Thawing Siberian permafrost could see anthrax and prehistoric diseases come back to life as temperatures warm rapidly

 and create a breeding ground for dormant spores, scientist claims

  • Thawing Siberian permafrost may release viral spores buried for 2,500 years  
  • Buried mass animal graves that died of the disease could unleash an epidemic
  • Anthrax spores can lie dormant until temperature rises to 15°C  
  • ‘Methane bombs’ found in the region further accelerate disease spread 

The coldest city on Earth may unleash vast prehistoric stores of anthrax and other ancient diseases as the permafrost trapping its deadly spores slowly thaws out thanks to global warming.

Yakutsk, in north-east Russia, is completely frozen for 12 months a year but is currently being subjected to soaring global temperatures.

It is also home to ancient permafrost which has entombed and trapped prehistoric animals such as the now extinct species of wild horses and woolly mammoths.

These animals may have died from anthrax and other hideous prehistoric diseases and some scientists fear these the spores may be lying dormant, waiting for warmer temperatures to melt the ice and release them into the 21st century.


A disease outbreak in 2016 killed thousands of reindeer and hundreds of people were hospitalised due to the ‘revival’ of ancient anthrax spores in the region.

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The city of Yakutsk pictured)  in the region of Yakutia in Siberia, known as the coldest city on earth where temperatures can reach below -60°C in the winter. It may be revealing its long-frozen secrets due to warming Arctic temperatures that could risk an epidemic being unleashed

The city of Yakutsk pictured)  in the region of Yakutia in Siberia, known as the coldest city on earth where temperatures can reach below -60°C in the winter. It may be revealing its long-frozen secrets due to warming Arctic temperatures that could risk an epidemic being unleashed

Around two-thirds of Russia is made up of permafrost – including almost all of the area known as Yakutia.

As permafrost continues to thaw, more ancient bacteria could be released. Permafrost is able to preserve for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly even a million.

Boris Kershengolts, a Yakutsk biologist told the Telegraph: ‘Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years. That’s scary given the thawing of animal burial grounds from the 19th century.

He added: ‘It would be a disaster not just for the Arctic.

‘The catastrophe could exceed Chernobyl.’

The ice in the Siberian region can be hundreds of feet deep and the top layer is known as the ‘active layer’ which freezes and refreezes throughout the year.

In recent years, researchers have found that this layer is not only thawing earlier in the year, it is also melting to greater depth, causing scientists to be concerned of potential collapses.

Increased snow precipitation experienced by most of the region in the last few decades also insulates the ground permafrost which is then a higher temperature than air temperature.

Current levels of permafrost shrinkage in the region is at the scale of up to two inches (5cm) a year.

The threat of epidemic is real, as a 2016 outbreak of Anthrax – the first outbreak for 70 years – in the Arctic in Yamal in Northwest Sibera was linked to thawing permafrost.

Scientists managed to isolate the Anthrax strains Bacillus anthracis and had independently isolated the strain in Yakutia in 2015, although no outbreak occurred there.

Scientists have compared a potential epidemic to being more 'catastrophic' than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Ancient Siberian permafrost burying mass animal graves and a former Anthrax lab in the coldest city on Earth Yakutsk, could throw up dormant viral spores if it continues to melt

Scientists have compared a potential epidemic to being more ‘catastrophic’ than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Ancient Siberian permafrost burying mass animal graves and a former Anthrax lab in the coldest city on Earth Yakutsk, could throw up dormant viral spores if it continues to melt


Anthrax is the name of the potentially-deadly disease caused by the spores of bacteria Bacillus anthracis.

As the disease can survive in harsh climates, Anthrax spores have been weaponised by at least five countries: Britain, Japan, the United States, Russia and Iraq.

The disease can be contracted by touching, inhaling or swallowing spores, which can lie dormant in water and soil for years.

It is most deadly, however, when the spores are inhaled, which is why the threat of a letter containing the disease is taken very seriously by authorities.

About 80 per cent of people who inhale the spores will die, in some cases even with immediate medical intervention.

Sources: NHS and US Centers for Disease Control

Thawing permafrost is worsened by the presence of so-called ‘methane bombs’ underground.

They release large volumes of the natural gases which speeds up the melting of the permanently frozen land.

This creates vast crater-like structures which can trigger explosions and release heat.

Methane contains 30 times more energy than carbon dioxide and is a key greenhouse gas.

Permafrost - ground that has been frozen for at least two years - covers 25 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, keeping ancient bacteria, viruses and carbon preserved and locked away, much like a freezer does. Pictured is a map of permafrost extent across Arctic region

Permafrost – ground that has been frozen for at least two years – covers 25 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, keeping ancient bacteria, viruses and carbon preserved and locked away, much like a freezer does. Pictured is a map of permafrost extent across Arctic region

'Methane bombs' found locally could further aggravate the problem with by accelerating temperature rises and therefore the spread of disease. After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. Pictured is a crater formed by a recent permafrost explosion in the Russian arctic

‘Methane bombs’ found locally could further aggravate the problem with by accelerating temperature rises and therefore the spread of disease. After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. Pictured is a crater formed by a recent permafrost explosion in the Russian arctic


Permafrost, mostly found in high-latitude regions like the Arctic, stores large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, which are released into the atmosphere if the soil melts and decomposes.

