Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

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The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on “a crash course” with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over these biological “hotspots,” according to Weller. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the world’s biological hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land. For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

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What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of biological hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the others.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these biological hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

Stand Up for Our Environment

Earth from space / istockphoto.com

This weekend, thousands of people, including landscape architects, will participate in the People’s Climate Movement in Washington, D.C., and other cities around the country to demonstrate opposition to the administration’s recent actions that threaten the planet and its citizens’ health, safety, and economies.

Help us uphold landscape architects’ long-standing value of stewardship for the natural environment. Sign onto ASLA’s letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, urging him to reconsider recent actions that will endanger our planet.

ASLA will submit the letter signed by landscape architects and other supporters into the official record requesting public comment on Presidential Actions Related to Regulatory Reform.

Take action—sign the letter today!

Official Letter text:

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

We, the undersigned landscape architects, submit the following comments in response to your request for public input on Presidential Actions Related to Regulatory Reform.

As landscape architects who lead in the stewardship of our natural environments, we are extremely concerned about recent actions taken by the administration to eliminate federal programs and policies that protect and preserve our planet’s sustainability. In particular, we strongly object to activities that roll back U.S. climate policies, undermine the collection and dissemination of climate science and data, and withdraw the United States from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement. These actions not only endanger our natural resources, but they also jeopardize our vulnerable economy and threaten national security.

Recently, President Trump issued an Executive Order to review the Clean Power Plan, rescind several climate-related regulations and reports, reverse the moratorium on new mining leases on federal land, and overturn other climate-related federal activities. The order also revokes the President’s Climate Action Plan, which called on the federal government to make “climate-resilient investments” through agency grants and technical assistance to local communities. Together, these actions completely abandon the United States’ road map to achieving emissions reductions, and leave local communities vulnerable to the destructive impacts of climate change, including worsening air pollution, heat waves, poor water quality, coastal erosion, sea-level rise, wildfires, drought, and other devastations.

Landscape architecture combines science and design to plan and protect a variety of outdoor spaces, including multimodal transportation networks, water and stormwater management systems, parks and outdoor recreational facilities, residential communities, commercial developments, and more. Our profession understands the importance of and relies on credible science and data, which heightens our concern for recent administration recommendations to cut funding for critical federal scientific research and development programs, particularly climate science programs. Many of these programs diagnose the causes of the changes in the Earth’s climate system, but they also provide solutions and technologies to mitigate the risks from climate change while creating new economic opportunities for the nation.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to our planet and our nation, but can also be a catalyst for great economic opportunities. Employing more green infrastructure projects and low-impact development, increasing active transportation networks, creating more parks and open spaces, using alternative energy sources like solar and wind are just a few climate mitigation techniques that also create new economic opportunities, including local jobs.

We are also concerned about recent threats to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on global climate change. This landmark accord would strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change and the ability of countries to deal with its devastating impacts. The United States should continue to honor its global commitment to the agreement and take every action possible to achieve its principles and goals.

We urge you, as the major federal official charged with protecting and preserving our natural resources, to change course and work to continue federal carbon reduction programs and regulations, fund scientific research and make it accessible to the American people, and honor the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement. Thank you for this opportunity to provide comments on this critical issue.

The Atlas for the End of the World

What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Seen from 28,000 miles away, the earth is beautiful. But its beauty is deceptive. We don’t see the 5 billion tons of surplus carbon we pump into the atmosphere every year, our toxic waterways or our sprawling megacities and the vast fossil fueled monocultures of cattle and corn that feed them. Most importantly, we don’t see the global archipelago of protected areas into which the world’s genetic biodiversity is now huddled. On this Earth Day, 2017 we are launching a new atlas dedicated to examining this archipelago in detail. It’s called the Atlas for the End of the World.

The first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World) was published in 1570 by the famous book collector and engraver from Antwerp, Abraham Ortelius. With his maps Ortelius laid bare a world of healthy – we can now say “Holocene” – eco-regions ripe for colonization and exploitation. Lauded for its accuracy, the Theatrum quickly became a best seller.

Frontispiece of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) – the world’s first Atlas by Abraham Ortelius. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Despite its apocalyptic title, our new Atlas is not about the end of the world per se; it is about the end of Ortelius’ world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress. On this, even the Catholic Church is now clear: “we have no such right” says Pope Francis.

At face value, atlases are just books of maps. The maps in the Atlas for the End of the World are however, quite specific. They specifically show the difference between the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity targets for achieving 17 percent (global terrestrial) protected area by 2020 and what is actually today protected in the 398 eco-regions, which comprise the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.

The so-called hotspots are regions agreed upon by the scientific and conservation communities as the most important and the most threatened biological places on earth. They are also places of exceptional linguistic diversity, much of which is also predicted to disappear by century’s end — suggesting perhaps, that the fate of nature and the fate of culture is one and the same. Many of the hotspots are also bedeviled by poverty, violence and corruption.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots. The green areas have met United Nation’s targets of protecting 17 percent of their total area the orange areas have not. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

When my research assistants and I began this mapping project in 2013, the world’s terrestrial protected area total was hovering at 13.5 percent. Recent figures (2015 data) suggest a total of 15.4 percent. That’s 20.6 million square kilometers of land distributed across more than 209,000 sites in 235 different countries. So, with 15.4 percent already secured, only an additional 1.6 percent protected area is needed to satisfy the Convention’s 2020 target. This amount might seem paltry, but 1.6 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is 2.3 million square kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 700,000 Central Parks. That’s a Central Park stretching 70 times around the world! The research question we asked was where exactly should this additional protected land be?

