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Star-Studded global climate summit mobilizes action plans to combat climate change

Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

If climate activists and local governments can’t work with Washington on climate change, they plan to work around it. More than 300 U.S. cities including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have vowed to uphold the Paris Agreement – bypassing the Trump Administration’s intention to withdraw. And now dozens of cities worldwide made or renewed commitments moving toward zero carbon emissions by 2030 at a global climate summit in San Francisco last week.

Against the backdrop of deadly Hurricane Florence and accelerating climate change, hundreds of leaders in government and business are taking solutions into their own hands. They came to the Global Climate Action Summit, a week-long series of events in the Bay Area to mobilize efforts that could put the planet on a path towards lower (or zero) carbon emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming. A wide range of players from indigenous groups focused on preserving forests, to billionaire investors committed to financing a transition away from carbon fuels committed to more than 500 action steps during the summit.

Thousands of delegates, speakers and reporters convened in calls to action by some of the most prominent figures in the environmental movement – former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Vice President and “Inconvenient Truth” author Al Gore, naturalist and animal rights activist Jane Goodall, and actor-turned-environmentalist Harrison Ford, currently vice chair of Conservation International’s board of directors.

“Cities are where it’s happening,” Al Gore said during a kick-off event hosted by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. “Cities are where the solutions are being found. For reasons I don’t fully understand, but some of you may, cities are far more responsive and creative in finding policy solutions.”

“You wouldn’t know it from reading the headlines that we are making progress,” said Bloomberg, a co-chair and one of the main organizers of the summit. “The headlines focus on the political fights in Washington. But the real action is happening in cities, states and the private sector. And the good news is those groups are positioning the United States to uphold our end of the Paris Agreement no matter what happens in Washington.”

Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, among others, spoke of the urgency of the climate crisis at the main summit plenary events on Thursday and Friday. The summit focused on ways to aid and inform the parallel climate negotiations of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). The calls to action focused on five key areas that cities and regions could undertake to bypass inaction by parent governments: healthy energy systems, inclusive economic growth, sustainable communities, land and ocean stewardship, and transformative climate investments.

“Since the White House announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement, more than 3,000 U.S. cities, states, businesses and other groups have declared their commitment to the Paris agreement,” wrote Brown and Bloomberg in a Los Angeles Times op-ed during the summit. “Together, these groups form the third-largest economy in the world, and they represent more than half the total U.S. population. They have been ramping up actions to cut carbon pollution and move toward the goals in the Paris agreement, just as the rest of the world is doing.”

Summit leaders view inaction at the top acute in the United States, where President Donald Trump’s Administration has vowed to back out of the Paris Agreement while threatening to undermine the Clean Air Act and roll back President Barack Obama’s clean power agenda.

Bloomberg set the tone by stressing that solving climate change was an economic opportunity. “California is a great example of how fighting climate change and growing the economy grow hand in hand,” Bloomberg said. “That’s something we also saw in NYC. We created a record number of jobs while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint by 19 percent.”

Some of the major new commitments announced during the summit include:

  • 12 major cities—including Tokyo, Seoul and Oslo—joined an existing network (now of 26 municipalities) pledging commitment to the C40 Cities’ “Fossil Fuel Free Streets Declaration.” This means using zero-carbon buses by 2025 and “ensuring a major area of the city is zero emission by 2030.”
  • 72 cities committed to adopting a climate action plan by 2020 and become emissions neutral by 2050.
  • A coalition of companies launched of the “Climate-Resilient Value Chains Leaders Platform,” including Coca-Cola and Mars that will assess climate risk in their supply chains.
  • Some 277 cities and counties committed to upholding the Paris Agreement as part of the summit’s “We Are Still In” initiative, among them cities that originally backed the accord when Trump announced plans to withdraw in June 2017.

The business-friendly attitude of the summit proved problematic at points. On Thursday morning, entrance to the plenary sessions in the Moscone Center was blocked by protestors critical of California Governor Jerry Brown, who they believe has not done enough to move away from the state’s substantial oil and gas portfolio. California in particular has suffered in recent years from the effects of climate change, experiencing a mix of intense drought and historic wildfires that have ravaged the interior of the state.

