What Does Trump’s Budget Mean for the Environment?

His proposal would gut federal enforcement and effectively halt many Superfund cleanups.

Didn’t we just go through this?

In early March, President Trump proposed a budget that would have scaled back the federal government’s stewardship of the environment beyond recognition. The budget traded historically unprecedented cuts to the EPA for $50-billion boosts to defense spending, and it shuttered long-running programs that protect wild areas outside of any one state’s dominion, like the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The budget scared environmental leaders, who also assured supporters that such a plan could never pass Congress. (Among American adults, environmental protection is really quite popular.) And they were right. After two months of negotiations, Congress approved a bipartisan spending bill that preserved nearly all of the EPA’s funding while actually increasing support for renewable-energy programs.

In other words, all those Trump proposals—slashing the EPA’s budget by $3 billion, laying off 3,500 EPA employees, and closing many regional programs—never became a reality. Congress would not accept them. Trump signed the budget on May 5.

But that bill—and that fiscal year—will expire on September 30, 2017. So now the White House and Congress must go through the entire ordeal again for 2018. And it seems neither irresponsible nor inappropriate for the average news consumer to ask: Well, will this time be any different?

Trump’s approach this time around certainly seems no different in ambition. The White House’s proposed plan for the 2018 budget, unveiled Tuesday, adopts many of the same cuts that made the previous edition. Some cuts are even more severe. The highlights include:

  • Trump wants to cut the EPA’s budget by nearly a third, reducing its overall funding level to $5.6 billion. On a percentage basis, that is the largest proposed cut to any federal agency. It would give the EPA its smallest budget in 40 years, adjusting for inflation.
  • This would cut the EPA’s workforce by 20 percent, removing 3,800 jobs.
  • Most significantly, Trump wants to cut by 40 percent the EPA’s federal enforcement office—the people who make sure corporations are complying with federal regulations. Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, has previously said that he believes that states—and not the EPA—should oversee enforcement of rules themselves. But Trump’s budget would alsocut by 45 percent the grants that allow states to do that enforcement. These changes would almost certainly ensure far less enforcement of existing environmental rules than happens now, at federal and state levels.
  • The EPA office which determines standards for the amount of acceptable pollution in drinking water will also have its budget cut by half. (Earlier this year, the same office struck the words “science-based” from its mission statement, replacing them with “economically … achievable.”)
  • Superfund, the EPA program that cleans up toxic-chemical spill sites that have become public-health hazards, will have its budget cut by 25 percent. Such a cut will halt many cleanups.
  • Trump also wants to shut down many of the same EPA programs targeted in March. He would terminate the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound cleanup programs. He would also close Energy Star, which informs consumers which home appliances are most energy-efficient.
  • Beyond the EPA, the budget also slashes environmental-science programs throughout the government. Many of these target climate change. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, has said that he considers climate science to be a “waste of your money.” So Trump’s budget cuts $59 million in Earth-science research grants from NASA. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research office would see its budget reduced by one-fifth.
  • But the slashed science programs go far beyond climate change. Trump proposes to end a NOAA program to research and better predict tornadoes in the south, and he also cuts $11 million from a tsunami-warning program for the Pacific coast. He also wants to slash NOAA’s weather-satellite budgetby 17 percent.
  • Finally, he proposes to savage Department of Energy programs with environmental ends. While that department’s overall budget is only reduced by five percent, he would cut many of its greenest programs. Trump wants to close ARPA-E, the government’s energy-innovation R&D lab; and many of the loan-guarantee programs that support renewable-energy companies.
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Donald Trump meets with his cabinet in early March. Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, and Mick Mulvaney, the budget director, sit together at the end of the table

These are—to state the obvious—a lot of cuts.

Taken together, they advance a sweeping—and there is no word but radical—plan to roll back the government’s stewardship of the environment and natural resources. By the standard of the last 30 years of American politics, these are unprecedented proposals for the EPA specifically. For comparison, President George W. Bush (today considered no friend of the environment) proposed to cut the EPA’s budget by only 5 percent in his first budget.

Of course, Bush ran as a compassionate conservative; Trump promised during his campaign to abolish the EPA “in almost every form.” And this budget—while not zeroing out the agency—does point to how the White House could effectively knee-cap it. You cannot cut funding for the EPA office of enforcement by 40 percent, while slashing enforcement grants for states by 45 percent, and not expect to see a dramatic increase in unlawful pollution.

