A forest-thinning project in Arizona leaves more open canopy and clearer ground. David McNew/Getty Images

The U.S. government is investing over US$7 billion in the coming years to try to manage the nation’s escalating wildfire crisis. That includes a commitment to treat at least 60 million acres in the next 10 years by expanding forest-thinning efforts and controlled burns.

While that sounds like a lot – 60 million acres is about the size of Wyoming – it’s nowhere close to enough to treat every acre that needs it.

So, where can taxpayers get the biggest bang for the buck?

I’m a fire ecologist in Montana. In a new study, my colleagues and I mapped out where forest treatments can do the most to simultaneously protect communities – by preventing wildfires from turning into disasters – and also protect the forests and the climate we rely on, by keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and stored in healthy soils and trees.

Wildfires are becoming more severe

Forests and fires have always been intertwined in the West. Fires in dry conifer forests like ponderosa pine historically occurred frequently, clearing out brush and small trees in the understory. As a result, fires had less fuel and tended to stay on the ground, doing less damage to the larger, older trees.

That changed after European colonization of North America ushered in a legacy of fire suppression that wouldn’t be questioned until the 1960s. In the absence of fire, dry conifer forests accumulated excess fuel that now allows wildfires to climb into the canopy.

A firefighter looks up with a line of low-burning fire behind him on the ground beneath trees.
A firefighter sets a controlled burn to remove undergrowth that could fuel a fire. Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In addition to excess fuels, all forest types are experiencing hotter and drier wildfire seasons due to climate change. And the expanding number of people living in and near forests, and their roads and power lines, increases the risk of wildfire ignitions. Collectively, it’s not surprising that more area is burning at high severity in the West.

In response, the U.S. is facing increasing pressure to protect communities from high-severity wildfire, while also reducing the country’s impact on climate change – including from carbon released by wildfires.

High-risk areas that meet both goals

To find the locations with greatest potential payoff for forest treatments, we started by identifying areas where forest carbon is more likely to be lost to wildfires compared to other locations.

In each area, we considered the likelihood of wildfire and calculated how much forest carbon might be lost through smoke emissions and decomposition. Additionally, we evaluated whether the conditions in burned areas would be too stressful for trees to regenerate over time. When forests regrow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away in their wood, eventually making up for the carbon lost in the fire.

In particular, we found that forests in California, New Mexico and Arizona were more likely to lose a large portion of their carbon in a wildfire and also have a tough time regenerating because of stressful conditions.

A map of the western U.S. shows areas where protecting human communities and protecting carbon storage overlap, including Flagstaff, Ariz.; Placerville, Calif.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Hamilton, Mont.; Taos, N.M.; and Medford, Ore.
Areas with high potential for protecting both human communities and carbon storage. Jamie Peeler, CC BY-ND

When we compared those areas to previously published maps detailing high wildfire risk to communities, we found several hot spots for simultaneously reducing wildfire risk to communities and stabilizing stored carbon.

Forests surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona; Placerville, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Hamilton, Montana; Taos, New Mexico; Medford, Oregon, and Wenatchee, Washington, are among locations with good opportunities for likely achieving both goals.

Why treating forests is good for carbon, too

Forest thinning is like weeding a garden: It removes brush and small trees in dry conifer forests to leave behind space for the larger, older trees to continue growing.

Repeatedly applying controlled burns maintains that openness and reduces fuels in the understory. Consequently, when a wildfire occurs in a thinned and burned area, flames are more likely to remain on the ground and out of the canopy.

Although forest thinning and controlled burning remove carbon in the short term, living trees are more likely to survive a subsequent wildfire. In the long term, that’s a good outcome for carbon and climate. Living trees continue to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, as well as provide critical seeds and shade for seedlings to regenerate, grow and recover the carbon lost to fires.

Of course, forest thinning and controlled burning are not a silver bullet. Using the National Fire Protection Agency’s Firewise program’s advice and recommended materials will help people make their properties less vulnerable to wildfires. Allowing wildfires to burn under safe conditions can reduce future wildfire severity. And the world needs to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels to curb climate change impacts that increase the risk of wildfires becoming community disasters.

The Conversation

Jamie Peeler receives funding from The Nature Conservancy and United States Geological Survey. She is affiliated with The Nature Conservancy as a NatureNet Science Fellow.

