‘Ecocide’ movement pushes for a new international crime: Environmental destruction

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/ecocide-movement-pushes-new-international-crime-environmental-destruction-n1263142

A growing number of world leaders advocate making ecocide a crime before the International Criminal Court, to serve as a “moral line” for the planet.

Image: Photo illustration of Deepwater Horizon, Amazon fires, city pollution, ocean oil spill and refinery exhaust.

As rainforests burn and ice sheets melt, criminalizing ecocide could serve as a deterrent for companies and governments that harm the environment, advocates say. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty ImagesApril 7, 2021, 2:00 AM PDTBy Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News, Katie Surma, Inside Climate News and Yuliya Talmazan

This article was published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is part of “The Fifth Crime,” a series on ecocide.

In 1948, after Nazi Germany exterminated millions of Jews and other minorities during World War II, the United Nations adopted a convention establishing a new crime so heinous it demanded collective action. Genocide, the nations declared, was “condemned by the civilized world” and justified intervention in the affairs of sovereign states.

Now, a small but growing number of world leaders including Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron have begun citing an offense they say poses a similar threat to humanity and remains beyond the reach of international criminal law: ecocide, or widespread destruction of the environment.

The pope describes ecocide as “the massive contamination of air, land and water,” or “any action capable of producing an ecological disaster,” and has proposed making it a sin for Roman Catholics.

The Pontiff has also endorsed a campaign by environmental activists and legal scholars to make ecocide the fifth crime before the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a legal deterrent to the kinds of far-reaching environmental damage that are driving mass extinction, ecological collapse and climate change. The monumental step, which faces a long road of global debate, would mean political leaders and corporate executives could face charges and imprisonment for “ecocidal” acts.

To make their case, advocates point to the Amazon, where fires raged out of control in 2019, and where the rainforest may now be so degraded it is spewing more climate-warming gases than it draws in. At the poles, human activity is thawing a frozen Arctic and destabilizing the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

2019: Worldwide pleas to save the Amazon as fires devastate rainforest

AUG. 22, 201901:15

Across the globe, climate change is disrupting the reliable seasonal rhythms that have sustained human life for millennia, while hurricanes, floods and other climate-driven disasters have forced more than 10 million people from their homes in the last six months. Fossil fuel pollution has killed 9 million people annually in recent years, according to a study in Environmental Research, more than tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS combined.

One in 4 mammals are threatened with extinction. For amphibians, it’s 4 in 10.

Damage to nature has become so extensive and widespread around the world that many environmentalists speak of ecocide to describe numerous environmentally devastated hot spots:

  • Chernobyl, the Ukrainian nuclear plant that exploded in 1986 and left the now-deserted area dangerously radioactive;
  • The tar sands of northern Canada, where toxic waste pits and strip mines have replaced 400 square miles of boreal forest and boglands;
  • The Gulf of Mexico, site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people, spilled at least 168 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean over 87 days and killed countless marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and migratory birds;
  • The Amazon, where rapid deforestation encouraged by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro prompted Joe Biden, during his presidential campaign, to propose a $20 billion rescue plan and threaten the Brazilian leader with economic sanctions.

The campaign to criminalize ecocide is now moving from the fringe of advocacy into global diplomacy, pushed by a growing recognition among advocates and many political leaders that climate change and environmental causes are tied inherently to human rights and social justice.

The effort remains a long shot and is at least years from fruition, international and environmental law experts say. Advocates will have to navigate political tensions over whether national governments or the international community have ultimate control over natural resources. And they’ll likely face opposition from countries with high carbon emissions and deep ties to industrial development.

The environmentalists must also figure out how criminal law would address climate change, which has been driven by practices like burning coal and gasoline that are not only legal, but central to the global economy.by TaboolaSponsored StoriesBOMBAS8 Things That Make Bombas the Best Socks in the History of FeetMICROSOFTBring your desktop to life with beautiful wallpapers

Image: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010.Gerald Herbert / AP file

The campaign to make ecocide a crime, however, is about more than law. Jojo Mehta, who launched the Stop Ecocide campaign in 2017 with Polly Higgins, a Scottish lawyer who died in 2019, describes it as a moral and practical issue as well.

“We use criminal law to draw moral lines,” Mehta said. “We say something’s not accepted, your murder is not acceptable. And so, simply putting mass damage and destruction of nature below that red line actually makes a huge difference, and it will make a difference to the people that are financing what is going on.”

Scott W. Badenoch Jr., an American environmental lawyer who favors the criminalization of ecocide, used the term to describe the state, and fate, of the Earth.

“Ecocide is now endemic all over the planet,” he said. “The structures of ecology that have held up living organisms on Earth, since time immemorial, are collapsing everywhere.” He added, “Ecocide is now, frankly, the process that we are living in on Earth.”The fifth crime

The concept of ecocide was born of tragedy. Over a period of 10 years, the United States government sprayed 19 million gallons of powerful herbicides, including Agent Orange, across the countryside in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to expose enemy sanctuaries during the Vietnam War.

The dioxin-laced chemicals defoliated verdant jungle and caused cancers, neurological disease and birth defects in people living nearby. While the number of victims is disputed, Vietnamese groups claim there are more than 3 million. In 1970, Yale biologist Arthur Galston invoked the destruction to call on the world to outlaw what he called “ecocide.”

Image: Chu Thanh Nhan, 12, in an empty classroom at a rehabilitation center in Danang, Vietnam, in 2012.
Chu Thanh Nhan, 12, in an empty classroom at a rehabilitation center in Danang, Vietnam, in 2012. The children at the rehabilitation center were born with physical and mental disabilities that the center says were caused by their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange.Maika Elan / AP file

More than 20 years later, the global community came together to form the International Criminal Court, which was formally established in 2002 under a treaty called the Rome Statute to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes when its member countries, which currently number 123, fail to do so themselves.

Early drafts of the Rome Statute included the crime of environmental destruction, but it was removed after opposition from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, based on various concerns, including that it wasn’t precisely defined. Instead, it was relegated to a wartime offense that has never been enforced.

As a result, international criminal law includes few guardrails to prevent peacetime environmental destruction.

“There’s a big gap and something needs to fill it,” said Badenoch, a visiting attorney at the Environmental Law Institute.

“We currently cannot hold big corporations or big governments accountable for ecocide,” Badenoch added. “So, what do you do? We name and shame — that’s all we’ve got.”

Decades of oil extraction in Nigeria by subsidiaries of Royal Dutch Shell, for example, have contaminated the air, ground and water in parts of the country with benzene and other toxic pollutants, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Civil lawsuits have taken years to wind through European courts, and no laws were strong enough to prevent the damage from happening, though Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was recently ordered by a Dutch court to compensate Nigerian farmers.

Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, pointed to a corporate report that says many of the spills have come as a result of sabotage and theft, and that the company has been working with stakeholders to clean up the pollution identified by the U.N. Environment Program.

Image: Children play on an abandoned oil flow station near smoke from a burning oil pipe in Kegbara-Dere, Nigeria, in 2007.
Children play on an abandoned oil flow station near smoke from a burning oil pipe in Kegbara-Dere, Nigeria, in 2007.George Osodi / AP file

The International Criminal Court’s supranational authority would make an ecocide crime particularly powerful, said Kate Mackintosh, executive director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the University of California Los Angeles.

An ecocide crime would require International Criminal Court members to enact their own national ecocide laws, and failure to enforce those laws would enable the international court to step in. While political leaders and warlords have been the usual targets of the court, an ecocide crime could place business executives on notice, too.