Nevertheless, the choice of locating the summit in San Francisco was strategic, as both the city and the state of California itself have become leaders in supporting renewable infrastructure and industry. “My plan is an integrated plan built up over time,” Brown said. “And we welcome any suggestions but I believe California has the most far reaching plan to deal with emissions as well as oil and production.” Brown also reminded attendees that if California was a country, it would have the third largest economy behind China and the US.

Later this year, the U.N. Climate Conference will be held in Katowice, Poland. Earlier this year, a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned that we are very close—less than one degree of global warming away—to producing a series of positive feedback loops that will generate what was ominously described as a “hothouse Earth” scenario.

“We are all rich or poor,” Harrison Ford said in a speech during the opening plenary. “Powerful or powerless. We will all suffer the effects of climate change, and we are facing what is quickly becoming the greatest moral crisis of our time.”

Photo at top: California Governor Jerry Brown called for urgent action to control climate change at  the “Global Climate Action Summit” on Friday. (Aaron Dorman/Medill)

Cherry Bombe Jubilee cultivates community for women changemakers in the food world

By Maia Welbel
Medill Reports

Between sips of Direct Trade coffee and hard kombucha, women at Cherry Bombe Jubilee this April in New York City talked food, business, and how they are making a difference in a male-dominated industry.

The Cherry Bombe Jubilee conference brings together and celebrates women in the food industry. Created by the founders of the indie magazine, Cherry Bombe, the Jubilee turns the tables on the lack of female attendance at the world’s most prestigious food conferences. Founders Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu host the event and curate a lineup of chefs, bakers, restaurant owners, food writers, and more to speak and socialize. Continue reading

Science and tourism in the Rio Secreto caves of the Yucatan Peninsula

By Brittany Callan
Medill Reports 

Rio Secreto, Yucatan Peninsula – The first thing that struck me was the darkness.  The feeble light from our helmets struggled to illuminate the cave around us.  You could either walk with your light pointing at the ground or use it to look around the cave.  Not both.  That was a challenge –  this was my first time in a cave and I wanted to see everything.

Where we start walking, the cave’s natural decorations of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites look ancient and fossilized.  These are the older formations. Geologist Patricia Beddows explained that she looks for younger stalagmites to monitor drips, but either can be sampled as a paleoclimate record.  All of the formations come from water moving through the calcified rock and soil, sometimes aided by tree roots.

As we walked further off of the tourist trail, we could see the difference between old and new.  The stalactites and stalagmites that are younger look more yellow, with a texture resembling  candlewax after a candle has been burning for awhile.  This  was the room in which Beddows did her research and affectionately called “the lab.”

A group of us gathered with Beddows at one of her data loggers in Rio Secreto. (Photo by Edward Mallon)

We also walk past a table and chairs where the highest paying tourists get to drink wine and enjoy food in a kind of cool and mysterious cave cafe. Beddows and our guide Fernanda Lases Hernandez ponder whether having a few higher paying tours rather than multiple cheaper ones can help reduce the impact of tourism on the cave system.

We were walking into the depths of Rio Secreto so that Beddows, a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, could check on her fleet of sensors that were busy collecting data on the number and frequency of drips of water hitting them from the stalactites above.  Each time a drip hit  the plastic drum of the data logger, a green light flashed.  Beddows is studying the groundwater recharge in the cave system, the process in which water moves from the surface  above into the cave. Recharge is a term for replenishing freshwater supplies. Working in Rio Secreto lets Beddows gather an entire population of drips.

Beddows checked to make sure all of her data loggers were working and pulled some that weren’t.  As we were walking on the way out, she stopped Lases and told me and my colleague, journalism student Tiffany Chen, how to guide ourselves out of the cave.  I looked for the red guide strings that led to the exit and tried to walk in between them to find the way out.  At times, it was difficult to find the strings and the path seemed mostly unfamiliar.  It felt easy to get lost here.

