DATE: July 12, 2021
SNIP: The calls flooded into Blue Mountain Wildlife first thing in the morning Monday, June 28 — dozens of baby hawks, desperate to escape the blast of early summer heat, bailed from their nests and plummeted to the ground.
Calls poured in day after day as temperatures pushed beyond 110 degrees across Eastern Oregon. In her 30 years as director of the wildlife rehabilitation center outside of Pendleton, Lynn Tompkins had not seen anything like it.
“They had no choice,” Tompkins, 68, told the East Oregonian. “It was just too bloody hot to survive.”
In all, the center took in nearly 50 nestling Swainson’s and Cooper’s hawks after they leaped from their nests in the extreme heat wave that baked the Pacific Northwest last week. Thirteen of the raptors suffered injuries severe enough they had to be euthanized.
“We knew the temperature was going to spike beforehand, and we assumed we might get a few more calls,” said Trisha Marquez, a volunteer who fielded the calls and who is Tompkins’ niece. “But we did not expect this at all.”
Blue Mountain Wildlife lodged 157 more birds compared to the same day last year. The influx was more than the small staff could handle. They hardly had the space to put them all, and eventually, they asked people to turn on their sprinklers and hoses and set out pans of water for less-injured birds to cool themselves down.
Tompkins said they will typically see a few injured birds who display this sort of behavior in heat waves around July or August. But this year, with the heat arriving earlier and surging higher, it caught the babies right in their nesting period.
“The conditions were just right, or wrong,” Tompkins said, adding, “When your normal body temperature is like 100, and it’s 115, you have no way of moderating the temperature except for getting out of there.”
Birds die across PNW amid heat wave
The birds came from across the region, including Southeastern Washington, as wildlife center’s facility in the Tri-Cities took in more than 70, Tompkins said.
And it’s not just happening here. A rehabilitation center in Delta, British Columbia, saw a similar uptick amid the heat wave last week. The center has about 140 more birds than last year at this time, and many babies that flung themselves from their nests didn’t make it, a Vancouver news station reported.
In Seattle, state officials began monitoring a colony of Caspian terns last week after dozens of premature seabirds fled their rooftop nests as temperatures reached 108 degrees. Too young to fly, they fell to their death.
Marquez said events such as the heat wave can have a population-wide effect.
“Usually, rehabbers make a difference for one bird at a time,” Marquez said. “Overall, we can have an impact, but this is a whole generation of a species of bird.”
A growing body of research from experts around the world suggests as the planet warms due to climate change, species will disappear at an accelerating rate. Some studies suggest the planet has entered its sixth mass extinction of wildlife.
An analysis by scientists from prominent universities across the world, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020, found more than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and likely will die off within 20 years. That will have a domino effect, the research shows, with interdependent species dying one after another, causing extinction rates to accelerate.
SOURCE: Los Angeles Times
DATE: July 11, 2021
SNIP: Lake Mead, a lifeline for 25 million people and millions of acres of farmland in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, made history when it was engineered 85 years ago, capturing trillions of gallons of river water and ushering in the growth of the modern West.
But after years of an unrelenting drought that has quickly accelerated amid record temperatures and lower snowpack melt, the lake is set to mark another, more dire turning point. Next month, the federal government expects to declare its first-ever shortage on the lake, triggering cuts to water delivered to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico on Jan. 1. If the lake, currently at 1,068 feet, drops 28 more feet by next year, the spigot of water to California will start to tighten in 2023.
The crisis, said Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Conservation District, can no longer be ignored. “According to Merriam-Webster, a drought is a temporary condition,” he said. What is happening, he suggested, is something more permanent and troubling. “This is aridification.”
As fires sweep over large swaths of the West and scorching temperatures fry others, the scarcity of water is a less visible but perhaps the most pressing consequence of climate change confronting the states that depend on Lake Mead.
Lake Mead and the Colorado River are created from melted snow that flows into La Poudre Pass in the Rocky Mountains. Seven Western states — California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona — as well as 29 tribes and Mexico depend on the water from the river. Each has signed successive treaties stating how much they receive from the river and dams, with the current agreements expiring in 2025.