To meet UN protected area targets over 700,000 Central Parks need to be added to the world’s protected area estate. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

According to the Convention, we can’t just fence off 1.6 percent of Siberia, or some other place, and then say we’re done! The crucial words in the small print of the Convention are that the global protected estate must be “representative” and “connected.” In theory, this means 17 percent of each of the world’s 867 eco-regions should be protected and connected.

The Atlantic Forests hotspot serves as an example. Currently it has only 8 percent of its territory under protection. Furthermore, when we break the hotspot down into its 15 constituent eco-regions, we find that 9 fall short of reaching 17 percent representation.

An example of one of 35 of the world’s hotspots: The Atlantic Forests / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

In total 21 of 35 hotspots currently fall short of reaching the 17 percent protected area target. More specifically, 201 of their 391 eco-regions fall short. With the new Atlas, any nation can know how much land needs to be protected and where if it wants to meet its obligations under the Convention. This is not to say that blanket targets are always appropriate on the ground, but, it’s a start.

In addition to identifying these protected area shortfalls, the critical nexus this research addresses is the global tension between food production, urbanization and biodiversity. On the world map (below) are three squares. The first and smallest is the world’s current crop land. The second, in the middle, is current crop land plus current grazing land, plus what is thought to be the world’s further potential supply of arable land – a total of 50 percent of the earth’s ice-free surface area. These leave 50 percent of the planet’s land for other uses, exactly what E.O. Wilson has called for in his book, Half Earth. 50 percent seems like a lot, but remember that 33 percent of this land is desert – land which by definition is not suited to either biodiversity or agriculture. Subtracting the world’s deserts leaves 17 percent for biodiversity – precisely the amount demanded by the Convention.

The world existing and possible future foodbowl for 10 billion people / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

The bigger cause for concern is however the large square: the land area necessary to feed 10 billion people. The UN is now forecasting anywhere between 9.5 and 13.3 billion by 2100, so 10 is a conservative estimate. But these projected 10 billion consumers are not “average” global citizens; let us suppose they are people like us; who shop in supermarkets and eat more or less whatever they want, whenever they want. They are average Americans; people with a food footprint of 1.4 hectares each. 10 billion people consuming at this level would require a whopping 93 percent of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface. In this scenario, not only would all the world’s arable land be used for agriculture, but so too would the world’s deserts, plus some. After we’ve finished our burgers, a mere 7 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface would be left for biodiversity – for all practical purposes a mountainous zoo in the midst of a global monoculture of corn and cattle, hooked up to desalination plants.

These proportions of land-use will likely change when global population drops, as it probably will in the 22nd century due to socio-economic influences associated with urbanization. The other mitigating factor would be if the bulk of food production shifted to the oceans, and/or if meat could be produced independently of ruminants entirely. Then, ecological restoration could take place on a scale commensurate with that which is needed to partially correct the earth system’s current imbalances.

The challenge will be to get through this century’s incredibly tight ecological bottlenecks and come out the other end with some ecosystems, preferably the hotspots, partially intact.

The second major area of this research concerns 422 cities in the world’s hotspots. We zoomed into each city of 300,000 people or more and superimposed their 2030 growth trajectory (as per Karen Seto’s work at Yale ). We then plotted remnant habitat and threatened (mammal) species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. What emerges are the flashpoints between future urban growth and biodiversity.

In the circular images of the cities in the Atlantic Forests hotspot, orange indicates zones of imminent conflict between urban growth and biodiversity. Alarmingly, 383 of the 422 cities in the world’s hotspots are on a collision course with unique and irreplaceable biodiversity.

Examples of some cities of more than 300,000 in the Atlantic Forest Hotspot (bright yellow and purple indicates immanent conflict with biodiversity). / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

And we are not just talking about a little bit of sprawl. If an extra 3 billion people move into cities by 2100, as is entirely likely, it means we need to build 357 New York Cities in the next 84 years, i.e., 4.25 New Yorks per year. Much of that growth will occur as both formal and informal sprawl in Africa, India and South and Central America, much of it up against biodiversity and much of it unregulated.

As documented in the Atlas, our analysis suggests that most of these 383 cities that are encroaching on valuable habitat don’t have any semblance of as whole-of-city urban planning. This lack of planning at the city scale is also evident at the national scale: almost all the nations in whose jurisdiction the world’s hotspots lie don’t – in so far as we can tell – have national land-use plans incorporating biodiversity.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, each nation must develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. In practice, these tend to be platitudinous reports and most don’t take into account the 17 percent target for protected area. Most of the nations who are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity are also signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which demands that they prepare national climate change plans.

The Atlas for the End of the World lays the ground work for the 142 nations who preside over the world’s biodiversity hotspots to now view climate change, biodiversity, and urbanization as interrelated phenomena and plan for the future. To do so would be a new beginning.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylania School of Design. Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang collaborated with Weller on the Atlas as research assistants.

