EarthTalk® February 2016


earthtalk-wideDear EarthTalk: What do green groups think about the outcome of the recent Paris climate talks? — Jackie Lupinacci, Pittsburgh, PA

On December 12, 2015, 195 countries assembled at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris produced a 32-page agreement outlining goals to phase out industrial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. All countries agreed on “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Each country submitted a voluntary pledge for cutting its CO2 emissions, known as an “intended nationally determined contribution,” or INDC. These pledges are not strong enough to achieve the two degree target, but countries involved are required to monitor and report their emissions data, which will be reviewed every five years, and are expected to update their emissions reductions over time.

“While the Paris commitments won’t deliver all the emissions reductions that are needed, the agreement provides a framework to ratchet up ambition over time: a transparent system for reporting and review, regular assessments of progress, and strengthening of commitments every five years beginning in 2020,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “The agreement relies on each nation to enact its own policies to reduce emissions while ensuring that their progress can be monitored by all. We look forward to each country’s work to both meet and build on their pledges in order to finish the hard work of protecting future generations.”

But distant promises standing in for present-day pledges adequate enough to achieve the agreement’s temperature goals have left many green groups disappointed. In a statement issued shortly after the release of the final agreement, Bill McKibben, co-founder of, said: “Every government seems now to recognize the fossil fuel era must end, and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry.”

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, reflected post-Paris that a continued, unrelenting push for clean, renewable fuels by green groups is crucial. “When it comes to forcing real, meaningful action, Paris fails to meet the moment,” Naidoo said. “We have a 1.5-degree wall to climb, but the ladder isn’t long enough…. To pull us free of fossil fuels we are going to need to mobilize in ever greater numbers…. We will push our beautifully simple solution to climate change — 100 percent renewable energy for all — and make sure it is heard and embraced.”

In addition to green group backlash, the Paris agreement was openly condemned in recent press and by former NASA scientist James Hansen, who called it “fraud,” yet some remain optimistic that the conversion to sustainable energy is inevitable. Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, told ThinkProgress: “The leaders of the world recognize that the consequences of noncompliance are disastrous. We are looking at the wholesale transformation of our global climate. The main incentive here for compliance is not the threat of some civil penalty — non-compliance would mean environmental disaster.”

CONTACTS: EDF,;,; Greenpeace International,; Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Photo above: Green groups have mixed reactions to the outcome of the recent global climate talks in Paris, but hold out hope that the nations of the world will do more on their own than the agreement itself requires. Credit: Yann Caradec. FlickrCC

border walls and barriers
More than 600 miles of border walls and barriers have been constructed in all four southern border states, with dire consequences for vast expanses of pristine wild lands. The threat of a mandate to build hundreds of miles of additional wall continues to loom in Congress. Credit: Sierra Club.
Dear EarthTalk: How are borderlands causing widespread environmental damage while splintering families and communities across the U.S. Southwest? — Peter Jackson, Baltimore, MD

Today, over 650 miles of border walls and barriers have been constructed in all four southern border states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Sierra Club Borderlands campaign has spoken up against the substantial border wall construction, arguing that it has had dire consequences for vast expanses of pristine wild lands, including wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and national forest lands, among other areas. Additionally, several species of wildlife have been observed and photographed stranded by the border wall, the group states, suggesting that many threatened and endangered species are suffering from border wall development as well.

In their short films, Wild Versus Wall and Too Many Tracks, the Sierra Club describes how the significance of the borderlands — a vast and ecologically distinct region with a multitude of mountain ranges, two of North America’s four deserts and major river ecosystems — has been ignored by current U.S. border policy. The borderlands provide important habitat for rare and threatened wildlife species, including many federally-listed threatened and endangered species. But in 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which included a provision that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive all local, state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, deemed an impediment to building walls and roads along U.S. borders. Border patrol has now built stadium-like lights, roads and towers in sensitive, remote areas, the Sierra Club says, and the roads fragment and destroy habitat while high voltage lighting affects nocturnal animals’ ability to feed and migrate.

“Border Patrol’s off-road driving, tire dragging and ATV use in designated roadless wilderness has left an immense scar on the landscape,” said Dan Millis, borderlands program coordinator for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club continues to raise awareness on borderland habitat degradation with the hope that they can combat further border wall development that may pose harm to the environment and wildlife. In a November 2015 trip to a U.S-Mexico border wall in Bisbee, Arizona, Millis told Borderlands campaigners how the jaguar is an “emblematic species for why this wall is problematic…. It’s important for wildlife, like the jaguar, to be able to have access to a range. The jaguar used to live in the United States, all the way up to the Grand Canyon… the jaguar’s critical habitat has been established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it includes areas that are bisected by these walls. And that’s really problematic if we want to see a very majestic species like the jaguar…we’re going to have to take these problems like this border wall seriously.”

Millis also informed the campaigners of several other ecological issues associated with border development, including increased erosion, flooding and soil degradation. “We’re encouraging Border Patrol and Homeland Security to keep this stuff in mind as they move forward on projects,” Millis said. “They need to do things in a way that is more sustainable.”

CONTACT: Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign,

Alysson Muotri at the University of California San Diego Department of Pediatrics is using teeth analysis to identify gene abnormalities in children with autism, even in cases with no previous known genetic cause. Credit: Kris Krüg for PopTech (FlickrCC)
Dear EarthTalk: What is the latest thinking on the environmental causes (if any) of autism? I hear so much conflicting information I don’t know what to believe. — Bill Stribling, Austin, TX

In the 1980s, about one in 2,000 American kids was diagnosed with autism. Today the number is around one in 68, according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. This disconcerting increase has led to intensified examination into what environmental factors may play a role in the disorder’s development. A wide range of exposures have been scientifically linked to autism, including air pollutants, phthalates and other endocrine disruptors, pesticides such as Chlorpyrifos, and many more. Vaccines were considered a leading culprit, but more recent research has proven this connection wrong — although the subject still engenders much debate.

