Dear EarthTalk: Now that his second term is winding down, what will President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy look like? — Mary Danson, Littleton, NH
The environment may not have been one of candidate Barack Obama’s signature issues in the run-up to the 2008 election; nonetheless, environmentalists were pleased that he won. The non-partisan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) gave Obama an 86 percent rating back then for his Congressional voting track record on bills related to the environment. (His Republican opponent, John McCain, scored a paltry 24 percent according to LCV’s standards.) But even though Obama was talking the talk on emissions reductions, clean energy and other hot button green issues, environmentalists worried that other higher priority concerns could distract the well-meaning young president from focusing on saving the planet.
But cut to the present eight years later, and a much grayer Obama has not only walked the green walk, but will go down in history as one of the greatest environmental presidents of all time. Chief among his sustainability-oriented accomplishments is steering the nation towards a future with fewer greenhouse emissions. One major step was pushing through the Clean Power Plan, calling on electric utilities to reduce their carbon emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels within 10 years. The plan, which will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, is a key part of Obama’s efforts to fight global warming. Obama worked hard to finalize the plan in plenty of time for other countries participating in international climate talks to make similarly strong commitments in time for the December 2015 Paris climate accord, when 194 countries signed on the dotted line volunteering significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
Another point of environmental pride for President Obama is his designation of 29 new national monuments protecting some 553 million acres of naturally and/or culturally significant land and waters. Key adds to the U.S. conservation docket under Obama include the 257 million offshore acres in the Pacific west of Hawaii, 1.8 million acres in the California desert, and most recently another 1.5 million acres across two desert tracts in Nevada and Utah.
Environmentalists were critical of Obama at the end of his first term for his lack of attention to conservation: The Obama White House at that point had protected far fewer acres than any of his four predecessors. George W. Bush set aside just under four million acres, Bill Clinton protected some 27 million, George H.W. Bush conserved almost 18 million, and Ronald Reagan protected 12.5 million. But Obama came on strong during his second term and now can boast protecting at least three times as much federal land and water from development as any previous president.
The Obama administration also made great strides on greasing the wheels of the clean energy transition by re-upping renewable energy financial incentives, rejecting the Keystone XL and DAPL pipeline projects, and establishing offshore drilling bans in the Arctic and Atlantic. But the $64,000 question remains: which of the environmental accomplishments of the last eight years will Donald Trump overturn. After all, Trump has stated his intent to overturn the Clean Power Plan, pull out of or ignore the Paris climate accord, gut the EPA, and open up significant amounts of federal land to oil and gas drilling. Only time will tell if Trump can tarnish Obama’s otherwise shining environmental track record.
Contacts: “A Historic Commitment to Protecting the Environment and Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change,” www.whitehouse.gov/the-record/climate; “Trump’s First 100 Days May Be Worst 100 Days for Environment,” www.emagazine.com/trumps-first-100-days-may-worst-100-days-environment/. Photo above: Barack Obama’s environmental accomplishments include helping broker the Paris climate accord, pushing through the Clean Power Plan, and adding upwards of 500 million acres to America’s conservation portfolio. Credit: Nick Knupffer, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What are environmentalists doing to prepare for a Trump presidency? — Robert Eckholm, Washington, DC
Many different interest groups are worried about what Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House will mean for their causes, but perhaps none are as concerned as environmental and climate activists. The new administration has vowed to gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cancel the carbon-busting Clean Power Plan, and pull out of the landmark Paris climate accord. And environmentalists are bracing for attempts by the new White House to lift off-shore oil and gas drilling moratoria and re-start the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects across the nation’s heartland.
In the face of these likely assaults, what are plans to counteract Trump’s anti-green moves? The Sierra Club kicked things off in December by projecting a huge image of rising seas and the words “Don’t Trump the planet” onto the side of the Trump Building on Wall Street in New York City. The group has attracted more donors in the weeks since Trump’s election than in the previous four years, and is focusing in the short term on derailing Scott Pruitt as Trump’s pick to head the EPA.
The Sierra Club has also kicked its Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign into high gear, given Trump’s hints that he would try to green light more oil and gas development projects. Sierra Club activists have helped organize and staff protest camps along the proposed route of the Sabal Trail Transmission, an oil and gas pipeline slated to cross through sensitive natural habitats in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
Meanwhile, 350.org, an advocacy group committed to building a global grassroots climate movement, has pledged to spend January fighting to derail Trump’s anti-environment cabinet picks. The group organized a “national day of action” on January 9, targeting key Senators who say they recognize the threat of climate change, but haven’t yet come out against Trump’s EPA nominee Scott Pruitt and other climate change deniers in the cabinet. 350.org is also delivering petitions to the Trump transition team signed by tens of thousands of Americans opposing Pruitt, as well as Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State nominee. Come spring, 350.org hopes to turn out 500,000 or more sympathizers at the People’s Climate Mobilization, a march on Washington, D.C., scheduled for April 29.
Another way activists are rallying support for the environment is by ramping up efforts to get universities across the country to divest from fossil fuel investments. The Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network recently organized student walkouts at college campuses across the country “to resist and reject the climate denial” of the incoming Trump administration.
Indeed, Trump’s very antipathy towards environmental regulations might be just the kind of spur needed to get people excited about environmental and climate activism. Let’s not forget that memberships, funding and influence swelled for green groups when another conservative Republican, George W. Bush, moved into the White House in 2000; groups like the Sierra Club leveraged this backlash to successfully lead the charge against the development of dozens of new emissions-spewing coal-fired power plants at the time, sparing the nation a huge carbon burden down the line. Activists hope to build on this type of strategy in leveraging the support of the vast majority of Americans for increased environmental protections and greenhouse gas emissions cuts to convince the Trump administration to do the right thing.
