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Saying ‘I do’ to more sustainable celebrations

News Feed
Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The vision Your dad protested this birthday party. As a longtime environmental activist, he hated to be “wasteful.” When he was young, people thought a lot about personal footprints. Also, waste was, like, a thing. He still has trouble believing that travel, circularity, and municipal repurposing have gotten as efficient as you constantly remind him they have. But now that everyone’s here, you see the joy in his crinkly, 95-year-old smile. The whole family’s together, laughing, toasting him with homemade beer, and enjoying his favorite vegan dishes. It’s the party he deserves — and the one you knew a part of him wanted. — a drabble by Claire Elise Thompson The spotlight One of the most frequent things we hear from our readers is that you want to learn more about what you can do about climate change. You, like a majority of people in this country, feel the weight and the urgency of the climate crisis, and want to make a difference. But we also hear a lot of questions and frustrations about how much of an impact individual actions, like green lifestyle choices, can actually have. The idea of personal responsibility is fraught within the climate movement. The phrase “carbon footprint” actually originated as part of an ad campaign by BP, which strategically placed the onus for climate-friendly behavior onto individuals. And it worked astonishingly well. But over the past several years, advocates have challenged that framework in an attempt to shift the conversation to systemic change. “I don’t want us to blame climate change on everyday people anymore, because it’s the fault of a system that’s been created that they’re forced to live in,” says Molly Kawahata, a former climate advisor to the Obama White House who now runs a communications consultancy focused on redirecting the climate movement away from shame and toward collective power. But Kawahata and others also stress that focusing on the need for systemic change doesn’t render individuals powerless, or mark the end of personal action. In fact, it’s the opposite. Rejecting a narrative of guilt and shame can actually free up people’s capacity to take more impactful actions. Kawahata, for example, emphasizes voter registration and mobilization as the best way for someone to contribute to generating collective power. “I think without individual action, you can’t have effective collective action,” says Nivi Achanta, the founder and CEO of Soapbox Project, a digital community focused on joyful and “bite-sized” climate actions. In her mind, it’s fruitless to go back and forth questioning whether an individual choice “matters.” If it’s something you believe in and feel good about doing, whether it’s shopping secondhand, eating less meat, or volunteering your time, then it matters to you. It forms a part of your identity — and it may well impact the people around you. “I don’t think any individual action is truly just about the individual unless you’re living off-grid somewhere, not talking to anyone,” Achanta says. This is the basis of a five-part series we’ll be running over the coming weeks, focused on reframing our ideas about personal action. We’ll be looking at some unique perspectives on what it means to take individual action against the backdrop of systemic problems, and exploring how different people are living out their values, magnifying their reach, and joining together with others to make change. We’re starting the series with an area of action that’s about as personal as you can get, and one that’s been on my mind recently. I’m about to get married (in 10 mere days, in fact!) on my partner’s family farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. As a climate journalist, I thought a lot about how I wanted this wedding to reflect my personal values. We’re going plastic-free; my future mother-in-law procured all of our mismatched plates, silverware, and glasses from thrift shops and yard sales; and we’re planning to decorate with bundles of invasive grasses that we’ll pick the day before. We’re keeping things casual, in part because this wedding is coming on the heels of a cross-country move and my partner’s graduation from med school (it’s a big time for us, fam!). Planning for my own nuptials got me thinking about how big life events — whether a wedding, birthday party, or another milestone — are moments in which we make a lot of personal choices. But our choices have a magnified impact, both because we are making them for everyone on the guest list, and because these momentous gatherings often bring some of the largest purchasing decisions we’ll ever have the opportunity to make. Big events can also be a way of sharing your values with your loved ones, of creating new traditions to pass on to future generations, or of reviving and honoring old ones. From birth to death, here are stories of how individuals have used their life’s milestones to create an outsized impact from their personal choices. At a birthday party Birthdays are meaningful in almost every culture. But in Hawaii, a baby’s first birthday, or ahaʻaina piha makahiki, is a particularly big deal. The tradition harks back to times when infant mortality rates were high on the islands, and so surviving for a full year was an accomplishment worth celebrating — the first major milestone in a young child’s life. Nowadays, the festivities can be as big as weddings. “When my first child turned 1, I went ham on figuring out how to locally source all of his food for his first luau,” says Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi, an urban farmer based in Troy, New York, with Native Hawaiian ancestry. They traveled home to celebrate the first luau with their family in Hawaii, and as someone deeply invested in local food systems, Iversen-Keahi wanted the feast to support Hawaiian farmers. They were also painfully aware that, despite a rich agricultural history, the archipelago currently imports over 80 percent of its food. Iversen-Keahi enlisted the help of local farmer and food systems advocate Daniel Anthony to source ingredients like pork, taro, and fish. Anthony also guided the family through pounding their own poi, a sweet, starchy food made from taro root. “I still remember my grandma laughing at me when I requested the family join me to partake in this process,” Iversen-Keahi says. The idea of making