And yet. Trump can be as ambitious as he fancies in this document, because his plans are still extremely unlikely to go anywhere. As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote in March, any federal budget passed before 2021 has to meet certain criteria created six years ago as part of the Budget Control Act. That law—usually called “sequestration”—set certain automatic spending cuts into effect. It also prohibited increasing defense spending while cutting non-defense discretionary spending. This is exactly what Trump proposes to do in 2018.

Congress can get around those rules, but it would need to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. That means that Republican leaders will need some Democrats in the Senate to help them shepherd a budget through. And Senate Democrats will not agree to a 30-percent cut to the EPA.

And there is even some mild Republican opposition to some of these cuts. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, wants to save the Great Lakes cleanup program. And it’s unlikely the 16 senators from states that touch the lakes would let it die.

But Republicans may still try to get many of smaller cuts through. Paul Ryan said Tuesday that “the aspiration and the goal [of this budget] is right on the target.” The budget hacks so far into the social safety net—Medicaid would be cut 47 percent by 2027—that Democrats may have to cede environmental ground to preserve some semblance of anti-poverty programs. And any cuts to the EPA that Republicans propose—even if they exceed the Bush 5-percent reduction—will seem moderate compared to Trump’s proposed lopping.

And even if the budget preserves Obama-era funding for the EPA, the agency won’t necessarily go about its Obama-era work. Many of Pruitt’s goals for the agency will require plenty of policy-writing staff. And elsewhere he can accomplish his means by other ends. For instance, even if the entire enforcement division survives, Pruitt can order the agency to hinder actual enforcement. There’s evidence he’s already doing exactly that.

Which is to say: None of the disclaimers—about Congressional intent, about political reality—make Trump’s proposal any less striking. This budget proposal has a clear goal. If he had the power, Donald Trump would allow polluters to spew carbon and chemicals into the air and water, muzzle the science that identifies why that’s a problem, and cut off the research and development which is finding a more renewable way of generating power.

As I wrote last go-round, Trump’s budget remains a kind of fiduciary fan fiction for Freedom Caucus conservatives, who can fantasize about a skinnier government without ever living with the political consequences. So even if it never come to pass, it’s worth noting: This is what they want.

Written by ROBINSON MEYER, published in The Atlantic 24 May 2017

California redwoods license plate dies for lack of interest

A proposed new license plate to raise money for California’s state parks system won’t be printed. It needed 7,500 pre-paid orders by May 18, 2017 and failed to hit that target.

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Millions of Californians visit the state’s majestic redwood forests every year. Their love for the venerable trees, however, apparently doesn’t extend to their license plates.

A four-year campaign to raise money for California’s state parks system with a new commemorative license plate featuring redwood trees has failed for lack of support.

Under state law, new specialty license plates need 7,500 pre-purchased orders before the Department of Motor Vehicles will produce them. And when the deadline passed last Thursday, the parks plate had sold only 2,581.

People who pre-ordered a specialized license plate will get a refund, state parks officials said Monday.

“Though this unique opportunity to support California’s state parks faltered, we are grateful for the public support of California’s amazing natural and cultural resources, and we encourage everyone to continue visiting their state parks,” said Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman for the state parks department.

The state parks plates cost $50 for the first one issued and $40 each year after, and for personalized plates, $98 for the first one and $78 each year after.

California has 12 specialty license plates on the road. They include a Yosemite plate that has raised $19.6 million for projects in Yosemite National Park; a recently approved Snoopy plate that raises money for California museums; a whale-tail plate that has generated $26.5 million for coastal programs; and a veterans plate that has raised $12.7 million for military veterans programs.

Together, they have raised a combined $217 million over the years, with the KIDS plate, featuring a small hand, generating the most — 61.9 million for child abuse prevention and children’s health issues.

The redwoods plate was designed by Wyn Ericson, an artist and middle school teacher in Napa County. Ericson’s work won first prize in a contest in November 2015 to select the best design. The plate was originally authorized under a law that passed in 2012, and pushed by former state Assemblyman Jared Huffman of Marin County, who now is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Various theories for why the redwoods plate failed have circulated privately among its supporters, including failure to mount a sustained public relations campaign; the fact that Southern Californians may not identify with redwoods, a Northern California tree, as much as Northern California residents do; and the fact that Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a 12-cent gas tax increase to fund highway and road repairs.

The redwoods plate isn’t the first environmentally themed plate this year to die, however.

A plate designed to raise money for environmental restoration at the Salton Sea — a vast inland body of water in Imperial and Riverside counties — died earlier this year when it sold only 151 copies, according to the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs.

