EarthTalk® | July 2016


Dear EarthTalk: How are the world’s penguins faring in this day and age of global warming? What can we do to help them? — Mitch McIntosh, Mt. Morris, IL

Not surprisingly, penguins — those cute and quirky flightless birds of the Southern Hemisphere that are loved by humans and have inspired countless films, books, comic strips and sports teams — are in deep trouble as a result of reckless human activity.

The nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the “Red List” of at-risk species around the world, considers five of the world’s 18 penguin species “endangered.” IUCN classifies five more penguin species as “vulnerable” and yet another five as “near threatened.” Only three species still exists in healthy enough numbers to qualify for IUCN’s “least concern” classification.

Penguins have evolved over millions of years and adapted to big ecosystem and climatic changes along the way, but they face their biggest challenges from threats posed by humans over just the last century.

One of the more dire threats to penguins is commercial fishing. “Overfishing and concentrated fishing efforts near penguin colonies for forage species such as Antarctic krill can make it more difficult for penguins to find nourishment…especially when fishing grounds overlap with the foraging grounds of penguins,” reports the Pew Charitable Trusts, a leading nonprofit with a focus on ocean conservation.

Meanwhile, predators and non-native invasive species introduced by humans are also taking their toll. According to Pew, several colonies of little penguins in Australia, for example, have been wiped out by non-indigenous dogs and foxes, while the Galápagos penguin has suffered big losses as a result of pathogen-borne illnesses introduced by non-native species and some natural bird migration.

Yet, another threat is habitat destruction. “Tourism-related pressures, such as foot traffic and litter, can encroach on penguin colonies and nesting sites,” says Pew. “Oil spills have had severe effects on the health of individual colonies of penguins as well as their foraging habitats.”

And climate change — with its resulting melting of vast sheets of sea ice — could well be the greatest threat to already struggling penguin populations. “Ice plays a crucial role in the breeding process for several species of Antarctic penguins and also provides a place for penguins to rest and to avoid predators during long foraging trips,” reports Pew. “The loss of sea ice along the Antarctic Peninsula is contributing to reductions in the abundance of Antarctic krill, a favorite food of several penguin species.”

But according to Pew, the situation isn’t completely hopeless. The creation of more marine reserves where penguins can thrive without the stresses of overfishing and other human activity is a big step in the right direction. Pew is also pushing for better fisheries management in order to increase food sources for penguins and other marine wildlife dependent on nutrients further down the food chain, and also for a reduction in the number of introduced predators and invasive species.

According to Pew, the penguins’ plight is a portent of larger environmental concerns: “These birds are sentinels for the health of the entire sea. Changes to their populations can indicate trouble for other species that depend on these waters for survival.”

Contacts: IUCN,; Pew Charitable Trusts, Photo above: The Northern Rockhopper is one of five penguin species classified as “Endangered” by IUCN. Credit: Jan Veenstra, FlickrCC.

Dave Matthews
Dave Matthews’ Bama Green Project attempts to educate fans around the world about steps toward sustainability, while his band travels in a biodiesel bus and eats locally to reduce its environmental impact. Credit: Marina Coelho, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Which current artists, bands and music festivals are leading lights when it comes to reducing their environmental footprints and spreading awareness about sustainability? — Jim Greenville, Brewster, NY

The music industry has indeed come under fire in recent years for the huge amount of plastic waste it generates at outdoor concerts and festivals each summer. The 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, for one, generated some 679 tons of waste over just four days. Aside from their irresponsible disposal after the fact, these single-use plastics are also fossil fuel-intensive to produce to begin with. But recent acknowledgement of this issue by the industry has resulted in actions by fans, bands and entire festivals.

Musician Jack Johnson has led the charge on this initiative, championing the elimination of disposable plastics on his tour, as well as partnering with several environmental groups to found the Sustainable Concerts Working Group. This organization created a blueprint for making tours more sustainable, listing actions to take by both the band and the fans. Their website has a long list of goals, followed by specific actions to achieve them — for example, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by switching to renewable energy sources, more efficient lighting and biofuel-powered transportation.