“That could make a difference in corporate boardroom conversations,” Mackintosh said. Even the threat of being labeled an international criminal, she said, might deter destructive corporate behavior. “I mean, for PR, it doesn’t look good, does it?”

Mackintosh said making ecocide a crime could help in weak states, where corporate polluters are sometimes more powerful than national governments. “The likelihood of any criminal prosecution taking place in that state is pretty low,” she said. “But with an international crime, that’s actually not a bar.”

China, the United States, India and Russia — four of the world’s top polluters — are not members of the International Criminal Court, but if a corporation based in one of those countries were to operate within a member state, as many of them do, their executives could fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

The push to criminalize ecocide remained on the periphery until December 2019, when Vanuatu and the Maldives, two island nations threatened by rising seas and climate change-driven extreme weather, recommended that the court consider amending its statute to “criminalize acts that amount to ecocide.”

“Our legacy and our future are at stake,” Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union, John Licht, told the court, stressing a “common bond” that united all the world’s people. “Our lives are intertwined by the environment we live in.”https://f045e8e836c1ea6329561e4fe466554b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Image: Children play on Eton Beach in Efate, Vanuatu, in 2019.
Children play on Eton Beach in Efate, Vanuatu, in 2019. Satellite data show sea levels have risen about 6 millimeters per year in Vanuatu since 1993, a rate nearly twice the global average.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Willy Missack, who has served as part of Vanuatu’s delegation to the United Nations climate negotiations, said diplomats from other countries expressed shock when “little tiny Vanuatu” — a remote archipelago of more than 80 islands in the South Pacific — said it wanted to take on global powers and the fossil fuel industry through the courts. But the fact that corporations can continue to profit from carbon emissions that are threatening his country’s future, Missack said, makes the legal case clear.

“It is not right,” he said, “and this is where justice comes in.”Defining ecocide

After Vanuatu asked the International Criminal Court to consider criminalizing ecocide, Mehta’s Stop Ecocide Foundation independently convened a panel of international legal experts, including Mackintosh of UCLA, to draft a clear definition of ecocide. They plan to publish their definition in June, at which point they hope at least one of the court’s member nations will formally propose that the court adopt ecocide as the fifth international crime against peace. Mehta has said the definition would likely require “willful disregard” of environmental destruction related to practices like widespread logging, drilling, mining and deep-sea trawling.

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Richard J. Rogers, a British expert in international criminal law who is a partner at Global Diligence and a member of the drafting panel, said it may be relatively straightforward to criminalize certain acts, like destruction of a forest or waterway.

But climate change poses a greater challenge: Not only is it difficult to connect polluters to specific harms, he said, but there’s also nothing illegal about extracting or burning fossil fuels.

“The situation we’re dealing with is that the carbon system, which has fueled our economies since the Industrial Revolution, has not only been lawful, but it’s been encouraged,” Rogers said.

Another point that the drafters will have to grapple with is whether the crime of ecocide should require prosecutors to prove that humans have been harmed. Mackintosh said that while this “human harm” threshold could prove appealing politically — the court’s existing crimes all largely involve harm to humans — focusing ecocide only on the environment could make it easier for prosecutors to prove, especially when it comes to harms related to climate change, which are often incremental and indirect.

Image: Oil flows into a tailings pond at a tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada in 2014.
Oil flows into a tailings pond at a tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada, in 2014.Todd Korol / Reuters file

If a nation agrees to introduce the ecocide proposal to the International Criminal Court for consideration, that is when even harder work will begin. Ratification is a multistep process that would require support from either two-thirds or seven-eighths of the court’s members, depending on the type of amendment introduced. (Vanuatu still supports the campaign, but Covid-19 and the country’s “limited resources for international diplomacy” have put its ecocide advocacy on hold, said Dreli Solomon, a spokesman for Vanuatu’s embassy in Brussels.)

While no country has committed to formally proposing that the court adopt ecocide, the campaign is gaining traction, fueled by the youth-led climate movement and radical new groups like Extinction Rebellion.

In December, Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès asked International Criminal Court member states to examine the possibility of adopting ecocide as a crime. A member of Belgium’s Parliament has also proposed a bill to criminalize ecocide. And French lawmakers are working on legislation to make ecocide an offense punishable by fines and prison, though Stop Ecocide criticized the bill as “weak.”

At least 10 countries have national ecocide laws already, including Vietnam, which enacted the law in 1990.

Separately, French lawyers in January filed a request on behalf of Amazonian indigenous groups asking the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro of Brazil for crimes against humanity.

The appeal alleges that deforestation encouraged by Bolsonaro’s government and other policies have forced indigenous people from their homes and even led to murders in the region.

While the request relies on citations of crimes the court already addresses, the lawyers who submitted it have said the case is also an example of ecocide.

The Brazilian Embassy in Washington said in a statement that “the Bolsonaro administration is taking concrete action to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples and ensure the future of the Amazon.”

The embassy said that over 70 percent of the eligible Indigenous population has received initial Covid-19 vaccinations and that deforestation rates in the Amazon were 21 percent lower from August to January , compared to the same period a year earlier.

Badenoch said that while the hurdles to adopting a new international crime are high, they are not insurmountable.

“These things take a long time and they are complex,” he said. “But they can be done.”Into the mainstream

While the campaign for an ecocide law could take years — if it is successful at all — advocates say the effort could bear fruit much sooner: The ecocide campaign has thrust the concept into public discussion.

Mehta doesn’t expect the campaign to catch fire in the United States, but after four years of President Donald Trump, she’s heartened by the arrival of John Kerry, Biden’s special climate envoy. “We don’t expect the U.S. to join the ICC any time soon, but that said, the conversation around ecocide itself, we don’t see any reason why it can’t start happening in the U.S.,” she said.

The State Department released a statement saying that the U.S. “regularly engages with other countries” on “the importance of preventing environmental destruction during armed conflict,” but added, “We do not comment on the details of our communications with foreign governments.”https://f045e8e836c1ea6329561e4fe466554b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Image: Billows of smoke rise over a deforested plot of the Amazon in Porto Velho, Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019.
Billows of smoke rise over a deforested plot of the Amazon in Porto Velho, Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019.Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters file

Mehta’s campaign is also part of a wider effort by activists who have been looking to the courts to force more aggressive action on climate change.

As of July 1, 2020, at least 1,550 climate change cases have been filed in 38 countries, according to a U.N. report.

In 2015, a Dutch court ruled in the Urgenda Climate Case that the government had acted negligently by failing to take aggressive enough action to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands upheld the ruling in a landmark decision in 2019 and ordered the government to hit specific emissions reductions targets, sparking a series of similar lawsuits in other countries.

In one of those lawsuits, a Paris administrative court held the French government responsible for failing to meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling relied, in part, on France’s nonbinding commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, taking what had been the soft pledge of politics and turning it into a legally binding commitment.

Mehta has framed an ecocide law as a counterweight to the failings of the Paris Agreement, saying in a recent column she co-wrote in The Guardian that it offers “a way to correct the shortcomings” of the global climate pact. “Whereas Paris lacks sufficient ambition, transparency and accountability, the criminalization of ecocide would be an enforceable deterrent.”

Alex Whiting, a professor at Harvard Law School and former coordinator of prosecutions at the International Criminal Court, said that making ecocide a crime before the court would have tremendous impact, even if only a few cases were actually prosecuted.

“When a crime becomes an international crime, it has a ripple effect,” he said. “The environment is the issue of our time. Being able to do something about that seems important.”