Small parts of Rio Secreto are devoted to guided tours. Photo provided by Rio Secreto.

Two days later, Chen and I came back to the cave to see it from a tourist’s perspective.  Ecotourism is wildly popular in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Rio Secreto is only partially commercialized for tourism, though.  Lases estimates that 10 percent is used for guided tours, and the guides switch routes to try to contain the direct impact.  The rest of the cave system is sequestered for research and conservation. The total  length of the Rio Secreto cave system is 38 kilometers (about 23 miles) and the total area of the cave we experienced is only a few hundred meters.

Lases and guide Raul Padilla Borja stopped before the tour to talk to us about the importance of conserving the cave ecosystem.  They warned us about keeping our heads down to prevent  breaking any of the stalactites.  Later, when we were in the water,  Padilla rubbed his hand on the side of his nose and then put it in the water to show us how the calcite in the cave rafts. It looks  like ice and disperses immediately.

“It is very important to inform our visitors, people that are coming as our guests to Rio Secreto, about the fragility, the importance, and the uniqueness of the aquifer of Rio Secreto,” Lases said.

Rio Secreto, like many other places in the Yucatan Peninsula, is in a struggle  to conserve the purity of  the groundwater.  I talked to a dry cave explorer, Peter Sprouse, about how he thought the cave operators were doing.

“They have made pretty significant efforts in conserving the watershed that leads to the caves. They have to fight off some developments from Playa del Carmen to the north.  It’s a constant battle to them, to keep the water clean,” Sprouse said. There is a threat of seepage of wastewater as the development accelerates.

But for now, the ecosystem seems to be doing well.  On our tour, we were lucky enough to see two blind fish – white fish that have empty eye sockets because they have evolved to live without eyesight since it isn’t useful in the cave.

“This fish is in the red list [of threatened species] and they are also very fragile to pollution. But, at the same time they are an indicator that everything is going well.  The presence of a blind fish means the ecosystem is in very good shape,” said Padilla.

Photo at top: Looking for the blind fish. (Photo by Rio Secreto)

The Maritime Maya and building an ancient island pyramid

By Brittany Callan
Medill Reports

Vista Alegre, Mexico – Exploring an overgrown Mayan temple in the old Mayan port city of Vista Alegre – located on an island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula – wasn’t quite what I expected.  Videogames such as Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag set up romantic over-the-top temples that I’m sure are responsible for my love of crumbling ancient ruins.  I knew better than to expect environments resembling the ones portrayed in my fantasies.  But I don’t have an archaeologist’s trained eye – I wouldn’t have been able to notice an archaeological pit on my own.

We were stopping at the island so that Northwestern University geologist Patricia Beddows could check on and replace some of the flow and temperature sensors she had deployed nearby.  She is an associate professor of instruction in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern and has spent years researching in the Yucatan. She decided to give a tour of the archaeological site while we were here.  I was following Beddows for an embedded reporting assignment.

The pits are typically divided into units, a meter square and 10 centimeters deep.  Archaeologists and their students sift and sort all of the material dug out of the pit, once used by the Mayans as storage chambers.  Anything that isn’t just geological material gets carefully collected and this includes pottery, shells and bones.  The rest of the material is put back into the pit at the end of the digging season and then covered up to look like the rest of the jungle floor.  There are about 20 to 30 pits at Vista Alegra and almost all of them included  some human remains, showing that the island didn’t have enough room for people to bury their dead.  All of the artifacts and remains are gathered for safe-keeping at a building owned by the multinational archaeologists who work on the site.

The site has a couple of different holes in the ground that are built by the Maya on high points. These holes, called “chultun,” were used for water or food storage.  However, because they are on high points, it seems unlikely that they were used to capture water, leaving a mystery as to where the people living on the island got their water.  People lived at the site intermittently from 800 B.C. to the mid-16th century.  Beddows lived on this site for a month at one point and says her group of a small number of people had challenges  maintaining a water supply.  Hundreds of people lived on this island in ages past. It served as a connection point between coastal and inland areas on a trade route for Mayan freight canoes.  Beddows says the site might lead to a piece in the basic equation of the area’s water budget that scientists are currently missing.  There might have been areas of coastal freshwater discharge that the ancient people could use.