Concerns over Lake Mead’s water levels came as negotiators met in Denver last month to take a preliminary step toward a four-year process to update operating rules and allocations for the reservoirs along the river.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river system, drought in Lake Mead is far from an emergency. Yet, the water level is nowhere near what it was a year ago. Having dropped 1.4 million acre-feet from April 2020 to April 2021 and 886,000 acre-feet since then, Lake Mead’s losses show no sign of slowing down.
But to many experts, it’s a make-or-break moment in the history of a river that has been for decades over-allocated, with less water available than is needed. What’s at stake for Lake Mead is a recreation area that draws more than 8 million visitors a year and generates $336 million annually.
While computer modeling helps water managers anticipate future shortages that could affect water supply and tourism, there is a gap in the understanding, said Kuhn, the former head of the Colorado River Conservation District. Predicting increased temperatures is easy — over the last century the West has heated up by nearly 2 degrees — but understanding how high temperature affects precipitation is less certain.
The monsoon rains that typically hit the Southwest during the summer never materialized last year. In Colorado, drier soil from higher-than-typical temperatures and lower air moisture has led to less melted snow draining into rivers and streams. As a result of the drought in Northern California, Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District is drawing down its reserves with water taken from the Colorado River, which will continue to flow uninterrupted through 2022.
But what comes next?
DATE: July 9, 2021
SNIP: In 2009, the European Union (EU) pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, urging its member states to shift from fossil fuels to renewables. In its Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the EU classified biomass as a renewable energy source — on par with wind and solar power. As a result, the directive prompted state governments to incentivize energy providers to burn biomass instead of coal — and drove up demand for wood.
So much so that the American South emerged as Europe’s primary source of biomass imports.
Earlier this year, the EU was celebrated in headlines across the world when renewable energy surpassed the use of fossil fuels on the continent for the first time in history.
But scientists and experts say it’s too early to celebrate, arguing that relying on biomass for energy has a punishing impact not only on the environment, but also on marginalized communities — perpetuating decades of environmental racism in predominantly Black communities like Northampton County, where Macklin and his family have lived for generations.
To say cutting down trees and burning them for power is a renewable energy source feels counterintuitive and, in reality, it is.
Burning wood is less efficient than burning coal and releases far more carbon into the atmosphere, according to almost 800 scientists who wrote a 2018 letter to the European parliament, pushing members to amend the current directive “to avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change.” President Joe Biden and other world leaders received a similar letter from hundreds of climate scientists earlier this year.
The EU directive that encouraged the pivot to biomass also left a loophole — it did not prevent the leveling of rooted trees for wood pellet production.
“I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them,” said William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.
Yet by burning wood, European power plants can reduce their carbon footprint — at least on paper.
In 1996, scientists at the United Nations devised a method to measure global carbon emissions. To simplify the process and avoid double counting, they suggested emissions from burning biomass should be calculated where the trees are cut down, not where the wood pellets are burned.
The EU adopted this methodology in its Renewable Energy Directive, allowing energy companies to burn biomass produced in the US without having to report the emissions.
The accounting method — which was never intended to assign national responsibility for carbon emissions, according to climate experts — has created a lot of discussion and disagreement among advocates, scientists and policymakers. But ultimately it is not the accounting of carbon that is the problem, it’s the emissions.
“It doesn’t change the physical reality,” said Tim Searchinger, senior research scholar at Princeton University. “A law designed to reduce emissions that in reality encourages an increase in emissions … has to be flawed,” he said, referring to Europe’s directive.
Ultimately, Europe is not reducing emissions by burning American trees — it’s just outsourcing them to the United States.
“The idea was to curb our addiction to fossil fuels,” said Bas Eickhout, Dutch politician and member of the European Parliament. Biomass was an attractive option for EU countries at the time, he explained, because it was much cheaper than solar or wind power and could be “mixed in” when burning coal.
However, European decision-makers didn’t fully consider the repercussions of importing biomass, Eickhout said, adding they “were too naïve.”
“The production of biomass has become an industrial process which means something has gone fundamentally wrong,” he said. “The professionalization of the biomass industry is a problem that needs attention.”
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: July 8, 2021
SNIP: More than 1 billion marine animals along Canada’s Pacific coast are likely to have died from last week’s record heatwave, experts warn, highlighting the vulnerability of ecosystems unaccustomed to extreme temperatures.