In Vanuatu, though, there is a sense that the pace of climate change is beginning to outrun the country’s ability to adapt. Cyclones that have devastated the islands are expected to intensify as the globe continues to warm.

Image: Helena Iesul searches for vegetables to collect from her family garden in Tanna, Vanuatu, in 2019. Iesul says an extended dry season has affected her plants.
Helena Iesul searches for vegetables to collect from her family garden in Tanna, Vanuatu, in 2019. Iesul says an extended dry season has affected her plants.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Missack, the Vanuatu diplomat, said the effects of climate change run much deeper than damage from storms. Most of the country’s residents depend on the crops they grow and the fish they catch, so their lives are intertwined with the environment around them.

Recently, the harvest of yam, a key crop that is already stressed by changes in the climate, was disrupted, throwing it out of alignment with the seasonal and celestial markers and accompanying rituals that normally tell farmers when to reap.

“One day we will talk about the stars, and this is how the ritual goes. But it will never be the same spirit, the same soul of the ritual,” Missack said. “And that loss, none of the money in this world can pay for it.”

20 new species found, and lost wildlife rediscovered, in the Bolivian Andes

By Aaliyah Harris, CNN

Updated 6:00 AM ET, Mon December 14, 2020https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/13/americas/new-species-bolivian-andes-spc-intl-scn/index.html

With vibrant patterns and striking colors, Catesby's snail sucker is specialized to feed on snails and slugs.

Photos:With vibrant patterns and striking colors, Catesby’s snail sucker is specialized to feed on snails and slugs.Hide Caption8 of 14

Although the species are new to science, they are familiar to local indigenous communities. A newly discovered bamboo has been regularly used by indigenous people for construction materials and to make wind musical instruments called sikus or zampoñas.

Photos:Although the species are new to science, they are familiar to local indigenous communities. A newly discovered bamboo has been regularly used by indigenous people for construction materials and to make wind musical instruments called sikus or zampoñas.Hide Caption9 of 14

In the cloud forest of Zongo Valley, a caterpillar from a Morpho butterfly feeds on bamboo. Morpho butterflies are highly sought after due to their bright blue color.

Photos:In the cloud forest of Zongo Valley, a caterpillar from a Morpho butterfly feeds on bamboo. Morpho butterflies are highly sought after due to their bright blue color.Hide Caption10 of 14

Zongo Valley is full of dreamy, natural waterfalls and is known as the "heart of the region." Locals depend on the forest as Zongo supplies building materials, hydroelectric power and water for Bolivia's capital of La Paz and surrounding areas.

Photos:Zongo Valley is full of dreamy, natural waterfalls and is known as the “heart of the region.” Locals depend on the forest as Zongo supplies building materials, hydroelectric power and water for Bolivia’s capital of La Paz and surrounding areas.Hide Caption11 of 14

As the Andes get higher and steeper, they become more rugged. Beautiful waterfalls and cascades run throughout the mountains.

Photos:As the Andes get higher and steeper, they become more rugged. Beautiful waterfalls and cascades run throughout the mountains.Hide Caption12 of 14

Extremely rare Mercedes robber frogs have only been spotted in a few places, including Zongo.

Photos:Extremely rare Mercedes robber frogs have only been spotted in a few places, including Zongo.Hide Caption13 of 14

A new species of metalmark butterfly, which flies in the cloud forest canopy and feeds on flower nectar, was also discovered on the Bolivia expedition.

Photos:A new species of metalmark butterfly, which flies in the cloud forest canopy and feeds on flower nectar, was also discovered on the Bolivia expedition.Hide Caption14 of 14

Scientists have discovered 20 new species in the Zongo Valley of the Bolivian Andes. Poised in striking mode is a new species of pit viper named "mountain fer-de-lance," which has large fangs and heat-sensing pits on its head to help detect prey.

Photos:Scientists have discovered 20 new species in the Zongo Valley of the Bolivian Andes. Poised in striking mode is a new species of pit viper named “mountain fer-de-lance,” which has large fangs and heat-sensing pits on its head to help detect prey.Hide Caption1 of 14

As well as identifying new species, the Conservation International team rediscovered four species thought to be extinct, including the "devil-eyed frog," which was last sighted 20 years ago, before a hydroelectric dam was built in its habitat. After numerous attempts to find the frog it was assumed the species no longer existed.

Photos:As well as identifying new species, the Conservation International team rediscovered four species thought to be extinct, including the “devil-eyed frog,” which was last sighted 20 years ago, before a hydroelectric dam was built in its habitat. After numerous attempts to find the frog it was assumed the species no longer existed.Hide Caption2 of 14

The Bolivian flag snake earned its name from its striking red, yellow and green colors. It was discovered in dense undergrowth forest at the highest part of the mountain the team surveyed.

Photos:The Bolivian flag snake earned its name from its striking red, yellow and green colors. It was discovered in dense undergrowth forest at the highest part of the mountain the team surveyed.Hide Caption3 of 14

The Lilliputian frog is a minuscule 1 centimeter in length and is camouflaged by its brown color, which helps it to hide in thick layers of moss and soil.

Photos:The Lilliputian frog is a minuscule 1 centimeter in length and is camouflaged by its brown color, which helps it to hide in thick layers of moss and soil.Hide Caption4 of 14

Cup orchids have vibrant and distinct purple and yellow coloring. This new species was discovered in Zongo but is part of a group of species found throughout much of Central and South America.

Photos:Cup orchids have vibrant and distinct purple and yellow coloring. This new species was discovered in Zongo but is part of a group of species found throughout much of Central and South America.Hide Caption5 of 14

The satyr butterfly was last seen 98 years ago and was rediscovered in the Zongo Valley's undergrowth, caught in a mesh trap containing its food source of rotten fruit. It is only known to live in the Zongo Valley.

Photos:The satyr butterfly was last seen 98 years ago and was rediscovered in the Zongo Valley’s undergrowth, caught in a mesh trap containing its food source of rotten fruit. It is only known to live in the Zongo Valley.Hide Caption6 of 14

The newly found Adder's mouth orchid has parts that cleverly mimic insects, tricking them into transferring pollen.

Photos:The newly found Adder’s mouth orchid has parts that cleverly mimic insects, tricking them into transferring pollen.Hide Caption7 of 14

With vibrant patterns and striking colors, Catesby's snail sucker is specialized to feed on snails and slugs.

Photos:With vibrant patterns and striking colors, Catesby’s snail sucker is specialized to feed on snails and slugs.Hide Caption8 of 14

Although the species are new to science, they are familiar to local indigenous communities. A newly discovered bamboo has been regularly used by indigenous people for construction materials and to make wind musical instruments called sikus or zampoñas.

Photos:Although the species are new to science, they are familiar to local indigenous communities. A newly discovered bamboo has been regularly used by indigenous people for construction materials and to make wind musical instruments called sikus or zampoñas.Hide Caption9 of 14

In the cloud forest of Zongo Valley, a caterpillar from a Morpho butterfly feeds on bamboo. Morpho butterflies are highly sought after due to their bright blue color.

Photos:In the cloud forest of Zongo Valley, a caterpillar from a Morpho butterfly feeds on bamboo. Morpho butterflies are highly sought after due to their bright blue color.Hide Caption10 of 14

Zongo Valley is full of dreamy, natural waterfalls and is known as the "heart of the region." Locals depend on the forest as Zongo supplies building materials, hydroelectric power and water for Bolivia's capital of La Paz and surrounding areas.

