Highlights from the Week's News

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Why Some Trees Are Worsening Air Pollution

October 08, 2023

Biden Moves Forward to Build Border Wall in an About-Face on Campaign Promise

“Disheartening.”  “A stab in the back.”  “An about-face.” That was the way some described President Joe Biden’s decision last week to speed up new wall construction along 20 miles of the U.S. Mexican border in Texas. The administration waived more than 26 environmental and historic preservation laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and safeguards for Native Americans.

Construction workers erect steel forms for a section of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, October 2019.  | Credit: Jaime Rodriguez, U.S. Customs and Border Protection

During his 2020 campaign, Biden said, “not another foot of wall would be constructed,” but last week he justified his decision, saying he was compelled to construct the border barrier because money was already allocated by Congress.  He added that he did not think the border wall worked. Building the wall has always used the same waiver process; however, this is the first time it’s been done by a Democratic administration.  

The Associated Press reports that much of the land in the Rio Grande region is protected habitat for plants and animals, and construction would normally require various environmental reviews. However, Congress authorized waivers to build the wall faster. In a statement, Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity said that the county where the additional wall will be built is home to some of the most spectacular and biologically important habitat left in Texas, including that of endangered ocelots. Now, he says, bulldozers are preparing to rip right through it. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, told The Hill that he had tried to get clarification from the administration as to why they waived environmental laws, but they couldn’t give him an answer.

The Guardian reports that immigration reform advocates also reacted. One called it an inhumane response to the issue, and another said Biden was playing a strategic game for elections, with the immigrant and Indigenous communities in the region becoming the sacrificial lambs for politicians to score points.

Arizona Takes Steps to Stop Saudi Farm Draining Groundwater

The Colorado River Basin and the Southwest are in a prolonged drought made worse by climate change.  So, it’s not surprising that there has been outrage expressed by some that Arizona has been allowing a Saudi Arabian firm to pump groundwater to grow alfalfa for that country’s dairy cows.

Alfalfa growing in Arizona  |  Credit: Chris English/Creative Commons

Last week, Arizona governor Katie Hobbs said she is terminating one of the Saudi leases and will cancel three others owned by the company. The action affects state lands leased by the firm. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, the company owns thousands of acres of other farmland in Arizona and California, producing the water-intensive crop for shipment overseas.

While the governor’s action takes steps to deal with a water issue that has attracted national attention, it doesn’t address the broader problem.  According to Kathleen Ferris of Arizona State University, who spoke to Grist, the bigger problem is unregulated use of groundwater in the state. In urban areas like Phoenix and Tucson, there are now limits on using groundwater, but in rural areas, it can still be pumped with no restrictions—even when there isn’t enough for nearby homes and businesses.  The Washington Post reports that agriculture in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is possible only by pumping water up from below the surface. Alfalfa is a lucrative crop for the state, where the warm climate results in larger yields than other parts of the country. The Saudi company’s production was only about 2.5 percent of Arizona' overall alfalfa output.

The Second-Highest Emitted Hydrocarbon on Earth You’ve Never Heard Of

In the 1980s, then-president Ronald Reagan claimed that “trees were producing more air pollution than automobiles.” While the assertion was demonstrably false, there was a kernel of truth to it. Some trees, like oaks and poplars, emit a compound called isoprene, which interacts with nitrogen oxide from coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions to create ozone, aerosols, and other pollutants. Isoprene, which many people haven’t heard of, is the second-highest emitted hydrocarbon on Earth.

Credit: RegalShave/Creative Commons

Now, according to new research from Michigan State University, as the planet warms from climate change, the trees will emit more isoprene, worsening air quality. In an oak’s defense, releasing isoprene makes it more resilient to stressors like insects and high temperatures, so it’s a conundrum for humans who treasure trees for all the benefits they provide but who also want clean air. Another wrinkle—when there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the oaks and poplars produce less isoprene, however, the team says that eventually hotter temperatures would stress the trees, causing more of the compound to be released.

The researchers are not suggesting cutting down oaks. Instead, they say their study could guide communities on what trees to plant, but a larger message might be the obvious—reduce nitrogen oxide pollution and slow global warming.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Environmentalists Join Auto Strikers’ Picket Lines

The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike has entered its third week with walkouts at five auto plants and numerous distribution centers in 20 states.  As workers picketed this past weekend, they were joined by…environmentalists, which some might find surprising, given one of the key concerns of the union is job security as the industry transitions to electric vehicles.

United Auto Workers fight for a fair wage, better benefits, and a secure retirement in Iowa, in 2021.  | Credit: Lance Cheung, USDA

In a National Day of Action on Saturday, October 7, activists from Greenpeace and to the Sunrise Movement and the Sierra Club rallied alongside picketers to keep the pressure up on the “Big Three” Detroit automakers, arguing that we can have good union jobs, economic prosperity, and tackle the climate crisis at the same time. The strike seems to be achieving that goal. On Friday, October 6, UAW president Shawn Fain announced the union had made significant progress in their negotiations with General Motors, which had agreed to include battery production workers in the contract.

The alliance between green groups and autoworkers comes at a time when the transportation sector is reshaping itself. According to E&E News, the groups haven’t always seen eye to eye for example, in the past when environmentalists wanted higher fuel efficiency standards that the union opposed, but by joining forces now, the two are making a statement that the future is electric and that this is no time to put on the brakes.