As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change.

But other threats posed by melting permafrost include:

  • Release of ancient microbes: In late August, an anthrax outbreak in Siberia caused 72 people to become sick, and killed a 12-year-old boy. This was because an anthrax-infected reindeer had thawed, releasing the bacteria.
  • Damaged landscapes and roads: When the ice in the permafrost thaws, the water runs off and the ground above can slump, deform, or fall apart. TheAlaska Dispatch News has reported that thawing permafrost is warping roads in Bethel, Alaska.
  • Loss of historical records: Thawing permaforst could also threaten natural historical records. For example, ‘Otzi’, a 5-300 year-old dead man found in the Alps, would not have been so well preserved if he had thawed.
As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change

As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change

How to save the Arctic’s moderating role on global warming

The Arctic plays a critical role in maintaining a safe and stable global climate, with its reflective sea ice that sends significant incoming solar radiation safely back to space and its permanently frozen tundra that secures ancient stores of carbon dioxide and methane.

But the Arctic is warming at twice the global average, threatening to break what may be the weakest link in the chain of climate protection. The amplified Arctic warming is causing the reflective sea ice to melt, exposing darker water that absorbs more incoming solar radiation. It also is causing permafrost to thaw, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Both processes are self-reinforcing feedback loops, in which initial warming feeds upon itself to cause still more warming. Feeding warming and making it stronger is not a strategy for success.

The recent UN Arctic report synthesizes existing research to show that even if climate emissions were halted today, Arctic warming would continue for at least two decades. This is due to past and present emissions and the return of heat stored in the ocean, where 90 percent of the warming we’ve caused ends up.  Of course emissions are continuing.

Fast mitigation at scale can still slow future Arctic warming, starting with immediate cuts to the short-lived climate pollutants—black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons. Cutting emissions of these short-lived pollutants immediately can reduce the rate of Arctic warming by up to two-thirds. Fast cuts to carbon dioxide also are important, but over the next two decades they will actually add warming. This is because co-emitted cooling aerosols from fossil fuels like coal wash out of the atmosphere in days to weeks and unmask existing warming, while much of the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years to continue causing warming.

Even with fast and dramatic cuts to short-lived pollutants, the race to save the safety functions of the Arctic will now be difficult. For starters, the Arctic is projected to become ice free in the summer months within 15 years, with an uncertainty range of plus or minus 10 years, so perhaps as soon at five years, or if we’re unusually lucky, perhaps 25 years. Losing the reflective ice shield will add tremendous warming to the Arctic, which will spread significant warming throughout the globe. The permafrost also is thawing, releasing more carbon dioxide and methane, a super climate pollutant 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the next two decades.

Because the Arctic’s role in regulating the global climate is a critical link in the chain of climate protection—and perhaps the weakest link—it should be the focus of an all-out effort to keep it strong and safe. This requires cutting emissions of short-lived pollutants, as California has shown the world how to do. It also requires speeding up strategies to remove carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, including natural processes that use photosynthesis to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in trees, grasslands, wetlands, and other biomass, while using the root systems to rebuild soil carbon. Other strategies for capturing and utilizing carbon dioxide in products are getting ready to move to commercial scale, meaning that costs would drop rapidly. Finally, we need a crash program to speed mechanical means of direct air capture of carbon dioxide, as many leading scientists and climate experts are advocating. With the need to remove up to a trillion (1,000 billion) tons of carbon dioxide over the century, this will be a whale of a market opportunity.

Can the world meet this challenge, even as global emissions are going up again after three years of no growth, and coal, the worst climate polluter, remains stubbornly near its historic level globally at 27 percent of the world’s energy mix, with projections that it will decline only slightly to 25 percent by 2023? Equally troubling, the US is now one of the leading producers of crude oil, rivaling both Russia and Saudi Arabia and on target by 2025 to produce as much as both combined. How much harder will it be for the United States to pursue a low-emissions climate policy, when it must wrestle with the growing geopolitical power related to such oil dominance?

The oil majors and their investors are predicting increasing demand for fossil fuel products over at least the next couple of decades, although their future is now threatened by growing carbon constraints, including lawsuits to make the oil majors pay for the climate pollution they’ve contributed for decades after they knew the risk their products were causing. Establishing the liability of the fossil fuel industry for climate impacts and making polluters pay for them would help remove the single biggest barrier to climate protection. But such a legal outcome is not enough to deal with the overall climate problem, nor is it guaranteed to occur.

The desperate race to maintain the Arctic’s stabilizing role in the global climate means we also need to put geoengineering squarely into the policy mix, and risk the hazards, moral or otherwise, this could present. We should start with “soft” geoengineering that can be scaled up and reversed if side effects become too troubling. One example is Ice911’s strategy to use silica-based glass microspheres to cover thin, first-year ice in the Arctic to enhance reflectivity and grow stronger multiyear ice. It’s working in small experiments, and could be scaled up quickly, with careful monitoring for side effects.