Photos:Zongo Valley is full of dreamy, natural waterfalls and is known as the “heart of the region.” Locals depend on the forest as Zongo supplies building materials, hydroelectric power and water for Bolivia’s capital of La Paz and surrounding areas.Hide Caption11 of 14

As the Andes get higher and steeper, they become more rugged. Beautiful waterfalls and cascades run throughout the mountains.

Photos:As the Andes get higher and steeper, they become more rugged. Beautiful waterfalls and cascades run throughout the mountains.Hide Caption12 of 14

Extremely rare Mercedes robber frogs have only been spotted in a few places, including Zongo.

Photos:Extremely rare Mercedes robber frogs have only been spotted in a few places, including Zongo.Hide Caption13 of 14

A new species of metalmark butterfly, which flies in the cloud forest canopy and feeds on flower nectar, was also discovered on the Bolivia expedition.

Photos:A new species of metalmark butterfly, which flies in the cloud forest canopy and feeds on flower nectar, was also discovered on the Bolivia expedition.Hide Caption14 of 14

Scientists have discovered 20 new species in the Zongo Valley of the Bolivian Andes. Poised in striking mode is a new species of pit viper named "mountain fer-de-lance," which has large fangs and heat-sensing pits on its head to help detect prey.

Photos:Scientists have discovered 20 new species in the Zongo Valley of the Bolivian Andes. Poised in striking mode is a new species of pit viper named “mountain fer-de-lance,” which has large fangs and heat-sensing pits on its head to help detect prey.Hide Caption1 of 14

As well as identifying new species, the Conservation International team rediscovered four species thought to be extinct, including the "devil-eyed frog," which was last sighted 20 years ago, before a hydroelectric dam was built in its habitat. After numerous attempts to find the frog it was assumed the species no longer existed.

Photos:As well as identifying new species, the Conservation International team rediscovered four species thought to be extinct, including the “devil-eyed frog,” which was last sighted 20 years ago, before a hydroelectric dam was built in its habitat. After numerous attempts to find the frog it was assumed the species no longer existed.Hide Caption2 of 14

The Bolivian flag snake earned its name from its striking red, yellow and green colors. It was discovered in dense undergrowth forest at the highest part of the mountain the team surveyed.

Photos:The Bolivian flag snake earned its name from its striking red, yellow and green colors. It was discovered in dense undergrowth forest at the highest part of the mountain the team surveyed.Hide Caption3 of 14

The Lilliputian frog is a minuscule 1 centimeter in length and is camouflaged by its brown color, which helps it to hide in thick layers of moss and soil.

Photos:The Lilliputian frog is a minuscule 1 centimeter in length and is camouflaged by its brown color, which helps it to hide in thick layers of moss and soil.Hide Caption4 of 14

Cup orchids have vibrant and distinct purple and yellow coloring. This new species was discovered in Zongo but is part of a group of species found throughout much of Central and South America.

Photos:Cup orchids have vibrant and distinct purple and yellow coloring. This new species was discovered in Zongo but is part of a group of species found throughout much of Central and South America.Hide Caption5 of 14

The satyr butterfly was last seen 98 years ago and was rediscovered in the Zongo Valley's undergrowth, caught in a mesh trap containing its food source of rotten fruit. It is only known to live in the Zongo Valley.

Photos:The satyr butterfly was last seen 98 years ago and was rediscovered in the Zongo Valley’s undergrowth, caught in a mesh trap containing its food source of rotten fruit. It is only known to live in the Zongo Valley.Hide Caption6 of 14

The newly found Adder's mouth orchid has parts that cleverly mimic insects, tricking them into transferring pollen.

(CNN)Scientists have announced the discovery of 20 new species in the Bolivian Andes, as well as sightings of plants and animals not seen for decades.Located near the Bolivian capital of La Paz, Zongo Valley is known as the “heart” of the region. High up steep, rugged mountains are an array of well-preserved habitats, which are thriving with lush biodiversity.It was among the cloud forests that researchers discovered the “mountain fer-de-lance” viper, “Bolivian flag snake” and “lilliputian frog,” as well as glorious orchids and butterfly species.The findings, revealed in research published today, were made on a 14-day expedition in March 2017, co-led by Trond Larsen of the non-profit environmental group Conservation International.”[In Zongo] the noises you hear are from nature — all sorts of insects, frogs and birds calling, wonderful rushing sounds and cascades of waterfalls. Everything is covered in thick layers of moss, orchids and ferns,” Larsen tells CNN.”We didn’t expect to find so many new species and to rediscover species that had been thought to be extinct.”

Venomous viper

The extremely venomous mountain fer-de-lance viper has large fangs and heat-sensing pits on its head to help detect prey. Previously unknown to science, since the expedition the viper has been found elsewhere in the Andes says Larsen.Poised in striking mode is a new species of pit viper named "mountain fer-de-lance."Poised in striking mode is a new species of pit viper named “mountain fer-de-lance.”The Bolivian flag snake earned its name from its striking red, yellow and green colors, and was discovered in dense undergrowth at the highest part of the mountain they surveyed.Another discovery is among the smallest amphibians in the world, according to Larsen. The aptly named lilliputian frog is a minuscule 1 centimeter in length. With its camouflaged brown color and tendency to hide in thick layers of moss and soil, it’s almost impossible to spot.”We followed the sound of them in the forest but as soon as you get near them, they get quiet so it’s tremendously difficult to locate,” says Larsen.The Lilliputian frog is just 10 millimeters long.The Lilliputian frog is just 10 millimeters long.Zongo’s valley flourishes with orchid flowers varying in size, shape and color. The newly found Adder’s mouth orchid has parts that cleverly mimic insects, tricking them into transferring pollen.Although the discoveries are new to science, they are familiar to local indigenous communities. A newly discovered bamboo has been regularly used by indigenous people for construction materials and to make wind musical instruments.

Devil-eyed frog

As well as identifying new species, the team rediscovered four species thought to be extinct, including the mesmeric “devil-eyed frog,” which is black in color with deep red eyes. It was last sighted 20 years ago, before a hydroelectric dam was built in its habitat. After numerous attempts to find the frog it was assumed the species no longer existed.”Given that all these other expeditions failed we did not think that we would [find it] and when we did discover it, it was quite an epiphany, incredibly exciting,” says Larsen.The devil-eyed frog.The devil-eyed frog.The satyr butterfly, last seen 98 years ago, was rediscovered in the Zongo Valley’s undergrowth, caught in a trap containing its food source of rotten fruit.

Forest corridors

Some of these animals may be found nowhere else in the world and Larsen says much of the region’s wildlife is having to adapt to the effects of climate change. Many species are moving to higher ground in search of cooler conditions, traveling through forests that lead up into the mountains.”Unless you keep those corridors of forest intact then those animals and plants have no way to move and no way to adjust to those changing conditions,” explains Larsen. “That’s why protecting places like the Zongo is so essential in the face of climate change.”Beautiful waterfalls and cascades run throughout the Andean mountains.  Beautiful waterfalls and cascades run throughout the Andean mountains.As well as being a haven for wildlife, the area is also key for people living nearby. Locals depend on the forests for building materials, says Larsen, while Zongo supplies hydroelectric power and water for La Paz and beyond.Conservation International says the findings make the case for the protection of the area and will help inform sustainable development plans for the region.”The importance of protecting the Zongo Valley is clearer than ever,” said Luis Revilla, mayor of La Paz, in a statement. “As La Paz continues to grow, we will take care to preserve the nearby natural resources that are so important to our wellbeing.”

Is evolution more intelligent than we thought?