Read more …The US is spending billions to reduce forest fire risks – we mapped the hot spots where treatment...

Many colonias along the Texas-Mexico border still lack basic infrastructure, including running water. AP Photo/Eric Gay

In a Zen parable, a man sees a horse and rider galloping by. The man asks the rider where he’s going, and the rider responds, “I don’t know. Ask the horse!”

It is easy to feel out of control and helpless in the face of the many problems Americans are now experiencing – unaffordable health care, poverty and climate change, to name a few. These problems are made harder by the ways in which people, including elected representatives, often talk past each other.

Most people want a strong economy, social well-being and a healthy environment. These goals are interdependent: A strong economy isn’t possible without a society peaceful enough to support investment and well-functioning markets, or without water and air clean enough to support life and productivity. This understanding – that economic, social and environmental well-being are intertwined – is the premise of sustainable development.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals, known as the SDGs, with 169 measurable targets to be achieved by 2030. Though not legally binding, all nations, including the U.S., agreed to pursue this agenda.

The world is now halfway to that 2030 deadline. Countries have made some progress, such as reducing extreme poverty and child mortality, though the COVID-19 pandemic set back progress on many targets.

On Sept. 18-19, 2023, world leaders will gather at the U.N. to review global progress toward those goals. It’s a good opportunity for Americans to review their own progress because, as we see it, sustainable development is fundamentally American.

Environment, economy and health intertwined

Though not widely recognized, sustainable development has been a core American policy since President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in 1970. The law says that Americans should “use all practicable means and measures … to create and maintain conditions under which man [sic] and nature can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”

While it is tempting in today’s sour political climate to dismiss this as wishful thinking, the U.S. has made some progress reconciling economic development with environmental protection.

Gross domestic product, for example, grew 196% between 1980 and 2022, while total emissions of the six most common non-greenhouse air pollutants, including lead and sulfur dioxide, fell 73%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, a major sustainable development law, is designed to further accelerate the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through tax credits and other incentives. Goldman Sachs estimated the law would spur about US$3 trillion in renewable energy investment. The law has already been credited with creating 170,000 new jobs and leading to more than 270 new or expanded clean energy projects. That impact further demonstrates that environmental goals can align with economic growth.

The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals cover a broader range of environmental, social and economic issues, and there are indicators for assessing progress on each.

How is America doing?

The U.S. ranked 39th out of 166 countries in a 2023 review of national efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which operates under the auspices of the U.N. Secretary-General, finds that America is lagging behind the targets set for many of the Sustainable Development Goals that are critical to the nation’s defense, competitiveness and health, such as reducing obesity, increasing life expectancy at birth, protecting labor rights, reducing maternal mortality, decreasing inequality and protecting biodiversity.

To understand where the U.S. is falling short, we asked 26 experts working on various areas of sustainable development to review the nation’s progress and make recommendations for future action. The resulting 2023 book, Governing for Sustainability, provides some 500 U.S.-specific recommendations for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

A young child, looking bored, sits on a woman's lap as a nurse tests her blood pressure.
Residents waited in long lines for a free annual health clinic in Wise, Va., in 2017. A nonprofit operated the annual pop-up clinic for two decades until the state expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2019, which helped more residents afford local health care. John Moore/Getty Images

Health and access to quality health care loom large in many of the goals. The authors in several chapters explain why the nation cannot eliminate poverty or hunger, or have a vibrant economy, gender equality or education gains, without widely available, affordable health care. Yet, the U.S. has some of the highest health care costs in the world. Several states have rejected efforts to expand eligibility for federal Medicaid health insurance for low-income residents, leaving many people without care.

Similarly, the authors show that human health, ecological health, clean water and economic vitality all require sound climate policy. A quickly warming world poses new health risks, decimates ecosystems, strains potable water supplies and reduces global economic productivity.

Clean and abundant water is critical to a functioning economy and a stable, diverse ecosystem, and yet some areas of the United States still lack clean water or indoor plumbing. This often occurs in communities of color and low income, and it can impede economic prosperity and development in these areas.

Ready access to nutritious food is also a bedrock need to support many of the Sustainable Development Goals, from poverty alleviation to education, yet far too many American children rely on school lunches for basic sustenance.

