I'm a degreed librarian with over 30 years of experience as an environmental information professional. I'm currently the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator and also manage the Center's strategic communications.
Communicating the climate crisis effectively is one of the most complex — and consequential — challenges of our time. While humans already have many solutions needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, we lack the ability to inform, inspire and persuade a critical mass to act decisively and immediately.
To keep warming at this threshold, “deep, rapid and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed in all sectors this decade,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Success means pursuing a policy of “climate resilient development” — which involves integrating measures to adapt to the climate crisis with actions to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in ways that provide wider benefits, the IPCC says.
Plenty is already being done to develop these “measures” — yet our collective success hinges on the ability to get businesses, governments and everyday people to give a damn and do something.
Outside of the climate action echo chamber, few folks see global warming as a crisis in need of immediate action. Despite the increased frequency and intensity of extreme droughts, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires and other climate disasters, most folks still rank the climate crisis as a low-priority issue.
Before we can better communicate on climate, we first must understand the underlying challenges. Let’s take a look at a few — so we can do better.
While the term “regenerative agriculture” has become a central tenet of Big Food’s goal to lower its carbon footprint, to some critics, it lacks a universal definition that has opened it up to skepticism.
But General Mills says its use of the term is less about setting hard and fast rules and more about listening to the farmers who are familiar with their land.
The cereal and snacks giant — which in 2020 set a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030 — launched its annual sustainability report this week where it called regenerative agriculture the “most promising solution to reach our climate goals.” The term is defined by General Mills as a farming approach that captures atmospheric carbon in order to sequester it.
There is a lot more food waste than you might think: A 2011 report for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) stated that approximately one-third, or around 1.3 billion tonnes, of food production worldwide ends up as waste. Brands that upcycle food waste help to decrease the carbon footprint and land and water usage associated with the growth, harvest, manufacture, and shipping of agricultural ingredients. We’ve found 12 skincare brands that use upcycled food waste ingredients and will fit into your sustainable beauty practice, alongside those refillable beauty products.
The Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act, as well as many programs implemented across the Great Lakes region, are grounded in sound principles giving effect to ecosystem-based management. They recognize that healthy lakes are crucial to healthy economiesand communities.
Since the landmark Agreement and law have been in place, we have witnessed successes such as the reduction of municipal and industrial point source pollution, the slowing of introductions of invasive species, and the delisting of several Great Lakes pollution hotspots. However, many challenges remain. Thus, regional experts recently came together to take stock of what has been learned from historical applications of ecosystem approaches and to identify measurable ecosystem goals, co-produce knowledge, co-innovate solutions, and practice adaptive management until ecosystem goals are met.
The outcome was a set of recommendations on how boundary organizations, actors, and teams can better support and accelerate more strategic, holistic, and partnership-driven efforts, with a primary goal to help re-energize the use of an ecosystem approach in the 21st century to achieve healthy and sustainable Great Lakes, economies, and communities.
During CGLR’s June webinar, this work will be presented and discussed and feedback from our audience is invited. Join us for an informative discussion on different aspects of the ecosystem approach, including the history and origin of the ecosystem approach, blue economy, technological advances, Indigenous knowledge systems, science-policy solutions, education, and knowledge mobilization, and human dimensions.
H&M has beaten a proposed class action lawsuit over its alleged scheme of greenwashing its fast fashion wares. By marketing its Conscious collection products as “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” when they are not, the plaintiffs argued in the suit they filed last year that H&M was running afoul of California and Missouri state laws. In an order on May 12, Judge Rodney Sippel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri disagreed and sided with the Swedish fast fashion giant, dismissing Mark Doten’s claims due to a lack of personal jurisdiction, and fellow Plaintiff Abraham Lizama’s causes of action for failure to adequately allege his claims against H&M.
A United Nations panel is casting doubt on the promise of using machines to remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and sea in order to fight climate change.
The skepticism from the high-profile organization sent shock waves through the emerging industry of carbon removal companies that many scientists say will be essential for the world to stabilize, or one day reduce, global average temperatures. It comes as the Biden administration is preparing to pour billions of dollars into the industry.
The panel questioned the technical and economic viability of startups seeking to clean up carbon that’s already been dumped into the sky, igniting pushback from an industry that is gaining popularity but so far has not captured sizable amounts of warming gases.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Sackett v. EPA that federal protection of wetlands encompasses only those wetlands that directly adjoin rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. This is an extremely narrow interpretation of the Clean Water Act that could expose many wetlands across the U.S. to filling and development.
Under this keystone environmental law, federal agencies take the lead in regulating water pollution, while state and local governments regulate land use. Wetlands are areas where land is wet for all or part of the year, so they straddle this division of authority.