 

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A proposal to create a new license plate to help fund environmental restoration at the Salton Sea in Imperial and Riverside counties in the Southern California desert failed in the spring of 2017 when it did not reach the required number of 7,500 pre-purchases

written by , published in The Mercury News 22 May 2017

 

Fell Purpose

The attempt to turn the Lake District into a World Heritage site would be a disaster

If this bid for power succeeds, the consequences for Britain will be irreversible. It will privilege special interests over the public good, shut out the voices of opposition and damage the fabric of the nation, perhaps indefinitely. No, I’m not writing about the election.

In the next few weeks Unesco, the UN’s cultural organisation, will decide whether or not to grant World Heritage status to the Lake District. Once the decision is made, it is effectively irreversible.

Shouldn’t we be proud that this grand scenery, that plays such a prominent role in our perceptions of nationhood, will achieve official global recognition? On the contrary, we should raise our voices against it. World Heritage status would lock the Lake District into its current, shocking state, ensuring that recovery becomes almost impossible.

Stand back from the fells and valleys and try to judge this vista as you would a landscape in any other part of the world. What you will see is the great damage farming has inflicted: wet deserts grazed down to turf and rock; erosion gullies from which piles of stones spill; woods in which no new trees have grown for 80 years, as every seedling has been nibbled out by sheep; dredged and canalised rivers, empty of wildlife and dangerous to the people living downstream; tracts of bare mountainside on which every spring is a silent one. Anyone with ecological knowledge should recoil from this scene.

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This photo was used as the frontispiece of the “State of Conservation” section of the bid documents. It is meant to show how beautiful the fells are. If we saw it anywhere else, we would recognise it as an environmental disaster.

The documents supporting the bid for world heritage status are lavishly illustrated with photos, that inadvertently reveal what has happened to the national park. But this slow-burning disaster goes almost unmentioned in the text. On the contrary, the bid repeatedly claims that the park is in “good physical condition”, and that the relationship between grazing and wildlife is “harmonious”. Only on page 535, buried in a table, is the reality acknowledged: 75% of the sites that are meant to be protected for nature are in “unfavourable condition”.

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This is another photo from the bid document, showing St John’s Beck in Thirlmere. The beck is notorious for its flashy response to rainfall – rising dangerously fast. It’s not hard to see why. As the photo shows, it has been dredged and canalised on behalf of the farmers in the valley, and now contains almost no natural features that can slow the flow.

This great national property has degenerated into a sheepwrecked wasteland. And the national park partnership, that submitted the bid, wants to keep it this way: this is the explicit purpose of its attempt to achieve world heritage status. It wants to preserve the Lake District as a “cultural landscape”. But whose culture? Whose landscape? There are only 1080 remaining farms in the district. Should the entire national park be managed for their benefit? If so, why? The question isn’t raised, let alone answered.

I can see the value and beauty of the traditional shepherding culture in the Lake District. I can also see that the farming there, reliant on subsidies, quad bikes and steel barns, now bears little relationship to traditional practice. As the size of landholdings has increased, it looks ever more like ranching and ever less like the old system the bid describes. The bid’s claim that farming there is “wholly authentic in terms of … its traditions, techniques and management systems” is neither intelligible nor true. Remnants of the old shepherding culture tend to be represented ceremonially, as its customs are mostly disconnected from the farm economy.

Shepherding is not the only cultural legacy in play. The other is that the Lake District is the birthplace of the modern conservation movement. Inspired by the Picturesque and Romantic movements, much of our environmental ethic and the groups representing it, such as the National Trust, originated here. Attempts to preserve natural beauty in the district began in the mid-18th century, with complaints against the felling of trees around Derwent Water. Today, the national park cares so little for this legacy that, as the bid admits, “there are no data available” on the condition of the Lake District’s woodlands.

The small group favoured by this bid sees environmental protection as anathema. Farmers’ organisations in the Lake District have fought tooth and nail against conservation measures. They revile the National Trust and the RSPB, whose mild efforts to protect the land from overgrazing are, with the help of a lazy and compliant media, treated like bubonic plague. As one of these farming groups exults, world heritage status “gives us a powerful weapon” that they can wield against those who seek to limit their impacts. If the plan is approved, this world heritage site would be a 230,000-hectare monument to overgrazing and ecological destruction.

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30 years ago, this was a bare sheep pasture (with a couple of seeding birch trees). This is a photo I took (with my failing phone) on a hill elsewhere in Britain. It gives an idea of what parts of the Lake District fells could look like if they were allowed to recover.

