Dear EarthTalk: With all the crazy heat waves around the world this summer, how could anyone still claim that climate change isn’t anything to worry about? — Randy Smith, Providence, RI
It certainly is hard to believe that anyone would be able to disregard the signs that human-induced climate change is starting to have a deleterious effect on our environment and our quality of life around the planet. Here in the United States, fully one-fifth of our land mass is currently sweating through record summer heat or drowning in torrential floods. It’s never been hotter — if recent July 2018 temperature records are any indication — than across certain parts of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. While such extremes used to come about once in a decade or longer, now every successive year is worse than the last.
And the problems aren’t limited to the United States. Japan, North Korea and South Korea are experiencing record heat waves this summer, while Europe is sitting under a high-pressure ridge blowing hot dry air across the continent and fueling unprecedented wildfires across the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, with the flames even licking as far north as the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, Greece is suffering through its deadliest wildfire season ever, with more than 50 dead and dozens more people unaccounted for with entire towns up in flames.
“The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” reports climatologist Michael Mann of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. “We are seeing them play out in real time in the form of unprecedented heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires. And we’ve seen them all this summer.”
And hurricane season hasn’t even ramped up yet. According to Inside Climate News, scientists are worried that U.S. coastal communities “could face more super storms with winds, storm surges and rainfall so intense that current warning categories don’t fully capture the threat.” And a new “Category 6” designation — with peak winds approaching 190 miles per hour — is under consideration to account for the spate of more intense storms coming our way.
“The current intensity scale doesn’t capture the fact that a 10 mph increase in sustained wind speeds ups the damage potential by 20 percent,” Mann adds. “That’s not a subtle effect. It’s one that we can see.”
For more evidence that global warming is something to fear, consider the fact that 2018 is on track to be the warmest year on record for the U.S. (which has been keeping records since 1894) and the planet at large. A United Nations World Meteorological Organization study found that 2016 was the warmest year on record globally, with 2017 and 2015 tied for second place.
And those who say “so what if the planet is warming?” might not be so smug when their waterfront property — or private golf club — becomes part of the ocean in the not-so-distant future. It’s not so far-fetched to believe the scientists who claim parts of Florida will be under water by 2025 after seeing footage of the streets of Miami flooding every year in recent memory. Donald Trump better hope Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, has flood insurance.
Dear EarthTalk: I hear a lot about Patagonia doing the right thing by the environment, but what about the rest of the outdoor gear and apparel industry? — Doug Pearson, Chicago, IL
It’s true that Patagonia has long been a leader in sustainability initiatives. More than two decades ago the company switched over to organic cotton and soon started examining the environmental impact of every step in its supply chain. The next step was to start making fleece from recycled soda bottles — and eventually from its own worn-out fleece products. Later, company founder Yvon Chouinard spearheaded One Percent For the Planet, a non-profit coalition of 1,200 outdoor gear and apparel makers committed to contributing at least one percent of annual sales to environmental causes. Patagonia has also supported the work of thousands of grassroots environmental activism campaigns through its grants program. And more recently, the company kicked off its Worn Wear program to take back and repair or recycle any of its clothing or gear so the materials can live another lifetime.
While Patagonia may be the acknowledged leader in sustainability-oriented gear, it’s far from the only player in the game. The North Face, Osprey, Marmot, Outdoor Research, Columbia, Keen, PrAna, MSR, NEMO, Cotopaxi and others are also blazing new trails when it comes to greening their products and processes. And this common interest in doing the right thing has led most companies in the industry to unite behind common standards and best practices. To wit, 200 apparel, footwear and textile companies concerned about their industry’s environmental impact joined forces in 2011 to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
This non-profit alliance developed, maintains and updates the Higg Index, a set of standardized supply chain measurement tools that anyone in the industry can use to assess the sustainability of individual products or entire product lines. “With the Higg Index, the industry is addressing inefficiencies, resolving damaging practices, and working to achieve the environmental and social transparency consumers are demanding,” reports SAC.
And just this past April, REI, the outdoor gear coop started by Seattle climbers in 1938 that has grown into the largest outdoor gear retailer in the country, announced its own set of sustainability standards that all of the brands it sells must adhere to in order to remain on the company’s shelves. REI developed the standards with input from dozens of partner brands of various sizes and product categories.
“We work with more than 1,000 brands, both large and small. Some…are on the leading edge in integrating sustainability into their products and supply chains. Others may have a keen interest in sustainability but lack the resources to fully implement a program,” says Matthew Thurston, REI’s director of sustainability. “We’re in a unique position to unite our brand partners around a common goal, by sharing best practices and resources that we’ve learned from both our own work and that of the brands we work with.”
Now customers can search on REI’s website for keywords such as “organic cotton” or “fair trade” and find products from any number of different manufacturers that match not only their particular gear need but also satisfy their conscience as well.
Contacts: Patagonia, www.patagonia.com; One Percent For The Planet, www.onepercentfortheplanet.org; Sustainable Apparel Coalition, www.apparelcoalition.org; REI Product Sustainability Standards, www.rei.com/assets/stewardship/sustainability/rei-product-sustainability-standards/live.pdf.