The “heat dome” that settled over western Canada and the north-western US for five days pushed temperatures in communities along the coast to 40C (104F) – shattering longstanding records and offering little respite for days.
The intense and unrelenting heat is believed to have killed as many as 500 people in the province of British Columbia and contributed to the hundreds of wildfires currently burning across the province.
But experts fear it also had a devastating impact on marine life.
Christopher Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, has calculated that more than a billion marine animals may have been killed by the unusual heat.
A walk along a Vancouver-area beach highlighted the magnitude of devastation brought on by the heatwave, he said.
“The shore doesn’t usually crunch when you walk on it. But there were so many empty mussel shells lying everywhere that you just couldn’t avoid stepping on dead animals while walking around,” he said.
Harley was struck by the smell of rotting mussels, many of which were in effect cooked by the abnormally warm water. Snails, sea stars and clams were decaying in the shallow water. “It was an overpowering, visceral experience,” he said.
While the air around Vancouver hovered around the high 30s (about 100F), Harley and a student used infrared cameras to record temperatures above 50C (122F) along the rocky shore.
Mussels are hardy shellfish, tolerating temperatures into the high 30s. Barnacles are even sturdier, surviving the mid-40s (about 113F) for at least a few hours.
“But when the temperatures get above that, those are just unsurvivable conditions,” he said.
The mass death of shellfish would temporarily affect water quality because mussels and clams help filter the sea, Harley said, keeping it clear enough that sunlight reaches the eelgrass beds while also creating habitats for other species.
“You can fit thousands on to an area the size of a stove top. And there are hundreds of kilometres of rocky beach that are hospitable to mussels. Each time you scale up, the numbers just keep getting bigger and bigger. And that’s just mussels. A lot of sea life would have died.”
While mussels can regenerate over a period of two years, a number of starfish and clams live for decades, and they reproduce more slowly, so their recovery is probably going to take longer.
Harley has also received reports from colleagues of dead sea anemones, rock fish and oysters.
Another heatwave is expected to strike the western United States and south-western Canada in the coming week, highlighting the relentlessness of the dry summer heat.
DATE: June 23, 2021
SNIP: When the first tile in a line of dominoes tips forward, it affects everything in front of it. One after another, lined-up dominoes knock into each other and topple. This is essentially what could happen to ice sheets, ocean currents and even the Amazon biome if critical tipping points are crossed, according to a new risk analysis. The destabilization of one element could impact the others, creating a domino effect of drastic changes that could move the Earth into an unfamiliar state — one potentially dangerous to the future of humanity and nature as we know it.
The study, published this month in Earth System Dynamics, examines the interactions between five subsystems that are known to have vital thresholds, or tipping points, that could trigger irreversible changes. They include the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Amazon Rainforest.
Scientists believe the AMOC could reach its critical threshold when warming temperatures weaken the current enough to substantially slow it, halt it, or redirect it, which could plunge parts of the northern hemisphere into a period of record cold, even as global warming continues elsewhere. Likewise, the Antarctic ice sheet may reach its irreversible threshold when warming temperatures trigger a state of constant ice loss, which could ultimately result in a 4-meter (13-foot) rise in global sea levels over the coming centuries. In fact, it’s suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have already passed its critical threshold, and that ice loss is unstoppable now.
These individual tipping points are largely being driven by human-caused climate change, which is considered to be one of nine planetary boundaries — scientifically identified limits on change to vital Earth systems that currently regulate and sustain life. Overshooting those boundaries could lead to new natural paradigms catastrophic for humanity. Climate change has its own threshold of 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, which is the amount that scientists say the atmosphere can safely hold, but this threshold was already passed in 1988. In 2021, CO2 exceeded 417 ppm, which is 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.
To conduct this new study, the research team used a conceptual modeling process to analyze the interactions between these five Earth subsystems. What they found was that more than a third of these elements showed “tipping cascades” even before temperatures reached 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, which is the upper limit of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. At present, almost no nation on Earth is on target to meet its Paris carbon reduction goals.
Significantly, the study also found that the interactions between the tipping elements could lower critical temperature thresholds, essentially allowing tipping cascades to occur earlier than anticipated. Additionally, the researchers found that the Greenland Ice Sheet would function as an initiator of tipping cascades, while the AMOC would act as a transmitter that would push further changes, including dieback of the Amazon. Most of these tipping elements have been projected to have a destabilizing effect on each other, with the exception of the weakening of the AMOC, which could actually make the North Atlantic region colder and help stabilize the Greenland Ice Sheet.