A New Strategy for American Sustainability

The New Grand Strategy / St. Martin’s Press

Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States. That job fell to Navy Captain Wayne Porter and now-retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who later turned the results from the multi-year research study into a book: The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit at Serenbe, an agricultural community near Atlanta, Mykleby asserted that the United States is now deeply embedded in an “unsustainable global system” that makes it susceptible to shocks, particularly from climate change. In addition, we are stuck with a “20th century economic engine.” The way forward to future sustainability is found in walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and greater resource productivity. “We need to rebuild our own strength and credibility by setting a new example.”

Mykleby — who was described by Serenbe founder Steven Nygren as a “gentle giant with a big heart who can kill you with two fingers” — outlined in drill sergeant mode all the things that make our current global system unsustainable:

First, there is the rapid inclusion of many new consumers around the world. As the planet heads towards 9 billion people, we can expect to see a middle class of around 3 billion people. If they are consuming as Americans and western Europeans do now, we will need 4.5 Earths to maintain them. Second, climate change and increasing ecosystem degradation will reduce our access to resources and increase our vulnerabilities. And, lastly, there is a growing “infrastructure resilience deficit” — infrastructure worldwide isn’t set up to accommodate the anticipated population growth or coming nature-driven shocks.

(Mykleby also argued that using gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress is really enabling all this unsustainable global growth and needs to be replaced with a gross national happiness metric, like Bhutan’s. We’ve discovered in the United States that “more shit isn’t going to make us happier.”)

In addition to being embedded in an unsustainable global system, the U.S. is also stuck with an “obsolete 20th century economic engine,” defined by suburban sprawl, consumer spending, high-input agriculture, massive federal subsidies, and quarterly reporting and capital gains taxes. This engine is “extremely fragile.” Agricultural in particular is in a “perilous place,” given climate change. On top of all this, we have “political dysfunction.”

Walkable communities help rebuild American strength by increasing social ties, particularly inter-generational ones. As baby boomers downsize and want to age in place, they seek connections to others. Millennials can’t afford cars or don’t want them, so they are also want more walkable places. In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.

Food production will need to increase 60-70 percent in coming decades to meet the demand from a growing population, just as climate change accelerates and ecosystems are further degraded. The only way to achieve this is “100 percent regenerative agriculture. We need to restore our top soils.” (Mykleby didn’t further define regenerative agriculture in his talk, but we are assuming it involves permaculture, introducing perennial grain plants, and other sustainable farming practices).

Lastly, according to The Atlantic, some 70 percent of Indian cities have yet to be built. A similar number can be found for many developing world cities. And all our developed-world urban communities are in a continuous process of being rebuilt. As the global population heads toward 9 billion and concrete production already accounts for 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, we need “more advanced, resource-efficient, recycled building materials.”

If the U.S. “can get its ass in gear,” focusing on walkable communities, sustainable agriculture, and new housing materials will lead to a resurgence in jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation sectors, and create the “economy of the future.” Mykleby also called for changing from a model of rampant material consumerism to an economy in which “we consume positive, meaningful experiences.”

While the path to sustainability is clear to him, sadly, the U.S. is now “doubling-down on the old economy. We are walking away from climate change, increasing inequality, and leaving international institutions.” As the supporters of the old business model hang on tight, they are setting us up to fail.

If you are unconvinced the U.S. is falling behind, Mykleby urges you to read China’s latest five-year plan, which aims to set the country on a “sustainable path, address social equity problems, and increase participation in international institutions.”

New Poll Finds Widespread Support for Reforming National Flood Insurance

Residential flooding in Wisconsin / FEMA Photo, Walt Jennings

In a national survey of likely voters, there was widespread support for reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which some 22,000 communities, covering more than 5 million homes, rely on for basic flood insurance. Of those polled by the Pew Charitable Trusts, some 53 percent said they had been impacted by flooding — either their home or a family member’s, or their place of work, or their community’s infrastructure had been damaged.

In a briefing, Laura Lightbody, project director for flood prepared communities at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said flooding is the “most common and costly natural disaster.” She explained how since 1980, the number of major flood events per year has only increased, and more now cause $1 billion in damages. In total since 1980, flooding has caused more than $260 billion in damages to homes and infrastructure.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “the risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.”

In return for agreeing to regulate land-use in a flood-prone community, NFIP cover the homeowners in that community up to $250,000 for property and $100,000 for personal possessions. Private flood protection is often used to supplement this basic insurance, which is subsidized and costs far less than would comparable baseline private insurance.

After Hurricane Katrina and then later Sandy, NFIP fell into $25 billion in debt. NFIP, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is up for re-authorization on Capitol Hill. There are new calls to reform the program, as flooding damages will only increase with climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) considers NFIP a “high-risk program” because it’s essentially financially unsustainable. While Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2011 to “help strengthen the financial solvency of the program, including phasing out almost all discounted insurance premiums (for example, subsidized premiums),” just three years later, it enacted the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (HFIAA), which reinstated “certain premium subsidies and slowed down certain premium rate increases that had been included in the Biggert-Waters Act.”

The GAO writes: “Aspects of HFIAA were intended to address affordability concerns for certain property owners, but may also increase NFIP’s long-term financial burden on taxpayers.” As NFIP subsidizes communities at high risk of flooding and, in turn, incurs losses, it then borrows from the U.S. Treasury, passing the costs elsewhere.

