climate change, according to a new NASA-led study published Friday which finds that they are absorbing carbon dioxide at a far higher rate than previously thought.

As atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases have continued to rise, tropical forests, like those found in Malaysia, have been absorbing roughly 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion, NASA found. Those rates are not only higher than previously estimated, they are also higher than those of the vast boreal forests found in northern regions like Canada and Siberia—which are diminishing.

“This is good news, because uptake in boreal forests is already slowing, while tropical forests may continue to take up carbon for many years,” said Dr. David Schimel, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior research scientist and lead author of a paper on the study.

Forests use human-made emissions to grow faster, which in turn reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—an effect known as carbon fertilization. They also remove up to 30 percent of airborne human emissions through photosynthesis. If those processes slowed down, the rate of global warming would increase.

Why was it important to determine which kind of forest are more adept at that process?

Because the answer “has big implications for our understanding of whether global terrestrial ecosystems might continue to offset our carbon dioxide emissions or might begin to exacerbate climate change,” said Britton Stephens, co-author of the study and a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Schimel added, “All else being equal, the effect is stronger at higher temperatures, meaning it will be higher in the tropics than in the boreal forests.”

The problem lies in other harmful impacts of climate change that also affect forests. Warming temperatures decrease water availability and increase larger and more frequent wildfires—which, in turn, release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Still, NASA’s discovery is largely auspicious. “What we’ve had up till this paper was a theory of carbon dioxide fertilization based on phenomena at the microscopic scale and observations at the global scale that appeared to contradict those phenomena,” Schimel said. “Here, at least, is a hypothesis that provides a consistent explanation that includes both how we know photosynthesis works and what’s happening at the planetary scale.”

The study is groundbreaking in its methodology, as it is the first to use a variety of models, technology, and data to create an “apples-to-apples” comparison carbon dioxide estimates between forests, NASA explained.

By using computer models of ecosystem processes, inverse models of atmospheric concentrations, satellite images, and other data and analysis, the researchers were able to determine the accuracy of their results “based on how well they reproduced independent, ground-based measurements.”