the poi themselves, when they were already paying for it, didn’t immediately intrigue all of their family members — but they came around to the DIY process, and it became an opportunity to reconnect not only with local food sources but also traditional practices. “When my [93-year-old] great-grandmother tasted it, she said she hadn’t tasted poi like that since she was a child,” Iversen-Keahi says. Her great-grandmother’s grandfather had been a taro farmer, and she used to help him on the farm every summer. “This was the last luau she attended before she passed away.” Iversen-Keahi also made their own piñata and other decorations for the party. Their grandmother sang. “I put my all into it, and it felt sacred to include multiple generations in the process of feeding each other,” they say. “It wasn’t a simple trip to Costco — as my family usually prefers it.” At a wedding Soapbox Project’s Nivi Achanta was featured in the Washington Post Climate Coach newsletter for her and her partner’s decision to mark their engagement with the purchase of a new bike in lieu of a diamond ring. Challenging traditions that didn’t feel meaningful and choosing sustainable alternatives was important to her, but not necessarily because of the quantifiable impact. “I’ve spent the past three months looking for secondhand wedding outfits,” Achanta shared with me earlier this year. “Do I think it’s the best use of my time? No, not necessarily. In those three months you could argue that I could have gone to more city hall meetings and organized people and done high-leverage actions.” But, she says, making that extra effort for a particularly important — and visible — moment in her life felt as though she was standing for something. And she made sure to share what she was doing with others. In January, Achanta posted a Twitter thread about the challenge of finding secondhand garments for South Asian weddings, which typically feature multiple outfits often made-to-measure. The thread has racked up over half a million views. “I think that’s where individual action is powerful,” Achanta says — when it sparks conversations. When my big brother got married in 2021, he and his wife chose a meat-free menu. My brother has been a vegetarian since high school. His reasoning, originally, was to see if he could stick with it longer than me (I had a few false starts, OK) — but over more than a decade, it’s evolved to reflect a combination of his environmental views and his love for animals. Although it was no secret that the wedding was vegetarian, he and his wife weren’t aiming to start a conversation. Instead, their goal was to spend their money in a way that supported their values, with one of the largest food purchases they’re likely to make in their life. “If the reason for your vegetarianism is primarily driven by, like, casting your dollar vote for a more environmentally friendly diet, then that’s a huge dollar vote,” my brother told me. The catering for their wedding was the largest part of their budget — and they wanted to spend that cash supporting a company that was as excited as they were about crafting a delicious plant-based menu (including a butternut squash lasagna that I still dream about). At a funeral The final ritual of life is one that the guest of honor doesn’t directly participate in. But funerals, like weddings and birthday parties, are generally about gathering together to honor a loved one. And that can include honoring values around climate and sustainability. Rabbi Seth Goldstein recently officiated at his first funeral where the deceased had chosen to be composted. “It was a very powerful experience,” Goldstein told me. He’d been curious about the practice since it was legalized in 2019 in Washington state, where he lives and works. And he felt an obligation, and an opportunity, to make meaning out of the choice in the context of Jewish teachings. “I really valued that choice, even though it wasn’t traditional within Jewish practice, because I knew that it was fitting in with these deeply held values of sustainability and environmental justice that I feel are deeply inherent within Judaism,” he says. In some ways, Goldstein says, the ethos of the practice felt very similar to a traditional Jewish burial, which generally emphasizes simplicity and returning to the earth — similar to the modern-day green burial movement. For Goldstein, this funeral was the first opportunity he and many of his community members had to engage with human composting, and calling attention to his congregant’s choice created an opportunity for all of them to reimagine hallowed rituals in the context of new technology. “I really felt that it was a gift given to me by this beloved congregant,” Goldstein says. “To be able to deeply engage with it as a rabbi, as someone who’s serving my community, honoring individuals and their choices while honoring Jewish tradition at the same time — it was a beautiful gift.” — Claire Elise Thompson More exposure Read: more about the Hawaiian tradition of the first luau (Fodor’s Travel) Read: about the push to revitalize — and decolonize — Hawaii’s food systems (Honolulu Civil Beat) Read: more on sustainable weddings: tips on how to have one (New York Times), stories from two recently wed couples in India (World Is One News), and an opinion piece on why the wedding-industrial complex should be listening (Grist) Read: about the quickly growing practice of human composting (Atmos) Read: about an imagined future where green burial and forest cemeteries become the norm (from Grist’s Imagine 2200 collection) See for yourself Have you chosen green alternatives for a meaningful moment in your life? Have you created your own rituals, reimagined traditions, or otherwise found ways of sustainably celebrating and honoring life’s milestones? Reply to this email to tell us about it! A parting shot The world’s first human-composting facility opened in Seattle in December of 2020, operated by a company called Recompose. (This photo shows a mannequin covered by a shroud and a bundle of flowers, offering a view inside the company’s green funeral home.) The process takes about a month, and produces roughly one cubic yard of soil. Loved ones can either donate the compost for use in forest conservation projects, or keep some or all of it. IMAGE CREDITS Vision: Grist Parting Shot: Mat Hayward / Getty Images This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Saying ‘I do’ to more sustainable celebrations on Jun 7, 2023.