Many other musicians are also working to green up their industry. The Dave Matthews Band has taken significant steps to neutralize its environmental impact via its Bama Green Project, which educates fans around the world about paths toward sustainability. The band travels in a biodiesel tour bus and eats locally. Pop icon Adele has publicly championed the charity, Drop4Drop, which provides local, clean water to impoverished areas of the world. Rock band Phish founded the group WaterWheel in 1997 to focus on clean water and urban gardening. Meanwhile, U2 has worked closely with Greenpeace since the 1990s, helping them with protest campaigns from nuclear reprocessing in England to the destruction of forests in Russia. And punk rockers Green Day live up to their name by partnering with the Natural Resources defense Council (NRDC) to raise awareness about American dependence on foreign oil.

While individual musicians have found success in mitigating environmental impact, some have also taken larger-scale actions. Dave Matthews, Maroon 5, Willie Nelson, The Roots, Sheryl Crow and others founded the Green Music Group (GMG) in 2004 to help change the industry as a whole. The group has four core principles with which they hope to incur a paradigm shift: create a community of environmentally conscious musicians and fans; facilitate “large-scale greening” of the music industry through touring, development and public service campaigns; give environmental nonprofits a megaphone for their cause; and position musical leaders as voices for change. GMG has already made 80 major tours sustainable while reaching over 10 million fans in just over 10 years.

Music festivals are also starting to follow suit. Bonnaroo recently partnered with the Plastic Pollution Coalition to encourage attendees to bring their own reusable containers, rather than giving out thousands of plastic cups. The Outside Lands Music Festival only uses biodegradable containers. Other festivals have completely eliminated the use of plastics; instead offering discounted products in return for reusable stainless steel containers. With this trend gaining momentum every year, music fans around the world can be optimistic that the music industry will continue on this road to sustainability.

Contacts: Bonnaroo Festival,; Bama Green Project,; Drop4Drop,; Green Music Group,; WaterWheel Foundation,; Outside Lands Music Festival,

Ringling Bros
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has transitioned its remaining circus elephants to a Florida-based facility focused on conservation, care and research. Credit: Arthur T. LaBar, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Why did Ringling Brothers stop using elephants in its circus performances? — Marianne Lusko, Bern, NC

After enduring years of criticism from animal rights activists, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, announced in March 2015 that it would phase out the use of endangered Asian elephants in its circus performances within three years. Then, less than a year later, the company said it was expediting the process and would be retiring the 11 elephants still travelling for circus shows even earlier — by May 2016.

These last working circus pachyderms are now able to join 31 of their predecessors at the Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre elephant refuge in central Florida created by Ringling Bros. in 1995 to care for, conserve, breed and study Asian elephants.

“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” says Alana Feld, the company’s executive vice president. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

No doubt, part of the reason for that mood shift has been the advocacy work of groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — each which has campaigned tirelessly to halt the use of Asian elephants in America’s iconic circus act. Testimonials from former circus employees and photographic evidence provided by these groups helped convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fine Ringling Bros. $270,000 in 2011 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Some of the documented abuses include Ringling Bros. elephants getting whipped and beaten by trainers and “yanked by heavy, sharp steel-tipped bull hooks behind the scenes, prior to performing.” A PETA investigator who travelled with Ringling Bros. for several months documented many of the circus’ elephants swaying and rocking continuously “neurotic and abnormal behavior typically seen in animals who are suffering from extreme stress, frustration, and boredom.” Meanwhile, baby elephants were “torn away from their mothers and subjected to violent training sessions [to] learn how to perform tricks.” PETA adds that at least 30 elephants, including four babies, have died prematurely from accidents or disease while travelling with Ringling Bros. since 1992.

