EarthTalk® | October 2019

This satellite image shows tens of thousands of fires currently burning across the Amazon basin of South America. Credit: Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the ramifications of these horrendous fires taking place now in the Amazon Rainforest? What can be done to stop the madness? — Jane W., Waterbury, CT

Fire isn’t new to the Amazon rainforest of South America, but it has certainly reached epic proportions this year. Some 26,000 different fires are now burning continuously throughout the region. Many of these blazes have been set intentionally by ranchers and farmers trying to (illegally) clear and use more and more land for raising cattle and crops.

These so-called “slash-and-burn” tactics reduce wildlife habitat and biodiversity accordingly while releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, only adding to our climate woes. Meanwhile, indigenous groups who depend on the rainforest for subsistence teeter on the brink of survival in the face of shrinking habitat.

Unfortunately, putting out most of these existing fires isn’t feasible; they’ll have to run their course. Environmentalists agree what we can do is prevent more land from burning in the future as one way of protecting the intact tropical rainforest that remains throughout the Amazon.

But how? For starters, by working on the ground in partnership with local indigenous communities on making their forests sustainable through tourism and responsible use without resorting to clearing/burning the land. One of the leaders in this new breed of rainforest activism is Niyanta Spelman and her group Rainforest Partnership, which currently has four different projects underway with the Achuar, Chipaota and Colibri indigenous communities of Peru and the Sani Isla community of Ecuador.

“When managed sustainably, ecotourism in the rainforest can help protect biodiverse ecosystems, provide reliable income to forest communities, and educate travelers about the importance of conservation,” says Spelman, who launched Rainforest Partnership in 2007 and has built it into one of the most impactful groups working in the region.

Meanwhile, other groups are focusing on converting farmers and ranchers over to more sustainable crops and practices. “Although the fires were set to clear space to occupy the land, a lot of the area is not used productively or is used mainly for land speculation,” reports the Nature Conservancy, another leading non-profit working on the ground in the Amazon and elsewhere to protect tropical rainforests. “There is already a considerable amount of land in the Amazon to increase production of food without deforestation.” The Nature Conservancy sees smarter use of land across the Amazon that’s already been converted to agriculture as one key way to stem the tide of rainforest loss and ultimately global warming.

As for what people can do, being more thoughtful about the foods we eat is a big step in the right direction. That hamburger meat you are eating might well come from cattle on a burned-over pasture in a former slice of the Amazon rainforest. That’ll give you pause when you are thinking about what to put in the shopping cart at the grocery store and what to order off of a restaurant menu. The shocking truth is that 80 percent of tropical rainforest destruction across the Amazon is fueled by beef production. So eating a more plant-based diet is a great way to help protect what’s left of the world’s tropical rainforests.

Contacts: Rainforest Partnership,; The Nature Conservancy,

Research shows that replacing or retrofitting dirty old diesel school buses can reduce the pollution inhaled by students significantly and can even lead to better health and higher standardized test scores. Credit: madame.furie, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that school buses cause a lot of pollution, especially for the kids riding inside. Is anyone making greener school buses yet? — Jake McConnell, Philadelphia, PA

Now that school is back in session, those big yellow diesel-fueled school buses are all over the roads again. While they’re relatively safe — and definitely old school — they’re also big polluters, chugging along at 4-6 miles to the gallon while creating a cloud of harmful airborne pollutants.

According to the non-profit Clean Air Trust (CAT), some 25 million American kids traveling on half-a-million school buses every day are exposed to five to 15 times more air toxins than the rest of us. “Those buses travel more than four billion miles each year and these kids spend three billion hours on [them],” reports the group.  “About 90 percent of these buses run on diesel fuel, annually emitting 3,000 tons of cancer-causing soot and 95,000 tons of smog-causing compounds.”

If you don’t think all that pollution is having a negative effect, think again. A March 2019 study from researchers at Georgia State University found that students did significantly better on standardized English tests and marginally better in math when they spent their commutes riding in school buses retrofitted to reduce emissions by 95 percent as compared to students riding in non-upgraded buses. The researchers conclude that “engine retrofits can have meaningful and cost-effective impacts on health and cognitive functioning.”

Luckily the retrofits are easy to come by and relatively inexpensive, especially when you factor in the costs of health care to treat sick kids, not to mention the price tag for raising kids’ test scores in other ways. Retrofitting 10 percent of the average school district’s bus fleet in Georgia, for instance, would cost less than $100,000, a drop in the bucket of the state’s $10.6 billion K-12 public schools budget.

And beginning in October 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set aside $9 million to help pay for upgrading older diesel school buses nationwide. School districts and other public agencies charged with transporting school kids can apply for rebates of up to $20,000 per bus to help cover the retrofits on up to 10 individual buses.

Retrofitting is a great start, but even better would be replacing old buses with new, more efficient all-electric models. But few school districts can justify the $300,000 price tag to replace perfectly functional older diesel buses. That didn’t stop the school district in White Plains, New York, though, which purchased five electric buses last year with financial help from the local utility, Consolidated Edison, and a grant from the state.

These outside contributions helped bring the final cost to the school district down to something along the lines of buying new diesel buses. While ConEd gets the benefit of good public relations and good karma, it also gets to use the buses during the summer as excess electricity storage that can be moved around to where it’s needed most (when the air conditioners are blazing). White Plains is hoping other school districts across the country will follow a similar model to clean up their acts.