This is not the only sense in which the bid is unsustainable. Nowhere in its 700 pages is Brexit mentioned. It was obviously written before the referendum, and has not been updated. Yet the entire vision relies, as the bid admits, on the economic viability of the farming system, which depends in turn on subsidies from the European Union.

Without these payments, there would be no sheep farming in the Lake District: it operates at a major loss. European subsidies counteract this loss, delivering an average net farm income of £9,600. Unsurprisingly, people are leaving the industry in droves: the number of farms in the national park is declining by 2% a year. And this is before the payments cease.

What is the national park partnership, that prepared this bid, going to do – march people onto the fells at gunpoint and demand they continue farming? Or does it hope that the government, amid the massacre of public investment that will follow Brexit, will not only match but exceed the £3bn of public money currently being passed to UK farmers by the European Union? Your guess is as good as mine. This omission alone should disqualify the bid.

The failure to mention this fatal issue looks to me like one of many attempts to pull the Herdwick wool over Unesco’s eyes. The entire bid is based on a fairy tale, a pretence that the rural economy of the Lake District hasn’t changed for 200 years. If Unesco grants world heritage status on these grounds, it will inflict irreparable harm on both our natural heritage and its own good standing.

The hills, whose clothes so many profess to admire, are naked. The narrative we are being asked to support is false. The attempt to ensure that the ecological disaster zone we call the Lake District National Park can never recover from its sheepwrecking is one long exercise in woolly thinking.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th May 2017

www.monbiot.com

9.8 million people employed by renewable energy, according to new report

“In the last four years the number of jobs in the solar and wind sectors combined has more than doubled”

Nearly 10 million people were employed in the renewable energy sector last year, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said on Wednesday.

IRENA’s report, Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2017,states that global renewable energy employment in 2016, excluding large hydropower, hit 8.3 million. If direct employment in large hydropower is included, that figure climbs to 9.8 million.

“Falling costs and enabling policies have steadily driven up investment and employment in renewable energy worldwide since IRENA’s first annual assessment in 2012, when just over seven million people were working in the sector,” Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA’s director-general, said in a statement.

“In the last four years, for instance, the number of jobs in the solar and wind sectors combined has more than doubled,” Amin added.

The report showed that solar photovoltaic was the biggest employer last year, accounting for 3.1 million jobs, up 12 percent compared to 2015. The wind sector represented 1.2 million jobs, while biofuels were responsible for 1.7 million jobs.

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Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

 

Amin went on to state that the potential for renewable jobs was significant. “As the scales continue to tip in favor of renewables, we expect that the number of people working in the renewables sector could reach 24 million by 2030, more than offsetting fossil-fuel job losses and becoming a major economic driver around the world.”

Globally, IRENA said that 62 percent of jobs were to be found in Asia. In China alone, 3.64 million people were working in renewables last year, an increase of 3.4 percent.

Africa was another area where utility scale developments had made “great strides”, IRENA said, although off-grid solutions were also playing a key role.

“In some African countries, with the right resources and infrastructure, we are seeing jobs emerge in manufacturing and installation for utility-scale projects,” Rabia Ferroukhi, head of IRENA’s Policy Unit and deputy director of Knowledge, Policy and Finance, said.

“For much of the continent however, distributed renewables, like off-grid solar, are bringing energy access and economic development,” Ferroukhi added. “These off-grid mini-grid solutions are giving communities the chance to leap-frog traditional electricity infrastructure development and create new jobs in the process.”

Written by  and published in CNBC the 24th of May 2017

How Squirrels Took over Our Cities

We imported these fluffy colonists to fill our urban parks. They’ve been getting stronger ever since

Written by  and published in The Walrus the 23th of May 2017

Last summer, Colin Garroway, a biology professor at the University of Manitoba, walked ­into his lab to find his graduate students drinking beer and sewing tiny “straitjackets”—conical bags tightened with Velcro strips—for squirrels. This, Garroway told the students, only half joking, was what a multidisciplinary approach to science was all about.

The jackets, required for an experiment looking into how certain city squirrels differ from their forest cousins, hold the animals still long enough for researchers to sample their dna and check their size, sex, and general fitness. Garroway’s team is studying a particular species, the eastern grey, which can be identified by its black or grey fur, bushy tail, and fondness for human-built environments.

Once an exclusively woodland creature native to eastern and midwestern North America, eastern greys have come to dominate city and suburban landscapes from coast to coast over the past 200 years. Compared to their forest cousins, they’re more robust, more resilient, and certainly much more comfortable in the company of people. Now Garroway wants to figure out whether these squirrels are changing at a genetic level as well.