While circus fans will certainly miss the elephants’ presence in the ring heralding the opening of each show and performing synchronized dance routines, they’ll be glad to know that these lovable and endangered animals will no longer suffer abuse or be exploited for their entertainment value.

That said, Ringling Bros. does continue to use lions, tigers, zebras, llamas, goats, horses, camels and dogs in its circus performances — a fact that animal rights activists remain unhappy about. For its part, PETA wants Ringling Bros. to pull all of its animals from their performances immediately. “Tigers and lions spend most of their lives in cramped transport cages,” the group reports, adding that these and other animals travelling with the circus “are denied everything that is natural and important to them.”

Contacts: Ringling Bros.,; Center for Elephant Conservation,; PETA,; HSUS,; ASPCA,

Donald Trump
The U.S. can’t back out of the Paris climate accord for another four years, but that won’t stop Donald Trump, if elected President, from trying to undermine the nation’s ability to make good on its COP21 commitments. Credit: Gage Skidmore, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Why does Donald Trump think we should renegotiate the Paris climate agreement? And will he be able to pull it off if he does get elected president? — Betsy Edgewater, Dayton, OH

In a May 2016 interview with Reuters, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump dropped a bombshell on environmentalists: If elected, he would try to renegotiate the landmark Paris COP21 climate accord agreed to by 177 nations (including the U.S.) in December 2015. Calling the agreement “one-sided” and “bad for the United States,” Trump said he’s “not a big fan because other countries don’t adhere to it, and China doesn’t adhere to it, and China’s spewing into the atmosphere.” He added that if he takes the Oval Office, he would work to re-negotiate the emissions cuts agreed to by the U.S. at a minimum. “And at maximum, I may do something else.”

Environmentalists immediately jumped on Trump, long a climate naysayer. “This is another example of Trump’s dangerous lack of judgment and the very real impacts it could have for all of us,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the non-profit League of Conservation Voters. Billionaire environmental financier and NextGen Climate founder Tom Steyer concurred, called Trump’s denunciation of the Paris accord “short-sighted.” He worries that a Trump presidency would be “terribly costly” for the U.S. and would jeopardize the nation’s ability to lead the world out of its climate crisis. “We cannot go backwards on this important step towards a clean energy economy that benefits all our families,” said Steyer.

But try as he might, a President Trump would have a tough time backing out of U.S. commitments under the Paris accord. For starters, a clause in COP21 forces any signatory nations to wait at least four years before withdrawing, meaning Trump couldn’t even disentangle the U.S. until his second term if he even makes it that far. And according to U.S. chief climate envoy Jonathan Pershing, regardless of the outcome of our presidential election come November, the other signatory countries would remain bound to the terms of the agreement whether Trump likes it or not-so “renegotiating” isn’t really an option.

But Trump could undermine American emissions reduction goals set forth in the agreement by overturning the Obama administration’s domestic Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases from U.S. electrical power generation by a third relative to 2005 levels within 15 years — and is an essential component in the U.S. plan to dramatically scale back emissions.

Joe Romm of ThinkProgress adds that Trump could block the “ratcheting down” of climate targets in the future called for under the terms of the Paris agreement to ensure that participating nations don’t backslide after meeting initial commitments. “His threat to blow up the only process we have to avoid multiple irreversible catastrophic climate impacts must be taken as seriously as his candidacy,” says Romm.

Environmentalists’ best hope for keeping America’s COP21 commitments alive is to elect a Democrat to the White House in November. For her part, Hillary Clinton would not only abide by U.S. commitments made under COP21 but would rally to surpass them as soon as possible, vowing to cut emissions by up to 30 percent by 2025 and upwards of 80 percent by mid-century. “The United States must lead the global fight against climate change,” Clinton recently commented on the Q&A website Quora. “We can’t wait. There is no Planet B.”

Contacts: COP21,; NextGen Climate,; ThinkProgress,; Quora,

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