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Shocking Study Concludes 96% of National Parks Have Hazardous Air Quality

Emily Dao

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Every year, hundreds of millions of visitors flock to the United States’ majestic national parks. However, a shocking new study reveals that air pollution plagues national parks—a lot of them, too. That is, some 96% of national parks reportedly have hazardous air quality. Specifically, 33% are as heavily polluted as 20 of the nation’s most populous cities.

The Shocking NPCA Study

The study, conducted by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) evaluated 417 national parks. It measured signs of degradation based on visibility, health, nature, and climate. A shocking discovery? Some of the nation’s most popular parks, including Joshua Tree and Sequoia, suffered the most from air toxicity. In fact, these parks recorded high-risk ozone levels during the two months when tourism was at its peak.

Perhaps the most salient effect of air pollution is the deterioration of the park’s aestheticism. Polluted air creates hazy skies, thus disallowing visitors from enjoying some of the parks’ beautiful landscape. According to the NPCA, pollution obstructed visitors from roughly 50 miles of scenery. To put this into perspective, that’s close to the length of Rhode Island.

Poor air quality also has negative implications for the health of park rangers and visitors. Particularly, poor air quality impacts children, the elderly, and those with respiratory diseases greatly. Moreover, air pollution impacts wild animals even more seriously, as the study concluded sensitive species were impacted in some 88% of national parks. These disturbances, unsurprisingly, were based on changes in the ecosystems’ water and soil quality.

Additionally, while climate change already presents a risk to all national parks, air pollution only exacerbates its effects. Already, the NPCA recognized 326 parks as significant concerns based on climate change metrics.

Despite growing concerns for the preservation of these parks, DOI Secretary David Bernhardt is yet to propose any ideas. Based on his track record, he’s unlikely to do so.

Trump and The EPA

Although it didn’t pass in Congress, given President Donald Trump’s plan to slash nearly 31% of funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many don’t believe the president will push to implement preventive measures during his candidacy. Had House Democrats not rejected this plan, this would be the EPA’s lowest budget in nearly 40 years, despite national parks contributing around $40 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

Bernhardt took office after former DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke, resigned amidst the threat of criminal charges regarding poor ethics. Bernhardt’s confirmation received opposition from Democrats and environmentalists alike, due to mounting concerns he’d continue to follow Zinke’s agenda. As secretary, some of Zinke’s most significant projects include a proposal to open the majority of the U.S. coast to oil and gas drilling and his execution of the single largest rollback of federal land protections. During his tenure, Zinke sought to privatize protected public lands for fossil fuel giants.

Controversy Around Bernhardt

While deputy secretary, Bernhardt contributed to cuts in environmental regulation and helped move forward Zinke and Trump’s push to achieve “energy dominance” in America.

Bernhardt grew to be an even more controversial figure after the New York Times reported he executed an intervention preventing the release of a scientific report on the dangers of pesticides on endangered animals. In the report, the Fish and Wildlife Service found two of the pesticides were so harmful, they “jeopardize the continued existence” of 1,200+ animals and plants.

Previously, Bernhardt was a lobbyist, representing major oil and gas companies including Cobalt International Energy and Statoil Gulf Services. Opponents of Bernhardt say this conflict of interest impedes upon his ability to lead the DOI.

Policies to Protect National Parks

However, there’s still hope for the future of America’s national parks. Under the Clean Air Act, states are obligated to help preserve national parks by introducing new rules and regulations. Additionally, the Regional Haze Rule requires states to develop plans to minimize air pollution in parks by 2021, 2028, and every following decade.

Remaining Optimistic

Stephanie Kodish, the Clean Air program director for the NPCA, told the Guardian remains optimistic about these plans.

“I hope that people think about national parks as bipartisan unifiers. That the connection to our national parks is one that can help us preserve our future […], our culture,” Kodish said. “For the American people, they should serve as a reminder—and a warning cry.”

A warning cry. In a constantly advancing, growing nation, national parks serve as symbols of pure, unfiltered beauty. Many Americans can agree —the disappearance of such natural treasures would be a true shame.