“We found that the overall interactions tend to make [things] worse, so to say, and tend to be destabilizing,” lead author Nico Wunderling, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told Mongabay.
“The important takeaway message from this study is that the cascading causal interactions between four different climate tipping elements lower the ‘safe’ temperature level at which the risk of triggering tipping points is minimized,” Lenton told Mongabay in an email. “In fact the study suggests that below 2C of global warming (above pre-industrial) — i.e. in the Paris agreement target range — there could still be a significant risk of triggering cascading climate tipping points.”
DATE: June 22, 2021
SNIP: Climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades, even if humans can tame planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, according to a landmark draft report from the UN’s climate science advisors obtained by AFP.
Species extinction, more widespread disease, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas — these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30.
The choices societies make now will determine whether our species thrives or simply survives as the 21st century unfolds, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says in a draft report seen exclusively by AFP.
But dangerous thresholds are closer than once thought, and dire consequences stemming from decades of unbridled carbon pollution are unavoidable in the short term.
“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own,” the report says.
By far the most comprehensive catalogue ever assembled of how climate change is upending our world, the report reads like a 4,000-page indictment of humanity’s stewardship of the planet.
But the document, designed to influence critical policy decisions, is not scheduled for release until February 2022 — too late for crunch UN summits this year on climate, biodiversity and food systems, some scientists say.
In response to AFP’s reporting, the IPCC released a statement saying it “does not comment on the contents of draft reports while work is still ongoing”.
– Allies into enemies –
The draft report comes at a time of global “eco-awakening” and serves as a reality check against a slew of ill-defined net-zero promises by governments and corporations worldwide.
The challenges it highlights are systemic, woven into the very fabric of daily life.
They are also deeply unfair: those least responsible for global warming will suffer disproportionately, the report makes clear.
And it shows that even as we spew record amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we are undermining the capacity of forests and oceans to absorb them, turning our greatest natural allies in the fight against warming into enemies.
It warns that previous major climate shocks dramatically altered the environment and wiped out most species, raising the question of whether humanity is sowing the seeds of its own demise.
– ‘Irreversible consequences’ –
There are at least four main takeaways in the draft report, which may be subject to minor changes in the coming months as the IPCC shifts its focus to a key executive summary for policymakers.
The first is that with 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming clocked so far, the climate is already changing.
A decade ago, scientists believed that limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above mid-19th century levels would be enough to safeguard our future.
That goal is enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, adopted by nearly 200 nations who vowed to collectively cap warming at “well below” two degrees Celsius — and 1.5 degrees if possible.
On current trends, we’re heading for three degrees Celsius at best.
Earlier models predicted we were not likely to see Earth-altering climate change before 2100.
But the UN draft report says that prolonged warming even beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius could produce “progressively serious, centuries’ long and, in some cases, irreversible consequences”.
Last month, the World Meteorological Organization projected a 40 percent chance that Earth will cross the 1.5-degree threshold for at least one year by 2026.
For some plants and animals, it could be too late.
“Even at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, conditions will change beyond many organisms’ ability to adapt,” the report notes.
Coral reefs — ecosystems on which half a billion people depend — are one example.
Indigenous populations in the Arctic face cultural extinction as the environment upon which their livelihoods and history are built melts beneath their snow shoes.
A warming world has also increased the length of fire seasons, doubled potential burnable areas, and contributed to food systems losses.
– Get ready –
The world must face up to this reality and prepare for the onslaught — a second major takeaway of the report.
“Current levels of adaptation will be inadequate to respond to future climate risks,” it cautions.
Mid-century projections — even under an optimistic scenario of two degrees Celsius of warming — make this an understatement.
Tens of millions more people are likely to face chronic hunger by 2050, and 130 million more could experience extreme poverty within a decade if inequality is allowed to deepen.
In 2050, coastal cities on the “frontline” of the climate crisis will see hundreds of millions of people at risk from floods and increasingly frequent storm surges made more deadly by rising seas.
Some 350 million more people living in urban areas will be exposed to water scarcity from severe droughts at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming — 410 million at two degrees Celsius.
