Warming Trends: A Climate Win in Austin, the Demise of Butterflies and the Threat of Food Pollution

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

A voter walks toward a polling location on election day in Austin, Texas on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images
A voter walks toward a polling location on election day in Austin, Texas on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images

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Warming Trends





Climate Goes Local on Election Day

The national election might be taking forever to resolve. But several cities around the country  successfully passed climate-friendly measures on Tuesday. 

Among them was Austin, Texas, where voters approved a property tax increase that would fund about 45 percent of a $7.1 billion project to improve public transportation, including adding a new light rail service, an underground light rail tunnel running under Austin’s downtown and new bus routes. The benefits of the project, listed in the city ordinance, include creating jobs, relieving traffic congestion, decreasing traffic deaths and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The tax dedicates 8.75 cents per $100 toward the improvements.


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In Denver, Colorado, voters approved a sales tax of 2.5 cents per $10 to fund clean energy jobs and technology, natural resource management and climate justice programs, passing the measure with just over 64 percent of the vote. 

With the pandemic battering the economy, the Denver City Council has become increasingly reliant on tax increases  to fund new programs, according to the Denver Post. Supporters of the tax increase said it was much needed. Critics, however, pointed out that a sales tax increase is regressive—poor people tend to bear more of the cost. 




Harvard Pollution Study Published. Trump’s EPA (Still) Ignoring Findings

A Harvard study linking air pollution to increased deaths from Covid-19 stirred controversy last spring when the scientists released the findings before the research had been peer reviewed. On Wednesday, the study, which has now undergone peer-review, was published in the open-access journal, Science Advances.

When the research was posted in April on the health sciences platform MedRxiv, it evoked an uproar by Trump officials and their allies, in large part because the results were at odds with the administration’s decision not to tighten air pollution standards. 

The study found that exposure to high levels of fine particulate air pollution, or PM 2.5, was correlated with increased Covid-19 mortality. An increase of 1 microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter in the air, the researchers found, was associated with an 11 percent increase in the Covid-19 death rate. The study compared public data on Covid-19 mortality rates to air pollution data in U.S. counties. PM 2.5, defined as particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, is produced primarily through the burning of oil, coal and wood.

Also on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency—ignoring the advice of scientists and the findings of large-scale studies showing that tightening standards for PM 2.5 pollution could save tens of thousands of lives—sent to the White House for final review its decision to keep national air quality standards for particulate matter the same.




Bye Bye Butterflies

Moth and butterfly populations have declined by over 80 percent in the last 50 years. In a forthcoming book, “The Disappearance of Butterflies” (Polity Press: November, 2020), German author and entomologist Josef H. Reichholf draws connections between the dwindling populations and environmental degradation, including climate change and industrial agriculture. 

Reichholf, who says he has admired butterflies all his life and began keeping records in 1958, recalls being shocked when he looked back at his early records. Many species he saw often he now hasn’t seen in decades; some have gone extinct. 

In his book, Reichholf argues against the widespread use of the pesticides he largely blames for butterflies’ demise, instead favoring food production that is friendly to insects. He writes that he hopes his witness of the last half-century of butterfly decline will inspire the changes needed to protect species that remain, preserving biodiversity for generations to come. 




Don’t Ignore the Food System

Even if the planet stopped burning fossil fuels altogether, the emissions from agriculture and food production would still drive warming above the range set in the Paris climate agreement, according to a new study, led by University of Oxford researchers. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from food and agriculture alone will increase warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—the limit set by the Paris Agreement—within 30 to 45 years, the study found. To meet the Paris goal, the authors assert, it will be essential to reduce emissions from agriculture and food production in addition to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.  

An aerial view from a drone shows a farmer planting corn on a farm he farms with his father on April 23, 2020 near Dwight, Illinois. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
An aerial view from a drone shows a farmer planting corn on a farm he farms with his father on April 23, 2020 near Dwight, Illinois. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Time is of the essence,” the authors wrote. “Any delays will necessitate more ambitious and expeditious implementation of emissions reduction strategies if global temperature targets are to be met.” The research was published on Friday in the journal Science.

The scientists examined projected emissions from 2020 to 2100 under a scenario of “business as usual,” where the status quo in emissions production is maintained. Their analysis took into account population increase, the spread of wealth and more efficient energy use. 

The sources of food system emissions include cutting down forests for cropland, machinery, transportation, chemical production and methane emissions from livestock manure.