Some critics of the current subsidized approach argues it encourages development in vulnerable areas. Others argue homes affected by continuous flooding are more often those of the poor and elderly, so raising federal insurance rates too high could mean forcing out whole swaths of communities. And still others argue FEMA, which designates the flood maps that NFIP bases its rates on, has re-mapped higher-risk areas as low-risk to avoid community backlash, but has in turn created more risk because people think they are living in a low-risk area.

Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned Bill McInturff and Lori Weigel with Public Opinion Strategies to poll a representative sample of some 1,000 voters, and found support for the following reforms:

81 percent of likely voters support a “single, national standard to ensure that potential home buyers are aware of whether or not a property has flooded repeatedly, which could mean being required to purchase flood insurance.” Currently, there is no such national standard. But Weigel indicated there is precedent for one: homeowners are now required to let potential home buyers know about higher risks of lead paint in older homes.

82 percent are for requiring the federal government to only build resilient infrastructure in flood-prone areas. Any new or rebuilt infrastructure located in a flood zone should be constructed to better withstand damage. Some 86 percent of those in coastal communities “supported building to a higher, more resilient standard,” said Weigel. Overall, there is widespread support for “flood-ready infrastructure,” which “makes sense to people.”

75 percent would like to relocate homeowners in homes that continuously flood from high-risk areas in order to restore those areas as natural buffers, such as wildlife preserves, beaches, or recreation areas. FEMA would offer these homeowners in those high-risk areas the value of their home at pre-flood rates, so they could purchase a new home in a safer area. FEMA then would work with states and localities to play a role in designating areas for green infrastructure.

64 percent back the idea of requiring communities with more than 50 homes that have continuously flooded to “improve drainage, protect wetlands,” or otherwise prevent flood damage. If they don’t make these improvements, the amount the whole community would pay for insurance would go up. This proposal seems to support using landscape-based solutions to reduce the impacts of persistent flooding, where possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s budget blueprint calls for reducing funds for FEMA, which oversees NFIP, by 11 percent. The New York Times reports: “At FEMA, potential cuts would target for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.” No word in the blueprint for resilient design funds distributed by the department of housing and urban development (HUD).

President Trump Seeks to Undo Critical Climate Efforts

Big Bend coal powered power plant, Florida / Wikipedia

Today, President Trump signed an executive order that aims to roll back President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was expected to reduce emissions from the energy production sector by some 32 percent by 2030, as measured at 2005 levels, largely by encouraging states to take older, dirtier coal-powered plants offline. The order also seeks to undo the moratorium on coal production on federal lands, reverse Obama administration policies that require federal departments to consider the impact of climate change in their programs, and initiate a new review of figures on the “social cost” of carbon, a critical underpinning used to justify regulation of carbon dioxide pollution. And a few weeks ago, Trump signaled a new effort to relax the Obama administration’s stringent vehicle emission standards.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and vehicle emissions standards were the two key elements of the commitment the U.S. made to other nations at the UN climate change summit in Paris to lower overall emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025.

As such, some environmental groups fear the Trump administration’s new policies may undermine the global agreement to reduce emissions to safe levels before irrevocable and dangerous warming effects occur. Importantly, the U.S. and China pledged to join the agreement together, in a political show of unity to fight climate change.

But others, like former Vice President Al Gore are confident that no move by the Trump administration can undo the global consensus to act. ” No matter how discouraging this executive order may be, we must, we can, and we will solve the climate crisis. No one man or group can stop the encouraging and escalating momentum we are experiencing in the fight to protect our planet.”

And, so far, the Chinese have indicated they are moving forward with their own ambitious efforts to reduce climate emissions and air pollution from coal, which has likely killed millions of Chinese.

While the Clean Power Plan had been blocked in court due to lawsuits from 27 state governments, utilities, labor unions, and coal miners, it was based on Supreme Court and then EPA findings that the agency has an obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions because they endanger public health and the environment. This still holds true.

So while the Trump administration now indicates it will undo the Obama administration’s approach — which called on state governments to come up with their own plans to reduce dirty coal power plant emissions in their borders, rather than putting the onus on the actual power plants, the sources of pollution — it will need to devise a new approach that limits emissions from coal-generated power plants.

According to NPR, it may take years for the Trump administration to unwind Obama’s plan and create a new approach. While some 27 state governments want to see Obama’s plan gone, 18 states and major environmental and public health groups support it.

In a discussion, Richard Revesz, a professor at New York University School of Law, said: “the executive order has virtually no legal effect. The hurdles that agencies will face in the courts as they attempt to carry out its requirements will be formidable.”

A number of economists and energy experts believe rolling back the Clean Power Plan and undoing the federal moratorium on coal production on federal lands will not make coal production increase again.

The Washington Post reports: “About 30 states already have established standards that require utilities and power companies to sharply increase their reliance on renewable energy over the next decade or more. Falling prices for wind and solar and low prices for natural gas have further undercut coal’s share of the electricity market. According to the Sierra Club, 175 coal plants in the United States have shut down since 2010, and 73 others are scheduled for retirement by 2030.”