That extra half-a-degree will also mean 420 million more people exposed to extreme and potentially lethal heatwaves.
“Adaptation costs for Africa are projected to increase by tens of billions of dollars per year with warming greater than two degrees,” the report cautions.
– Point of no return –
Thirdly, the report outlines the danger of compound and cascading impacts, along with point-of-no-return thresholds in the climate system known as tipping points, which scientists have barely begun to measure and understand.
A dozen temperature trip wires have now been identified in the climate system for irreversible and potentially catastrophic change.
Recent research has shown that warming of two degrees Celsius could push the melting of ice sheets atop Greenland and the West Antarctic — with enough frozen water to lift oceans 13 metres (43 feet) — past a point of no return.
Other tipping points could see the Amazon basin morph from tropical forest to savannah, and billions of tonnes of carbon leech from Siberia’s permafrost, fuelling further warming.
In the more immediate future, some regions — eastern Brazil, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, central China — and coastlines almost everywhere could be battered by multiple climate calamities at once: drought, heatwaves, cyclones, wildfires, flooding.
But global warming impacts are also amplified by all the other ways that humanity has shattered Earth’s equilibrium.
These include “losses of habitat and resilience, over-exploitation, water extraction, pollution, invasive non-native species and dispersal of pests and diseases,” the report says.
– ‘Transformational change’ –
There is very little good news in the report, but the IPCC stresses that much can be done to avoid worst-case scenarios and prepare for impacts that can no longer be averted, the final takeaway.
Conservation and restoration of so-called blue carbon ecosystems — kelp and mangrove forests, for example — enhance carbon stocks and protect against storm surges, as well as providing wildlife habitats, coastal livelihoods and food security.
Transitioning to more plant-based diets could also reduce food-related emissions as much as 70 percent by 2050.
But simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it, the report warns.
“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” it says.
“We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: June 17, 2021
SNIP: The Earth is trapping nearly twice as much heat as it did in 2005, according to new research, described as an “unprecedented” increase amid the climate crisis.
Scientists from Nasa, the US space agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), reported in a new study that Earth’s “energy imbalance approximately doubled” from 2005 to 2019. The increase was described as “alarming”.
“Energy imbalance” refers to the difference between how much of the Sun’s “radiative energy” is absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere and surface, compared to how much “thermal infrared radiation” bounces back into space.
“A positive energy imbalance means the Earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up,” Nasa said in a statement about this study.
Upticks in greenhouse gas emissions keep heat in Earth’s atmosphere, trapping radiation that would otherwise move into space. This warming spurs other changes, including ice and snow melt. An increase in water vapor, and changes to clouds, could further exacerbate this warming, Nasa said.
The study found that this doubling is the result, in part, by an increase in greenhouse gases and water vapor, as well as decreases in clouds and ice.
[T]his research provides only a glimpse in relation to longterm climate change, and, according to Nasa, that “it’s not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for the balance of Earth’s energy budget”.
The study did determine that unless the rate of heat uptake slows, greater shifts in climate should be expected.
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: June 15, 2021
SNIP: Toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” are widely used in cosmetics produced by major brands in the US and Canada, a new study that tested for the chemicals in hundreds of products found.
The peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, detected what the study’s authors characterized as “high” levels of organic fluorine, an indicator of PFAS, in over half of 231 makeup and personal care samples. That includes lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush, nail polish and more.
The products that most frequently contain high levels of fluorine include waterproof mascara (82% of brands tested), foundations (63%) and liquid lipstick (62%).
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 9,000 compounds used to make products such as food packaging, clothing and carpeting water and stain resistant. They are often dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and have been found to accumulate in humans.
The chemicals are linked at certain levels to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption, and a range of other serious health problems.
Researchers were surprised by the high number of products that contain the dangerous chemical, said Tom Bruton, a senior scientist with Green Science Policy Institute and one of the study’s authors.
“This is the first study to look at total fluorine or PFAS in cosmetics so we just didn’t know what we were going to find,” he said. “This is a product that people are spreading on their skin day after day, so there’s really a potential for significant exposure.”
Products that were checked for individual PFAS compounds contained between four and 13 types in each. The study’s authors tested cosmetics made by dozens of brands, including L’Oréal, Ulta, Mac, Cover Girl, Clinique, Maybelline, Smashbox, Nars, Estée Lauder and more.