Birthdays, weddings, and funerals: Why people who care about the climate are bringing those values into rites of passage.

Illustration of three tier cake with blue and green frosting and earth on top

The vision

Your dad protested this birthday party. As a longtime environmental activist, he hated to be “wasteful.”

When he was young, people thought a lot about personal footprints. Also, waste was, like, a thing. He still has trouble believing that travel, circularity, and municipal repurposing have gotten as efficient as you constantly remind him they have.

But now that everyone’s here, you see the joy in his crinkly, 95-year-old smile. The whole family’s together, laughing, toasting him with homemade beer, and enjoying his favorite vegan dishes. It’s the party he deserves — and the one you knew a part of him wanted.

— a drabble by Claire Elise Thompson

The spotlight

One of the most frequent things we hear from our readers is that you want to learn more about what you can do about climate change. You, like a majority of people in this country, feel the weight and the urgency of the climate crisis, and want to make a difference. But we also hear a lot of questions and frustrations about how much of an impact individual actions, like green lifestyle choices, can actually have.

The idea of personal responsibility is fraught within the climate movement. The phrase “carbon footprint” actually originated as part of an ad campaign by BP, which strategically placed the onus for climate-friendly behavior onto individuals. And it worked astonishingly well. But over the past several years, advocates have challenged that framework in an attempt to shift the conversation to systemic change.

“I don’t want us to blame climate change on everyday people anymore, because it’s the fault of a system that’s been created that they’re forced to live in,” says Molly Kawahata, a former climate advisor to the Obama White House who now runs a communications consultancy focused on redirecting the climate movement away from shame and toward collective power.