This can be time-consuming and expensive, which is why the Supreme Court’s ruling on May 25, 2023, will be of keen interest to developers, farmers and ranchers, along with conservationists and the agencies that administer the Clean Water Act – namely, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
For the last 45 years – and under eight different presidential administrations – the EPA and the Corps have required discharge permits in wetlands “adjacent” to water bodies, even if a dune, levee or other barrier separated the two. The Sackett decision upends that approach, leaving tens of millions of acres of wetlands at risk.
The Sackett case
Idaho residents Chantell and Mike Sackett own a parcel of land located 300 feet from Priest Lake, one of the state’s largest lakes. The parcel once was part of a large wetland complex. Today, even after the Sacketts cleared the lot, it still has some wetland characteristics, such as saturation and ponding in areas where soil was removed. Indeed, it is still hydrologically connected to the lake and neighboring wetlands by water that flows at a shallow depth underground.
In preparation to build a house, the Sacketts had fill material placed on the site without obtaining a Clean Water Act permit. The EPA issued an order in 2007 stating that the land contained wetlands subject to the law and requiring the Sacketts to restore the site. The Sacketts sued, arguing that their property was not a wetland.
In 2012, the Supreme Court held that the Sacketts had the right to challenge EPA’s order and sent the case back to the lower courts. After losing below on the merits, they returned to the Supreme Court with a suit asserting that their property was not federally protected. This claim in turn raised a broader question: What is the scope of federal regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act?
The Supreme Court has previously recognized that the “waters of the United States” include not only navigable rivers and lakes, but also wetlands and waterways that are connected to navigable bodies of water. But many wetlands are not wet year-round, or are not connected at the surface to larger water systems. Still, they can have important ecological connections to larger water bodies.
In 2006, when the court last took up this issue, no majority was able to agree on how to define “waters of the United States.” Writing for a plurality of four justices in U.S. v. Rapanos, Justice Antonin Scalia defined the term narrowly to include only relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water such as streams, oceans, rivers and lakes. Waters of the U.S., he contended, should not include “ordinarily dry channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows.”
Acknowledging that wetlands present a tricky line-drawing problem, Scalia proposed that the Clean Water Act should reach “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy took a very different approach. “Waters of the U.S.,” he wrote, should be interpreted in light of the Clean Water Act’s objective of “restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
Accordingly, Kennedy argued, the Clean Water Act should cover wetlands that have a “significant nexus” with navigable waters – “if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”
Neither Scalia’s nor Kennedy’s opinion attracted a majority, so lower courts were left to sort out which approach to follow. Most applied Kennedy’s significant nexus standard, while a few held that the Clean Water Act applies if either Kennedy’s standard or Scalia’s is satisfied.
The Biden administration responded with its own rule defining waters of the United States in terms of the presence of either a significant nexus or continuous surface connection. However, this rule was promptly embroiled in litigation and will require reconsideration in light of Sackett v. EPA.
The Sackett decision and its ramifications
The Sackett decision adopts Scalia’s approach from the 2006 Rapanos case. Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Samuel Alito declared that “waters of the United States” includes only relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water, such as streams, oceans, rivers, lakes – and wetlands that have a continuous surface connection with and are indistinguishably part of such water bodies.
None of the nine justices adopted Kennedy’s 2006 “significant nexus” standard. However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the three liberal justices disagreed with the majority’s “continuous surface connection” test. That test, Kavanaugh wrote in a concurrence, is inconsistent with the text of the Clean Water Act, which extends coverage to “adjacent” wetlands – including those that are near or close to larger water bodies.
“Natural barriers such as berms and dunes do not block all water flow and are in fact evidence of a regular connection between a water and a wetland,” Kavanaugh explained. “By narrowing the Act’s coverage of wetlands to only adjoining wetlands, the Court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”
The majority’s ruling leaves little room for the EPA or the Army Corps of Engineers to issue new regulations that could protect wetlands more broadly.
The court’s requirement of a continuous surface connection means that federal protection may no longer apply to many areas that critically affect the water quality of U.S. rivers, lakes and oceans – including seasonal streams and wetlands that are near or intermittently connected to larger water bodies. It might also mean that construction of a road, levee or other barrier separating a wetland from other nearby waters could remove an area from federal protection.
Congress could amend the Clean Water Act to expressly provide that “waters of the United States” includes wetlands that the court has now stripped of federal protection. However, past efforts to legislate a definition have fizzled, and today’s closely divided Congress is unlikely to fare any better.
Whether states will fill the breach is questionable. Many states have not adopted regulatory protections for waters that are outside the scope of “waters of the United States.” In many instances, new legislation – and perhaps entirely new regulatory programs – will be needed.
Finally, a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas hints at potential future targets for the court’s conservative supermajority. Joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, Thomas suggested that the Clean Water Act, as well as other federal environmental statutes, lies beyond Congress’ authority to regulate activities that affect interstate commerce, and could be vulnerable to constitutional challenges. In my view, Sackett v. EPA might be just one step toward the teardown of federal environmental law.
This is an update of an article originally published on Sept. 26, 2022.
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