Equilibrium/Sustainability — Global warming sparking Arctic fire activity

An ongoing increase in global temperatures is driving a surge in wildfires across the Arctic permafrost, a new study has found.

In 2019-2020, the Siberian Arctic experienced an unusual number of fires that began to alarm the scientific community, according to the authors of the study, published in Science on Thursday.

The fires damaged large areas of permafrost — a permanently frozen layer of subsoil that stores a lot of carbon — potentially releasing greenhouse gas emissions, the authors warned.

The 423 fires that scorched the Siberian Arctic in 2020 alone burned an area almost as big as Belgium — releasing enough carbon dioxide to match the annual emissions of Spain, according to the study.

“With future warming, these megafires will be recurrent at the end of the century and will have different implications, both for the Arctic and for the global climate,” first author Adrià Descals, of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research, said in a statement.

Factors such as drier weather conditions, longer summers and increasing vegetation — on the rise over the past four decades — can exacerbate fire risk, the authors noted. And the summer of 2020 was the warmest in Siberia during that period.

“These temperature anomalies increase fire risk factors, so the conditions that were led to the 2019 and 2020 fires will be recurrent in the Arctic by the end of the century,” Descals said.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you?

Today we’ll look at the major energy firms that have funded election denial by Republicans. Then, new findings from UNESCO indicate that a third of glaciers on World Heritage sites will be gone by 2050. Plus: Lab tests unveil “forever chemicals” in baby textiles and pet food packaging.

Energy companies gave millions to election deniers

Companies that will have major impacts on U.S. sustainability goals have donated millions in direct contributions to Republicans who have questioned the 2020 election results, according to a new analysis.

Fossil fuels: Energy and chemical producers — led by fossil fuel companies like Exxon, Marathon Petroleum and Williams — donated more than $2.4 million in funding for election-denying GOP candidates, calculated based on data published this week by ProPublica.

Transport is close behind: Another $1.2 million came from transportation and product delivery companies — those with substantial, if more indirect, impacts on U.S. sustainability goals. The largest donors in this category included the UPS, FedEx and General Motors (GM).

In context: Those funds are part of a larger pool of more than $13 million total shelled out by Fortune 500 companies for election-denying candidates since the Capitol attack, ProPublica found.

Target on democracy: The report was released the day before President Biden delivered a speech on Capitol Hill accusing Republicans of putting “democracy itself” in jeopardy through campaigns of voter intimidation, political violence and election denial.

  • Biden in his speech linked election denialism with the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in what appeared to be a kidnapping attempt by a suspect immersed in election conspiracy theories. 

  • “We don’t settle our differences in America with a riot, a mob or a bullet or a hammer. We settle them peacefully at the ballot box,” Biden added Wednesday, alluding to the Pelosi attack.

Sustainability at stake: Republicans, who are favored to win back control of the House and could win the Senate in next week’s midterms, plan to use their potential power in the next Congress to roll back Democratic initiatives, as we reported.

Likely targets including clean energy stimulus spending, financial regulation of climate risk and environmental, social and governance — or ESG — focused investing in general.


After scores of Trump supporters breached the Capitol last year, a wave of top U.S. companies — including UPS, Valero Energy, GM and tobacco conglomerate Altria — issued statements committing to cease funding candidates who had voted not to certify Biden’s 2020 victory.

Flip-flop: But within months of these commitments, a number of these corporations quietly reversed course.

Case in point: Oil giant Valero began donating to election deniers 149 days after its initial commitment, ProPublica reported

The company ultimately split $215,000 among candidates like Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

  • The renewed funding for Republicans acknowledges the reality that the GOP will likely have new power in Congress following the November election, with members in some cases also viewed as being more open to fossil fuels.

  • In September, McCarthy told right-wing news outlet Breitbart News that ESG is “just wrong,” and accused both the Biden administration and large financial firms like BlackRock of creating an energy crisis.

Some World Heritage glaciers will vanish by 2050

A third of global glaciers located at World Heritage sites will disappear by 2050, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned on Thursday.

Among the glaciers to vanish will be those at Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro, according to UNESCO.

Some room for hope: While those glaciers will melt regardless of efforts to limit temperature increases, it is possible to save the remaining two-thirds of glaciers at these 50 sites, the organization stressed in a new report.

But to do so, the authors cautioned, global heating must not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.

Pursuit of solutions: “This report is a call to action,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO director-general, said in a statement.

As delegates prepare to meet in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, next week for the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP27), Azoulay stressed that the summit will play “a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue.”

Familiar figures: The 1.5-degree-Celsius warming threshold discussed in the report is the same bar that countries said they hoped to stay below at the U.N. climate summit in Paris — COP21 — in 2015.

Monumental melt: Fifty UNESCO World Heritage sites are home to a total of 18,600 glaciers that cover an area of about 25,500 square miles, the authors found.