Furthermore, coal companies are having a hard time raising money in the financial markets, and many are dealing with bankruptcy, so they may have a hard time taking advantage of new federal coal mining leases.

Mary Anne Hitt, the head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told The Washington Post: “We’re not building any new coal plants in this country, and the existing ones are having a harder and harder time competing with ever-cheaper renewables. There’s a structural disadvantage for coal in the marketplace. That’s not something Donald Trump can wave away with the stroke of a pen.”

Furthermore, states and environmental groups focused on reducing the maximum amount of carbon emissions can be expected to file lawsuits against any relaxed regulatory approach that seeks to resuscitate the declining coal industry.

However, The New York Times also quotes one expert who believes some of those older coal plants expected to shut down could be running for a decade or more under more supportive regulations.

A few weeks ago, President Trump signed another executive order calling for relaxing Obama administration vehicle emission standards, which were reached in a 2012 agreement with automakers that “required that cars run 54.4 miles per gallon of fuel by 2025,” writes The Guardian. “This standard, up from 27.5 miles per gallon, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion tons over the lifetime of new vehicles and save 2 million gallons of oil per day by 2025.”

President Trump told automotive executives: “I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist. I believe in it. But, it’s out of control,” referring to environmental regulations. Also, Trump explained his view on fuel efficiency standards in Detroit — “he did not want an ‘extra thimbleful of fuel’ to get in the way of growth.” Furthermore, new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who has recently expressed his doubt about the primary role of carbon dioxide in climate change, in opposition to the EPA’s own findings, said: “these [fuel efficiency] standards are costly for automakers and the American people.”

But California, which has an exemption from following federal vehicle standards, has said it will stick with the Obama administration’s more stringent standards, which some 12 other states follow, setting up a legal battle. Also, the Golden state has clear targets on the number of sales that need to be powered by battery, fuel cell or plug-in hybrid power trains — they are set for 15 percent by 2025, up from about 3 percent of sales today, writes Bloomberg News. 9 other states have indicated they will join in an effort to reach those targets in their own states.

We Must Better Communicate the Health Risks of Climate Change

Climate change march / Safety Messenger
Climate change march / Safety Messenger

“Climate change is a complicated topic, which makes it anathema to clear communication,” explained Dr. Ed Maibach, who runs the center for climate change communication at George Mason University. At the climate and health summit at the Carter Center, Maibach said most Americans associate climate change with “plants, penguins, and polar bears,” and view it as a “22nd century problem.” Climate change is seen as a “scientific, environmental, and political problem, but not a public health one.” Given only about one-third of Americans are environmentalists, framing climate change as a health problem first and foremost could help spur more action. Everyone is concerned with the health of their communities and children.

Maibach is seen as a leading expert on climate change communications. His advice for how we can better reach the public is practical: “the less you say, the more you’re heard; say the things that have the most value; and use audience research to determine which messages have the most value.”

When crafting communications messages, it’s important to “repeat things over and over again,” adapt key messages, reinforce them, but also find a variety of trusted voices, like doctors and nurses, to convey them. “Aim simple, clear messages at target audiences. They will then share with their family members and friends.”

Maibach has been studying what messages will work with various segments of the public. He found there are a number of different Americas. “About 18 percent are alarmed by climate change, 34 percent are concerned, 23 percent are cautious, 5 percent are disengaged, 11 percent are doubtful, and 7 percent are dismissive.”

The messages that will resound with more of these groups include: “(1) 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced human-caused climate change is happening; (2) climate change is already harming our health now. All of us can he harmed, but some are more likely to be harmed, like children, the elderly, pregnant women, student athletes, the sick and poor; and (3) reduce energy waste and embrace clean energy, so we can clean up our air and water.” Maibach said even “the dismissive segment gets that last point, as many of them are enthusiastic about renewable energy.”

Dr. Susan Pachecho, University of Texas Health Science Center, said instead of focusing on tailored messages, communicators must create narratives with personal stories that really connect. “Stories of patients work. Less is better.” She also called for using the humanities — fiction, poetry, art, and music — to better reach students on the health risks of climate change.

And one of the most intriguing speeches came from Jerry Taylor, head of the Niskanen Center, and a Republican who was a climate denier at the Cato Institute for decades before he saw the light and started to believe the science. Taylor explained how to reach Republicans, who really are the ones who need to shift their views if we are going to have more support for climate action. “Democratic opinion on the left and center has been there [supportive of efforts on climate change] for 25 years. Republican opinion: What will move them?”

Taylor said “for the most part, tribal political leaders guide public policy. What drives Republican opinions on climate change are Republican political leaders.” In 2008, Senator John McCain promoted a cap and trade program to reduce carbon emissions. Positions have shifted farther to the right in just under a decade, as neither presidential candidate Mitt Romney or Donald Trump put forth any climate plan. (But, still, 49 percent of Trump supporters agree climate change is happening, and 62 percent want to see emissions regulated).

What’s needed are a few more McCains, Republican tribal leaders who will show some leadership on the issue, just like former Secretaries of State James Baker III and George Schultz, along with former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson did with their call for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

To reach more Republican and grow more of these leaders, Taylor advised against using phrases like “massive socio-economic transformation.” He said “that’s not going to happen, and Republicans like capitalism and the 21st century as it is.” Also, “unleashing the government,” like the environmentalist Bill McKibben has proposed, with a sort of New Deal for a new green economy, also isn’t going to fly, as that would be viewed as a “war on the economy.” He said for Republicans, “it’s not about the debate on the climate science,” but fear of government control of the economy.