While riskier, another geoengineering strategy involves the introduction of  cooling particles into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation back to space, as observed following the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines. Solar geoengineering may be able to cut half the warming from a doubling of carbon dioxide, according to the results of an idealized model experiment that showed this could be done without exacerbating temperature, water availability, extreme temperature, or extreme precipitation in any region. Nevertheless, the threat that some regions could be harmed by this strategy will continue to cast a long shadow and make such a policy course challenging to enact. Such a strategy would be even more problematic if sulfate particles were used, as this would delay recovery of the stratospheric ozone layer.

Even so, we’ve reached the point where the risk of losing the Arctic’s ability to regulate the global climate appears greater than the risk of experimenting with geoengineering. It’s time to start learning what works best, while developing a strong governance system for geoengineering efforts.

Time is of the essence, and speed must become the new metric for measuring all climate strategies. We need to know how fast a given strategy can reduce warming in the near term, and go all out with the fastest. As General MacArthur said of the history of war, defeat can be summed up in two words: “Too late.”  We don’t want that to be the epitaph for our generation.


Momentum building on methane, Europe’s climate blind spot

In a new resolution on the European Union’s (EU) net-zero strategy, the European Parliament once again acknowledged the political urgency for legislation on what has, to date, been Europe’s climate blind spot: methane emissions. This vote on March 14, is the fourth significant development in the space of the last six months, raising expectations that the EU is finally embracing a major opportunity to better characterize emissions of methane and take action to unlock cost-effective mitigation.

Methane is a short-lived climate pollutant. Increases of methane in the atmosphere from human activity account for more than 25 percent of the warming we currently experience. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), over a 20 year period, methane has a global warming potential (GWP) up to 87 times higher than CO2. While methane breaks down in a decade, carbon dioxide sticks around for more than a century. To avert climate catastrophe in the near term and long term, we must reduce both.

The European Parliament also resolved to increase the EU’s ambition and cut the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030. As Europe moves to tighten overall limits on greenhouse gas emissions, the lack of a methane reduction strategy is a gap that must be resolved, as methane will heavily determine the rate of temperature rise over the next couple of decades. A recent EU Joint Research Centre study sets out the context for action on methane in Europe, emphasizing that methane, which contributes to local air pollution and planetary warming, is not even being adequately measured today. But in 2019, the European Commission joined with EDF, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the global companies participating in the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative to participate in a series of science studies meant to give a better understanding of Europe’s footprint on global methane emissions.

Momentum building on methane, Europe’s climate blind spotCLICK TO TWEETLatest Resolution

Although not legally binding, the new European Parliament resolution is the final climate resolution of the current mandate, meaning it will help raise expectations for the new Parliament taking office on July 1, 2019. Rapid policy development on methane emissions should be a top priority for the new Parliament and feature prominently in the questions for the incoming Commission’s parliamentary hearings in September 2019.

Global methane emissions from the oil and gas sector need to be on a rapidly declining pathway. As one of the world’s largest consumers of gas, Europe can and must play a significant role in driving action at a global scale. Fortunately, methane emissions from the oil and gas sector have been recognized as low hanging fruit, with the technologies and approaches to mitigating them well known and inexpensive.

A well-designed, well-timed EU policy would focus on opportunities within Europe, and address the need for enhanced global cooperation to set standards for imported oil and gas supplies. The current EU gas market design optimizes for competition, market efficiency and consumer prices but it does nothing to deliver on sustainability. The upcoming gas market reform offers one route by which a significant domestic source can be addressed. The picture becomes more complex when looking at paths that work to address methane emissions associated with imported gas. This would require rethinking some old ideas in the context of gas quality, security of supply and climate legislation as Europe is set to review compatibility of its policies with the Paris Agreement.

In the context of the EU’s ambitions to deliver a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions strategy, the higher the leakage the longer the disadvantage persists. Similarly, if we look at the climate impacts over the next 20 years and specifically methane emitted from cars that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) and the supply chain that produces and delivers this gas, we find that CNG vehicles are not cleaner than gasoline vehicles. According to data from the Science journal, we find that a CNG-powered car emits 115/80 kg CO2e20 per unit energy used compared to a gasoline car that emits 95/89 kg CO2e20 per unit energy used.

Momentum builds

As pressure builds to increase the pace and effectiveness of action on climate change, the new Parliament and Commission of the European Union have a great opportunity to unlock an area of action that has, hitherto been largely ignored. Environmental Defense Fund Europe stands ready to assist, designing studies that deliver improved data to characterize methane emissions and opportunities to reduce those emissions, influencing industry and the investment community to take the problem more seriously and engaging with policy makers and politicians to ensure that they use their positions to drive change. Rapid action to deliver a future without net greenhouse gas emissions is possible – we owe it to future generations and to ourselves to raise our game.

A missed chance for a radical rethink

A flawed report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment makes little contribution to the development of our climate policies, writes Rod Oram.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has produced a remarkably unbalanced report on our attempts to tackle climate change. On one hand he’s punishingly hard on fossil fuel emitters; on the other he’s complacently soft on agricultural emitters.

He’s wrong on both. Fossil fuel emitters need far more help and incentives to play their emissions reduction role than he suggests; and agricultural emitters will have to make a far bigger transition to radically different farming techniques, types of food and land use than he believes. Farmers need more help than the easy life in an ETS split between the two types of emissions, which he advocates.