A 2014 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found a strong link between autism and in utero exposure to air pollution: the risk of autism was doubled among children of women exposed to high levels of particulate air pollution during pregnancy. Another 2014 study out of the University of California, Davis determined that pregnant women living in close proximity to fields and farms where chemical pesticides are applied experience a 66 percent increased risk of having a child with autism or a developmental delay. The advocacy group Autism Speaks, which contributed to the funding of the Harvard study, believes that despite all the emerging data linking toxic exposures to autism, no environmental influence appears to cause or prevent autism by itself — rather they appear to influence risk in those genetically predisposed to the disorder.

“It’s important to remember that not all mothers exposed to air pollution during pregnancy will have a child with autism and not all children with autism were necessarily exposed to air pollution in utero,” said epidemiologist Michael Rosanoff, associate director for public health at Autism Speaks. “We know autism is a complex disorder and underlying genetic and biological factors interact to influence susceptibility. The next step is to identify the biological mechanisms that connect air pollution to autism and identify ways to treat, if not prevent, the harm to brain development.”

While many studies linking environmental toxins and autism have been inconclusive, one developing research approach appears to hold great promise. Remarkably, fallen baby teeth can be used to track a child’s prenatal and infant exposure to chemicals — thus allowing scientists to determine what environmental causes may have contributed to the disorder’s development.

“As a result, we can use teeth like an archeological record,” says Dr. Raymond Palmer of the University of Texas Health Science Center. “The enamel of different types of teeth begins to form at different points during prenatal development. In infancy, the enamel continues to absorb chemicals circulating through the baby’s body.” Palmer says the greatest insights from dental analysis may come from looking at chemical exposures along with gene abnormalities, which may affect one’s vulnerability to potentially toxic chemicals. “It’s not necessarily genes or environment,” he adds. “It’s likely to be both.”

Alysson Muotri at the University of California San Diego Department of Pediatrics is using teeth analysis to identify gene abnormalities in children with autism, even in cases with no previously known genetic cause. Parents of an 8-year-old autistic boy mailed Muotri’s team one of the boy’s baby teeth, and the researchers were able to detect a mutation in a gene known as TRPC6. The researchers treated the autistic boy with hyperforin, the active ingredient in St. John’s Wort. Dental analysis could potentially lead to personalized treatment for autism, whether the cause be identified as genetic, environmental or both.

CONTACTS: CDC Autism Spectrum Disorder Page,; Autism Speaks,; Muotri Lab at UCSD,; UT Health Science Center,

Activists no to the TPP
Activists in Leesburg, Virginia want Congress to just say no to the TPP given the potential social justice and environmental implications of the trade agreement. Credit: Global Trade Watch, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Why do many green groups oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) governing trade in the Pacific? — Jane Donahue, Larchmont, NY

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an international agreement that seeks to unite the economic interests of 12 countries that border the Pacific Ocean by lowering trade tariffs and establishing an international trade court to settle disputes. TPP emerged as a West Coast equivalent to the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, designed to ease trade restrictions between the U.S. and Europe. But TPP has progressed much faster thanks to the willingness of Pacific nations to “play ball.”

International negotiators released a draft of the TPP agreement in October 2015 and are awaiting approvals from participating governments. However, despite the theoretical advantages of more fluid international trade, the current draft has several complications that could lead to a variety of problems for participating nations and others, meaning its implementation is far from a sure thing at this point.

Green leaders criticize the Obama administration and negotiators from other countries for keeping early talks on the formation of the TPP closed to observers and media. Many individuals and public interest groups requested access to the discussions, fearing that the agreement would unfairly favor large corporations. However, those appeals were ignored and the drafted document revealed what many feel was a prioritization of corporate interests over health and environmental concerns. Without any enforceable guarantees for environmental protection, the TPP could actually significantly contribute to global warming through increased exportation of U.S. fossil fuel supplies.

Additionally, differences in national policies regulating chemical use, artificial fertilizers and seeds from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have yielded an agreement that encourages minimal protection. The non-profit Public Citizen points out that existing U.S. regulation of pesticide and GMO labeling on packaging could be challenged in the international court as “trade barriers.” Another point of contention is the distinct advantage given to foreign corporations under the current TPP model. Overseas firms would be able to sue the U.S. government over new policies that disrupt the company’s “expectations.”

Perhaps more troubling is what’s not included in the document, which fails to mention how it will protect from over-harvesting of limited natural resources. Green groups point out that, while the TPP accounts for nearly a third of global fish harvest, there are no provisions to protect against overfishing. The draft also barely mentions enforceable safeguards of endangered species products, such as elephant ivory.

Yet another issue critics say is woefully ignored is social justice. With free-trade opening up, even more American jobs would be sent overseas to reduce costs. Economists estimate that five million U.S. jobs could shift oversees under the TPP, resulting in serious pay cuts for American workers. Meanwhile, the richest 10 percent would profit at even higher rates, adding to an already drastic U.S. wealth inequality.

Clearly, the current draft of the TPP agreement needs a lot of work before Congress should even consider it. Those opposed to the current version of the TPP can voice their dissatisfaction by signing onto the Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership petition on, or by urging your representatives in Congress to vote against it altogether.

CONTACTS: TPP Page,; Public Citizen,;’s Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership Petition,

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