One chultun goes deeper than the current water table where archaeologists were still finding material.  This material had clearly been on dry land when it was used, but it now is flooded by groundwater.  Beddows says that this might mean there is something scientists are missing about how the sea level has changed over time.

“There’s something here we don’t fully understand,” she says.  The site challenges what scientists currently accept about the tectonic stability in the area.  The archaeology at this site and at others nearby are forcing a fundamental rethinking of tectonic stability, which has been assumed to exist since a paper published in 1970.  Beddows compares the potential movement to a teeter totter where parts of the platform are rising while others are dropping.  This could mean that what looks like sea level rise actually is the land going down, or the opposite, which would inform the way adaptions measures to climate change are implemented.

The base of the central pyramid at Vista Alegre, looking up. (Brittany Callan/Medill)

We wander for a bit on the pathways that have been cleared for researchers as we look for the central pyramid.  A massive, beautiful carved stone of a snake head used to lie in front of the temple but was taken away by the National Institute of Archaeology out of concern that it would be stolen.  Looting – even in a remote site such as this one, only accessible by hiring a fishing boat – is still a real risk.  We find the pyramid, which is actually next to a plaza we encountered earlier. The pyramid, after centuries of erosion, looks like a pile of worn rock with weeds growing out from between them.  When it was first created, the outside of it would have been plaster.  The pyramids at popular tourist sites once also looked like this before clearing the vegetation and putting surface stones back in place.

We scramble up the rocks to the top, where we can see above the treetops of the jungle.  The pyramid is extremely steep.  Beddows says the reason for that is because it reduces the total volume of building materials needed to create it, which is important when all of the rock on the island would have been moved here from somewhere else.  The only methods of transport meant carrying the rocks or bringing them by canoe, both of which would have been difficult.

“It actually made more sense for them to invest in making more cement, which is made by burning lime,” requiring wood and labor,  Beddows says. “But that’s probably easier than hauling rocks.”

We carefully walk sideways down the pyramid, sliding and trying not to knock any of the rocks out of place or erode them.  We leave the scientific mysteries of the site behind us, where it awaits the next expedition of researchers to visit.

Photo at top: Northwester University geologist Patricia Beddows pulls out a disintegrating wooden ladder used by previous researchers to descend into a chultun, an underground Mayan storage chamber. (Brittany Callan/Medill)

Scientists follow clues in Alaska to illnesses moving from animals to humans

By Samantha Yadron
Medill Reports

Medill News Service journalist Samantha Yadron is an embedded journalist with scientists from the University of Anchorage, Alaska, reporting on the dangers of micro-plastics to wildlife consuming it. In this blog, she follows scientists with the One Health initiative on a multinational research tour gathering clues about the  transfer of illnesses from animals to humans .

Portage Valley, Alaska, Thursday, May 24—It’s around 10:30 am and the sunny, warm day near Anchorage feels far away from the Arctic research at the Begich Boggs Visitor Center,  an intricate but severe -looking building erected with windowed tunnels and walls  to display the view of Portage Lake and Valley. The heavy rain typical of this valley seems to be falling sideways.

the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, an intricate but severe -looking building erected with windowed tunnels and walls to display the view of Portage Lake and Valley. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

A large, white tour bus sits in the parking lot. It’s passengers, more than 10 ecologists, veterinarians, biologists, public health specialists, and state representatives from Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States—six of the eight countries on the Arctic Council—have de-boarded and now stand atop a small hill looking at the few icebergs speckling the water. They take  pictures with their phones.

The scientists have spent the last seven days traveling across Minnesota and Alaska, attending meetings with government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, talking with other scientists, and visiting what some call “the real Alaska,” near Denali and Fairbanks., This refers to the more rural, more indigenous, subsistence-based communities compared to  heavily-populated Anchorage.

