Warming Trends: Butterflies Bounce Back, Growing Up Gay Amid High Plains Oil, Art Focuses on Plastic Production

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Clusters of monarchs. monarch butterflies in tree at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico. Credit: Marica van der Meer/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Clusters of monarchs. monarch butterflies in tree at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico. Credit: Marica van der Meer/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Share this article


Migration Surveys Show Monarchs Making Comeback

Last December, in the wintering grounds of the Eastern monarch butterfly in central Mexico, the area covered by butterflies hugging trees and huddling together through the cold months was 35 percent higher than the previous winter, surveys show, and covered 7 acres of land. 

That’s a hopeful sign for the population that is recovering from an all-time low of just 1.6 acres in 2013. Surveys by the World Wildlife Fund and other organizations going back to 1993 show a population that fluctuated annually but steadily declined until the 2013 low. Since then, the species has rebounded, although their numbers are still substantially lower than the levels seen in the 1990s.

“As with any natural population, it fluctuates, there are many, many factors that affect any animal or plant population, and these fluctuations are normal,” said Jorge Rickards, general manager of WWF-Mexico. “But even with those fluctuations, we have seen this increase.”


We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

Eastern monarchs spend the winter months in central Mexico. In the spring, they begin a long, multigenerational migration north into the United States and southern Canada, where they breed. After several generations are born, breed and die, the monarchs migrate back to Mexico in the fall. 

But this delicate phenomenon is threatened by a lack of milkweed, the sole food supply for the caterpillars, in their breeding grounds, more extreme weather driven by climate change and illegal logging in their overwintering habitat. After the population crashed, however, conservation efforts shifted into high gear, Rickards said. More milkweeds were planted in the U.S. and Canada, he said, and Mexico cracked down on timber poachers. 

The monarch migration is a miraculous and delicate phenomenon, Rickards said, making it a great indicator for the ecological health of the region. 

“Monarchs are also a very good ambassador for nature,” he said. “They are so beautiful, they are so attractive, they are so in our reach. It’s not like a polar bear that may be very charismatic, but very few people get to see a polar bear. We all see monarchs. It’s easy, they are in our gardens. So they help us establish a bond as humans with nature.”


Queer Eye on a Land of Oil and Cattle

A new memoir tells a story of growing up gay in rural North Dakota amid a destructive fossil fuel extraction industry. The author, Taylor Brorby, parallels his childhood and coming out story with the life of the prairie forbs and grasses that covered the landscape he grew up in. 

In the book, “Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land,” Brorby tells a raw and heartwrenching story of personal struggle with echos of environmental loss and climate change in the background.  

Inside Climate News recently discussed the book, which will be published on June 7, with Brorby. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you want to write this memoir?

North Dakota is technically the least visited state, and I thought, my goodness, that means it’s safe to assume no one in the country knows anything about North Dakota, other than it’s somewhere up there by Canada. And I thought, you know, this is a great opportunity to write about a landscape that means so much to me and its beauty. We often call it flyover country, you know. 

But even if we expand that into literature of the Great Plains and literature, especially, in the intermountain west, and if you go about 50 miles in from the west coast, to my knowledge, there really isn’t any memoir about growing up gay in that vast region. And I thought, oh my goodness, if we’re in 2022 and a book like that doesn’t exist, then people growing up in that part of the world who are queer might not feel like they exist. 

How has the fossil fuel industry morphed in North Dakota over your lifetime, and where is it heading as the climate changes? 

North Dakota is the testing ground for most of the country’s worst ideas. I mean, Native American reservations, the damming of the Missouri River, Minuteman missile silos pointed across the ice cap to Russia, hydraulic fracking. Now the latest, my home power plant is now the crux of the conversation. Will we have a planet upon which we can live? There’s this project called Project Tundra. It is the world’s guinea pig for carbon capture and storage, which, when greenwashed, sounds good—we’re gonna capture our emissions, liquefy them and pump them 6,000 feet underground where they’ll supposedly stay forever. But that’s predicated on a reliance on fossil fuels, that we’ll still continue to burn coal, especially in the region that I come from. So how it’s changed, instead of things being shot into the air, we’ll just pump them underground beneath our feet and cross our fingers that somehow there’s enough room and that it will stay there forever. 

