Dear EarthTalk: What is the gist of President Obama’s new plan to tackle global warming and how does the green community feel about what the White House is proposing? — Bill Kemp, Seattle, WA
IN WHAT’S BEING billed as the greatest environmental initiative of his presidency, Barack Obama announced on June 25, 2013 that his administration is instituting stringent mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions by power plants, factories and other industrial sources. These sources combined account for roughly 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. The goal is to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions nationally by four percent below 1990 levels within the next seven years.
The new policy also directs the Department of Interior to approve enough renewable energy projects on public lands to power six million homes by 2020 and offers up $8 billion in loan guarantees for energy efficiency and advanced fossil fuel projects. And while Obama helped shepherd in a doubling of gas mileage standards for automobiles, SUVs and pickups during his first term, he is now calling for much more stringent standards for heavy duty truck models introduced in 2018 and after.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency-part of the executive branch under the White House-can regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act just like it does soot, lead and other types of air pollution, Obama’s new plan does not need Congressional approval, although Congress will certainly play a role in determining just how the emissions cuts are implemented.
“We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic and sulfur in our air and water,” says Obama. “But power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”
Most environmentalists are happy that Obama is finally committing to decisive action to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. “This is the change Americans have been waiting for on climate,” says the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune. “President Obama is finally putting action behind his words.” “It’s clearly time to act,” Gene Karpinski of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) adds, “and [Obama is] setting out a bold, ambitious, comprehensive plan for what he can do without needing to rely upon Congress.”
But other greens aren’t so bullish on the new strategy. The Center for Biological Diversity, a leading non-profit committed to species protection, calls Obama’s plan “modest” and warns that it falls short by failing to set a nationwide pollution cap for carbon dioxide. “We’re happy to see the president finally addressing climate change, but the plain truth is that what he’s proposing isn’t big enough, and doesn’t move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis,” says Bill Snape, the center’s Senior Counsel, adding that the plan wouldn’t be enough “to avert catastrophic temperature rises.”
Likewise, Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development points out that the climate problem “has become much bigger while the U.S. was ignoring it” and that what Obama is proposing now is too little too late.
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that, despite the popularity of organic foods, clothing and other products, organic agriculture is still only practiced on a tiny percentage of land worldwide. What’s getting in the way? — Larry McFarlane, Boston, MA
ORGANIC PRODUCTION MAY still represent only a small fraction of agricultural sales in the U.S. and worldwide, but it as been growing rapidly over the last two decades. According to the latest global census of farming practices, the area of land certified as organic makes up less than one percent of global agricultural land-but it has grown more than threefold since 1999, with upwards of 37 million hectares of land worldwide now under organic cultivation. The Organic Trade Association forecasts steady growth of nine percent or more annually for organic agriculture in the foreseeable future.
But despite this growth, no one expects organic agriculture to top conventional techniques any time soon. The biggest hurdle for organics is the added cost of sustainable practices. “The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food,” reports the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). “The intensive management and labor used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms.” However, there is evidence that if the indirect costs of conventional food production-such as the impact on public health of chemicals released into our air and water-were factored in, non-organic foods would cost the same or as much as organic foods.
Other problems for organic foods include changing perceptions about just how much healthier they are than non-organics. “Many devotees of organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides,” writes Henry I. Miller in Forbes. “But that’s a poor rationale: Non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, to be sure, but more than 99 percent of the time the levels were below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators-limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.”
He adds that just because a farm is organic doesn’t mean the food it produces will be free of potentially toxic elements. While organic standards may preclude the use of synthetic inputs, organic farms often utilize so-called “natural” pesticides and what Miller calls “pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer” that can also end up making consumers sick and have been linked to cancers and other serious illnesses (like their synthetic counterparts). Miller believes that as more consumers become aware of these problems, the percentage of the agriculture market taken up by organics will begin to shrink.
Another challenge facing the organic sector is a shortage of organic raw materials such as grain, sugar and livestock feed. Without a steady supply of these basics, organic farmers can’t harvest enough products to make their businesses viable. Meanwhile, competition from food marketed as “locally grown” or “natural” is also cutting into organic’s slice of the overall agriculture pie.
Organic agriculture is sure to keep growing for years to come. And even if the health benefits of eating organic aren’t significant, the environmental advantages of organic agriculture-which are, of course, also public health advantages-make the practice well worth supporting.
Dear EarthTalk: Is there a link between the recent spread of mosquito-borne diseases around the world and environmental pollution? — Meg Ross, Lantana, FL
IF BY POLLLUTION you mean greenhouse gas emissions, then definitely yes. According to Maria Diuk-Wasser at the Yale School of Public Health, the onset of human-induced global warming is likely to increase the infection rates of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus by creating more mosquito-friendly habitats.
“The direct effects of temperature increase are an increase in immature mosquito development, virus development and mosquito biting rates, which increase contact rates (biting) with humans,” she reports.
To wit, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a record number of West Nile virus infections in the continental U.S. in 2012 with some 5,674 documented cases including 286 deaths. The virus uses insects as hosts where they reproduce and then are transmitted to humans via mosquito bites; it can also be transmitted via blood transfusions, organ transplants and breast feeding.
While it’s still far less common, U.S. cases of mosquito-borne dengue fever-also known as “breakbone fever” for the feeling it gives its victims-rose by 70 percent in 2012 as compared with 2011. The CDC reports 357 cases of dengue fever in the continental U.S. in 2012, up from 251 in 2011. The majority, 104, was in Florida, but New York had 64 and California 35. Most of the infections were imported on people travelling to the U.S.-Puerto Rico played host to 4,450 dengue fever cases in 2012, up from only 1,507 in 2011. But some of the cases in Florida likely came from mosquito bites there. The virus behind dengue fever thrives in tropical and sub-tropical environments. The increased warming predicted for the southern U.S. along with increased flooding means dengue fever will no doubt be spreading north on the backs of mosquitoes into U.S. states that never thought they would have to deal with such exotic outbreaks.
West Nile and dengue fever aren’t the only mosquito-borne diseases on U.S. public health officials’ radar. Chikungunya, which hitches a ride on the ever expanding Asian tiger mosquito and can cause high fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, muscle and joint pain, and a nasty rash in humans, comes from tropical Africa and Asia. But cases have started appearing in Western Europe in recent years and are expected to make it to the U.S. East Coast at anytime. Likewise, Rift Valley fever, which brings with it fever, muscle pain, dizziness, vision loss and even encephalitis, was limited to Kenya only a decade ago but today has spread across the entire African continent and is expected to make an appearance in Europe and the U.S. soon.
While researchers are hard at work to find vaccines against these diseases, concerned Americans can take some basic precautions to minimize their chances of getting mosquito bites. Keep screens on all the windows and doors in the house that can open. Outside, wear long pants and long sleeved shirts when possible and cover up with an insect repellent-the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says only those formulations containing the chemical DEET have been proven effective but there are plenty of all natural alternatives out there. In the meantime, our best defense against these diseases may be keeping our carbon footprints down, as the less global warming we cause, the less we’ll have to deal with an onslaught of tropical mosquito-borne diseases.
CONTACTS: Maria Ana Diuk-Wasser Ph.D., publichealth.yale.edu/people/maria_diuk-3.profile; CDC Mosquito-Borne Diseases, www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/list_mosquitoborne.htm.