Contacts: Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org; 350.org, www.350.org; Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, www.studentsdivest.org.
Dear EarthTalk: What is vegan leather made from, and how does it compare with conventional leather in regard to environmental impact? — Katherine Sutton, Washington, DC
Leather is stylish, fashionable and wearable throughout the year, but its production takes a heavy toll on animal welfare and the environment. While many environmentalists and vegetarians swear off leather altogether, more and more are turning to vegan leather as a cruelty-free alternative. But even vegan (AKA synthetic) leather has its environmental problems, given the toxin-laden base materials it is typically made from and the harsh chemical tanning and dying processes it is subjected to in order to make it into the type of shiny, tough and stylish material we are have all grown to love.
Most vegan leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane. According to Andrew Dent of Material ConneXion, PVC is a respiratory irritant and known carcinogen. And when it is exposed to high heat or landfilled, it releases dioxins linked to developmental, reproductive and other health problems.
Meanwhile, polyurethane-based synthetic leather isn’t much better. Jody McCutcheon reports in eluxemagazine.com that off-gassing from polyurethane can cause lung irritation and trigger asthma attacks. And the solvents used to make it malleable like leather are highly toxic in their own right.
“When it does break down, vegan leather releases phthalates — initially added as a softening agent — which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere, causing breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects,” adds McCutcheon.
Of course, vegan or synthetic leather does have one huge environmental advantage over conventional leather: no animals are directly harmed in its production. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), most conventional leather comes from developing countries where animal welfare laws are either non-existent or unenforced. A PETA investigation in India found workers were breaking cows’ tails and rubbing chili peppers and tobacco into their eyes “in order to force them to stand, get up and walk after they collapse from exhaustion on the way to the slaughterhouse.”
Of course, plenty of conventional leather comes from domestic sources as well. PETA says that millions of cows and other animals are killed for their skin every year right here in the U.S., with many of them forced to endure the horrors of factory farming such as extreme crowding, castration, branding, tail-docking, dehorning and other forms of control. PETA adds that beyond its pollution burden, conventional leather also “shares responsibility for all the environmental destruction caused by the meat industry” including carbon emissions and the chemical agricultural inputs and waste of cropland to grow animal feed.
For the sake of both animals and the planet, stay clear of all leather, faux or real. Plenty of clothing brands are now embracing non-animal materials and cruelty-free sourcing while keeping up their fashion chops. One example is Olsenhaus, whose faux-suede microfiber fabrics are made from recycled television film, yet retain the softness, comfort and look of real suede. Another responsible choice is Dinamica, which makes its fabrics from 100 percent recycled PET bottles; the company’s eco-friendly suede look-alike material produces 60 percent fewer carbon emission than so-called virgin polyester. For more animal- and environment-friendly clothing and fabric options, check out PETA’s Cruelty-Free Shopping Guide.
Contacts: Material ConneXion, www.materialconnexion.com; Olsenhaus, www.olsenhaus.com; Dinamica, www.dinamicamiko.com; PETA, http://features.peta.org/cruelty-free-company-search.
Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways environmentalists are using social media to further their causes? — Sam Baskin, Tullahoma, TN
Environmental advocates and organizations have embraced the revolution in online networking in no small way to raise awareness about climate change and the need for conservation of wild lands and animals — and to generate support for specific campaigns and the green movement in general.
Perhaps the most immediate way social media help the cause is via the mountain-top selfie. For many of us, a trip into the wilderness isn’t complete without a public post to announce our whereabouts. At the University of Vermont, researchers are using geo-tagged photos on social media to study the use and relative popularity of different parks and even specific trails. New tracking capabilities of personal technology also record real time statistics that can be used as a crucial defense of public parks.
Social media has also been repurposed for environmental activism in several ways. Advocacy organizations are able to widely disseminate their messages through different social media platforms. By delivering their messages in a short, dynamic format, these groups are able to reach a wide consumer base. However, it’s difficult to assess the long-term engagement resulting from these messages.
Nevertheless, larger environmental groups have hundreds of thousands of online fans that drink up every post and call-to-action. For instance, the Sierra Club has some 625,000 “likes” on Facebook and more than 200,000 “followers” on Twitter. A number of environmental campaigns have used social media to apply key pressure on polluters, including the Greenpeace anti-Arctic drilling campaign. Groups have used disturbing videos and touching images alike to garner large-scale public support.
And social media isn’t just for the large, well-heeled groups. Individuals are using social media to similar ends, telling their stories and drumming up sympathy and support. Communities that are suffering particular environmental damages are able to tell their stories on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, helping to humanize the issues. For example, victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill posted about the environmental effects of the accident on Facebook and Twitter.
Social media platforms also effectively connect these stories to larger issues through the use of hashtags. This includes a recent movement nationwide to reach Donald Trump through his daughter, Ivanka, whom the President-elect stated he leans on for advice. The #DearIvanka campaign on Twitter allows individuals to raise their concerns about a number of proposed policy changes, including environmental deregulation and nominated officials. One such tweet read “@IvankaTrump Please work with your father to respect the environment. Our children’s future is at stake. #dearivanka #greenpeace.”
“Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all,” says Public Lab co-founder Shannon Dosemagen. “It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community.”
Contacts: “What’s Nature Worth: Count the Selfies,” http://bit.ly/2hxxqUa; #DearIvanka on Twitter, twitter.com/hashtag/dearivanka; Public Lab, www.publiclab.org.