A man squints into the sun as he holds a large hose that pours water into a tank in the back of a pickup truck.
A U.S. Army veteran fills a tank in the back of his pickup with water in Laredo, Texas, to provide water for his mother’s home. Rural residents in parts of the Southwest have to truck in clean water. Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The goals covering peace, justice, strong institutions and partnerships are necessary to achieve all of the goals. A society at war with itself and without rule of law cannot support a vibrant, diverse economy and lasting democracy. This has been shown repeatedly as some developing nations backslide from democratic progress and prosperity to civil war and poverty. Developed nations are subject to the same forces.

Taking the reins

Sustainable development is emphatically not about government alone solving the nation’s problems. Businesses, universities and other organizations, as well as individuals, are essential to help the country realize its environmental, health and climate goals, fair practices and living wages.

The right place to “take the reins” is where you are, and with the problems or tasks in front of you – at work and at home. Figure out more sustainable ways to use water and energy, for example. Look at what our book recommends and what others are already doing to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Seize opportunities such as saving money, and reduce risks by, for example, cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Every individual can contribute to a better future.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …The US committed to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, but like other countries, it's...

Invasive species – including plants, animals and fish – cause heavy damage to crops, wildlife and human health worldwide. Some prey on native species; other out-compete them for space and food or spread disease. A new United Nations report estimates the losses generated by invasives at more than US$423 billion yearly and shows that these damages have at least quadrupled in every decade since 1970.

Humans regularly move animals, plants and other living species from their home areas to new locations, either accidentally or on purpose. For example, they may import plants from faraway locations to raise as crops or bring in a nonnative animal to prey on a local pest. Other invasives hitch rides in cargo or ships’ ballast water.

When a species that is not native to a particular area becomes established there, reproducing quickly and causing harm, it has become invasive. These recent articles from The Conversation describe how several invasive species are causing economic and ecological harm across the U.S. They also explain steps that people can take to avoid contributing to this urgent global problem.

1. The best intentions: Callery pear trees

Many invasive species were introduced to new locations because people thought they would be useful. One example that’s widely visible across the U.S. Northeast, Midwest and South is the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), a flowering tree that botanists brought to the U.S. from Asia more than 100 years ago.

Horticulturists loved the Callery pear for landscaping and wanted to produce trees that all grew and bloomed in the same way. As University of Dayton plant ecologist Ryan W. McEwan explained, they created identical clones from cuttings of trees with the desired characteristics – a process called grafting. Unlike some trees, a Callery pear can’t fertilize its flowers with its own pollen, so plant experts thought it wouldn’t spread.

Missouri state foresters explain why Callery pear trees became so popular and the problems they cause.

However, “as horticulturalists tinkered with Callery pears to produce new versions, they made the individuals different enough to escape the fertilization barrier,” McEwan wrote. As wind and birds spread the trees’ seeds, wild populations of the trees became established and started crowding out native species.

Today, Callery pear trees are such scourges that several states have banned them. Others are paying residents to cut them down and replace them with native plants.

Read more: Once the Callery pear tree was landscapers' favorite – now states are banning this invasive species and urging homeowners to cut it down

2. Tiny organisms, big impacts: Zebra and quagga mussels

Invasive species don’t have to be large to cause outsized damage. Zebra and quagga mussels – shellfish the size of a fingernail – invaded the Great Lakes in the 1980s, clogging water intake pipes and out-competing native mollusks for food. Now they’re spreading west via rivers, lakes and bays, threatening waters all the way to the Pacific coast and Alaska.

As Rochester Institute of Technology environmental historian Christine Keiner wrote, it took several decades for the U.S. and Canada to regulate ships’ management of their ballast water tanks, which was the route by which the mussels were introduced to North America.

“Now, however, other human activities are increasingly contributing to harmful freshwater introductions – and with shipping regulated, the main culprits are thousands of private boaters and anglers,” Keller wrote. Limiting the destructive impacts of invasive species “requires scientific, technological and historical knowledge, political will and skill to persuade the public that everyone is part of the solution.”