But Kawahata and others also stress that focusing on the need for systemic change doesn’t render individuals powerless, or mark the end of personal action. In fact, it’s the opposite. Rejecting a narrative of guilt and shame can actually free up people’s capacity to take more impactful actions. Kawahata, for example, emphasizes voter registration and mobilization as the best way for someone to contribute to generating collective power.

“I think without individual action, you can’t have effective collective action,” says Nivi Achanta, the founder and CEO of Soapbox Project, a digital community focused on joyful and “bite-sized” climate actions. In her mind, it’s fruitless to go back and forth questioning whether an individual choice “matters.” If it’s something you believe in and feel good about doing, whether it’s shopping secondhand, eating less meat, or volunteering your time, then it matters to you. It forms a part of your identity — and it may well impact the people around you.

“I don’t think any individual action is truly just about the individual unless you’re living off-grid somewhere, not talking to anyone,” Achanta says.

This is the basis of a five-part series we’ll be running over the coming weeks, focused on reframing our ideas about personal action. We’ll be looking at some unique perspectives on what it means to take individual action against the backdrop of systemic problems, and exploring how different people are living out their values, magnifying their reach, and joining together with others to make change.

. . .

We’re starting the series with an area of action that’s about as personal as you can get, and one that’s been on my mind recently. I’m about to get married (in 10 mere days, in fact!) on my partner’s family farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

As a climate journalist, I thought a lot about how I wanted this wedding to reflect my personal values. We’re going plastic-free; my future mother-in-law procured all of our mismatched plates, silverware, and glasses from thrift shops and yard sales; and we’re planning to decorate with bundles of invasive grasses that we’ll pick the day before. We’re keeping things casual, in part because this wedding is coming on the heels of a cross-country move and my partner’s graduation from med school (it’s a big time for us, fam!).

Planning for my own nuptials got me thinking about how big life events — whether a wedding, birthday party, or another milestone — are moments in which we make a lot of personal choices. But our choices have a magnified impact, both because we are making them for everyone on the guest list, and because these momentous gatherings often bring some of the largest purchasing decisions we’ll ever have the opportunity to make. Big events can also be a way of sharing your values with your loved ones, of creating new traditions to pass on to future generations, or of reviving and honoring old ones.

From birth to death, here are stories of how individuals have used their life’s milestones to create an outsized impact from their personal choices.

. . .

At a birthday party

Birthdays are meaningful in almost every culture. But in Hawaii, a baby’s first birthday, or ahaʻaina piha makahiki, is a particularly big deal. The tradition harks back to times when infant mortality rates were high on the islands, and so surviving for a full year was an accomplishment worth celebrating — the first major milestone in a young child’s life. Nowadays, the festivities can be as big as weddings.

“When my first child turned 1, I went ham on figuring out how to locally source all of his food for his first luau,” says Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi, an urban farmer based in Troy, New York, with Native Hawaiian ancestry. They traveled home to celebrate the first luau with their family in Hawaii, and as someone deeply invested in local food systems, Iversen-Keahi wanted the feast to support Hawaiian farmers. They were also painfully aware that, despite a rich agricultural history, the archipelago currently imports over 80 percent of its food.

Iversen-Keahi enlisted the help of local farmer and food systems advocate Daniel Anthony to source ingredients like pork, taro, and fish. Anthony also guided the family through pounding their own poi, a sweet, starchy food made from taro root.

“I still remember my grandma laughing at me when I requested the family join me to partake in this process,” Iversen-Keahi says. The idea of making the poi themselves, when they were already paying for it, didn’t immediately intrigue all of their family members — but they came around to the DIY process, and it became an opportunity to reconnect not only with local food sources but also traditional practices. “When my [93-year-old] great-grandmother tasted it, she said she hadn’t tasted poi like that since she was a child,” Iversen-Keahi says. Her great-grandmother’s grandfather had been a taro farmer, and she used to help him on the farm every summer. “This was the last luau she attended before she passed away.”