What parallels do you see between yourself and your life, and the prairie landscape scarred by fossil fuel development that you came up in?

The prairie, to my understanding, is somehow fragile and yet resilient, and it’s incredibly diverse. It’s one of the most diverse bioregions on the planet, which is one of the many reasons I love it. It creates a perfect metaphor for humanity, about the human imposed systems that have largely been monocultures. You know, white settler colonialism, fossil fuel extraction or grazing of ranch cattle in particular. And all of that harms the natural environment. 

But the prairie that I grew up on is rain poor, that landscape never healed… And so, if you have exposed scars, how do you hold that? I think part of that is you don’t turn away from those stories and you say, this has happened here. And that landscape in those ways has formed me so much. How do you grow up to be a sensitive and strong man in the face of such harshness? 


Covid-Driven Decline in Tourism Shows How Cities Can Cut Emissions

The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 brought activities to a standstill around the world. Strict lockdowns in Europe led to a period during which cities saw virtually no tourists and had drastic reductions in vehicle traffic. These changes led to a massive drop in emissions at the city level, a new study found, with study sites seeing cuts that ranged from 5 to 87 percent compared to prior years. 

Despite this, once lockdowns ended and activities resumed, emissions returned to levels seen before the pandemic. But a few cities that draw big numbers of tourists, including Amsterdam and London, did not rebound right away after restrictions were lifted, as international travel remained slow, the researchers from several institutions found. They looked at emissions data collected at 13 carbon monitoring sites in Europe’s Integrated Carbon Observation System (ICOS) that measured greenhouse gases at a hyper local level in 11 cities before, during and after the first lockdown. 

Keep Environmental Journalism Alive

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

A big takeaway from the study’s findings, said study co-author Dario Papale, director the ICOS Ecosystem Thematic Centre, is that it’s possible to quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions in cities through changes in human behavior, particularly by reducing vehicle traffic.

“The temporary nature of the observed emission reductions emphasizes the need to implement systemic changes in the city ecosystem and people’s lifestyles to achieve effective and sustained climate change mitigation,” the authors write in the paper.


Artists Transcend the Boredom of Plastic Production

During his career working at the intersection of art and environmental communication, Camille Duran felt that the stories being told focused so much on the problems that people felt guilty and discouraged. And often, these stories were only reaching people who were already environmentally engaged. 

So, he wondered, how could he reach “beyond the choir” and tell stories through art that would leave people intrigued and wanting to learn more?

That question led him to create Magnify, an art collective that aims to go beyond environmental and social awareness to create systemic changes toward a “new normal.” 

The collective’s first project is tackling the issue of plastic overproduction. Three artists located near three different petrochemical hubs around the world each created a unique art piece about the issue.  

In St. James Parish, Louisiana, muralist Matt Willey painted a scout bee encountering another bee dripping with oil. In Antwerp, Belgium, cartoonist Pieter De Poortere drew up four cartoons illustrating the absurdity and silliness of plastic production. And in Taipei, Taiwan, artist Yen-Ting Tseng, also known as Kappa, used songs and crafty dioramas to illustrate how human lifetimes compare to plastic lifetimes. 

Duran said the projects focus on the production end of the life cycle of plastic because this is a segment of the supply chain he believes few people really understand. Most of the focus has been on consuming less plastic and recycling plastic once people are done with it, he said. 

“I think there are a lot of stories and themes that are very, very important for us to consider as a society but that are extremely boring to talk about, and complex and gray,” Duran said. “No one wants to talk about infrastructure, no one wants to talk about build outs and polymers and ethane and all this. But we found a way to make it compelling and intriguing and to transcend those storytelling barriers.”