Infographic showing locations on a motorboat to check for invasive mussels.
Many states require boaters to clean and dry their boats after use to avoid spreading zebra and quagga mussels. Nebraska Invasive Species Program, CC BY-ND

Read more: The westward spread of zebra and quagga mussels shows how tiny invaders can cause big problems

3. Threatening entire ecosystems: Lionfish

When an invasive species is especially successful at spreading and reproducing, it can threaten the health of entire ecosystems. Consider the Pacific red lionfish (Pterois volitans), which has spread throughout the Caribbean and now is moving south along Brazil’s coast.

Lionfish thrive in many ocean habitats, from coastal mangrove forests to deepwater reefs, and they prey on numerous smaller fish species. In the Caribbean, they have reduced the number of small juvenile fish on reefs by up to 80% within as little as five weeks.

“Scientists and environmental managers widely agree that the lionfish invasion in Brazil is a potential ecological disaster,” warned Brazilian marine ecologist Osmar J. Luiz of Charles Darwin University. “Brazil’s northeast coast, with its rich artisanal fishing activity, stands on the front line of this invasive threat.”

Although the Brazilian government was slow to address the lionfish threat, Luiz asserted that “with strategic, swift action and international collaboration, it can mitigate the impacts of this invasive species and safeguard its marine ecosystems.” That will require many techniques, from recruiting coastal residents to monitor for the invaders to tracking lionfish subpopulations using DNA analysis.

Read more: Invasive lionfish have spread south from the Caribbean to Brazil, threatening ecosystems and livelihoods

4. The value of acting locally

Public awareness is critical for stemming the spread of many invasive plants and animals. That can involve actions as simple as cleaning your shoes and socks after a hike.

“Certain species of nonnative invasive plants produce seeds designed to attach to unsuspecting animals or people. Once affixed, these sticky seeds can be carried long distances before they fall off in new environments,” explains Boise State University ecology Ph.D. candidate Megan Dolman.

Research shows that recreational trails promote the introduction of invasive plant species into natural and protected areas, including national parks and scenic trails.

In her research, Dolman found that few Appalachian Trail hikers were aware of the risk of carrying invasive plant seeds on their shoes or socks, so they typically did not take steps such as cleaning their gear before and after hiking. By knowing about invasive species in their areas and ways to manage them, people can help protect special places and keep invasive species from spreading.

Read more: Those seeds clinging to your hiking socks may be from invasive plants – here's how to avoid spreading them to new locations

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

The Conversation
Read more …Invasive species cause billions of dollars in damage worldwide: 4 essential reads

U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act on Aug. 16, 2022, including electric vehicle subsidies with 'buy American' rules. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s landmark climate law, is now expected to prompt a trillion dollars in government spending to fight climate change and trillions more in private investment. But the law and Biden’s broader “buy American” agenda include measures that discriminate against imports.

One year in, these policies, such as the law’s electric vehicle subsidies, appear to be succeeding at growing domestic clean energy industries – consider the US$100 billion in newly announced battery supply chain investments. But we believe the law also clearly violates international trade rules.

The problem is not the crime but the cover-up. Today’s trade rules are ill-suited for the climate crisis. However, simply tearing them down could hinder economic growth and climate progress alike.

If U.S. leaders instead take responsibility for forging an improved international trade system – rather than denying the violations of trade rules or pointing fingers at similar transgressions by trade partners – they could help put the global economy in a better position to weather increasing climate-related trade tensions.

Building, then violating WTO rules

The United States has shaped international trade rules more than any other country.

In the 1940s, the U.S. proposed rules that were eventually largely adopted as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, or GATT, a series of multinational agreements to reduce trade barriers. The most ambitious of the GATT agreements was the U.S.-instigated Uruguay Round of the 1990s, which created the World Trade Organization.

Some WTO rules are vague, but others are crystal clear, including an unambiguous prohibition of subsidies contingent on the use of domestic products instead of imports. Certain provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act do exactly that, such as the electric vehicle subsidies that require a large percentage of parts to be produced in North America.

The choice facing U.S. policymakers was between accepting the Inflation Reduction Act, including its rule-breaking, protectionist elements, or missing the small window to pass federal climate legislation.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) explicitly refused to provide the 50th vote needed to pass the law if it wasn’t to his liking, and among his asks was domestic sourcing requirements. More broadly, any meaningful climate legislation that does not support the local economies of fossil fuel-heavy regions may be dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate.