Iversen-Keahi also made their own piñata and other decorations for the party. Their grandmother sang. “I put my all into it, and it felt sacred to include multiple generations in the process of feeding each other,” they say. “It wasn’t a simple trip to Costco — as my family usually prefers it.”

At a wedding

Soapbox Project’s Nivi Achanta was featured in the Washington Post Climate Coach newsletter for her and her partner’s decision to mark their engagement with the purchase of a new bike in lieu of a diamond ring. Challenging traditions that didn’t feel meaningful and choosing sustainable alternatives was important to her, but not necessarily because of the quantifiable impact.

“I’ve spent the past three months looking for secondhand wedding outfits,” Achanta shared with me earlier this year. “Do I think it’s the best use of my time? No, not necessarily. In those three months you could argue that I could have gone to more city hall meetings and organized people and done high-leverage actions.” But, she says, making that extra effort for a particularly important — and visible — moment in her life felt as though she was standing for something. And she made sure to share what she was doing with others.

In January, Achanta posted a Twitter thread about the challenge of finding secondhand garments for South Asian weddings, which typically feature multiple outfits often made-to-measure. The thread has racked up over half a million views. “I think that’s where individual action is powerful,” Achanta says — when it sparks conversations.

When my big brother got married in 2021, he and his wife chose a meat-free menu. My brother has been a vegetarian since high school. His reasoning, originally, was to see if he could stick with it longer than me (I had a few false starts, OK) — but over more than a decade, it’s evolved to reflect a combination of his environmental views and his love for animals.

Although it was no secret that the wedding was vegetarian, he and his wife weren’t aiming to start a conversation. Instead, their goal was to spend their money in a way that supported their values, with one of the largest food purchases they’re likely to make in their life.

“If the reason for your vegetarianism is primarily driven by, like, casting your dollar vote for a more environmentally friendly diet, then that’s a huge dollar vote,” my brother told me. The catering for their wedding was the largest part of their budget — and they wanted to spend that cash supporting a company that was as excited as they were about crafting a delicious plant-based menu (including a butternut squash lasagna that I still dream about).

At a funeral

The final ritual of life is one that the guest of honor doesn’t directly participate in. But funerals, like weddings and birthday parties, are generally about gathering together to honor a loved one. And that can include honoring values around climate and sustainability.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein recently officiated at his first funeral where the deceased had chosen to be composted. “It was a very powerful experience,” Goldstein told me. He’d been curious about the practice since it was legalized in 2019 in Washington state, where he lives and works. And he felt an obligation, and an opportunity, to make meaning out of the choice in the context of Jewish teachings.

“I really valued that choice, even though it wasn’t traditional within Jewish practice, because I knew that it was fitting in with these deeply held values of sustainability and environmental justice that I feel are deeply inherent within Judaism,” he says. In some ways, Goldstein says, the ethos of the practice felt very similar to a traditional Jewish burial, which generally emphasizes simplicity and returning to the earth — similar to the modern-day green burial movement.

For Goldstein, this funeral was the first opportunity he and many of his community members had to engage with human composting, and calling attention to his congregant’s choice created an opportunity for all of them to reimagine hallowed rituals in the context of new technology.

“I really felt that it was a gift given to me by this beloved congregant,” Goldstein says. “To be able to deeply engage with it as a rabbi, as someone who’s serving my community, honoring individuals and their choices while honoring Jewish tradition at the same time — it was a beautiful gift.”

— Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

See for yourself

Have you chosen green alternatives for a meaningful moment in your life? Have you created your own rituals, reimagined traditions, or otherwise found ways of sustainably celebrating and honoring life’s milestones? Reply to this email to tell us about it!

A parting shot

The world’s first human-composting facility opened in Seattle in December of 2020, operated by a company called Recompose. (This photo shows a mannequin covered by a shroud and a bundle of flowers, offering a view inside the company’s green funeral home.) The process takes about a month, and produces roughly one cubic yard of soil. Loved ones can either donate the compost for use in forest conservation projects, or keep some or all of it.