Taylor also urged Democrats “not to overplay certainties. There is less knowledge of future scenarios” than many would like. “Will we reach a new climate stability in 60 years or 3-4 centuries? Will temperatures level out at a 1.5-3 Celsius or 8-10 Celsius increase? There is a lot we don’t know about how bad it will be.”

Instead, “risk management works well on Capitol Hill. There is a big distribution of possible outcomes, with one option being ‘no impact,’ and another being ‘big impact.'” Advocates can present the “most likely outcomes,” which will encourage Republicans to hedge their bets. Also, discussing the co-benefits of fighting climate change, like improved health, works. For example, we can have a cleaner and healthier planet.

But “de-industrialization, raising energy costs, massively increasing government spending — we don’t need to do this. Harnessing the market is a near-universal remedy that Republicans can put into play.”

The Climate + Health Challenge: “We Have the Solutions” (Part 1)

Wind and solar installation / Stanford University News
Wind and solar installation / Stanford University News

If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.

After hearing so much doom and gloom, Gore said “we have the solutions at hand. Hope is justified.” Just a few decades ago, environmentalists hoped we would achieve 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2010. In 2017, we have achieved 17 times that amount. The estimates were for 18 gigawatts of solar power by 2010. In 2017, we achieved 77 times that number.

Gore explained that three-fourths of new energy plants being created around the world are either wind or solar. And coal has fallen out of favor in many countries. India has issued a new policy that will stop all coal plants moving forward. China is retiring old coal plants and put a moratorium on new ones.

In addition to the climate benefits, there are real health benefits to shutting down coal plants. As has been described, coal energy generates more air pollution than other sources of energy, shortening lives. In his talk, Sir Dr. Andy Haines, London school of hygiene and tropical medicine, explained how a “7 percent increase in clean energy investments can save 3 million lives by 2040.” He said President Obama’s clean energy plan would avoid 175,000 deaths, while the tougher vehicle emissions standards finalized in the final days of the Obama administration would save another 125,000 lives. “The health benefits of this offset 25-1050 percent of the costs,” depending on how you calculate them.

Haines called for fixing CO2 prices worldwide, around $20-100 per ton, in order to create a consistent and transparent tax on pollution. “A tax wouldn’t have to be an overall increase. It could be non-regressive.” In Sweden, a ton of carbon now costs $160, but the country has still seen growth and is now shifting to a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, only 12 percent of the world’s emissions are now covered by a pricing scheme. Furthermore, most of the world currently rewards fossil fuel production, as governments give oil, coal, and gas companies some $5 trillion in subsidies per year.

The world’s cities account for 85 percent of the world’s economy, and some 71-16 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. If cities can reduce their emissions, as many are working on doing so, we can make a great deal of progress, regardless of the politics of any country. Comparing Atlanta and Barcelona, which each have about 2.5 million people, Haines demonstrated the potential emission reductions that could happen with better urban planning and design. In Atlanta, which is some 7,000 square miles, each car-owning resident spews out 7 tons of carbon each year. In comparison, Barcelona, which is just 648 square miles, each person release less than 1 ton of emissions a year. Barcelona is far more walkable and bikeable with more public transit, and cities like Atlanta need to become like Barcelona much faster. Not only is walking and biking better for the environment, but there are also major health benefits. And for those who don’t have the strength to bike, Haines made the case for e-bikes. (In another talk, Laura Turner Sydell, board member of the Turner Foundation, said “Atlanta has come light years in the past 20 years,” but still has much further to go).

Trends of urbanization in Atlanta and Barcelona / Morphocode
Trends of urbanization in Atlanta and Barcelona / Morphocode

Carbon dioxide stays up in the atmosphere for 1,000 years. But we can target short-lived pollutants now to reduce some of the worst climate and health impacts. Haines called for targeting black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and HFCs. “Regulating these gases can keep us well below a 2 degree Celsius increase.” Black carbon can be reduced with the distribution of clean cook stoves, which also cut back dangerous indoor air pollution. Cows are a major source of methane. In 1961, there were 2.4 billion of these ruminants; today, there are more than 3.8 billion of them. Encouraging a more vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce methane emissions without changing overall dietary profiles much. And methane from natural gas production and landfills can be easily captured and reused as fuel.

Forests are another important part of the solution. “Forests reduces air pollution, clean water, decrease malaria transmission and other disease risks,” while serving as important carbon sinks and sources of biodiversity. “We need to have stable forests to stay below a 2 degree increase.”

For the first time, carbon dioxide emissions have been flat the past two years, despite the fact that world economy grew, Gore said. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to start to go down. But we aren’t solving the crisis fast enough.”

For that to happen, Gore is pushing for more solar and wind capacity. He thinks renewable energy sources are good for the U.S. economy. “Solar jobs have grown 12 times, more than any other energy sector.” He also called for retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. “Those jobs can’t be outsourced.” And as Haines explained, “cutting building-related CO2 emissions could prevent some 5,000 deaths” by reducing air pollution.