However, the study didn’t reveal which brands use the toxic chemicals because the authors said they did not want to “pick on” the companies involved. The Guardian could not ask companies for comment because it is unclear which use PFAS.
The chemicals, which are highly mobile and easily move through the environment and humans, can be absorbed through the skin, absorbed by tear ducts or ingested. Green Science Policy Institute notes that people who wear lipstick can accidentally ingest several pounds of the product throughout their lives.
Companies often do not list PFAS on their labels when they use the chemicals, making them nearly impossible for consumers to avoid, Bruton said. Regulatory agencies often allow companies to claim PFAS as a trade secret; however, the study found fluorine was often present in products advertised as “wear-resistant”, “long-lasting” and “waterproof”.
Bruton said cosmetic industry literature reviewed by the study’s authors indicated that PFAS were commonly used in cosmetics to make products waterproof, more durable and easier to spread.
DATE: June 11, 2021
SNIP: Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose for a third consecutive month in May, preliminary government data showed on Friday, with President Jair Bolsonaro yet to follow through on his April pledge to boost funding for environmental enforcement.
Deforestation soared 67% in May from the same month last year, according to Brazil’s national space research institute Inpe, with much of the land targeted for cattle ranches, farms and logging.
For the first five months of the year, the data show deforestation was up 25% compared with a year earlier, with 2,548 square km destroyed – an area more than three times the size of New York City.
Deforestation peaks during the dry season from May to October, when it is easier for illegal loggers to access the forest.
Bolsonaro pledged at an Earth Day summit in April to double funding for environmental enforcement. The next day, he signed the 2021 federal budget that slashed environmental spending.
DATE: June 11, 2021
SNIP: Next week, dozens of teachers from North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, and Iowa will descend on Bismarck State College in North Dakota for the annual three-day Lignite Energy Council Teacher’s Seminar.
There, according to materials posted on the seminar’s website, they’ll hear presentations and panel discussions on coal’s history, geology, mining and reclamation, as well as hearing about the “career opportunities, environmental challenges, transmission and research and development topics.” The seminar, which has been held each June since 1986 (canceled only last year due to the pandemic) is run by the Lignite Energy Council, a regional trade association whose mission statement is to “protect, maintain and enhance development of our region’s abundant lignite resource”—referring to lignite coal, the least energy-dense type of coal.
Run at no cost to educators, the seminar is part of a larger program to convince teachers and kids that coal is “vitally important” and that includes worksheets for kids that identify carbon dioxide as “vital to plant life.” The entire program may also be partially funded by out-of-state ratepayers from utilities that tout their renewable energy goals.
If you’re a huge coal fan, the seminar sounds pretty dope. Teachers don’t have to pay anything to attend, a nice perk in an era of tight school budgets. Before the pandemic, the seminar featured tours of “mining operations, reclamation sites and coal conversion facilities.” According to an informational video, teachers are given a number of free goodies, including an actual piece of coal as well as ash samples (wow!) and educational materials and lesson plans “to take back to their classroom.” Many of these educational materials are available on the LEC website; among them is an “Energy and CO2 Management” study guide with several misleading facts that paint carbon dioxide as good, actually, and a terrifying “Captain Coal” coloring sheet.
In a video produced by LEC geared towards younger viewers that kind of makes me want a lobotomy, two kids start casually chatting about the lignite coal industry, as all normal elementary school kids do. One of them is really into her new coal-themed phone game; her reluctant friend (or perhaps sibling?) starts asking her questions about her new passion.
“My cousin says that coal creates pollution and wrecks the environment,” the sulky kid on the sofa says.
“That’s wrong,” his sister declares, adding that she “learned in class” that emissions from coal-based energy have decreased. “The power plants that burn coal to make electricity work really hard and spend a lot of money to make it a clean fuel.” (LEC did not answer several of our questions as of press time, including if any independent scientists had reviewed the educational materials they pass out to teachers at the seminar.)
Coal’s ties to schools run deep. Local taxes on coal mines in North Dakota and other states help directly fund schools in the area, and we’re now seeing some disastrous results as the coal market implodes. In Wyoming, a K-12 education system that relies heavily on taxes from coal production is facing serious budget cuts as demand for coal drops and mines close.