Warming Trends: Banning a Racist Slur on Public Lands, and Calculating Climate’s Impact on Yellowstone, Birds and Banks

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

Views while ascending and descending Mount Evans, in Clear Creek County, Colorado, on July 11, 2017. The mountain is named for a former Colorado governor who played a role in the Sand Creek Massacre which saw 150 Native Americans slaughtered. Credit: Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Views while ascending and descending Mount Evans, in Clear Creek County, Colorado, on July 11, 2017. The mountain is named for a former Colorado governor who played a role in the Sand Creek Massacre which saw 150 Native Americans slaughtered. Credit: Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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CULTURE

A Guide to Removing Offensive Names from Geographic Features

In November 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order declaring the word “squaw” a derogatory term, mandating that any geographical feature on public lands with a name containing the word be renamed. The word, which is considered a slur against Native American women, was in the name of hundreds of places in the U.S., according to a 2015 survey. 

But the word is far from the only offensive and racist term used in the names of geographical features on public lands in the country, activists say. The names of thousands of features found in every state contain racial slurs or names of racist or confederate leaders, including on public lands.

“Place names tell us a story about who we are,” said Paul Spitler, senior legislative policy manager at the Wilderness Society. “When we choose to honor people who committed atrocities against Native Americans, when we choose to honor people who fought to defend slavery and fight against the United States, when we choose to recognize racial slurs as place names, we’re doing a disservice to all people.”

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There is a way to change these names, however. A new guide created by the Wilderness Society and the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers details the process of submitting a name change to ​​the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and provides information on what to consider when selecting a new name for a mountain, river, creek or butte on public lands. 

Although there is a lot of interest in making these changes in communities across the country, Spitler said that, until now, there was not a clear guide for navigating the bureaucratic process of getting a name change. 

“We hope that the Board on Geographic Names is flooded with proposals,” Spitler said. “We hope that people from across the country will be able to celebrate the names of their local places and will be able to walk with pride on public lands, knowing that public lands are welcoming of all people of all backgrounds.”

CULTURE

In Yellowstone, ‘Warming Drives Everything

Yellowstone, America’s first national park, celebrated its 150th anniversary this week. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law directing that the land could not be sold or settled and must be used as a public park for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

But the next 150 years are likely to look quite different in the iconic 2.2 million acre park as climate change drives up temperatures and reduces the vital snowpack that supplies water that wildlife depend on for the whole year. 

A recent assessment conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions projected the climate impacts to Yellowstone and the ecosystem around the park, known as the Greater Yellowstone Area, in the decades to come. The assessment found that the region will warm an average of 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 50 years if greenhouse gases are significantly reduced, compared to a 1986-2005 baseline. If emissions continue business as usual, the average annual temperature could reach 10 degrees higher than the baseline. 

“In this region, temperature drives everything,” said Cathy Whitlock, a research professor emerita in earth sciences at Montana State University and co-lead author on the Greater Yellowstone climate assessment. “Warming drives everything, because it affects how much snow we get, versus how much rain, how long the snowpack lasts, how fast it melts. And then, what it looks like in the summer when we go into late season drought, that’s all temperature-driven.”

The consequences of climate change in Yellowstone will include more wildfires, more rain and less snow, more summer droughts and more movement of wildlife as they flee toward milder temperatures or follow their food sources to cooler climates, Whitlock said.

“Yellowstone is an extraordinary place. It’s one of the largest remaining near-pristine ecosystems on the planet,” she said. “So I think it’s really important that we protect Yellowstone, in the face of climate change and really try to understand what’s happening here.”

BUSINESS

Holding Banks Accountable for What They Say, and Do, About Climate 

Banks are increasingly talking about climate change in their public reports, but they rarely address their role as financiers of climate-warming fossil fuels, a new study says.

Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden analyzed annual reports from 10 banks ranked as the top fossil fuel funders between 2015 and 2019. They categorized statements relating to climate change based on whether they were general commentary on climate change, descriptions of climate risks or opportunities that would affect their bottom lines, or whether they were commitments to take action on climate change. 

Most commitments were related to the banks’ operational impacts, such as emissions from their buildings, the study authors wrote, rather than their impacts from financing climate-warming activities. 