He is also wrong to attempt to split fossil fuel emissions and biological emissions into two separately managed camps. Yes, there are significant differences between the two in terms of origins and climate impacts. But there are also great synergies to be achieved in an integrated system to tackle climate change. For example, new sources of clean energy adopted by urban New Zealand will help farmers; and new environmental management techniques they will have to pioneer will help urban New Zealand manage its ecosystems better.

He also makes a flawed case for reserving trees for offsetting farming emissions. He argues the two are connected because they are biological systems. But the trees only sequester the residual carbon dioxide left after agricultural methane breaks down. But in its short-life, methane is an immensely potent driver of climate change. Moreover, the trees don’t sequester nitrous oxide, the other powerful agricultural emission.

Therefore, to truly offset the climate impacts of farming’s methane and nitrous oxide, we would need to plant a prodigious volume of trees to absorb large volumes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions to give us the equivalent reduction in climate impact. But he’s opposed to that.

He is right, though, about two aspects of trees. They have a far shorter life than the carbon dioxide they sequester. Therefore, they are only a temporary and partial solution to reducing emissions while the world works on technologies for deep cuts in emissions and permanent sequestration; and blanket planting of short-lived tree species for harvesting, predominantly radiata pine, is damaging to ecosystems, landscapes and communities.

But again, we could better address those two issues in an integrated system, rather than the split one he advocates. For an in-depth description of his approach, please read this Newsroom article by Eloise Gibson, our environment and science editor.

When it comes to agriculture’s impact on the land and climate, Upton offers an important historic insight:

“While most attention is currently directed to agricultural greenhouse gases, land use change emerges as New Zealand’s biggest contribution to global warming. More than 3 billion tonnes of carbon have been shifted to the atmosphere from the land, largely as the result of forest clearance to make way for agriculture. The approximate scale of warming associated with these changes is estimated to be around seven times larger than our contribution of fossil emissions.”

Yet, he misses the current significance of agriculture’s impact on climate here and around the world. In aggregate through land use changes and emissions from artificial fertiliser use, raising of ruminant animals and cultivating rice paddies, agriculture is the biggest driver of climate change, bigger even than fossil fuel use.

For example, ruminant animals globally produce roughly one-third of anthropogenic methane emissions. Here in New Zealand biological methane from agriculture accounts for around 86 percent of New Zealand’s total methane emissions, and with nitrous oxide, nearly half our total emissions.

Evidence is accumulating rapidly that we need massive changes in current agricultural practices and the food they produce.

“Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature. This crisis is accelerating, stretching Earth to its limits, and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.”

So declared The Lancet’s editorial accompanying the study released earlier this year by its Commission on the global food system. The joint project by the British peer-reviewed medical journal and EAT, a Scandinavian NGO, involved 37 leading scientists across relevant disciplines from 16 countries. For full coverage, please read this column I wrote in February.

Such views are expressed by other leaders, such as Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, France’s candidate for the role of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, as Newsroom recently reported.

… he appears to have a one-dimensional view of farming and climate.

Upton, though, does not share the anxiety of such scientists. In his report, he writes: “If global diets change away from red meat and dairy products to diets based on crops and non-ruminant animals (e.g. chicken), this would result in lower biological emissions and may also reduce other environmental impacts. These are certainly things New Zealand farmers could consider, but it should be noted that New Zealand’s food production is largely driven by overseas food demand.”

Upton’s passive view of NZ farmers being market-led is at odds with his view that as “an agricultural leader, any action taken by New Zealand to mitigate biological emissions will be noted internationally.” And as “an acknowledged leader in both the measurement and management of biological sources and sinks, New Zealand cannot avoid taking a leading role in this debate.”

Moreover, he appears to have a one-dimensional view of farming and climate. “Climate is just one of a number of stressors that plague our landscapes. Water pollution, soil depletion, biodiversity loss and pest invasions are just some of the problems.” Yet, the big changes in farming systems needed to address climate change would also significantly help to heal those related ills too.

That understanding of the bigger, inter-dependent factors at work in farming on climate change and related issues is far more thoroughly explored by the Productivity Commission in its massive report on our transition to a low emissions economy, by Vivid Economics for GLOBE-NZ, the all-party group of backbench MPs, and by Jan Wright, Upton’s predecessor as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Upton only briefly summarises the emissions-reducing science and technology pathways opening up for farmers. He does not explore, as some of the above authors have, how these and other factors at home and aboard will significantly shift farming systems and land use here in the next few decades.

By ignoring such analysis, he significantly undercuts the case he makes for separating emissions from fossil fuels and biological emissions into two separate regimes. Where he does make a connection, he makes a serious error. He writes: “Farmers are also heavy users of fossil fuels when it comes to processing raw materials and moving commodities to market. So they would face the same fossil emissions prices for those activities as other fossil emitters.”

But as Fonterra, the largest single source of emissions by far in our economy, points out, emissions from its manufacturing, transport and distribution only account for 10 percent of its overall emissions. Moreover, it is reserving the right to still be building new coal fired plants in 2030. Those could have a life of up to 30 years.

Energy emissions on farm are minimal. The other 90 percent of Fonterra’s overall emissions are on farm from animals and artificial fertiliser. On those, Fonterra is only pledging to keep its methane levels unchanged by 2030. If its farmers achieve any reduction in methane per litre of milk a cow produces, it will put the gains to higher milk volumes.