Without the Inflation Reduction Act, however, the U.S. had next to no chance of meeting its climate commitments, which would have dampened climate policy momentum across the world.

U.S. leaders might have been justified in begging for forgiveness after passing the legislation rather than asking for permission to violate trade rules. Instead, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said his team reviewed the international trade laws very carefully and found no violations.

Instead of an apology, U.S. leaders have said, “You’re welcome,” arguing that the subsidies will benefit other countries by accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies and lowering costs.

While there is strong evidence to support this argument, it falls flat from a country that has failed to fulfill its obligations to take federal action on climate change for decades and just violated trade laws it has held others accountable to for so long. India’s power minister accused the West of hypocrisy, saying the Inflation Reduction Act’s protectionism will inhibit the energy transitions in developing economies.

The real concern: Rising protectionism

The Inflation Reduction Act contains a fundamental contradiction. Its promise to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions relies on the rapid diffusion of technologies, knowledge and finance across borders. Yet, its domestic subsidies may accelerate the adoption of trade barriers that inhibit these same cross-border flows, thus slowing progress on climate change.

Moreover, the investments it catalyzes will immediately benefit the U.S. economy, while the shared benefits of technological progress and emissions reductions will unfold over many decades for other countries. In the intervening years, other countries may respond with protectionist policies of their own.

Indeed, the real concern might not be the opening salvo, but the shootout of growing protectionism that ensues. For all its drawbacks, the growth in international trade since World War II has led to immense economic progress in much of the world, including the United States. The WTO and its predecessors have been instrumental in reducing harmful tariffs and providing a consistent set of trade rules to which countries are supposed to adhere.

Biden and von der Lyden talk in the Oval Office. They're leaning foward toward each other in their chairs and smiling.
Combating climate change was on the agenda when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the White House in March 2023. The European Union has proposed its own rules to support its domestic clean energy industries. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Biden administration is attempting to assuage these concerns by forging agreements that make more foreign producers eligible for Inflation Reduction Act subsidies. But, in our view, bespoke agreements with a handful of countries aren’t enough. A new vision is needed for international trade rules that support low trade barriers and “green industrial policies” alike.

An opportunity to modernize international trade

Global trade rules have not been updated in a generation. They are sorely in need of reform.

The usefulness of the WTO is contingent on most parties agreeing that its rules are worth following. Without a new working consensus and backing from the largest powers with effective vetoes, the organization will become irrelevant.

The first step to fixing the situation is to stop denying the problem or digging deeper holes, such as the United States’ ill-advised blocking of appointments to the WTO’s dispute settlement Appellate Body since 2017 to protest what it sees as overreach by the body.

More proactively, the U.S. can reestablish its commitment to trade rules by instigating a process to develop equitable reforms.

That could begin with a global summit to discuss the changes necessary to reflect new realities. High-level leadership from the United States would add considerable heft to the ongoing efforts to reform global trade rules.

Any fundamental rewrite of WTO rules will be a long and painstaking process. Instead, it may be sufficient to add a few clauses to existing agreements – like GATT Articles 20 and 21, which deal with exceptions to the trade rules – that clearly and transparently recognize that governments will need to nurture emerging domestic industries to cut emissions fast, ensure energy security and support vulnerable economies.

New rules could limit and define the appropriate use of green subsidies, carbon border tariffs, export and import controls and supply chain coordination. For example, the U.S. and other developed countries could agree to limit subsidies’ domestic sourcing requirements to only emerging, innovative clean technologies that require public support to commercialize. Building on this, all countries could work toward an explicit list of clean energy, transport and industrial technologies needed by all that can be traded with reduced or minimal tariffs.

Of course, these trade tools would have to be managed carefully to avoid proliferating and exacerbating tensions.

In the meantime, since U.S. leaders are already acting as if these rules exist, they’ll have to accept that other countries’ leaders may act similarly — a new Kantian Golden Rule for trade.

It may turn out that the United States did the world a favor by throwing off the shackles of outdated trade rules. That will depend on whether U.S. leaders take advantage of the opportunity to reframe the discussion around the country’s recent legislation as steps toward a modernized international trade regime that better aligns with the world’s climate goals.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …The US broke global trade rules to try to fix climate change – to finish the job, it has to fix...

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