DECEMBER 18, 2015

by University of Southampton

Evolution may be more intelligent than we thought, according to a University of Southampton professor.

Professor Richard Watson says new research shows that evolution is able to learn from previous experience, which could provide a better explanation of how evolution by natural selection produces such apparently intelligent designs.

By unifying the theory of evolution (which shows how random variation and selection is sufficient to provide incremental adaptation) with learning theories (which show how incremental adaptation is sufficient for a system to exhibit intelligent behaviour), this research shows that it is possible for evolution to exhibit some of the same intelligent behaviours as learning systems (including neural networks).

In an opinion paper, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Professors Watson and Eörs Szathmáry, from the Parmenides Foundation in Munich, explain how formal analogies can be used to transfer specific models and results between the two theories to solve several important evolutionary puzzles.

Professor Watson says: “Darwin’s theory of evolution describes the driving process, but learning theory is not just a different way of describing what Darwin already told us. It expands what we think evolution is capable of. It shows that natural selection is sufficient to produce significant features of intelligent problem-solving.”

For example, a key feature of intelligence is an ability to anticipate behaviours that that will lead to future benefits. Conventionally, evolution, being dependent on random variation, has been considered ‘blind’ or at least ‘myopic’ – unable to exhibit such anticipation. But showing that evolving systems can learn from past experience means that evolution has the potential to anticipate what is needed to adapt to future environments in the same way that learning systems do.

“When we look at the amazing, apparently intelligent designs that evolution produces, it takes some imagination to understand how random variation and selection produced them. Sure, given suitable variation and suitable selection (and we also need suitable inheritance) then we’re fine. But can natural selection explain the suitability of its own processes? That self-referential notion is troubling to conventional evolutionary theory – but easy in learning theory.

“Learning theory enables us to formalise how evolution changes its own processes over evolutionary time. For example, by evolving the organisation of development that controls variation, the organisation of ecological interactions that control selection or the structure of reproductive relationships that control inheritance – natural selection can change its own ability to evolve.

“If evolution can learn from experience, and thus improve its own ability to evolve over time, this can demystify the awesomeness of the designs that evolution produces. Natural selection can accumulate knowledge that enables it to evolve smarter. That’s exciting because it explains why biological design appears to be so intelligent.”

Protecting nature is vital to escape ‘era of pandemics’ – report

Halting destruction of wild places could slow frequency of deadly outbreaks, say scientists

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/29/protecting-nature-vital-pandemics-report-outbreaks-wild

Damian Carrington Environment editor @dpcarrington

Thu 29 Oct 2020 10.00 EDTLast modified on Thu 29 Oct 2020 11.41 EDT

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Regenerated palm oil trees are seen growing on the site of a destroyed tropical rainforest in Kuala Cenaku, Riau province, as deforestation continues in Sumatra, Indonesia.
 Regenerated palm oil trees growing on the site of a destroyed tropical rainforest in Kuala Cenaku, Riau province, as deforestation continues in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photograph: Dimas Ardian/Getty

The world is in an “era of pandemics” and unless the destruction of the natural world is halted they will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before, according to a report from some of the world’s leading scientists.

The emergence of diseases such as Covid-19, bird flu and HIV from animals was entirely driven by the razing of wild places for farming and the trade in wild species, which brought people into contact with the dangerous microbes, the experts said.

“The risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to become pandemic,” the report says.

The wetlands of Pantanal in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. The area has been hit by its worst fires in more than 47 years, destroying vast areas of vegetation and wildlife.
 The wetlands of Pantanal in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. The area has been hit by its worst fires in more than 47 years, destroying vast areas of vegetation and wildlife. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty

It estimates there are more than 500,000 unknown viruses in mammals and birds that could infect humans.

The current approach to disease outbreaks is trying to contain them and develop treatments or vaccines, which the scientists say is a “slow and uncertain path”. Instead the root causes must be tackled, including stopping the demolition of forests to produce meat, palm oil, metals and other commodities for richer countries.

The costs of such a transformative change would be “trivial”, the experts found, compared with the trillions of dollars of damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic alone. Their proposed solutions include a global surveillance network, taxing damaging meat production and ending taxpayer subsidies that ravage the natural world.

A man walks past a poster warning people that consuming wildlife is illegal, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China.
 A man walks past a poster warning people that consuming wildlife is illegal, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China. Photograph: Alex Plavevski/EPA

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“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic, or of any modern pandemic,” said Peter Daszak, the chair of the group convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, (Ipbes) to produce the report. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.”

“We’re seeing pandemics every 20-30 years,” said Daszak, who is also the president of EcoHealth Alliance, and they were getting more frequent and damaging. “We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention, in addition to reaction.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the UN, World Health Organization and others have warned that the world must tackle the cause of these outbreaks and not just the health and economic symptoms. In June, leading experts called the pandemic an “SOS signal for the human enterprise”, but little government action has been taken.

Deadly diseases from wildlife thrive when nature is destroyed, study finds

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The report was produced by 22 experts in fields including zoology, public health, economics and law, and representing every continent. It cites more than 600 studies, a third of which were published since 2019. “It’s really state of the art in terms of its scientific basis,” said Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of Ipbes.

The report says the rise in emerging diseases is driven by “the recent exponential rise in consumption and trade, driven by demand in developed countries and emerging economies, as well as by [rising population] pressure”.

A Liberian hunter holds up the leg of a Red Deer to sell as bushmeat on a roadside in Grand Bassa county, Liberia.
 A Liberian hunter holds up the leg of a Red Deer to sell as bushmeat on a roadside in Grand Bassa county, Liberia. Photograph: Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA

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Daszak added: “Clearly, in the face of Covid-19, with more than one million human deaths, and huge economic impacts, [the current] reactive approach is inadequate. There is enough science that shows a way forward and would involve transformative change that rethinks our relationship with nature.”

Cost of preventing next pandemic ‘equal to just 2% of Covid-19 economic damage’

 Read more

The scientists call for a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best evidence, predict high-risk areas and coordinate the design of a global disease surveillance system.

High-risk species, such as bats, rodents, primates and water birds should be removed from the $100bn a year legal wildlife trade, they said, and there must be a crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade.

Marmots in a cage. The plague can jump from the species to humans through the bite of the tarbagan flea or through consumption of meat.
 Marmots in a cage. The plague can jump from the species to humans through the bite of the tarbagan flea or through consumption of meat. Photograph: Courtesy of Weibo

They also said emerging disease risk must be factored into decisions on large developments and called for meat production to be taxed. “Meat consumption is rising so dramatically, and it’s so clearly associated with pandemics,” Daszak said.

“Many of these policies may seem costly and difficult to execute,” the report says. “However, economic analysis suggests their costs [of about $50bn a year] will be trivial in comparison to the trillions of dollars of impact due to Covid-19, let alone the rising tide of future diseases.”

Daszak said: “For each of the policies there are pilot studies that show they work – they just need to be scaled up and taken seriously. This is classic public health – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The report was widely welcomed by other experts. Guy Poppy, an ecology professor at Southampton University, said the report’s comprehensive analysis of solutions was valuable. “The link between planetary health and human health was already becoming increasingly recognised, but Covid-19 has brought it to the front of everyone’s minds,” he said.

Prof John Spicer, a marine zoologist at the University of Plymouth, said: “The Covid-19 crisis is not just another crisis alongside the biodiversity crisis and the climate change crisis. Make no mistake, this is one big crisis – the greatest that humans have ever faced.”Advertisementhttps://eb5ce15518e67ba61c7fbc06cd0fbfd3.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But he said that by offering solutions the report “is a document of hope, not despair … the question is not can we [act], but will we?”