In contrast, Upton offers little comfort to fossil fuel emitters: “For industries where fossil emissions may be hard to reduce because no realistic alternatives exist, a number of pragmatic industry-specific solutions could be explored. These include the continuing use of free allocations, access to international units and using some of the NZ ETS revenues for the research and development of low carbon technologies for these industries.”

Such an approach, though, would do little to deliver the steep reduction in such emissions Upton rightly argues for. Thus, his report will make only a minor contribution to the development of our climate policies. It won’t cause the radical rethink he is arguing for.

The Best Way to Fight Climate Change Comes From an Unlikely Place

Investors are pushing companies to reckon with their environmental impacts.

Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This story was originally published by High Country News. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Imagine a Walmart semi-truck rolling down the interstate with its back doors open, plasma-screen televisions tumbling out onto the highway, crashing through windshields and causing chaos. “It would be ridiculous,” said Jonas Kron, a senior vice president for Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm. Company ownership would demand better trucking practices, and the company would respond.

Methane leaking from oil and natural gas operations is the same sort of thing, Kron says—only on a multi-million dollar level that also contributes to climate change. That’s why his firm has pushed EOG Resources, the oil and gas company formerly known as Enron, to get a handle on their methane emissions.

Trillium’s efforts are part of a broader wave of concerned shareholders trying to use the tools of capitalism to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change. But as climate action gains traction, an unexpected corner of the Trump administration is threatening the efforts of Trillium and other environmentally aware investors and shareholders.

Investor resistance has a long history. During the Vietnam War, activist shareholders pushed Dow Chemical Company to stop producing napalm, throughout the 1980s investors pressured companies to divest in apartheid South Africa, and last year shareholders impelled McDonald’s to ditch polystyrene foam packaging and Costco to limit antibiotics in the meat it sells.

Investors typically rely on three approaches to drive change: the carrot, the stick and the ax. The carrot is a dialogue between shareholders and companies. For instance, if investors are worried that a company’s coal assets will diminish in value as other energy sources become cheaper and momentum for carbon-capping legislation increases, they can suggest ways the company can remain competitive.

If that doesn’t work, investors can turn to the metaphorical sticks—non-binding resolutions voted on at annual shareholder meetings pushing a company in a particular direction. Boston-based Trillium first used the stick on EOG in 2014, urging the company to monitor and mitigate methane leakage in its oil and gas operations, which range from southern Texas to North Dakota, and also extend around the world. Only 28 percent of shareholders voted for the resolution, but it got the ball rolling, and in late 2018 the company and Trillium reached an agreement on monitoring, reporting and mitigation programs for methane emissions.

That agreement occurred despite a major hurdle thrown up by the Trump administration last year, when, at EOG’s request, the Securities and Exchange Commission blocked Trillium’s resolution from going to a vote. Other such rulings followed. Last November, the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow filed resolutions pushing Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs to align their investments with Paris Climate Agreement benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Both banking institutions fund fossil fuel projects and received failing grades in a Rainforest Action Network survey of the climate impacts of the banking industry.

The corporations resisted and appealed to the SEC, which shut down resolutions on the grounds that shareholders were trying to micro-manage operations by forcing companies to adhere to climate change targets. “In the past the SEC has recognized that shareholders should be able to raise these important issues,” said Danielle Fugere, the president of As You Sow. And Obama-era SEC rulings allowed similar shareholder resolutions to go forward. But since Trump took office, the SEC has consistently ruled in the corporations’ favor. In February, ExxonMobil asked the SEC to nix a climate-oriented shareholder resolution, and a ruling is pending.

That could leave investors no choice but to pull out the ax: divestment. The divestment movement claims to have pulled more than $8.5 trillion out of fossil fuel companies. And even while Goldman Sachs seeks to avoid reckoning for its carbon impacts, company analysts cite the divestment movement as a reason for fossil fuel companies to reduce emissions.

From dismantling regulations to pushing oil and gas leases in previously protected habitat, the Trump administration has shown its allegiance to fossil fuel interests. By protecting corporate executives and boards from answering to investors for their climate impacts, the administration is making it as comfortable as possible for fossil fuel companies and their financiers to continue to sow climate chaos.

Nevertheless, as the EOG case demonstrates, even with the administration on their side, some corporations are bending to their shareholders’ will. Shareholder activism “isn’t the straw that is going to break the camel’s back,” when it comes to adapting to and mitigating climate change, said Kron. “But we’re trying to stack as many straws as possible on the camel.”

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

Climate action committee urges redirection of Irish agriculture

Agriculture sector, Ireland’s biggest, remains ‘largest emitter of greenhouse gases’

A dairy cow fixed with technology that collects and measures methane emissions grazes at Moorepark Teagasc food research centre in Fermoy, Co Cork. Photograph: Rachel Doyle

A dairy cow fixed with technology that collects and measures methane emissions grazes at Moorepark Teagasc food research centre in Fermoy, Co Cork. Photograph: Rachel Doyle

A fundamental redirection of Irish agriculture, including diversification away from heavy reliance on dairy and beef production, is among the recommendations of the all-party Committee on Climate Action report due to be published on Thursday.

The agriculture sector – Ireland’s biggest industry – remains “the largest emitter of greenhouse gases”, the report finds, while “Ireland cannot meet its international emissions targets without tackling agricultural sector emissions”.