The UN Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions requires states to provide an update on their progress every five years. The idea is to use these five-year marks to ratchet up expectations and actions. Countries are already preparing for the first five-year mark in 2021, Gore said. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to meet the obligations of the agreement.

Read part 2.

The Climate + Health Challenge: “We Have the Solutions” (Part 2)

pollution
US Embassy in Beijing air pollution monitor app / Digital Journal

If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.

A number of scientists called for boosting the amount of climate change adaptation funds that go to health. Of the $1.2 billion collected for adaptation by the United Nations, only 2 percent of that goes to health measures, said Dr. Kristie Ebi, University of Washington. And, unfortunately, there is almost no serious research being conducted on the health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Rainer Sauerborn, Heidelberg Institute of Public Health, made the important point that there is no one-sized-fits-all solution for climate adaptation. Every community’s challenges will be unique, which means support for local research and action is vital. He wondered why there were no researchers from the Middle East or Africa at the conference.

Public health officials made the case for increased spending on public health surveillance and early warning systems. In Beijing, for a period of time, the U.S. embassy provided the one reliable indicator of air pollution levels in the city. Its feed has spurred activism and Chinese government action to better monitor and reduce air pollution. If more developing world cities had more reliable air pollution monitoring and alert systems, those particularly vulnerable to poor air could be instructed to stay inside on really bad days. These systems also generate demand for air quality improvements.

With more funding, public health organizations can better monitor disease threats as well. For example, the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) is monitoring the precursors of vibrio, an aquatic pathogen, explained Dr. Jan Semenza, and sending alerts to communities before a vibrio outbreak strikes. Testing the system against Swedish data, they’ve found “there is an epidemic signal we can predict.”

Dr. Howard Frumkin, University of Washington, a leading environmental health specialist, and co-editor of Making Healthy Places, called for doctors and scientists in the public health field to seek partners “outside their comfort zones” and reach out to those working on the built environment, like planners, landscape architects, and architects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was represented by Dr. George Luber, who explained the tools the CDC has available for communities planning for health impacts, such as the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework, which also includes technical assistance. Luber said the role of the CDC is to provide accessible scientific guidance and decision-making support tools.

But it’s important that all communities get support for dealing with their climate and health challenges in the future. Catherine Flowers, with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, said parts of Alabama were like a “third world country,” with sewage bubbling up and contaminating front lawns. “This is where environmental justice and climate intersect.”

And Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm, thinks the healthcare sector can come together as a single force for good. Given the sector accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. economy, it’s poised to play a lead role. Gundersen Health in Wisconsin, which was almost entirely fueled by coal a few years ago, now runs on power generated from wind and bio-waste. Cohen said in more than 200 cities, the healthcare sector is the biggest employer. Associations of these firms are moving to renewable energy and divesting from any fossil fuel stocks.

These companies can help shift the U.S. to a more sustainable, less polluting form of energy production, and speak out about the health risks with climate change. “If we mobilize the health community, we have a massive army at hand. Doctors and nurses are among the most trusted people in America. We will be unstoppable,” argued Cohen.

However, despite all the positive talk about how we can manage the coming challenges, many scientists at the conference agreed that there are many “unknown unknowns” looming out there. For example, there are new worries about the micro-organisms now dormant under the vast permafrost. Just ten years ago, no one knew the nutritional value of many important crops would be reduced in a higher carbon atmosphere. What other impacts are lurking out there? There is much that still can’t be predicted. 

The most important investment now may be to dramatically boost funding on scientific research, and monitoring and early warning systems.

We Can’t Ignore the Health Impacts of Climate Change (Part 1)

Aedes aegypti mosquito, a carrier of the Zika virus / James Gathany / CDC
Aedes aegypti mosquito, a carrier of the Zika virus / James Gathany / CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week. ASLA signed on as a member of the summit’s partnership circle, along with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S. Green Building Council. In Atlanta, Gore kicked off the conference by arguing that “too little attention is being paid to the health consequences of climate change.” And focusing on coming health impacts could be a more compelling way to persuade the public that more action is needed now. We couldn’t agree more.

“We are now using the open sky as a sewer,” Gore said. The billions of tons of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere have a warming effect equal to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day. If unabated, the warming effect of all of this pollution will not only lead to ecological catastrophe, but a “medical emergency.” If we continue on a “business as usual” scenario, which could eventually warm the planet by 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, there will be dire implications for human health.

Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). Here below are the first four impacts; part 2 will have the rest:

Infectious Diseases: “Tropical diseases are on the move. With air travel, they can spread more easily, but with climate change, there are new areas where diseases can become endemic.” As regions warm, diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, West Nile, Dengue Fever, malaria, and others spread by mosquitoes, can take root. Many regions not currently affected by these diseases — places thought to be north of the “mosquito line” — should worry and become better prepared. Also, average global humidity is 4-5 percent higher than 30 years ago, and those numbers are only expected to increase. With higher humidity and heat, mosquitoes speed up their reproductive and metabolic rates, which means there are more mosquitoes biting more.

In India, “there were 39 million cases of Dengue fever per year.” Last year, a park in Tokyo was closed due a Dengue Fever outbreak. And in central China, “malaria has re-emerged” for the first time in ages.

