Climate Point: Killings, land theft surge in Central America to feed our love of beef

Mark Olalde, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.

Let's start with some electrifying — perhaps charged — news. Only weeks after California announced a goal to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035, New Jersey began speeding down the same turnpike. E&E reports that the Garden State is the second state to make the commitment, calling for a similar ban, also by 2035. Who's next?

Here's some other important reporting....

MUST-READ STORIES

A plume of steam billows from a coal-fired power plant.
A plume of steam billows from a coal-fired power plant.

Fossil future. The future of oil, gas and coal continues to get stranger as governments around the world slowly push to break our addiction to hydrocarbons. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that the state's last operational coal-fired power plant shut down the other day, 20 years ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, The Guardian writes that the warming climate is making it more difficult for oil companies to operate in Alaska because the ground under their equipment is thawing. In response, they're looking to install chilling devices to cool the ground so their product, which is causing the warming in the first place, can get to market.

Something to chew on. The Center for Investigative Reporting and PBS NewsHour report that Nicaragua — a beautiful but incredibly poor Central American country — is clearing land for cattle ranches to help feed the U.S. during COVID-19 outbreaks in American meat processing plants. The U.S. has sponsored multiple wars in Nicaragua, including playing a role in the bloody Nicaraguan Revolution. Now, ranchers selling to the U.S. appear to be destroying indigenous communities, killing people and stealing their land to meet demand. U.S. meat importers don't seem to be doing much about it.

Flooding the housing market. Climate change is exacerbating extreme weather, making it costlier for homeowners to keep cleaning up after major storms. An NPR investigation has found that only about half of all states require that information on flood risk be disclosed to buyers. And, they write, "the flood and fire disclosure laws that do exist provide information in confusing ways or give too little information too late in the homebuying process."

POLITICAL CLIMATE

Radioactive roadways. The Tampa Bay Times writes that the EPA reversed a decades-old rule last week, allowing "radioactive byproduct of phosphate mining to build roads." Florida is home to many of the country's phosphate mines, and that's left a billion tons of waste called phosphogypsum sitting in stacks. The EPA says the decision will decrease these piles and put the waste to a productive use. Environmentalists argue it's dangerous to build with radioactive material.

Just sue, baby, sue. William Perry Pendley is one of the most controversial figures in an already controversial administration. Is he the director of the Bureau of Land Management? Is he just some guy who works there? Is his job illegal? It's unclear because the Department of the Interior — where the BLM is housed — keeps changing its answer. A judge said he had been acting illegally as the director without being confirmed by the Senate and revoked several decisions he made in Montana, leaving environmental groups champing at the bit to target more or his actions, Bloomberg reports. The judge recently denied that request, but WildEarth Guardians told me they're planning to move forward with separate challenges to at least 16 resource management plans around the country.

Making the Lakes Great again. Are you still undecided on whether to vote for President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden? Do you live in the Midwest? Well, you're in luck. Sarah Bowman and London Gibson of the Indianapolis Star are out with explainers analyzing what Trump would mean and what Biden would mean for the area. To boil it down, the candidates are diametrically opposed on the environment.

THE MESS LEFT BEHIND

A fisherman pulls his nets from the Gulf of Paria in Trinidad and Tobago.
A fisherman pulls his nets from the Gulf of Paria in Trinidad and Tobago.

Oil, gas, chemicals, mining. We've built a society reliant on materials that, when pulled from the ground or synthesized in labs, can make us and the environment sick. Even though our industries make a mess, we have never prioritized cleanup. This week's barrage of news provides examples of what happens when businesses are allowed to cut corners to maximize profits.

Caribbean catastrophe. Just north of Venezuela, the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago has had a booming oil and gas industry for years. Now, its lifeblood is threatening its environment, as a vessel called the Nabarima, loaded with 1.3 million barrels of oil, appears to be slowly sinking just offshore. The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, the dual-island nation's oldest daily newspaper, has the details. This unfolding story caught my eye in part because I spent time there a few years ago investigating what the country's singular dependence on its oil and gas industry meant for its environmental movement. If you want more background, check it out here (and forgive me, for I was still a young writer!).

Mountain State mayhem. Chemical giant Union Carbide likely knew — for more than a decade — the extent to which toxic chemicals accumulated at and around one of its dumping sites adjacent to West Virginia's capital. It didn't report the data as required by law, however. This finding comes after West Virginia Public Broadcasting and local conservation groups pushed the courts to unseal new documents.

Charged up about this battery recycler. The Los Angeles Times reports that a judge ruled last Friday that a bankrupt company called Exide Technologies could abandon its battery recycling plant in the middle of California's largest urban area. The decision, reporter Tony Barboza wrote, "marks the latest chapter in a decades-long history of government failures to protect the public from brain-damaging lead, cancer-causing arsenic and other pollutants from the facility."

AND ANOTHER THING

A rendering depicts NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readying itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu.
A rendering depicts NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readying itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu.

This story is outta this world. If you're like me, then for the past few months you've been tracking the progress of a little spacecraft that could. Called OSIRIS-REx, this machine is piloted remotely by NASA and is in the midst of a seven-year mission to touch down on an asteroid that's hurtling through space, collect a sample, relaunch and head back to Earth so we can analyze the material it picked up. The mission is the first of its kind, and OSIRIS-REx made contact with the asteroid Bennu this week! Space.com has the story, complete with a video from NASA showing the moment of impact, which you should absolutely watch. It's not quite to the level of mining the moon like Trump wants — no, seriously, I wrote about that here — but it's one small step in that direction.

Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are again at record highs for this time of year.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are again at record highs for this time of year.

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at molalde@gannett.com. You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Those COVID-19 numbers aren't looking great. Wear a mask! Cheers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate Point: Killings, land theft surge in Central America to feed our love of beef