A casket holds wood chips and a shrouded form with a bundle of flowers placed on top.

IMAGE CREDITS

Vision: Grist

Parting Shot: Mat Hayward / Getty Images

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Saying ‘I do’ to more sustainable celebrations on Jun 7, 2023.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Climate Change and Wild Turkeys: New Study Overturns Conventional Wisdom

A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held...

Research from North Carolina State University reveals that precipitation levels during wild turkey nesting season don’t significantly impact reproductive success, challenging traditional beliefs and complicating predictions about the effects of climate change on these populations.A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held belief about the importance of precipitation for wild turkey nesting success. This revelation provides fresh insights into the potential effects of climate change on wild turkey populations.“We wanted to know how weather influences nesting success right now, and then use that data to assess how climate change may influence wild turkey populations in the future,” says Wesley Boone, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University.“Wild turkeys are fairly tolerant of a wide range of conditions, but there are a host of factors that can affect their reproductive success,” says Chris Moorman, co-author of the study and a professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “This work focused on two of those conditions, precipitation and temperature, and how they may influence nest survival during the incubation period.” For the study, researchers focused on daily nest survival, which is whether the eggs in the nest survive any given 24-hour period. Over the course of eight years, researchers monitored 715 turkey nests and collected daily precipitation and temperature data for each nest during the entire incubation period. For temperature, the researchers looked specifically at the extent to which temperatures at each nest varied from historical averages.The researchers analyzed all of this data to determine the extent to which precipitation and temperature were associated with daily nest survival.Findings on Precipitation and Temperature“The most surprising finding was that precipitation during nesting was not a good predictor of daily nest survival,” Moorman says. “It had been widely believed that particularly rainy weather made it more likely that eggs wouldn’t survive.”“We also found that temperatures which were higher than historical averages were associated with higher rates of daily nest survival during incubation,” says Boone. “Peak nesting season is generally in April, so we’re talking about warmer than average spring weather.”“Taken by itself, this might suggest that climate change could benefit turkey reproductive success and, by extension, turkey populations,” Moorman says. “However, we also looked at precipitation and temperature data for the months leading up to nesting season, and at the overall likelihood that a turkey nest will successfully hatch at least one egg. And when we looked at both of those datasets, things get a lot less clear.”“For example, the data suggest that more precipitation in January – long before nesting season – is associated with greater nest survival,” Boone says. “The data also suggest that higher temperatures in January are associated with worse nesting survival. But there is so much uncertainty related to those findings that it’s not clear whether there’s a real relationship there, or if it’s an anomaly. However, it does temper any enthusiasm we might have about the likelihood that climate change will benefit turkey populations.”Reference: “Robust assessment of associations between weather and eastern wild turkey nest success” by Wesley W. Boone, Christopher E. Moorman, David J. Moscicki, Bret A. Collier, Michael J. Chamberlain, Adam J. Terando and Krishna Pacifici, 15 November 2023, The Journal of Wildlife Management.DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.22524The paper was co-authored by David Moscicki, a Ph.D. student at NC State; Krishna Pacifici, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources; Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Bret Collier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University; and Michael Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia.The research was done with support from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is headquartered at NC State; and from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under McIntire Stennis Project Number 7001494. Additional support was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Resources Division, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia and the School of Renewable Natural Resources at Louisiana State University.