A key aspect of successful efforts to reduce emissions associated with agriculture “will be land-use diversification”, it concludes. The committee accepts farmers will need support to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, “while ensuring they can make a living for their families”.

According to the latest draft of the report, diversification of the Irish farm system will require increased horticulture production, and should follow the UK approach, where there is “a move away from an overreliance on single modes of production”.

There is a need for a more diversified, resilient, sustainable and equitable model for Irish agriculture

This, it adds, will help adaptation to the effects of climate change. “Extreme weather events of the last 12 months (storms, snow, heatwave and drought) illustrate the vulnerability of the sector to climate change and highlight the need for adaptation.”

Furthermore, it accepts “there is a growing global trend, supported by advice in recent scientific studies, towards a more plant-based diet. The trend towards more plant-based diets represents a commercial opportunity which Irish horticulture should avail of in the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon food system.”

Underlying what’s envisaged, it adds: “There is a need for a more diversified, resilient, sustainable and equitable model for Irish agriculture. This must now form the central component of a long-term strategy development for Irish agriculture moving forward.”

National plan

The Government has agreed to take on board the committee’s recommendations in its own plan to be published next month, and it will feed into the National Energy and Climate Plan to be submitted to Brusselsby the of 2019.

The committee, chaired by Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton, endorses all 28 measures contained in “a mitigation pathway” produced by Teagasc, which it says should be adopted by the Government in an implementation plan with the Department of the Taoiseach playing a lead role.

It notes that while carbon efficiency has improved based on per head of cattle, milk production, due to expansion in the dairy sector, had led to an 8 per cent increase in emissions between 2012 and 2016.

It also highlights risks associated with increased specialisation in beef and dairy farming “which has the highest climate impact via methane emissions”.

“There are currently ambitious targets aimed at adding value in the sector under FoodWise 2025. Exports are expected to reach €19 billion, which without diversification of the sector will inevitably drive higher levels of ruminant-based production and place GHG emissions on a continued upward trajectory, even with improved efficiency gains,” it adds.

The committee agrees a national review of land use “would be extremely useful in understanding of how to optimise planning”.

It does not agree, however, to proceeding with a carbon tax on farmers, as had been recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly, with revenues reinvested to ensure adoption of climate-friendly farming – though it recommends evaluation of how it might apply in the future.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on climate action Timmy Dooley confirmed the significance of what is set to be achieved on agriculture on an all-party basis. He said the sector recognised the need for significant change “and they are up for it”. While Teagasc had done good work on how to respond to the emissions issue, the transition for the sector would be challenging.

There was no point in applying a carbon tax specifically on farming activity unless alternatives were in place, he added.

What had been agreed was a comprehensive agreement on better land use; expansion of renewable energy in farming including deployment of anaerobic digesters, improved use of afforestation and a rewetting of bogs to capture carbon. These, in his view, amounted to “big actions” underpinned by an immediate implementation timeframe.

Worsening Algae Blooms Could Significantly Increase Global Methane Emissions

Water flowing into a eutrophic lake from agricultural fields.

Water flowing into a eutrophic lake from agricultural fields. JOHN A. DOWNING/MINNESOTA SEA GRANT

Population growth and climate change over the next century will lead to a major rise in the number and severity of algae blooms in the world’s lakes, increasing global methane emissions by 30 to 90 percent, according to a new study led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined the impacts of global population growth (an estimated 50 percent by 2100), climate change-induced flooding and runoff, and rising global temperatures on nutrient levels in the world’s lakes. It found that the extra sewage, fertilizers, and other nutrients entering waterways will increase the eutrophication of the world’s lakes by as much as 200 percent by 2050, then double or quadruple by 2100.

“It is really surprising how much eutrophication could increase in the next 50 to 100 years,” John Downing of the University of Minnesota Sea Grant program, a co-author of the new study, said in a statement. “People do four important things that affect eutrophication: they eat, they excrete, they make more people who eat and excrete, and they alter landscapes and climate.”

Eutrophication — or excess nutrient levels — causes dense algae blooms to form, which can ruin drinking water supplies and create hypoxic “dead zones” that suffocate marine life. These algae blooms are also a major source of global methane emissions — a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. An estimated two-thirds of Lake Erie’s 130,000 kilograms of methane emitted daily during summer months, for example, is the result of algae blooms.

“Currently, the single largest source of atmospheric methane is wetlands,” saidTonya DelSontro of the University of Geneva, a co-author of the new study. “If the phosphorus in lakes triples, then methane emissions from lakes could be twice that of wetlands.”

Sorry, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but “farting cows” aren’t the problem

Flickr / Dimitri Rodriguez

The proposed language in the Green New Deal got this wrong. Will it be corrected?


Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the legislator behind the Green New Deal, wants to take away our hamburgers. At least, that’s what a vocal group of Republican politicians would have you believe.

The congresswoman’s vision for environmental reform, they say, amounts to a de facto ban on beef. Rather than engaging the public on the finer points of the non-binding resolution, which she co-introduced with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey on February 7, these critics are appealing to our stomachs, and conjuring an America under gustatory austerity, a nation where we can’t eat what we want.