Don’t look away now: are viewers finally ready for the truth about nature?

For decades David Attenborough delighted millions with tales of life on Earth. But now the broadcaster wants us to face up to the state of the planet

Sir David Attenborough pictured in the Maasai Mara, Kenya while filming A Life on Our Planet.
 Sir David Attenborough pictured in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, while filming A Life on Our Planet for Netflix. Photograph: Conor McDonnell/WWF-UK

Sir David Attenborough’s soothing, matter-of-fact narrations have brought the natural world to our living rooms for nearly seven decades and counting. From Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the jungles of central Africa, the 94-year-old broadcaster has dazzled and delighted millions with tales of life on Earth – mostly pristine and untouched, according to the images on our screens. But this autumn Attenborough has returned with a different message: nature is collapsing around us.

“We are facing a crisis. One that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate. It even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as Covid-19,” he warned in Extinction: The Facts on BBC One primetime, receiving five-star reviews.

Clips and graphs showing the spiralling extinction rate were shared widely on social media. Some even pledged to change their diets and live their lives in a different way. “We have to listen to him. And act,” said broadcaster Matthew Stadlen.

Wildlife storytellers have long wrestled with how to tell this uncomfortable tale while keeping audiences engaged. Less than two years ago, Attenborough himself said that repeated warnings on the subject could be a “turn-off” for viewers. The thought of a million species at risk of extinction due to human activity was deemed too much for many to bear. But last Sunday night, viewers did not reach for the off button.

“I thought the figures would just go off a cliff if I am totally frank,” Jack Bootle, the BBC’s head of science and natural history commissioning, told the Guardian.

“What actually happened, to my delight, was the opposite. Viewers rose really dramatically over the course of the hour. So by the end of the hour, it picked up an additional 0.6 million viewers, which is a lot in our book. I think that people couldn’t quite tear themselves away.”

One of the two northern white rhinos that will be the last of their species, featured in Extinction: The Facts.
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 One of the two northern white rhinos that will be the last of their species, featured in Extinction: The Facts. Photograph: Charlotte Lathane/BBC

Attenborough and leading scientists told a peak audience of 4.5 million about two northern white rhinos that will be the last of their species, a disappearing orca pod off the Hebrides and pangolin trafficking. The heartbreak and the horror were a jolting departure from the mega series that celebrate the beauty of the natural world with a limited mention of environmental damage.

Later this autumn, after a short cinematic release, it will be Netflix’s turn to air a stark warning about biodiversity loss, with Attenborough presenting A Life On Our Planet. The film retraces his career, each life stage and natural history film accompanied by the drum beat of human population growth and the loss of wilderness areas. The film begins in Chernobyl – an obvious metaphor for what is to come if humanity does not act – before explaining the importance of a plant-based diet and urging viewers to rewild the planet.

So why the sudden switch to a no-holds barred approach?.

“The responsibility of being a balanced public service has now been reduced to a considerable degree,” he told the Guardian in March, as the pandemic was starting to build. “But it’s also that the problem itself has suddenly become overwhelming and worldwide.”

This week has seen a slew of reports warning that “humanity is at a crossroads” in its relationship with nature, culminating in a UN report that the world has failed to meet a single target to stop the destruction of nature in the last decade.

Intensive agriculture, such as this palm oil plantation in Borneo, has lead to a loss of biodiversity.
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 Intensive agriculture, such as this palm oil plantation in Borneo, has lead to a loss of biodiversity. Photograph: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet/Netflix

But explaining the subject matter of films about the destruction of nature and how it relates to human wellbeing is a challenge. “I don’t think that the theoretical basis for the reason why biodiversity is important is a widely understood one,” Attenborough said.

Q&A

What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

“But I think there’s a profound understanding beneath, as it were, logic that the natural world is of great importance. The biological argument about why, in fact, a complex ecosystem is more likely to survive and change and be productive than a simplified one in which the number of species has been grossly reduced.”

Julia Patricia Gordon Jones, a conservation professor at Bangor University, appeared in Extinction: The Facts and has been tracking the change in language and image use in nature films. The Madagascar expert had grown increasingly frustrated with the portrayals of an apparently untouched natural world in Attenborough documentaries over the years.

Jones spent three weeks with the Our Planet team in 2015 while they were making the Netflix hit series on the western edge of the African island, filming fossas – lemur-hunting carnivores. The team’s camp was threatened by fire – a huge problem in Madagascar’s dry forests – and the habitat where they shot the footage of fossas had disappeared by the time the show appeared on Netflix.

“The footage from the Madagascar sequences was brilliant but they ended them with, ‘since we filmed this, these forests have gone up in flames’. I was, like, you spent nights getting drone footage of fires, going out early in the morning watching the fires,” she said. “The fires were burning right up to the camp there and then but none of that made the cut because they still wanted to perpetuate that people are going to switch off if they see anything sad.”

The new Attenborough documentaries emphasise the disastrous consequences of species extinction.
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 The new Attenborough documentaries emphasise the disastrous consequences of species extinction. Photograph: David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet/Netflix

Extinction: The Facts was different, Jones wrote in a blogpost for the Conversation, a “surprisingly radical” departure from the past. She expects the Netflix film A Life On Our Planet to be the same.

“I think it’s the film that’s desperately needed,” Jones said. “We’ve all had this guy telling us about the wonders of the natural world for almost three generations, and to have the personal story of his own reflection of what he’s seen, the loss, I think that’s going to be massive.”

 David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will premiere in cinemas on 28 September

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

The idea of a ‘natural’ disaster is going up in flames

Grist on Sep 16, 2020
BLAME GAME

 

<<https://grist.org/climate/wildfires-the-phrase-natural-disaster-is-going-up-in-flames/>>

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Natural disaster first appeared in English around 1750, Stamper said, and it didn’t take long before someone noticed its flaws. In 1755, an earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon, Portugal, killing tens of thousands of people. At the time, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that nature “did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories” in Lisbon.

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Wildfires recently turned the West Coast into a hazy orange hellscape, scorching a record-breaking amount of land in California and blanketing the whole region with lung-clogging smoke. The fires have already burned thousands of houses, driven Oregonians from their homes, and killed dozens of people. And it’s not even peak wildfire season yet.

You expect to see the phrase natural disaster all over the news when hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic explosions, floods, or fires cause a lot of deaths and property damage. This fire season, however, politicians and other people are beginning to ditch natural disaster for phrases that are more specific — and more accurate.

“These are not just wildfires,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee said during a press conference last week. “They are climate fires.” Oregon Governor Kate Brown wrote on Twitter that her state was experiencing an “unprecedented fire event.”

These megafires aren’t exactly “natural,” after all — they’re magnified by the hotter, drier climate humans have created, along with a century of forest fire suppression that left more fuel to burn. And 85 percent of the time, wildfires are started by people — a smoldering cigarette, an unquenched campfire, a gender reveal party gone wrong. You could argue that even the wild in wildfires is a bit misleading.

The supposed “naturalness” of disasters has been questioned since the phrase first appeared in the English language a couple hundred years ago. Mother Nature might be behind earthquakes and tsunamis, but the resulting disaster isn’t necessarily nature’s fault. The problem is that we’ve built our towns and cities in the path of hurricanes, wildfires, and floods — and governments aren’t doing a great job of protecting those who need it most.