The foundation of the eastern grey squirrel’s success is the fact that it’s beloved by humans. It’s controversial to speak of animals as having personalities, but the grey squirrel seems to have one: the creature is curious, charismatic, and—with its big fluffy tail and playful manner—cute.

Starting in the 1840s, cities imported these squirrels to colonize an entirely new type of landscape: public green space. Historian Etienne Benson has documented the beginning of the animal’s expansion across the eastern seaboard; first Philadelphia got squirrels, then Boston, and eventually New York. It was thought that they would beautify parks, and it was ­also hoped that they would inspire a moral, animal-loving ethos in local citizens.

Squirrels were ideal for these new urban landscapes because they were easily tamed. Before they became ubiquitous in city parks, they were kept as private pets—­Benjamin Franklin’s wife even sent an eastern grey squirrel to an ­acquaintance in England in the 1770s. Later, they became the ­darlings of naturalists and early environmentalists. American essayist John Burroughs called the squirrel “an elegant creature” that “excites feelings of admiration akin to those awakened by the birds and the fairer forms of nature.” Certainly, people loved feeding them. In one report from the Providence Evening Press, Benson notes, the squirrels of New Haven Green are described as having “become so obese from good living that they are continually missing their hold and falling from tree tops.”

Although there is scant information about the extent of squirrel importation in Canada, Sean Kheraj, a history professor at York University, has found that the practice was at least common enough to support businesses that supplied live squirrels on a continental scale. For his book, Inventing Stanley Park: An ­Environmental History (2013), Kheraj dug up records from the Vancouver Park Board showing the city purchased eastern greys from a company called Wenz and Mackensen in Yardley, Pennsylvania.

In 1910, when the board decided to stock Stanley Park with new animal inhabitants, it was specifically the “puffier looking grey squirrels” that were desired. The park ­already had a resident population of Douglas squirrels, but they weren’t “as aesthetically pleasing or in keeping with the expectations of what a park would look like,” notes Kheraj. Wenz and Mackensen sent eight fox squirrels and, later, twelve eastern greys (of which there had been a shortage when the company first ­received the request). Today, there are so many grey squirrels throughout British Columbia that they’ve begun to displace the ­native species.

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ILLUSTRATION BY KINOMI

 

Squirrels and rats have traditionally occupied very different places in human culture and history, despite the fact that they’re both rodents that do well in urban environments. Yet recently, our attitudes toward squirrels have begun to change. As urban squirrels are becoming ­stronger, more numerous, and less afraid of humans, there are signs our centuries-long experiment may be backfiring. It is easy to spot a tourist in a Canadian town: they are the ones excitedly taking pictures of squirrels, while locals walk past with thinly disguised contempt. Many city dwellers now consider squirrels little more than a common pest. Each spring, the rodents search for warm, dry places to build their nests and have babies. That means chewing through wood, roof shingles, insulation, and even aluminum to get inside attics, garages, and storage nooks.

In fact, Garroway says, squirrels in urban and suburban areas are more likely than those in forests to give birth to second ­litters each year, because they tend to be ­fatter and hardier. That’s probably because cities are a few degrees warmer than surrounding areas, and because the squirrels there have ­access to food sources all year round in the form of trash bags, bird ­feeders, and, of course, kindly humans.

Urban grey squirrels are also ­bolder than their forest cousins—something that will come as no surprise to anyone who, on a sunny day, has lunched in a ­public park and been joined by gatecrashers. This fearlessness has been ­demonstrated in research that measures “flight distance” in squirrels—essentially, how close a person can get to the animal before it scampers away.

Are these simply adaptive, learned behaviours, or are they related to genetic traits that have developed in squirrels over the past few hundred years? The idea that they could evolve in such a short time frame is not outlandish given what scientists have learned about synanthropic species—those that benefit from living in close association with humans. The main benefit that squirrels—and less friendly animals such as crows, skunks, coyotes, and even bears—get from humans is food. Like us, they’re enthusiastic omnivores that will try just about anything and can adapt their diet to what’s available.

Scientists speculate that squirrels and other wildlife that have managed to hang on and even thrive near modern human settlements aren’t just learning adaptive behaviours—such as those that allow them to navigate busy roads—but passing along genetic traits that wire the next generation for such behaviours. This is what Garroway calls “evolution in real time.”

Among squirrel scientists, for example, there is agreement that so-called black squirrels—which are simply eastern grey squirrels that have black fur—are more commonly found in cities. Amy Newman, a biologist and professor at the University of Guelph, says she has found evidence that melanism may be connected to stress response and immune function—suggesting these kinds of squirrels might be less stressed out in urban environments, which may have ­contributed to their success. For now, though, she says the relationship between colour and adaptation remains “an interesting mystery.”