Dear EarthTalk: Do animals respond to or enjoy music recorded or played live by humans? — Jane W., Herndon, VA
Essayist and poet Gary Snyder likes to tell the tale of coming home from a walk through the forest surrounding his home in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to find a wild cougar sitting under a window, apparently enraptured by the music coming through the wall as his daughter practiced the piano just inside. From this anecdote, it would seem that animals can appreciate and enjoy human music, but does the science bear this out?
“To animals, human music falls into that grating, unrecognizable category,” reports animal psychologist Charles Snowdon. “With vocal ranges and heart rates very different from ours, they simply aren’t wired to enjoy songs that are tailored for our ears.” He adds that animals generally respond to human music with “a total lack of interest.”
But Snowdon wondered if the inverse might be true, so he and some colleagues composed and recorded music they thought would connect more with animals. In 2009 their music, inspired by the sounds of tamarin monkeys, did have a perceptible effect on monkeys exposed to it. Songs inspired by the monkeys’ calming calls led the animals to relax while others inspired by their sounds of fear stirred them up.
Snowdon’s team followed it up in 2015 with a similar experiment on cats, developing music containing frequencies and tempos similar to those used by felines to communicate. They tested their cat-friendly tunes against standard classical music in front of cats in 47 households and found that music designed for felines tended to attract cats toward the speaker, while standard classical music engendered no response.
Elsewhere, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that 117 kenneled dogs exposed to different types of music appeared most relaxed (and slept the most) while listening to classical music but appeared agitated when listening to heavy metal. “These results are consistent with human studies,” the researchers noted, “which have suggested that music can reduce agitation, promote sleep, improve mood, and lower stress and anxiety.”
In another example, University of Leicester (UK) researchers found dairy cows to be more productive in milk output when they’re listening to calming music — such as REM’s “Everybody Hurts” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The chilled-out cows produced around 3 percent more milk than control groups listening to faster music or none at all.
Still other research showed that birds and humans react in similar ways to music. “We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like,” reports Sarah Earp of Emory University. “Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival.”
Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways that companies can encourage or incentivize their employees to live greener and promote sustainability? — Jane Bussbaum, Troy, NY
Many companies talk the talk when it comes to going green and do the minimum possible so as not to look bad (e.g. install recycling bins), but fewer actually walk the talk by actively investing in sustainability initiatives, let alone empower staffers to take action on behalf of the planet. But as employees start to demand more of their employers, some companies have begun to leverage corporate resources to help their people cut carbon footprints — both at home and at work — in various ways.
To wit, WeWork, a startup that runs some 200 “co-working” shared workspace facilities around the world with 200,000 customers, announced recently that it would no longer allow any of its own 6,000 employees to get reimbursed for meat meals (red meat, poultry and pork) on their expense reports — and will no longer serve any meat at company events. “As a company, WeWork can save an estimated 16.7 billion gallons of water, 445.1 million pounds of CO2 emissions and over 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at our events,” says WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey.
Another way companies can cut their employees’ collective carbon footprint is by encouraging them to live close enough to work so they can walk or bike. Facebook reportedly compensates employees who buy or rent a home within 10 miles of its Menlo Park, California, campus up to $15,000 to discourage long fossil-fuel-spewing commutes. Energy bar manufacturer Clif Bar offers employees $500 toward the purchase of a “commuter bike” as an eco-friendly alternative to driving to work. Baltimore’s Live Near Your Work program matches employer grants to help employees purchase homes close enough to their jobs so they can walk or bike to work. And Make Collective, an advertising agency in Christchurch, New Zealand, recently started paying its employees who use their bikes to commute a $5/day bonus. And for workers who keep up the bicycle commuting for more than six months, the benefit doubles to $10/day, paid out at the end of the year as a bonus.
Helping employees go green on the home front is another way some companies are stepping up in terms of promoting sustainability. Bank of America offers employees $500 off the installation of solar panels on their home rooftops, as well as a $3,000 reimbursement incentive for those staffers who buy a hybrid, compressed natural gas or “highway-capable” electric vehicle.
Reinsurance giant Swiss Re’s COyou2 initiative grants employees up to half of the costs associated with shrinking their personal carbon footprints. The company makes upwards of 2,000 employee grants a year accordingly to help staffers replace aging appliances with newer energy-efficient models, beef up the insulation in their homes and switch over to hybrid and electric cars.
Likewise, staffers at the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) can access company funds to help defray costs associated with the purchase of energy-efficient appliances, hybrid or electric cars, home energy assessments, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) memberships, composting supplies or anything else that will serve to cut their own household environmental impacts.
Contacts: “Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth,” goo.gl/8eScEF; Baltimore’s Live Near Your Work, livebaltimore.com/live-near-your-work; Swiss Re COyou2, www.swissre.com/corporate_responsibility/coyou2_programme.html; VEIC Sustainability Benefits, www.veic.org/company/brands/sustainability-benefits.