Brought to the U.S. through a State Department initiative called the International Visitor Leadership Program, these current and emerging foreign leaders from multiple disciplines  came to collaborate on a concept called One Health, a way of looking at public health through human, animal, and environmental lenses.

In Anchorage, they were guided by Thomas Hennessey, director of Arctic Investigations Program at the CDC, in the Anchorage Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections. They are researching the potential threats of disease transfer between animals and people, a threat that increases with the warming temperatures of climate change. Doug Causey, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and who does fieldwork in this valley, had the idea to bring them to Portage Glacier Valley and this center.

Located just under 55 miles southeast of Anchorage, the center resides within Chugach National Forest, the second largest forest within the U.S. Forest Service.  At 6 million acres, it is roughly the size of New Hampshire. The center, when built in 1986, offered visitors the rare opportunity to see a glacier in-person, even while standing where Thursday’s visitors stood. Now, to see the shrinking glacier, visitors need to take a cruise on Portage Lake.

A photo of Portage Lake, filled with icebergs and the glacier in the mid-1980s, on a PowerPoint for one of Doug Causey’s classes.
The Portage Valley Glacier is rapidly melting. This May 24 photograph shows it has receded a half-mile since the image above was photographed in the mid-1980s. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

“People get really excited about seeing a glacier,” says Tim Charnon, having gathered the group indoors around a large, circular, topographical map of the forest. Containing the largest ice field in Alaska, Chugach is really “on the frontlines of Arctic studies,” says Charnon, which becomes evident when you consider the glacier’s history.

In just over 20 years, the glacier has receded a half mile. “It’s around the corner, but it’s a long way around the corner,” Charnon says. In another 20 years, Charnon says the glacier will transform into a “hanging glacier,” which, according the National Snow and Ice Data Center, happens when former glaciers recede to the point that all that’s left are smaller, tributary glaciers high above the surface.

Even the icebergs in the lake have diminished. It’s unusual now to see any icebergs in the lake, when, in the 1980s, the lake would be filled with them. “You’re all lucky,” Charnon says. “There will be a few years remaining where you’ll see icebergs in the lake. But the calving events will get less common.”

Working through healthcare practitioners and veterinarians, One Health strategizes on global public health issues through interdisciplinary means as part of organizations such as the CDC. As an officially adopted concept, it dates back to 2008, when 120 countries and 26 international and regional organizations recognized it as a way to combat Avian Influenza. But the CDC’s timeline for One Health as an idea shows its origins as early as 1821, with Dr. Rudolph Virchow, who coined the term “zoonosis” to describe diseases that can be passed between humans and animals.

“It’s an approach that makes you take a step back and look at the broader picture of your study system,” says Emily Jenkins, a member of the group and an Associate Professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology, with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.

But the Portage Glacier isn’t the whole story of this valley, says Charnon; another part has to do with wildlife. “People like Doug Causey at the University of Alaska and his students are our boots on the ground to do some biology work.”

Doug Causey shows the group where he discovered bats are sleeping in the Portage Valley, which is in those globs of moss attached to the tree branches. (Samantha Yadron/Medill)

The visitors left the center and followed Causey in their tour bus to two of his field sites, just a short drive back North up the road.

Along a stream that, because of the way the water runs down from the glacier, stays warm enough to run year-round, a perennial ecosystem that includes otters, fish, birds, bugs, and bat thrives. As the group gathered around, Causey explained that where they all stood was the northernmost part of the temperate rainforest.

The inhabitance of bats in this valley, according to Causey, serves as one of his most interesting (and most recent) discoveries there. “Five years ago, no one knew Alaska even had bats,” Causey said. “There are no caves here,” says Causey. So where do the bats sleep?

By setting up microphones that record bats’ supersonic sound, Causey gradually moved the microphones closer and closer to where he heard them. Pointing to green balls of moss that form around the tree branches, Causey showed the group that he discovered this is where they rest during the day. “It took us four years to find this place,” Causey said.

Bats are important to One Health advocates because of the many pathogens they can carry, including the  Ebola virus. One-Health places emphasis on emergent zoonotic diseases. “Emergent disease is, ‘oh my god people are falling over dead with something we’ve never known before. We’d like to know about the disease before people are dead. That’s where One Health comes in,” says Causey.

Vigdis Tryggvadottir, group member and a veterinary officer of Zoonoses at Icelandic Food and Safety, agrees. “You realize quickly that we need to be talking. For example, the AMR issue, it’s not a human issue or a veterinary issue; it’s our issue. We need to be working together,” Tryggvadottir says, referring to the problem of antimicrobial resistance, which means bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi becoming resistant to treatments like antibiotics.

One Health might seem like an intuitive idea, and, according to Jenkins, to First Nations, Inuit, and Indigenous peoples, it is. To them, “One Health is absolutely no big news. They get it that human and animal and environmental health is linked. It is not a surprise to them.” And yet, she says scientists “tend to get a little fixated on our pet parasites or pet species or pet locations. One Health makes you take a step back.”

After Causey finished showing the representatives his field sites, the international group re-boarded their bus for the next stop: Seward, Alaska, where they will visit the Alaska Sealife Center to study how veterinarians treat marine wildlife, a central theme of the One health mission.

Samantha Yadron

 

Energy and power company leaders meet in Chicago to call for a clean energy surge

By Puja Bhattacharjee

It’s time. Energy leaders are calling for a shift to renewable power sources to meet future needs for utility companies, including for Commonwealth Edison Co.

“How do you take the systems we have built into smart systems and turn it clean?” asked Anne Pramaggiore, president and CEO of ComEd. You build up solar and wind, she said, a point echoed by other utility leaders and energy experts at the recent conference Empowering Companies & Cities. The Energy Times, an online magazine and newsletter covering electric power and utilities, organized the conference.

The clean energy transformation should start now, said Jeremy Rifkin, an economic and energy advisor to the European Union. “The next big bubble, I’m gonna tell you, [will be] the stranded assets in the fossil fuel industry and it is going to make the subprime [financial crisis] look like a tiny little startup game,” Rifkin said.

Energy and power company leaders gathered in Chicago called for a shift to alternative energy sources.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky wins re-election on “pins and needles” for final presidential results

By Hannah Moulthrop

Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s 9th district victory went almost unnoticed at her packed party at Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Evanston. Cheers erupted for Clinton’s win of each new state as the presidential race heated up, but supporters took for granted Schakowsky’s long expected re-election in her district that straddles Chicago’s North Side and a litany of North and Northwest suburbs.

Schakowsky was watching the senate and house races as closely as anyone else. Continue reading

Illinois blood centers to implement testing for Zika

By Teresa Manring

LifeSource blood centers will implement testing of donated blood supplies for the Zika virus by Nov. 18 to meet a Food and Drug Administration recommendation that all U.S. blood centers test for the disease.

LifeSource operates community blood donation centers in the state and distributes blood to approximately 60 area hospitals. Blood testing will be implemented on or before Nov. 18, said Eva Quinley, regional executive director of LifeSource. Continue reading

Foodie 5K runs up $1 million in groceries for hungry neighbors

By Sara Shouhayib

Over 1,200 runners and walkers took their place at the starting line of the second annual Foodie 5K race on Saturday morning and raised $130,000 to fight hunger.

That’s enough money to provide the equivalent of $1 million worth of groceries to feed hungry people in Northern Illinois.

“We know that one in seven of our neighbors are at risk of missing meals in the coming year,” said Julie Yurko, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, serving 13 counties. Continue reading

Garza pulls ahead but says 10th ward race ‘too close to call’

By Lizz Giordano and Meghan Tribe

Alderman John A. Pope,  a 16 year incumbent of the 10th ward, finds himself in a race too close to call against his opponent and political newcomer Susan Sadlowski Garza.

As of 10 p.m., with 35 out of 36 precincts reporting, only seven votes separated the two candidates and Garza had pulled into the lead. Continue reading