“There’s no question that if you live in a trailer park, you’re much more susceptible to the ravages of a tornado than if you live in a more stably built house,” said Priscilla Wald, a professor of English at Duke University. The expression natural disaster obscures the inequities in society, she said: “It’s about denying the ways in which human beings make our world.”

In recent years, news articlesacademic studies, and entire books have been devoted to explaining why natural disaster is a misnomer. A group called #NoNaturalDisasters uses its platform to educate journalists and call out organizations that use the phrase. Organizations are getting on board, too: The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk recently declared, “There is no such thing as a truly ‘natural’ disaster.” Last year, Greenpeace eviscerated the phrase in a viral tweet.

The expression’s popularity has slipped over the last decade, according to Google Ngram, a tool that tracks how often words are used in books. “It’s used for so many things that it’s lost the punch that it originally had,” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer. “And so we want punchier language. We want language that conveys the severity of these things.”

Originally from ancient Greek, disaster meant bad star, reflecting a belief that fate was written in the stars and that gods punished humans through floods, earthquakes, droughts, and more. Over the centuries, that connotation of disaster faded, and according to Wald, the addition of natural kept the emphasis on factors outside human control. If a tsunami came crashing ashore, people focused on the water itself rather than the shoddily built or unwisely located homes it destroyed.

Natural disaster first appeared in English around 1750, Stamper said, and it didn’t take long before someone noticed its flaws. In 1755, an earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon, Portugal, killing tens of thousands of people. At the time, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that nature “did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories” in Lisbon; if the city’s inhabitants had been more spread out and “lightly lodged,” he said, the damage would have been minimal.The phrase was used in a weird, sporadic way for most of its history, Stamper said, but it picked up steam in the 1950s and later as federal, state, and local governments began putting more resources toward addressing potential hazards — like warning systems and building codes for earthquakes — with funding earmarked for natural disasters. The expression’s use peaked around the early 2000s and has remained high since, she said.

There’s a compelling explanation for why governments popularized the phrase: It provides them with a convenient defense if they mess up. “There are politicians who love to call them natural because that gets them off the hook,” said Terry Cannon, a research fellow at The Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom who studies climate change and disaster vulnerability.

Back in January, during Australia’s most catastrophic fire season on record, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked if his government’s response to the bushfires was inadequate. “There is no doubt natural disasters are termed that way because that is what they are — they are natural disasters,” he said. “They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country and they have for a very long time.”

Another factor: money. “There’s a lot more profit in focusing on fighting against nature than in fighting against social inequality,” said Jason von Meding, an associate professor at the University of Florida, and companies and research institutions take advantage of it. “More sea walls, better mapping or hazard monitoring isn’t going to solve those social problems,” he said, “and yet most of our funding is going to technological innovation.”

Increasingly, however, people are grasping the message that disasters in nature often aren’t “natural.” In some cases, when people use the phrase now, they do so only to explain why the expression is wrong.

“And while [the wildfires] might easily be dismissed as a natural disaster, they are smudged with human fingerprints,” wrote Kale Williams, a reporter at the Oregonian, last week. Dale Smith, a writer at the tech news site CNET, recently wrote that “‘natural disaster’ is something of a misnomer.” A good number of academic articles mention the phrase simply to critique how others have used it.

Over the last five years or so, substitutes like extreme weather events and unnatural disaster have become more popular. “Scientists Warn That Fires, Extreme Weather Events Are Getting Worse,” read a headline earlier this week in Futurism, a science and tech site. The Atlantic’s recent podcast series about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was titled “Floodlines: The Story of an Unnatural Disaster.”

“That people have started using alternate terms,” Stamper said, “tells me that we might be more ready to move away from natural disaster than we were 15 years ago. Back then, almost everything was a natural disaster.”

Still, von Meding cautions that avoiding the phrase doesn’t get at the root of the problem — the denial of human responsibility — and it can lead people to become hyperfocused on correcting language.

“You can say that you’re not going to use the language natural disaster anymore, and sure, that’s a little bit of a win,” von Meding said. “But if you’re not also talking about power and inequity and injustice and structural violence, then are you really solving anything, or are you just being PC?”

 

Jake’s Story

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We interrupt these human interest stories to hand the microphone over to the family dog, Jake, who has an adventure of his own to recount:…

 

Back in the late 1970s, I was up at the Lake with Jim and his sister, Robin and her two Norwegian elkhounds, Torque and Sonia, who must have caught the scent of a deer in the back lots. I turned to Jim who, not knowing what kind of mischief they were getting themselves into, encouraged me to go and see what was up. That was all it took and I was off like shot to follow those errant elkhounds deeper into the forest and higher on the hill than my humans had ever taken me.

The deer we were trailing must have known Fraily Mountain like the back of his hoof, and he wasn’t about to let us catch up, leading us around cliffs and canyons and over fallen logs of trees that outnumber the hairs on the back of your hide. When we finally got to the top of the ridge and the deer disappeared down the other side, I stopped to catch my breath and think for a moment about the food dish my humans would be filling for me about this time of day.

But Torque and Sonia caught wind of the deer’s trail and were determined to catch it if they had to push on to Arlington before nightfall. Surely their humans will find them if they lose their way home. As much as I thought we should go back (having had the experience of living the life as a stray for several months), the elk-hounds were determined and I wouldn’t have felt right leaving them out there.

Well, nightfall came and there was no meal of kibble and can and no warm bed to curl up on. The same was true after day 2 and 3 and 4 and 5… At one point, we thought we heard Robin and Jim calling from up on the hill, so we barked back. But the sound was so far off and we were getting weak from hunger. Then we came across a slow-moving animal that seemed like it would make a good meal, but it turned out to be covered in quills that stuck in our tender flesh and began to fester.

We decided that the way back must be where we heard what sounded like familiar voices calling us from the hill, and as we headed back that direction, things started to look familiar to me. We had stumbled onto Oso road, the gravel route I used to study every inch of as Jim drove his ’67 Chevy pickup to our cozy one-story cabin on the lake (where there would surely be plenty of food for us).

When we reached where the Oso road met the Lake Cavanaugh road, strange humans carrying home-made ‘Missing’ signs with our pictures on them tied ropes to us and mumbled something about a reward. A short time later, our familiar humans arrived and acted as happy to see us as we were to see them! After a groggy trip to the vets’ office to remove the pesky porcupine quills we’d acquired, we were finally able to eat a decent meal, swearing never to let our humans or our food bowls out of our sight for the rest of our long, happy lives.

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Time to live in harmony with nature

June 06 2020 11:05 PM
OPINION
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Since 1990, nearly 420mn hectares of forest, equal to three times the size of South Africa, have been lost around the globe.