The spread of the Zika virus in the U.S,, which the CDC considers a health emergency, has already affected Puerto Rico, Miami-Dade county, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And many scientists, Gore said, “suspect it’s now spreading up and down the Gulf Coast.” For most people, Zika causes relatively mild symptoms, such as a rash, fever, joint pain, and eye aches, for about a week and then clears up. For pregnant women, there are serious implications — the virus can cause miscarriages or fetal microcephaly and other birth defects.

Ticks, which are already vectors for disease transmission, are also moving north. “Virtually 100 percent of Canada will be within tick range in a few decades.” And we’ll also see new species — like snails — become vectors for transmissions.

Moving onto to other worrying scenarios, Gore said “runoff from increased flooding or extreme precipitation events will damage our water supplies.” With higher temperatures and more frequent storms, we will see the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases. According to Dr. Glenn Morris, University of Florida, who conducts research on emerging infectious diseases, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some 50 percent of the water supply in Haiti was contaminated by cholera.

Vibrio aquatic pathogens, which infect shorelines and also make oysters and other shellfish very dangerous to eat, are also spreading. Morris, said “vibrios are extremely temperature sensitive and every one degree temperature increase can encourage their spread.” Already, the number of cases in the north Atlantic is increasing.

Morris said even slight temperature gains can increase disease transmission. “Climate change opens up new ecological niches for pathogens. These are the unexpected consequences when people play with the environment.”

Heat Stress: While flooding from storms and heavy rains is the extreme weather event that kills the most number of people worldwide, heat stress is the biggest killer in the United States, according to Gore. Mortality rates increase by 4 percent during heat waves, which are more dangerous for the elderly, children, athletes, outdoor workers, socially-isolated people, urban dwellers, the homeless, the poor, and communities of color.

For the past 17 years, the planet has just been getting warmer and warmer. Dr. Kim Knowlton, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, said 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating 2015, which at that time was the hottest year on record. Currently, New York City has about 670-1,300 heat deaths per year, with 65,000 heat emergencies. Dr. Jonathan Patz, University of Wisconsin, said New York City can expect triple the number of extreme heat days (up to 39 days) by 2045. Correspondingly, Dr. Knowlton anticipates heat deaths to also triple.

Heatwave in New York City / NY Daily News
Heatwave in New York City / NY Daily News

More broadly, higher temperatures mean reduced productivity. Outdoor workers experiencing heat stress can’t work. Knowlton said with higher temperatures, the “U.S. could see a reduction in economic output of $2 trillion; by 2100, a 20 percent drop in GDP from extreme heat.”

Many places are reaching all time highs, too, Gore explained. India hit an all-time high of 123 Fahrenheit last summer, and Sydney recently reached 117 Fahrenheit. In Iran, a city hit 165 Fahrenheit, with the heat index, in 2015. What makes this all worse: “night-time temperatures are also increasing, so there is no relief.”

Gore said in these conditions “no human can be outside for more than a few hours.” The projections show that vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are on track to reach some of these temperatures on a regular basis. “Areas of the planet could no longer be habitable. They could become beyond the limit of human survival. Mecca and Medina are in this zone.”

Dr. Knowlton said it’s time to take into consideration the health impacts of the world’s energy choices. Moving to renewable energies now may still result in a 3-4 degree planetary temperature increase, which will be “manageable,” while a 10-15 degree increase, under current fossil fuel-driven scenarios, would be “catastrophic.”

Air Pollution: Some 6.5 million people die each year prematurely from air pollution, reports the International Energy Agency. Carbon dioxide and related co-pollutants, otherwise grouped together as small particulate matter, found in vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions are behind these deaths.

Because of air pollution, the life expectancy of those living in northern China has been cut by 5.5 years. In Henan province, it’s estimated that air pollution takes the lives of 4,000 people a day. Pollution in Beijing, China’s capital city, has reached near “unlivable levels.” It’s not just China experiencing deadly air pollution though. New studies show that 99.5 percent of Indians breathe unhealthy air, as do 94 percent of Nigerians. According to one analysis, Tehran, the capital of Iran, was rated as having the world’s worst air.

Tehran air pollution / Green Prophet
Tehran air pollution / Green Prophet

Some sources of energy are dirtier than others. For example, deaths from coal-related pollution are higher than pollution from other sources. Gore said “coal creates $216 billion in health costs per year.” (Furthermore, coal burning is heavily damaging in other ways. Mercury, which is a co-pollutant that comes out of coal, has tripled in the world’s oceans. Some 16 percent of China’s cropland is also contaminated with it).

Dr. Patrick Kinney, Boston University, said “air pollution should be at the center of the discussion on health and climate.” Warmer temperatures make smog worse, as it increases the negative impacts of ozone and strong oxidant gases. Kinney also said areas impacted by wildfire, which are expected to double with climate change, will also increase harmful smoke inhalation.

Allergens: Another form of natural air pollution that will get worse: pollen, which is expected to triple in many areas by 2040. In areas with Ragweed, there will be an increase in pollen load by 320 percent by 2100.

Ragweed / Identify That Plant
Ragweed / Identify That Plant

Kinney said that in New York City, “pollen season is now coming earlier. That’s bad news for people with asthma and allergies.”

Read part 2 on mental health and food impacts.