Will squirrels stop being cute to us at some point—no longer our (mostly) tolerated neighbours? It’s possible, says Garroway, but he, for one, hopes that squirrels will retain enough of their endearing wildness to remain beloved. “When we’re trapping them in the city, we don’t find them where there’s no trees and no green space,” he says. In some ways, squirrels are ­actually evidence of the steps we’ve taken to make our urban environments more habitable: not only were they originally introduced to make city life more pleasant, but ­also the profusion of wildlife wouldn’t be possible in a completely concrete jungle. “It doesn’t have to be parks,” says Garroway, “but it seems like they still need, at least for now, a little bit of nature to persist.” Knowing this, perhaps even those who consider squirrels pests of the highest order could consider them a sign of something else—a green city.

How Climate Change Denial Set the Stage for Fake News

I wasn’t worried when the newspaper I worked for started publishing “climate skeptics.” I should have been

Written by  and published in The Walrus the 1st of May 2017

The website truetrumpers.com recently ran an image of a hospitalized senior citizen along with the following garbled caption: “BREAKING: This is 78 years old Trump supporter who was beaten by Muslim refugees in Ohio. Trump going to support them all do you support this?” It’s a painfully obvious example of the sort of fake news that spreads deliberate misinformation in exchange for easy clicks. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, media watchdogs have been naming and shaming these sites; meanwhile, new tools being rolled out by Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia promise to filter out this sort of nonsense from our news feeds.

But even if these groups succeed, it will not completely solve our fake-news problem—because some of the most damaging misinformation on the web is spread in subtler ways. While it is a simple thing to fact-check whether refugees beat an old woman in Ohio, it is not so easy to correct misapprehensions caused by faux-authoritative articles about vaccines, GMOs, or the purported benefits of organic food. In part, this is because the science behind such issues is complicated. But it is also because misleading articles on scientific subjects often appear in otherwise respectable publications. In 2010, for instance, Bret Stephens wrote in the prestigious Wall Street Journal that “global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time.” This was fake news, yet the article is still up there on their web site. And Stephens himself has just been named as a columnist for The New York Times. Even before Donald Trump came around, there were certain subjects that always lent themselves to fake news—and the mainstream media was a willing partner.

Some years ago, I attended a fundraising dinner in New York City for a well-known conservative magazine that I then contributed to regularly as a book reviewer. As a mere Canadian, I considered it a great honour to hob-knob with America’s right-wing brain-trust—this being the era when conservative American punditry was still defined by the respectable likes of Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks.

At my table were several wealthy donors, who seemed understandably disappointed not to be seated with a more well-known contributor. But their eyes brightened when I said that I worked at the National Post. They told me that they knew the newspaper well, and that they regularly visited the web site to surf their favourite columnists. Then they recited, from memory, the headlines of several recent articles—all variations on the idea that man-made climate change is a hoax. “Your newspaper is very brave,” one of them told me. “We don’t have many real newspapers in the United States that are willing to tell the truth like that.”

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Señor Codo

When I think about the origins of what we now call “fake news,” I come back to this story. The Post is, in just about every other respect, a scrupulously fact-based newspaper. And over its lifetime, it has been home to numerous award-winning journalists who have broken huge stories—from the early days of Shawinigate to its recent scoop about a former Vice Canada editor allegedly running a global smuggling operation out of his office. It’s a newspaper that I continue to read and trust.

But there always was an unwritten rule at the Post that when it came to global warming, all bets were off. As with the Wall Street Journal and other conservative media, global-warming denialism turned the Post into a weird hybrid: a beefy entrée of genuine information, with a 1 percent garnish of fake news—a situation that persists to this day. And since many conservatives have an enormous hunger for respectable-seeming news sources that confirm their ideologically motivated skepticism of environmentalism, this tiny slice of fake fare accounted for a massively disproportionate share of our most popular stories. Like other journalists in the newsroom, I would complain to Post brass about these stories—sometimes even doing so publicly, on Twitter. But it was quietly understood that this niche was simply too popular to give up. And as I learned in New York, climate-change denialism truly did give us an international profile.

Besides: How much harm could this fake climate news do? We were telling readers the truth in every other area. We didn’t promote bogus anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, or suggest that George W. Bush blew up the Twin Towers, or question the birthplace of Barack Obama. So was it really the end of the world if we published fake news on this one specific subject? If the Wall Street Journal could do it, why not us?