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Sustainability

Nine countries in Latin America make a major push for renewable energy

Chris Chen

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Latin America

Latin America has seen a promising rise in climate leadership. This week, nine countries collectively announced an ambitious goal: by 2030, renewable energy should account for at least 70% of all energy sources. Comparatively, that is double the EU’s target of 32%.

The undertaking was presented by Colombian energy minister Maria Fernanda Suarez during this past week’s UN Climate Action Summit, with Colombian President Iván Duque also present. 

“We’ve brought meetings forward and coordinated with countries including Chile, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Haiti,” Duque said.

Colombia is one of the world’s leading coal exporters, but in recent years, it has taken large strides to implement wind and solar technology in an attempt to diversify its energy sector. More than a third of the nation’s energy already comes from renewable sources like hydroelectric power. Not to mention, a massive solar project—which could help save Colombia two hundred million tons of carbon emissions—was recently approved by a government agency. 

The pledge is part of a growing trend on the continent to push for renewable alternatives, though countries like Panama and Brazil are still considering whether to commit to the ambitious plan. Public bids for renewable sources are on the table for several Latin countries.

All of this is ahead of the upcoming annual UN Climate Change Conference which will be hosted by Chile in December. 

Chile has also been at the forefront of combating climate change. Since the start of his second term in December 2017, President Sebastián Piñera has placed climate change at the top of his agenda. Significant legislative actions have taken place and dozens of coal factories are expected to close. In the big picture, Chile is aiming to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. 

At a time where firm global leadership has largely been stalled, leaders in Colombia and Chile are spurring initiatives in the rest of Latin America, which, in turn, is creating a model for the rest of the world. 



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Greta Thunberg and fellow youth climate activists testify to Congress

Ari Kelo

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This week, Greta Thunberg is making a case on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the 16-year old climate activist met with the Senate climate crisis task force, where she testified alongside young climate activists from across the U.S.

And on Wednesday morning, the group testified before Congress again. This time, they spoke at a hearing on Climate Change Leadership, organized by the House Climate Crisis Committee and a Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

Their goal? To demand the U.S. government finally stand up against the climate crisis.

Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin urge politicians to unite behind science

Rather than giving prepared remarks, Thunberg kept her statement short and sweet. In under a minute, she submitted the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming to serve as her testimony.

“I don’t want you to listen to me,” she explained. “I want you to listen to the scientists.”

The report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, discusses the increasing threats of global warming. It warns that, without drastic change, the global temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030. And the consequences of that rise in temperature are dire.

By submitting the report to Congress, Thunberg made a simple statement ⁠— there’s no time to waste. “I want you to unite behind science, and then I want you to take real action.”

At her meeting on Tuesday with the Senate climate crisis task force, Thunberg made a similar demand. Speaking to Congress as a whole, she said, “I know you are trying but just not hard enough. Sorry.”

Her fellow activists agree.

Jamie Margolin, the 17-year-old co-founder of the Zero Hour movement, urged Congress to forge a path to climate recovery. To her, there’s still a chance to solve the climate crisis. “But this must start today,” she said. “In fact, it should’ve started yesterday.”

And Vic Barrett, the 20-year-old member of the Alliance of Climate Education, continued the call to action. He pointed out his greatest fears about imminent climate change. How marginalized communities are the most at risk. How, for him and his friends, climate change has become a source of serious mental and physical stress.

“My culture and inheritance are slipping into the sea,” he went on, discussing the threat of rising water levels on the Caribbeans. “My people are going extinct.”

Youth take charge in climate movement

Following their statements, House Speakers commended the young activists for their leadership in the movement against climate change.

But recognition is not what they need from Congress. “We need your leadership,” said the 21-year-old conservationist Benji Backer. “You have remarkable power.”

“The fact that you are staring at a panel of young people testifying before you today pleading for a livable earth should not fill you with pride. It should fill you with shame,” said Margolin.