Coastal women in Bangladesh face health issues due to climate change

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Arctic wildlife faces dire challenges amid record heat and ecosystem changes

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

Climate change triggers severe crawfish shortage in southern US

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

Another Big Question About AI: Its Carbon Footprint

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the […]

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the Industrial Revolution—or the discovery of fire. Time will sort hype from reality, but one consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing. AI use is directly responsible for carbon emissions from non-renewable electricity and for the consumption of millions of gallons of fresh water, and it indirectly boosts impacts from building and maintaining the power-hungry equipment on which AI runs. As tech companies seek to embed high-intensity AI into everything from resume-writing to kidney transplant medicine and from choosing dog food to climate modeling, they cite many ways AI could help reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. But legislators, regulators, activists, and international organizations now want to make sure the benefits aren’t outweighed by AI’s mounting hazards. “The development of the next generation of AI tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D) said last week in Washington, after he and other senators and representatives introduced a bill that would require the federal government to assess AI’s current environmental footprint and develop a standardized system for reporting future impacts. Similarly, the European Union’s “AI Act,” approved by member states last week, will require “high-risk AI systems” (which include the powerful “foundation models” that power ChatGPT and similar AIs) to report their energy consumption, resource use, and other impacts throughout their systems’ lifecycle. The EU law takes effect next year. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” says one expert—”too big for most personal devices.” Meanwhile, the International Organization for Standardization, a global network that develops standards for manufacturers, regulators, and others, says it will issue criteria for “sustainable AI” later this year. Those will include standards for measuring energy efficiency, raw material use, transportation, and water consumption, as well as practices for reducing AI impacts throughout its life cycle, from the process of mining materials and making computer components to the electricity consumed by its calculations. The ISO wants to enable AI users to make informed decisions about their AI consumption. Right now, it’s not possible to tell how your AI request for homework help or a picture of an astronaut riding a horse will affect carbon emissions or freshwater stocks. This is why 2024’s crop of “sustainable AI” proposals describe ways to get more information about AI impacts. In the absence of standards and regulations, tech companies have been reporting whatever they choose, however they choose, about their AI impact, says Shaolei Ren, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Riverside, who has been studying the water costs of computation for the past decade. Working from calculations of annual use of water for cooling systems by Microsoft, Ren estimates that a person who engages in a session of questions and answers with GPT-3 (roughly 10 t0 50 responses) drives the consumption of a half-liter of fresh water. “It will vary by region, and with a bigger AI, it could be more.” But a great deal remains unrevealed about the millions of gallons of water used to cool computers running AI, he says. The same is true of carbon. “Data scientists today do not have easy or reliable access to measurements of [greenhouse gas impacts from AI], which precludes development of actionable tactics,” a group of 10 prominent researchers on AI impacts wrote in a 2022 conference paper. Since they presented their article, AI applications and users have proliferated, but the public is still in the dark about those data, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, who was one of the paper’s coauthors. AI can run on many devices—the simple AI that autocorrects text messages will run on a smartphone. But the kind of AI people most want to use is too big for most personal devices, Dodge says. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” he says. “Size is vital for them to have those capabilities.” The IEA projects that global data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022. Big AIs need to run immense numbers of calculations very quickly, usually on specialized Graphical Processing Units—processors originally designed for intense computation to render graphics on computer screens. Compared to other chips, GPUs are more energy-efficient for AI, and they’re most efficient when they’re run in large “cloud data centers”—specialized buildings full of computers equipped with those chips. The larger the data center, the more energy efficient it can be. Improvements in AI’s energy efficiency in recent years are partly due to the construction of more “hyperscale data centers,” which contain many more computers and can quickly scale up. Where a typical cloud data center occupies about 100,000 square feet, a hyperscale center can be 1 or even 2 million square feet. Estimates of the number of cloud data centers worldwide range from around 9,000 to nearly 11,000. More are under construction. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022—1,000 terawatts, roughly equivalent to Japan’s current total consumption. However, as an illustration of one problem with the way AI impacts are measured, that IEA estimate includes all data center activity, which extends beyond AI to many aspects of modern life. Running Amazon’s store interface, serving up Apple TV’s videos, storing millions of people’s emails on Gmail, and “mining” Bitcoin are also performed by data centers. (Other IEA reports exclude crypto operations, but still lump all other data-center activity together.) Most tech firms that run data centers don’t reveal what percentage of their energy use processes AI The exception is Google, which says “machine learning”—the basis for humanlike AI—accounts for somewhat less than 15 percent of its data centers’ energy use. In 2022, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. Another complication is the fact that AI, unlike Bitcoin mining or online shopping, can be used to reduce humanity’s impacts. AI can improve climate models, find more efficient ways to make digital tech, reduce waste in transport, and otherwise cut carbon and water use. One estimate, for example, found that AI -run smart homes could reduce households’ CO₂ consumption by up to 40 percent. And a recent Google project found that an AI fast-crunching atmospheric data can guide airline pilots to flight paths that will leave the fewest contrails. Because contrails create more than a third of global aviation’s carbon emissions, “if the whole aviation industry took advantage of this single AI breakthrough,” says Dave Patterson, a computer-science professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a Google researcher, “this single discovery would save more CO₂ than the CO₂ from all AI in 2020.” Patterson’s analysis predicts that AI’s carbon footprint will soon plateau and then begin to shrink, thanks to improvements in the efficiency with which AI software and hardware use energy. One reflection of that efficiency improvement: as AI usage has increased since 2019, its percentage of Google data-center energy use has held at less than 15 percent. And while global internet traffic has increased more than twentyfold since 2010, the share of the world’s electricity used by data centers and networks increased far less, according to the IEA. However, data about improving efficiency doesn’t convince some skeptics, who cite a social phenomenon called “Jevons paradox”: Making a resource less costly sometimes increases its consumption in the long run. “It’s a rebound effect,” Ren says. “You make the freeway wider, people use less fuel because traffic moves faster, but then you get more cars coming in. You get more fuel consumption than before.” If home heating is 40 percent more efficient due to AI, one critic recently wrote, people could end up keeping their homes warmer for more hours of the day. “AI is an accelerant for everything,” Dodge says. “It makes whatever you’re developing go faster.” At the Allen Institute, AI has helped develop better programs to model the climate, track endangered species, and curb overfishing, he says. But globally AI could also support “a lot of applications that could accelerate climate change. This is where you get into ethical questions about what kind of AI you want.” If global electricity use can feel a bit abstract, data centers’ water use is a more local and tangible issue—particularly in drought-afflicted areas. To cool delicate electronics in the clean interiors of the data centers, water has to be free of bacteria and impurities that could gunk up the works. In other words, data centers often compete “for the same water people drink, cook, and wash with,” says Ren. In 2022, Ren says, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. (“Consumptive use” does not include water that’s run through a building and then returned to its source.) According to a recent study by Ren, Google’s data centers used 20 percent more water in 2022 than they did in 2021, and Microsoft’s water use rose by 34 percent in the same period. (Google data centers host its Bard chatbot and other generative AIs; Microsoft servers host ChatGPT as well as its bigger siblings GPT-3 and GPT-4. All three are produced by OpenAI, in which Microsoft is a large investor.) As more data centers are built or expanded, their neighbors have been troubled to find out how much water they take. For example, in The Dalles, Oregon, where Google runs three data centers and plans two more, the city government filed a lawsuit in 2022 to keep Google’s water use a secret from farmers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes who were concerned about its effects on agriculture and on the region’s animals and plants. The city withdrew its suit early last year. The records it then made public showed that Google’s three extant data centers use more than a quarter of the city’s water supply. And in Chile and Uruguay, protests have erupted over planned Google data centers that would tap into the same reservoirs that supply drinking water. Most of all, researchers say, what’s needed is a change of culture within the rarefied world of AI development. Generative AI’s creators need to focus beyond the technical leaps and bounds of their newest creations and be less guarded about the details of the data, software, and hardware they use to create it. Some day in the future, Dodge says, an AI might be able—or be legally obligated—to inform a user about the water and carbon impact of each distinct request she makes. “That would be a fantastic tool that would help the environment,” he says. For now, though, individual users don’t have much information or power to know their AI footprint, much less make decisions about it. “There’s not much individuals can do, unfortunately,” Ren says. Right now, you can “try to use the service judiciously,” he says.

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