The fake-news climate columns we were running didn’t look like conspiracist propaganda. They often came with all sorts of impressive looking graphs and tables, and many were written by people who seemed to have some sort of scientific credential—even if they generally weren’t actual climatologists, and even if the data and arguments they were presenting had never passed peer review at a mainstream scientific publication. I reasoned that the people who write and read these articles were true believers who were never going to be convinced by science anyway. So what was the harm in letting them use the Post to babble at one another about “Climategate”?

What I didn’t realize then was that the (largely successful) effort to sow confusion about climate change could never be contained within that one narrow pseudoscientific silo. That’s because one of the core dogmas of the global-warming denial movement—whose adherents now include the President of the United States—is that both the media and the international scientific community are both completely corrupt. I say “dogmas” because, absent the presumption of such corruption, there is simply no way to explain why every prestigious scientific body and A-list media outlet in the Western world acknowledges the truth that the world is getting hotter, and that the main reason for this is the production of greenhouse gasses by human activity.

In this particular sense, climate denialists are very similar to, say, Obama Birthers, or anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists—who also believe that the entire mainstream media is a bought-and-paid for subsidiary of some global puppet-master. Indeed, that is why there are so many conspiracy theorists who come to inhabit all of these conspiratorial sub-categories simultaneously (such as Trump himself, or his friend Alex Jones). Once you have popularized and legitimized the idea that the most respectable intellectual and political institutions in our society are lying to us about something so fundamental as our climate, the wall between truth and fiction starts to vanish.

Out of the climate denial movement emerged all sorts of useful basic strategies that would become broadly applicable to other fake news campaigns on the right. For instance, since no layperson can really understand the vastly complicated business of modeling the earth’s climate, denialists have come to rely on isolated factoids and mantras that they can understand, and which traffic well in 140 characters or less: Ice has gotten thicker in some parts of Antarctica. The earth has always exhibited natural variation in temperature from year to year. Snippets of email from a hacked University of East Anglia server, removed from context, suggest statistical foul play. Through the groupthink of the conservative internet silo, every Rebel or Breitbart fan you meet is armed with the same canon of “smoking gun” denialist lines. Put enough of these together, and you can hold your own in any dinner-party debate. Of particular note: Unlike the creationists of yore, climate deniers give the appearance of engaging in rigorous scientific analysis—even if they’ve never heard of Boyle’s law or the Stefan–Boltzmann constant.

Finally, global warming deniers were smart enough to realize that, at root, most of us trust people, not numbers. And since global warming is complicated, even the most well-informed lay activist is occasionally going to say or do something that exposes them to the claim of hypocrisy or ignorance within the environmentalist movement. Go back and read the climate denial columns of Ezra Levant, Rex Murphy and Conrad Black over the last decade or so. You will find little discussion of the technical fine points of solar irradiance and thermal inertia, but much sneering about the fancy international conferences where David Suzuki and Al Gore hold court. By this fashion, the denialists gradually have deftly turned the debate over a scientific subject into a referendum on the moral character of sanctimonious globetrotting leftists. Columnist Mark Steyn was especially passionate about this tactic, and even went so far as to compare one of the world’s most acclaimed climate scientists to a pedophilic sex criminal—an act of journalistic lunacy that has tied him up in libel litigation for the last five years.

There is a direct line between the right-wing campaign to discredit legitimate science and the post-truth atmosphere that suffuses virtually every aspect of Donald Trump’s political cult. Trump and his acolytes don’t have to engage intellectually with the mainstream media, because they already have decided the media is dishonest and corrupt. (Indeed, 76 percent of US Republicans—compared with 6 percent of Democrats—now agree with the statement “journalists and the media are the enemy of the American people.”)

I don’t know when—or even if—the era of fake news will end. But if we do get our societal sanity back, we should guard it more preciously. What this means is that we cannot afford to treat any important arena of public discourse as somehow beyond the realm of fact. To adapt George Orwell, unless you insist that two plus two makes four—not just usually, but always—you’re never far from the shrieking la-la-land of a late-night Donald Trump Tweetstorm.

Farewell, giant pine: Climate change kills a champion at Washington Park Arboretum

One of the state’s biggest pines is headed for the saw, after climate change and bugs weaken a champion at the Washington Park Arboretum

Written by  and published in The Seattle Times the 13 May 2017

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The state’s champion pitch pine towers over David Zuckerman, manager of horticulture at the Washington Park Arboretum. The tree has died and must come down. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

 

It saw the flight of Boeing’s first jet; the World’s Fair, the founding of Microsoft. It survived the eruption of Mount St. Helens, witnessed the state’s centennial, and the confession of the Green River Killer.