Humanity has already altered 75% of the Earth’s ice-free surface, according to UN Environment Programme.
Nearly 1mn species face extinction, while the illicit wildlife trade is the fourth largest such crime in the world.
Echoing humanity’s unhealthy relationship with nature, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said: “The science does not lie. We can tell much of the story of the damage our species has wrought with a few facts.”
UNEP’s warning assumes significance as we celebrated World Environment Day on Friday.
It is a day upon which, for over 40 years, people the world over have advocated and acted for a healthy environment. From beach clean-ups to mass tree-planting to marches, individuals, communities and governments have come out to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for our planet.
This year, however, we could not take to the beaches, forests or streets because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19, which was transmitted from animals to humans, is a direct warning that nature can take no more. Covid-19 is zoonotic, a type of disease that transmits between animals and humans.
We are facing it in large part because humanity’s expansion into wild spaces and exploitation of species brings people into closer contact with wildlife.
Covid-19 may be one of the worst, but it is not the first. About  75% of all emerging infectious diseases are of zoonotic origins. Ebola, Sars, the Zika virus and bird flu all spread from animals to people, often due to human encroachment on nature.
As ecosystems and biodiversity fall to cities, agriculture, infrastructure, climate change and pollution, nature’s ability to provide food, oxygen, clean water and climate regulation plummets. This directly impacts human health and wealth.
Meanwhile, the climate emergency has not gone away. CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit an all-time high in early May.
In April, the World Meteorological Organisation said temperatures have increased 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. We are seeing the consequences in bushfires, acidifying oceans and locust invasions – which could push millions of people in East Africa into hunger.
And while greenhouse gas emissions may dip this year because of lockdowns, we should not celebrate. Think of the atmosphere as a bathtub, and emissions as the water that flows from the tap. We have only turned down the tap slightly. The tub is still filling.
This means, as some luminaries recently said, we face going out of the Covid-19 frying pan into the climate fire.
So, lockdowns are not a silver lining for the environment. They have, however, shown that nature can still flourish, if we give it the chance. During the lockdowns, we saw air pollution clear and nature coming out of hiding – from penguins wandering the streets of Cape Town to kangaroos bouncing through Adelaide.
This, UN Environment Programme’s Andersen emphasises, gives us a glimpse into how much better our lives could be if we lived in harmony with nature. But we need to make this happen in a way that lasts.

David Attenborough says humans have made ‘tragic, desperate mess’ of planet

Humanity has made a “tragic, desperate mess” of the planet, Sir David Attenborough has said.

The veteran broadcaster urged people to “look after the natural world” and waste nothing, as he prepared for his latest series to air this week.

Seven Worlds, One Planet, breaks with the tradition of previous BBC Natural History Unit programmes by putting a conservation message “at its heart”, instead of being tagged on at the end of each episode.

The series, which has been four years in the making, features wildlife firsts and has already been bought by broadcasters around the world.

Producers took drones over “volcanoes, waterfalls, icebergs and underground into caves” to shoot heart-wrenching “animal dramas” in all seven continents, the BBC said.

Dramatic scenes include a lone, grey-headed albatross chick in Antarctica being blown off its nest as a result of increasingly intense storms in the region.

Speaking at the launch, Sir David, who presents the programme, said: “We are now universal, our influence is everywhere. We have it in our hands, and we made a tragic, desperate mess of it so far. But, at last, nations are coming together and recognising that we all live on the same planet … and we are dependent on it for every mouthful of food we eat and every breath of air we take.”

Asked what we can do to save the planet, Sir David, 93, said: “The best motto … is not to waste things.

“Don’t waste electricity, don’t waste paper, don’t waste food – live the way you want to live, but just don’t waste.”

The broadcaster added: “Look after the natural world, the animals in it and the plants in it too. This is their planet as well as ours. Don’t waste.”

The seven-part series will reveal “new species and behaviours,” producers said.

BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall said there had “never been a more important time to bring nature’s wonders to everybody”.

He said: “This series has conservation at its heart. Each one of the seven episodes takes on some of the major threats facing the world today. “

Sir David suggested he was perceived as a “crank” when he and the Natural History Unit began broadcasting programmes with an underlying message about caring for the natural world.

“But as it’s gone on, and we’ve repeated it on and on and on – not wasting things, not polluting things – then suddenly, for no reason that I can understand … suddenly you hit the right note,” he said.

His 2017 series, Blue Planet II, raised awareness around the world of the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution.

“We don’t understand how it happens but with Blue Planet II, suddenly the world was electrified about the crime of chucking plastic into the ocean that can throttle creatures, that can poison creatures, including ourselves,” Sir David said.

However, some scientists have accused Sir David’s programmes of  “actively misleading audiences” by showing nature as pristine and seldom damaged by man.

The new programmes, the result of 92 film shoots in over 40 countries, features “grave-robbing hamsters” in Austria and polar bears in a never-before-seen hunting strategy to catch beluga whales.

Antarctica, North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia will feature over different episodes in the seven-part series.

Seven Worlds, One Planet begins on Sunday 27 October at 6.15pm on BBC One.

We Have Broken Nature into More Than 990,000 Little Pieces

Habitat fragmentation is splintering undeveloped areas on Earth.

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A new global survey has revealed that areas on Earth with little human impact are becoming smaller and more isolated. Human activity is continually bisecting forests and grasslands into smaller and smaller slivers of undeveloped land.

Using satellite data, the new research suggests that 56% of the land on Earth—excluding areas covered in ice and snow—has relatively low human impacts.

But that area is being parsed into ever-shrinking segments. Land with low human impact exists in roughly 990,000 fragments larger than 1 square kilometer, a much higher number than what occurs with natural boundaries of water, rock, and ice. The same area would be broken into just 73,000 fragments naturally.

The latest survey could serve as a guide when shaping future international goals for biodiversity protection. Lead author of the study Andrew Jacobson, a professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, said in a press release that the findings are “good news for the planet” because they show there is still time to preserve land in low-impact areas.

“This paper shows that it’s late in the game, but not too late,” Jacobson said. “We can still greatly increase the extent of the world’s protected areas, but we must act quickly.”

The study identifies areas that may be ideal for land conservation in the future.

Splintered Land

Using publicly accessible satellite data, Jacobson and his team mapped areas that are not actively managed for human use.

They ruled out land with forest clearing, agriculture, light pollution, human population, and other marks of human activity. Notably, they left in some roads as well as areas with humans and livestock at levels that would not stress ecosystem health.

The study then computed fragmentation using an idealized globe with no human-caused fragmentation. They created a baseline map of natural habitat fragmentation from water, ice, and rock boundaries and counted the individual pieces. Comparing the baseline fragmentation with the observed fragmentation from the satellite data, they showed that humans have splinted nature into hundreds of thousands of segments, increasing the number by over 1,200%.

The result is a world with more boundaries and fewer areas far from development. Patches in their observations were 95% smaller on average than in a human-free world, and more land sat close to each fragment’s edge, particularly for temperate broadleaf forests. The median distance to an edge for a segment of broadleaf forest was 58 kilometers in the baseline map, compared to 1.4 kilometers in their observations.

Overall, patches of low-impact lands in temperate grasslands and tropical dry forests showed the largest deviation from the baseline, with an average size decrease of 99%.

Future Targets

Professor Nicholas Haddad at Michigan State University, who was not involved in the research, said that the study “sheds new light on the pervasiveness of habitat fragmentation” and the findings could be used to identify areas for future conservation.

The latest research confirms earlier results, according to Professor Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who did not work on the study. Ellis said that future action must be taken to “connect isolated habitats together and conserve biodiversity.”

Past research is divided on how fragmenting habitats affects wildlife. Jacobson and his team wrote in their study, presented in Scientific Reports in October, that they would not comment on the impacts of fragmentation but presented their results as one way to “review the conservation status of different biomes.” The National Geographic Society provided funding for the work.

Humans are the leading cause of dwindling natural habitat that leads to biodiversity loss, and countries have signed on to global initiatives to save habitats from farming, grazing, and development, but economic pressures make conservation difficult.

The upcoming 2020 United Nations Biodiversity Conference will set future targets for global land preservation. Some have called for global land protection targets to shoot for 30% and 50% land conservation by 2030 and 2050, respectively. Currently, 15% of land on Earth is preserved.

But Jacobson said with so much relatively untouched land left, “it’s not too late to aim high.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow