River of News
Sewage data analyzed in Silicon Valley wastewater treatment plants confirms that the latest wave of coronavirus infections is sharply worse than the ones in the spring and summer.
Longer, more frequent outages afflict the U.S. power grid as states fail to prepare for climate change
With lawsuits and cleanup costs mounting in the Orange County oil spill, some fear the pipeline's owner may not have the resources or desire to pay the costs.
Parts of Los Angeles got rain overnight, with more on the way Monday. Northern California braces for a drenching and heavy snow.
Although the kingdom will aim to reduce emissions within its own borders, there is no indication it will slow down investments in oil and gas or move away from the production of fossil fuels.
(Image credit: Amr Nabil/AP)
The actor and author has a new book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon about why walking in the woods makes him feel better and how to experience nature in a city.
(Image credit: George Saunders)
Feeling anxious about the climate crisis is a totally normal response, says ecotherapist Phoenix Smith. Here's how you can manage those feelings for the decades to come.
(Image credit: Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR)
Plastic permeates the oceans, clutters landfills, and threatens to create a “near-permanent contamination of the natural environment,” according to researchers. As if that weren’t bad enough, it is also a major contributor to climate change.
A new report from the advocacy group Beyond Plastics says that emissions from the plastic industry could overtake those from coal-fired power plants by the end of this decade. At every step of its life cycle, the report said, plastic causes greenhouse gas emissions that are jeopardizing urgent climate goals and harming marginalized communities.
“Plastic is intimately connected to the climate crisis,” said Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and the founder of Beyond Plastics, at a press conference unveiling the report. Most people understand how plastic strangles the ocean and can cause health problems, she added, but far fewer have grasped its concerning climate footprint. “Plastic is the new coal,” Enck said.
The report details 10 ways that plastic contributes to global warming, starting with its creation. Plastics are petroleum products, meaning they are made from materials produced by oil and gas wells. Most shale wells in the U.S. are fracked, a process by which liquid is injected deep into the ground to force out methane, ethane, and other gases. Beyond Plastics estimates that leakage at these fracking wellheads contributes an estimated 33 million metric tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere annually — an amount that’s roughly equivalent to Denmark’s total emissions in 2019.
Even more greenhouse gas is leaked from pipelines that transport fracked gas to processing facilities. And the facilities themselves — ethane “cracker” plants that heat fracked gas to very high temperatures so it can be turned into plastic — are also “super emitters of greenhouse gases,” Enck said at the press conference for the new report. The U.S.’s 35 cracker facilities and the power plants that help them run release 63.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year — just shy of Greece’s total 2019 output. The petrochemical industry’s plans for expansion could add an additional 38 million metric tons of ghg emissions annually by 2025.
Plastic production doesn’t just help warm the planet; the greenhouse gas emissions are typically accompanied by a slurry of potentially harmful chemicals that can make their way into the surrounding air, water, and soil. The resulting health issues affect nearby neighborhoods, which tend to be disproportionately nonwhite and lower-income. “There are some communities that have facility after facility piled up on them,” said Alex Bomstein, a senior litigation attorney with the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Clean Air Council.Smoke billows from a refinery in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” home to a dense concentration of petrochemical plants. Giles Clarke / Getty Images
The Beyond Plastics report went on to describe millions more tons of planet-warming emissions that are associated with plastic after it is produced. According to the report, a staggering 24.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases are released every year just from the blowing agents — compounds like hydrofluorocarbons — in plastic insulation. Some of these agents can be over 1,400 times more potent in their heat-trapping capacity than CO2 — great news for keeping your house warm, but not so much once they start to accumulate in the atmosphere. Plastic insulation-related hydrofluorocarbons can leach into the air for decades after installation, the report said, and for years after that once the insulation is landfilled.
Plastic disposal also makes for an environmental issue. When plastic isn’t recycled — as is almost always the case — it is often burned. Beyond Plastics estimates that in 2018, the incineration of plastic found in the U.S.’s municipal waste released nearly 13 million metric tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere — as much as the emissions associated with almost 800,000 Americans in 2019.. More plastic might be burned in so-called “chemical recycling” facilities that, more often than not, turn scrapped plastic back into fossil fuels to be burned.
Even in the ocean — the final resting place for an eye-watering amount of the world’s discarded wrappers, bags, and straws — plastic continues emitting. Although plastic is notoriously hard to break down, it can be degraded by sun and water, releasing potent greenhouse gases such as methane and ethane.