But after 72 years, Pinus rigida 212-45-C, the state’s champion pitch pine, has died and will be cut down at the Washington Park Arboretum.

The cause of death was climate change: steadily warming and drier summers, that stressed the tree in its position atop a droughty knoll. Red turpentine beetles, catching the scent of stress chemicals emitted by the tree as it struggled, bored in.

The beetles chewed and fed on the tree’s phloem, conduits just below the bark for the tree’s life-giving juices. Just as damaging, the beetles were vectors for fungus that plugged up other conduits carrying water into the tree. It wasn’t long before arborist Clif Edwards, making his usual rounds, noticed something amiss in the pinetum, the collection of pines at the arboretum.

“I saw this big orange (tree) canopy in the sky, got closer to investigate, and got the not-so-good answer,” Edwards said.

He alerted other experts at the arboretum, who confirmed by the plethora of exit holes about the size of the point of a crayon that the tree was badly infested with beetles. Now the tree must be removed before the infestation spreads to other trees in its grove, noted David Zuckerman, manager of horticulture for the arboretum.

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Since 2005, the arboretum has lost some 40 pine trees in just this way, as warming average temperatures combine with summer’s drought to stress trees. The arboretum has not in the past irrigated its collection of pines. But staff will begin pouring on the TLC with mulch and water this season to help its collection of stressed pines, Zuckerman said.

But for this big old pine, it’s too late. With its witchy, stark bare branches and bronze dead needles, it stands apart in the surging green of spring. It’s studded with a bumper crop of cones, each the size of a chicken egg, hard as a stone, and covered with sharp prickles. Trees near death typically put on a large crop of seeds, a desperate bid to persist into future generations.

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A close-up look at the tree shows exit holes drilled by the beetles that have killed it, along with the pitch produced by the tree to try to heal its wounds. The 72-year-old giant will be cut down sometime this month. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

 

The tree’s yellowed accession card, marked with pencil and scanned for preservation in the arboretum’s digital archives, tells of its life and times. First stratified, or readied for germination by cooling a few weeks after the seeds arrived, the seed for the big pine was planted in flats on May 17, 1945, and transplanted to the nursery at the arboretum in September 1946. On April 16, 1948, it was planted atop the knoll in the prime spot in the pinetum.

In 2004, in a flurry of taxonomic activity, its name was changed from pinus nigra to pinus rigida. And all the while, the tree grew steadily on.

The tree outdistanced all others in its class, becoming the state champion in Washington of its species, at more than 70 feet high with a bigger-than-35-foot crown spread and nearly 6 feet around at its trunk at breast height.

The pitch pine’s rugged form and spiny cones belie a gentle presence. At the arboretum, this pine was graced by a bench in its shade, with a placard advising “peace” on its back. The ground in front of the bench is worn smooth by years of visitors’ feet, and the tree is just steps from the incantations of an active nest of a Cooper’s hawk and red-breasted nut hatch.

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The state’s champion pitch pine, 72 years old and more than 70 feet tall, must be removed so that the beetles that killed it won’t endanger the rest of the pine grove around it at the Washington Park Arboretum. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Visitors seem to know what is happening; someone inscribed a small purple heart in magic marker on the tree’s bark, the ink still fresh and bright from a recent visit. For the tree’s suffering is evident, in the sawdust heaped by chewing beetles at its feet, and the frass pushed out of their homes, deep within the tree’s sap wood, staining exit holes drilled all through its bark.

The tree has fought back nobly; gobs of hardened pitch, produced by the tree to seal its wounds, mound in golden heaps all over its trunk. But it was not enough.

And so the next stop for this tree is the Cedar Grove composting facility, the only way to safely and quickly dispose of the big logs that this tree will soon become.

Every last bit of the tree will be removed, even grinding the stump. Its tag — already removed, leaving the bare hook bereft in the tree’s bark — will be recycled, and the tree’s epitaph recorded in the arboretum’s saddest ledger: its Dead Plant Report.

In an arboretum boasting more than 21,000 trees, shrubs and vines in its collection, each one, for those who care for them, is an individual. Zuckerman and Ryan Garrison, plant-health specialist at the arboretum, were quiet Friday, as they examined the pine and made plans to cut it down later this month.

“I try to look on the bright side,” Zuckerman said. This pine is survived by two others on the knoll from the same gift of seeds from the New York Botanical Garden. “And this will make space for a new plant,” Zuckerman said. “Something that does not need summer water.”