That’s equivalent to about 10 percent of the Earth’s total “glacierized” area, according to the report, which was compiled in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Which other glaciers are disappearing? In addition to those vanishing at Yellowstone, Yosemite and Kilimanjaro, glaciers are due to disappear by 2050 at the following sites:

  • Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S.-Canada border

  • Mount Kenya

  • Three Parallel Rivers of China’s Yunnan Protected Areas

  • Western Tien-Shan, on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz-Uzbek border

  • Mont Perdu in the French-Spanish Pyrenees

  • Italy’s Dolomites

  • Argentina’s Los Alerces National Park

  • Peru’s Huascaran National Park

  • Te Waipounamu, New Zealand

To read more of the findings and UNESCO’s calls for action, please click here for the full story.

‘Forever chemicals’ in kids’ fabric, pet food packages

Cancer-linked “forever chemicals” are contaminating an array of pet food packaging and textiles made for young children, a new investigation has found.

These toxins — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — are common ingredients in children’s and pet product coatings and can wear off as dust over time, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

What are PFAS again? They’re synthetic compounds notorious for their presence in industrial discharge and firefighting foam.

  • PFAS are found in a variety of household products, including food packaging, nonstick pans and stain-resistant fabrics.  

  • Scientists have linked PFAS exposure to many illnesses, including thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer.

An indirect intruder: While product coatings aren’t directly ingested, exposure to dust can harm those who spend a lot of time on the floor, researchers from the Environmental Working group explained.

What did they find? With regards to children’s textiles, the lab tests found that bedding contained the highest content of total fluorine, which is an initial marker for possible PFAS presence.

  • Other categories with high fluorine concentrations included bibs, outerwear and snack bags. 

  • The researchers then tested the 10 products with the highest concentrations of fluorine for specific types of PFAS and found detectable levels in all of them.  

  • The contaminated products came from a wide range of well-known consumer brands, including Graco, Sealy Baby, Bumkins, Hudson Baby, Columbia, UGG and Carters.

And the pet products? An independent laboratory tested 11 bags of pet food for total fluorine, and those with the highest fluorine content were assessed for specific PFAS compounds.

  • Meow Mix Tender Centers Salmon & Chicken Flavors Dry Cat Food had high total fluorine content, while further tests indicated the presence of two types of PFAS.  

  • Purina Cat Chow was also contaminated with six types of PFAS.  

  • Bags of Kibbles n’ Bits Bacon and Steak flavor dog food had high total fluorine content and contained two types of PFAS.  

  • Blue Buffalo’s Life Protection Formula Puppy Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe also had one type of PFAS.

To read more of the study’s findings, please click here for the full story.

Don’t compost your plastics at home: study

A majority of plastic products marketed as compostable and biodegradable do not fully break down in home composters, a new study has found.

  • Fewer than 40 percent of plastics billed as compostable — were able to break down in a home compost site without leaving toxic residues — actually did so, according to the paper in Frontiers in Sustainability. 

  • Buyers also had difficulty distinguishing plastics that could be composted at home from ones that had to be sent to an industrial facility, the study found.

Consumers aren’t totally at fault: “Even packaging that has been certified as home compostable is not breaking down effectively,” coauthor Danielle Purkiss, of University College London, said in a statement.

An easy solution: The researchers noted that advances in polymers and labeling — enforced by regulation — could help bring clarity to the disposable plastics market.

  • But a more immediate solution is to step away from the inconsistency of home composting of plastics in favor of sending them to an industrial composting facility, Purkiss said. 

  • “We have shown that home composting, being uncontrolled, is largely ineffective and is not a good method of disposal for compostable packaging,” she added.

Thursday Threats

Europe is getting warmer at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world, Canada moves against Chinese investors in critical minerals and chili harvests fail in Pakistan.

Temperatures in Europe rising at more than twice the worldwide average rate

  • Temperatures in Europe have risen at a rate more than twice the global average over the past three decades — the highest of any continent, a report from the World Meteorological Organization has found. High impact weather events led to hundreds of fatalities and caused damages exceeding $50 billion in 2021, according to the report.

Canada evicts Chinese investors from lithium supply

  • Canada’s government has ordered three Chinese firms to sell off their shares in lithium companies after an intelligence review determined that the investments threatened national security, The Financial Times reported. Former U.S. commerce department official Nazak Kikakhtar told the Times that the move marked a Canadian policy shift “from traditional national security risks to critical supply chain risks.”

Pakistan floods inflict a spicy ruin

  • A combination of withering heat and punishing floods have slashed chili harvests in Pakistan, a major producer of the fiery peppers, Al Jazeera reported.  “All the chilis have rotted away,” one farmer told Al Jazeera, a ruined plant in his hands.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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