All told, the Beyond Plastics report estimates that the U.S.’s production of plastic in 2020 caused about 210 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions — about as much as 116 average-sized U.S. coal-fired power plants. And many experts expect that number to rise, as fossil fuel companies increasingly turn to plastic as a lifeline for their dying industry. In the past few years, Big Oil giants ranging from ExxonMobil and Shell to Saudi Aramco and Formosa have said they plan to increase their plastic production capacity. In 2018, the International Energy Agency predicted that petrochemicals would account for one-third of the growth in oil demand until 2030, and nearly half of it by 2050.
In response to a request for comment, the Plastics Industry Association sent Grist a press release dismissing the Beyond Plastics report, saying that the organization had cherry-picked data “to fit their narrative in order to raise more money for themselves” and that plastic alternatives like glass or metal would have higher environmental impacts. The American Chemistry Council, another major industry trade group, did not respond to Grist’s request for comment in time for publication.
Aarthi Ananthanarayanan, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s POSEIDON project, said that the report highlighted the need for policymakers to better regulate petrochemical producers. “We have to start considering plastics as part of the fossil fuel industry,” she said, especially in advance of COP26, the climate conference where countries are set to renew their voluntary commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. “In order for ‘net-zero’ or ‘Paris alignment’ to be meaningful, they have to include plastic production.”
The Clean Air Council’s Bomstein agreed, stressing the importance of holding the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries accountable for their impact on vulnerable communities. “There’s no right to kill people in order to make money,” he said, “but that’s what these industries are doing. It’s time for all of us — and especially policymakers — to say it’s no longer acceptable.”
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: Plastic is on track to become a bigger climate problem than coal on Oct 22, 2021.
If you possess some degree of historical awareness in 2021, it is hard not to recognize the influence of extractive colonialism everywhere you look. But you’d really have to be blind not to see it in Dune, the most recent cinematic interpretation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi series.
The plot’s primary conflict revolves around various aristocratic houses overseeing the harvesting of spice, a powerful psychoactive substance that somehow also facilitates interstellar navigation, from the barren desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune. (I have not read the books, so I’m basing this entirely off having watched the two-and-a-half-hour epic on HBOMax, although it would probably be better enjoyed in theaters). Whichever house is in control of the harvesting — a choice that is dictated by the emperor — benefits from extraordinary wealth and power, because spice is highly valuable. As you can imagine, the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen, do not benefit in any way from this arrangement — in fact, they are at perpetual war with their colonizers.
The family in power of Arrakis at the beginning of the film, the Harkonnens, are clearly bad colonizers. We know this because they are pale and paunchy and bald, and their home palace looks like the Kardashian-West residence in a blackout. Whereas we are supposed to see the Atreides, who take over from the Harkonnens on command of the Emperor, as good colonizers; they are attractive and fit and they have all their hair (and how!), and their British Isles-like home planet’s palace has lots of windows.
Their goodness is further cemented by moments like the one in which the reigning Duke Leto Atreides (played by familiar space epic star Oscar Isaac) tells a Fremen leader that he has no interest in killing them — you’re welcome — and then again when he heroically saves twenty or so of his employees from some spice-threshing vehicle just before it is devoured by a sandworm. Leto’s son, Paul (played broodingly by Timothée Chalamet) signals his pureness of heart by asking a sweltering gardener about the local vegetation.
The necessity of mastering, or at the very least adapting to, the natural world is an ongoing theme in Dune. There is a scene early on in the film where Leto explains to his son that, as a Caladan-dwelling family, they have “ocean power” and “air power” under their belts. Now they must now learn “desert power,” which Paul seems to internalize as a personal mission that he will accomplish under the tutelage of Arrakis’ Fremen. Paul, furthermore, carries the burden of being the probable intergalactic messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach, a fate enabled by his witch mother of the Bene Gesserit order.
You may well be thinking: So, we are still embracing the white messianic story arc. Denis Villeneuve, the director of this latest iteration of the science fiction epic, has responded to the claim that Dune plays into the “white savior” trope by saying that no, actually, it is critiquing that very premise. I am not sure that the critique is evident, given the number of scenes in the film of brown people marveling at an uncomfortable Chalamet, but apparently this film is part one of two.
Villeneuve does seem to love a messiah narrative set in an apocalyptic future, which is how we could describe Blade Runner: 2049, his remake of Blade Runner: 2020. The theme of climate change and ecological demise was more obvious there than in Dune, what with Ryan Gosling stomping through dust-choked ochre ruins and dark clouds of drizzle. But what Dune offers in the way of a point of reflection on our climate crisis reality is the massive and complex scale of anguish that comes from the relentless extraction of a natural resource for profit.
Spice may be fictional, but here on Earth, wars have already been fought over dominion of oil; there’s a nonzero chance they’ll be increasingly fought over dominion of water, and who knows what comes next on this rapidly warming planet? I guess there really are only seven stories in the world.