Contacts: Clean Air Trust,; “School bus emissions, student health and academic performance,”!.

Harvard scientists with funding from Bill Gates want to launch some research balloons over the American Southwest to test their hypothesis that releasing dust into the stratosphere could counter global warming and keep our environment from overheating. Credit: SCoPEx.
Dear EarthTalk: Is the plan to sprinkle dust in the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun’s rays away from Earth to prevent global warming science or science fiction? — M. Jackson, Tampa, FL

Some certainly do consider it science fiction, or worry that it could end up doing more environmental harm than good. Yet others — including Bill Gates and a team of leading Harvard scientists — think it could be the solution to our planetary climate woes.

What we’re talking about is a form of geo-engineering that entails sending up some 800 jumbo planes to sprinkle their payload of millions of tons of chalk dust into the stratosphere 12 miles above the Earth’s surface in an effort to reflect some of the sun’s heat back into space to turn the tide on climate change.

The so-called Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) was developed by chemist James Anderson and physicist David Keith, both of Harvard — with funding from Bill Gates — “to advance understanding of stratospheric aerosols that could be relevant to solar geoengineering.” The researchers want to test their hypothesis with a $3 million experiment 12 miles above the Southwestern United States where they would steer remote controlled balloons to disperse small plumes of calcium carbonate.

The balloons would then turn around and observe any differences in the amount of solar radiation getting through. This system is adapted from a similar design the researchers used in groundbreaking research analyzing the composition of the stratospheric ozone layer.

But the test plan, initially slated for early 2019, has received some pushback from scientists and environmentalists, who worry that such tinkering could cause negative chain reactions and unforeseen irreversible consequences.

“Some researchers have suggested that solar geoengineering could alter precipitation patterns and even lead to more droughts in some regions,” reports Jeff Tollefson on “Others warn that one of the possible benefits of solar geoengineering — maintaining crop yields by protecting them from heat stress — might not come to pass.” He cites a 2018 study showing that yields of wheat, corn, rice and soy fell after two major volcanic eruptions darkened skies around the planet and took a toll on crop yields.

Given such concerns, Anderson and Keith are erring on the side of caution, setting up an external advisory committee to review the project and point out potential safety concerns to head off negative side effects. “Getting it done right is far more important than getting it done quickly,” says Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

If they can pull off a successful test and then scale the idea, the good news is it might even be something the governments of the world — and/or some rich benefactors — can afford. An October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that dispersing enough sulfur in the stratosphere with a similar (cooling) intent could be done for less than $10 billion/year — and possibly for as little as $1 billion/year. While that might seem like a lot, it’s a bargain if it can save our environment, our civilization, and our very existence on the planet.

Contacts: SCoPEx,; “First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth,”

The first American institution of higher learning to focus primarily on the relationship between humans and the environment, the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine became the first carbon-neutral college in 2007 and plans to be completely rid of fossil fuels on campus by 2030.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m going into my senior year in high school and am looking for a college focused on sustainability where I can major in environmental studies. Any ideas? — Mike Mitchell, Oakland, CA

Depending on how deeply you want to go into environmental studies, there are many colleges that could meet your green-minded learning needs. A great place to begin research is the Princeton Review’s annual “Guide to 399 Green Colleges.” The 9th annual version was released late last year and ranked the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine, as the nation’s greenest institution of higher learning. Completing the Top 15, in rank order: SUNY Syracuse, University of Vermont (UVM), Dickinson College, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Colorado State, Pitzer, Cornell, Randolph College, Stanford, UC Davis, Seattle University, Santa Clara University, American University and Goucher College.

In general, colleges made the top of the list if sustainability factored prominently in their academic offerings, campus policies, initiatives, activities and career preparation for students. Princeton Review tallied data from survey responses submitted by administrators at 648 different colleges during the 2017-2018 school year. Several of the survey questions drill down on the given school’s sustainability-related policies, practices and programs, weighting 25+ data points to create a “Green Rating” score on a scale of 60 to 99 for each college surveyed, with 399 colleges qualifying as “green” with overall scores of 80+.

It’s no surprise that COA, established in 1969 as the first American college to focus primarily on the relationship between humans and the environment, has topped the list for three years running. With only 350 students and 35 faculty members, small classes and focused learning are the norm at COA, which has been churning out environmental leaders for five decades. It became the first carbon-neutral college in 2007 and plans to be completely rid of fossil fuels on campus by 2030.

At the #2 school on the “green colleges” list, SUNY Syracuse’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, students and faculty work together on developing innovative solutions to environmental challenges and can focus on applying what they learn in internships reserved for them with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Next on the list, UVM has incorporated sustainability into campus policies and curricula for decades, but has recently shown renewed leadership with its Sustainable Entrepreneurship program and campus-wide commitment to waste reduction and energy conservation. UVM has been sourcing all of its energy from renewables since 2015, with solar panels all over campus to make the most of the fleeting Vermont sun.

Some other schools with excellent environmental studies and science programs include Antioch, Reed, Middlebury, Colby, Colorado College, Montana State, Evergreen State, Pomona, and the universities of Idaho, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In fact, today it might be harder to find a school with no regard for sustainability than otherwise, so you should find a college where you feel at home on campus and then make sure the academic programs line up with your own green perspective.

Contacts: Princeton Review’s “Guide to 399 Green Colleges,”; College of the Atlantic,; SUNY Syracuse’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry,; University of Vermont,

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