These claims are political theater. And yet, in recent weeks, AOC has backed down from an inflammatory talking point about cow farts, and their role in climate change. Now, an outspoken member of the scientific community says he had an impact behind the scenes, and the politician’s public stance on ruminant flatulence has evolved out of deference to the facts.

How did we get here?

It started with the release of a fact sheet outlining the much-debated resolution’s key points. Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez’s office released the document, her office said it was a draft published by mistake, and retracted it. By then, she was already getting dragged for some of its proposals. That very public resistance has only increased over the last month.

If you don’t hear about cow farts anymore from AOC, it may not be because of GOP criticism.

Some of the fact sheet’s most controversial language, it turned out, wasn’t about planet-warming carbon dioxide—the kind released when fossil fuels like gasoline, coal, and oil are burned—but methane, specifically the kind that comes from animal digestion. The since-deleted document proposed a goal of taking America carbon-neutral in ten years, noting that a more aggressive timeline isn’t possible because “we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.”

That particular line set off a firestorm from the right. President Trump interpreted it to mean that Americans wouldn’t be able to “own cows anymore.” Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said it meant goodbye “to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches.” Then AOC went on TV and defended it.

As it turns out, neither side was accurate. Republicans are likely to continue linking Green New Deal priorities to a supposed hamburger ban. But if you don’t hear about cow farts anymore from AOC, it may not be because of GOP criticism. Frank Mitloehner, an animal scientist and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, insists cattle flatulence isn’t the problem it’s made out to be, and says he helped set the record straight.

Here’s what seems to have happened. On February 4, shortly before Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, she was speaking to school children in Queens, New York. When one asked how they could “combat” climate change, Ocasio-Cortez offered two practical options—stop using disposable razors, and skip meat and dairy for one meal.

Mitloehner tweeted at her.

“Dear @AOC: we all try to help the climate,” he wrote. “However, the two options you offered have low impacts compared to the 800lb gorilla, which is to reduce fossil fuel use. About ⅔ of greenhouse gas emissions in the US stem from transport and energy prod&use. Meat/milk = 4 % of total GHG,” referring to findings in a recent EPA report.

“I give her team a lot of credit for reaching out.”

Mitloehner says his tweet got the attention of the think tank that advisesOcasio-Cortez on climate policy. Last month, he says, he was contacted by Anna Scanlon, who runs outreach at New Consensus, a policy group that helped write the Green New Deal for the congresswoman’s office.

Why were they reaching out to him? Because the non-binding resolution calls for removing as many greenhouse gas emissions from the farm sector, which represent 9 percent of those total emissions in America, “as is technologically feasible.” Mitloehner, who studies how cattle emissions contribute to air quality, is well-liked by the meat industry, and has a knack for disarming fervent right-wingers, would seem a good source of information.

“I give her team a lot of credit for reaching out,” Mitloehner says. “If we really are serious about making a difference in carbon emissions, you cannot do this without agriculture involved.”

He says he was dismayed to see Ocasio-Cortez blaming “cow farts” for greenhouse gas emissions. Technically, she’s right: As cattle digest food, they release nitrous oxide and ammonia in their manure, gases that have planet-warming potential. But the more abundant greenhouse gas, methane, comes out mostly through their burps, which makes them a more significant driver of climate change. None of this is funny to Mitloehner, by the way, whose research involves putting cows in air-tight tents to measure the content of their “eruptions.”

Mitloehner claims that after his tweet, Ocasio-Cortez removed “all mentions” of cow farts from social media. I couldn’t find any such posts from her about said cows, and neither the congresswoman’s office, nor New Consensus, returned requests for comment. It is true, however, that the much-maligned fact sheet, and the line about “farting cows,” has disappeared. Briefly, its language was changed to “emissions from cows,” but that too was deleted. Mitloehner says Ocasio-Cortez’s policy team told him the reference was “pretty much a mistake” that was quickly remedied.

“Farting cows,” Mitloehner says, trivializes what’s otherwise a very serious issue

“I’m not saying that it was me who caused that,” he says. “But if it wasn’t me, then it was a coincidence that happened right after my communication with them.”

Specificity is important, Mitloehner insists. Being able to tell our farts from our burps, and our burps from our fossil fuels, is the first step to mitigating the effects from all of them. And wrapping that all up in “farting cows,” he says, trivializes what’s otherwise a very serious issue.

Other animal scientists, including Jason Rowntree, a forage expert at Michigan State University, share that point of view. He says the fixation around cow farts is “juvenile,” and “dumbs down the conversation from a scientific perspective.” He’s also of the perspective that cattle grazing has environmental benefits which are overshadowed by the issue of methane emissions.

“In the United States, when you look at different sources of methane, a much greater amount is actually coming from industries other than agriculture,” he says. “But because everything’s on the table, people look at every emission. And that’s how the cattle component has gotten in the crosshairs, so to speak.”

Beyond that discussion of how, exactly, enteric emissions work, Mitloehner hardly considers the Green New Deal a revolution, or a moonshot. There’s already a version of it in California—a scoping planthat requires, among other changes, a 40-percent reduction of methane and soot by 2030. He disagrees with it, methodologically, saying he’s not convinced that emissions are being adequately measured today, and therefore, that it’s premature to establish targets. But philosophically, he’s on board. Reducing “short-lived” gasses, such as methane, has an immediate effects on global temperature.