These testimonials are part of a greater movement initiated by young people across the globe to combat climate change.  The face of the movement, Greta Thunberg will continue her efforts to incite policy change this Saturday at the first ever UN Youth Climate Summit in New York.

And on Friday, she will join thousands of other concerned young people as they march against climate change during the Global Climate Strike.



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An Environmental Crisis is Looming Over the Horizon in Yemen

Chris Chen

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The civil war in Yemen has been raging on, with the UN calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

The conflict between the internationally-recognized government of Yemen and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has led to disease outbreaks, widespread famine, and water scarcity, all of which threaten the livelihoods of millions across the country. On top of this, it now seems to be in a time of environmental crisis.

A large portion of the death toll, which has exceeded 91,600 fatalities since fighting broke out in 2015, can be attributed to civilian deaths from extensive bombing campaigns. Countless bombs have left chemical residue which can attach to particles in the air, seep into the soil, and traverse across vast distances via wind and rain.

In the coming years, climate change and sea level rise will strike Yemen hard. This has been illustrated in the past decade by an unprecedented amount of hurricanes and back-to-back cyclones in a region where tropical storms rarely occur. 

Extreme heat is affecting most of the country and will enable tropical diseases like malaria to easily spread. Biodiversity loss is also accelerating across many ecosystems.

The war has undermined critical action in few ways. First, issues like the environment have not received proper attention due to humanitarian aid being the number one priority for most international organizations. 

Second, the government has been caught in a fiscal bind in recent years. It has poured all of its resources into pushing back the Houthi resistance. In August, for example, violence escalated when separatists took over the port city of Aden. Mainstream coverage of the war hasn’t helped either; despite the toll the environment is taking, it has largely ignored these issues.

“It’s certain that Yemen is one of the countries most affected by climate change,” Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi, the Yemeni Deputy Water and Environment Minister.

Solar power could help mitigate the environmental crisis

One solution that could alleviate some of Yemen’s problems is solar power. Countries that support the Yemeni government’s efforts, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been developing alternative energy which could prop up Yemen’s energy sector and save billions of dollars in the process.

International organizations have also stepped up. The World Bank is working with local communities to install solar applications in schools and other public facilities. It aims to bring electricity into the lives of over 1.3 million people while also helping Yemen meet its Paris Agreement goals by reducing carbon emissions by as much as 430,000 tons.

On the other hand, as The Cairo Review points out, the drawbacks of solar alternatives may also just push civilians back to traditional fuel sources once they are available again. 

A ticking time bomb with global implications

Though many problems manifest on land, issues could soon arise in the seas. In July, the UN warned that the Safer FSO, an oil tanker abandoned in 2015, could explode from a buildup of volatile gases and leak over 1 million barrels of oil. 

Safer FSO anchored 30 miles off the coast of Al Hudaydah. Photo: SEPOC

To put that into perspective, experts warn that it could result in a spill four times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It would devastate the Red Sea and surrounding bodies of water, reaching as far as Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and even the coast of Egypt.

A spill of this magnitude would effectively block commerce from reaching international destinations through the Red Sea, which accounts for 10% of global trade. Furthermore, it would wreak havoc on marine life for hundreds of miles around and further exacerbate Yemen’s water crisis. 

The trouble stems from Houthi control over the tanker, which has prevented maintenance from outside groups. Fortunately, a UN team was recently dispatched to assess the situation after complicated negotiations with the rebel group. Other than that, not much progress has been made.

“The danger increases with every day that goes by,” Doug Weir, policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, told CNBC.

Conclusions

Yemen’s environmental crisis is quickly deteriorating but the country’s conflict has halted important preventative measures from being enacted—the government faces countless issues of its own. Its lack of financial flexibility means that these problems will likely persist into the near future.

Bringing solar technology into the country is a worthy initiative, but it is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Securing the Safer FSO will also require substantial effort. 

Yemen needs a coordinated global response to tackle this dilemma. However, given the complexities of international diplomacy, its environmental pleas will likely yield little to no response.



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