“This absence of commitments in the annual reports may reflect an absence of critical reflection on their responsibility for financing climate change,” the study authors wrote.

The study, published in the journal Climate Policy, also found that companies that had more statements related to climate change in their reports tended to fund fewer fossil fuel projects. For example, Scotiabank in Canada had the smallest funding of fossil fuels among the banks analyzed and had 28 climate statements in its 2019 report, the study said. JP Morgan Chase in the U.S., however, had the largest amount of fossil fuel financing with more than $60 billion, and had 10 climate statements in its 2019 report, the study said.

The study’s authors recommend three policy actions to improve accountability in this space: have disclosures include the climate impact of the clients that banks are financing, require due diligence for banks to consider their environmental impacts and create ways for banks to measure their progress that is aligned with the Paris agreement.

“Finance has been recognized more as this massive player, where we put money for sustainable development for climate funds for loss and damage,” said study co-author Jasmine Elliot, a Ph.D. student at Gothenburg. “They have a lot of money that they can pretty quickly move around in comparison to government funds.”

SCIENCE

Bird Traits and Climate Change 

In the last half century, data shows dozens of bird species are seeing changes in their traits. Egg laying is happening earlier in the season, body conditions are varying and the number of offspring are changing. 

New research shows that about 50 percent of changes to these three traits are due to climate change, while the other 50 percent are due to non-climate factors in the environment, such as light pollution, invasive predators or other factors often influenced by humans. 

Researchers from the Australian National University in New South Wales and James Cook University in Queensland looked at a 50-year dataset of 60 different bird species in Europe and determined how much the three traits changed over time. They attributed what proportion of those changes were climate related and what proportion was not. Their results, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, also showed that climate factors and non-climate factors tended to affect traits in the same way.

“The striking thing was that these other aspects of a changing environment are acting in the same direction as climate change,” said co-author Martijn van de Pol, an ecologist at James Cook University. “That was the thing that most surprised us I think in this study and wasn’t really known that well.” 

For example, a species may lay its eggs two weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago. One week of that change would be attributable to climate change, the other week attributable to other environmental factors, van de Pol said. 

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It’s important to understand how much a trait is being affected by climate change and other factors, so that conservation efforts can be targeted toward the root causes of changing traits.

“If it’s climate change, then we cannot find a local solution. That’s something we have to solve with all the people in the world,” van de Pol said. “But if it’s something more specific to the habitats, something like a local predator or like pesticide use or something else, then we can think OK, how can we reduce that?”

SOLUTIONS

New Tech for Desalination

Is it possible to turn saltwater into fresh water efficiently enough to meet a family’s water needs for just $4? Researchers at MIT believe they have found a way.

Their solar-powered prototype uses inexpensive household materials, like foam, glue and black paint and is intended to float on the surface of a water body. The desalination device has a narrow top layer and a bottom water body separated by an insulator with tiny holes in it and a layer of black paint on top. The top water layer is exposed to the sun and the layer of black paint absorbs solar radiation, which allows the water to heat up and evaporate, leaving behind a dense layer of salty water. Natural convection forces the denser water through the tiny holes into the cooler bottom water body, where the salty water is rejected to avoid contamination.

Many efforts to create an efficient, solar powered desalination device in the past have been stalled by the problem of salt buildup on a wick that draws the saltwater through the device, which reduces production of fresh water over time. The team was able to create a device that did not use a wick, but instead relied on natural convection to drive the movement of water. 

The device is both highly efficient at using solar energy to produce fresh water and can reject salt from highly saline water, and can even effectively reject contaminants in wastewater, the researchers detailed in a recent paper about their prototype in Nature Communications.

“The most significant impact is that we achieve both benefits simultaneously,” said paper co-author and MIT postdoctoral researcher Xiangyu Li. “Overall, this work is attractive as it reaches high energy efficiency, operates reliably and remains economical for fresh water production and wastewater treatment.”

This kind of device could be useful in developing countries, places where freshwater is hard to access or in places that lack infrastructure for large-scale desalination, said Li.

The next steps to get the device past the prototype stage is to test it in the real world, he said. 

“There’s still a lot of work to improve upon,” said Li. “But if everything aligns well, I think this can provide a very economical approach for small communities and single families to achieve fresh water when it is not available.”