If all Americans adopted vegan diets, it would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 2.6 percent.

In California, dealing with those gasses as they’re belched by cattle, and to a lesser degree, coming out the other end—mostly in the form of their manure—has been a challenge. To push larger-scale change, Mitloehner says, he doesn’t suggest shrinking the industry. Rather he wants to see technological solutions implemented, like experimental feed additives that reduce methane emissions, and anaerobic digesters, which transform manure into biogas. In Germany, there are 9,000 such digesters. California, by contrast, has “maybe two dozen.”

“Obviously, Germany has a different public policy around renewable energy,” he says.

Mitloehner complimented Ocasio-Cortez’s policy team for being engaged during a half-hour conversation about those solutions, and for having evident knowledge of some of those technological fixes, like seaweed being fed to cows to reduce methane content. That doesn’t mean, however, that they saw eye-to-eye on everything. When it comes to eating less red meat, for example, Mitloehner does concede that it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But only by a very small amount. A recent study, for example, showed that if the United States completely shifted away from animal farming, and all Americans went on a vegan diet, the move would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 2.6 percent.

As crazy it sounded, I still had to ask him. Were the critics right? Were they onto something? Based on his conversation with the policy team, did he really think AOC was coming to take away your hamburgers?

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” Mitloehner says. “I’ve talked to the people she works with. And they were very reasonable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a study modeled the environmental impact of 20 million Americans going on a vegan diet. In fact, it modeled the impact of all Americans on the diet. We regret the error.

It Turns Out Lab-Grown Meat Causes Global Warming Too

global warming

Global warming alarmists insist that we must drastically reduce or eliminate the eating of meat because, well, food-animal flatulence is destroying the planet, don’t you know.

But getting billions of people to stop eating beef isn’t very realistic, so some have put their hopes in lab-grown steaks made from stem cells. Oh no! That could be worse! From the BBC story:

“Per tonne emitted, methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide. However, it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide persists and accumulates for millennia,” said co-author Prof Raymond Pierrehumbert.

“This means methane’s impact on long-term warming is not cumulative and is impacted greatly if emissions increase or decrease over time.”

The scientists’ climate model found that in some circumstance and over the very long term, the manufacture of lab meat can result in more warming. This is because the emissions from the lab are related to the production of energy which is almost entirely made up of carbon dioxide, which persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Hand-wringing. Everywhere you look, there is hand-wringing.

At least manufacturing meat will improve water pollution, right? Not necessarily:

Yes, the authors say that a number of other factors should be considered including water pollution that cultured meat may avoid. But other experts say that isn’t so clear cut.

“Artificial meat may result in the presence of organic or chemical molecule residues in water, because the process would need to produce huge amounts of chemical and organic molecules, such as hormones, growth factors, to add to the culture medium to grow the meat” said Prof Jean-Francois Hocquette, at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, who wasn’t involved with the study.

Good grief. Do you ever get the feeling that important sectors of society spend most of their time chasing their own tails? The bottom line as I see it: If you don’t like this study, wait a few months and another will be published offering different conclusions.

The intellectual effort expended in this investigation was a waste of time and energy. The cultured meat industry will grow or fail because of consumer satisfaction issues such as taste, texture, safety, and price, not due to terror about global warming.

Photo: A “hamburger” prepared from artificial “meat,” by World Economic Forum [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

BP lobbied Trump administration to roll back key Obama era climate rules

An investigation by Unearthed has revealed that the oil and gas major BP successfully lobbied the Trump administration to roll back key climate regulations preventing methane emissions, despite claiming publicly to support the Paris Agreement. Both directly and through influential trade associations, BP first opposed and then helped reverse rules that would have restricted the deliberate venting and flaring of methane on federal lands, and also that would have required more frequent equipment inspections to detect methane leaks. At least 1.7m tonnes of methane could be released into the atmosphere over the next seven years as a result of the rollbacks, says Unearthed, equivalent to 58m tonnes of CO2. In public, BP “has portrayed itself as an energy major at the forefront of a global campaign to reduce methane emissions from operations to combat climate change”, notes the Financial Times. While not responding directly to Unearthed, a BP spokesperson tells the FT that the company has “consistently advocated for regulation of methane emissions by one federal agency — the Environmental Protection Agency — rather than an inefficient patchwork of different federal or state agencies”. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that BP is set to launch a new “very low sulphur fuel oil” ahead of a ban on more polluting fuels for the shipping industry that comes into force next year.

In other US news, Reuters reports that the White House is proposing eliminating a tax credit worth up to $7,500 (~£5,700) on the purchase of new electric vehicles. In its proposed “budget for a better America”, the Office of Management and Budget says the move would save the US government $2.5bn over a decade. The 2020 budget also proposes a 31% cut for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reports the Hill, a 13% cut for the National Science Foundation and a 2.3% cut for Nasa, reports the Washington Post. The budget aims to cut domestic spending by 5% overall, notes another piece in the Hill. In a statement, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler says: “This common sense budget proposal would support the agency as it continues to work with states, tribes and local governments to protect human health and the environment.” The proposed budget is “highly unlikely to become law”, says Reuters, after it was “immediately panned by Democrats”