“Dream” is a clever animated video promoting the annual Wildlife
Conservation Film Festival in New York City. The festival is more
than films, with workshops on wildlife topics and a goal to connect
average people with filmmakers, conservationists, researchers and
One of my personal goals for the coming year is to see more of
the wonderful films being produced about conservation concerns,
environmental issues and wildlife preservation.
Among the films being released next year are “A Plastic Ocean,”
a feature-length documentary that explores the problem of plastic
pollution in 20 locations around the world, including the Great
Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre, 1,500 miles off
the West Coast. The film also discusses practical and technological
approaches to solving the plastic problem.
I find it fascinating that children are making a strong legal
argument that governments must take swift action to reduce climate
A series of lawsuits across the country are founded on the idea
that many adults will be gone in 40 or 50 years when climate
extremes become the new norm. It is the young people of today who
will suffer the consequences of ongoing government inaction.
In a case filed by a group of children in King County Superior
Court, Judge Hollis Hill took the Washington Department of Ecology
and Gov. Jay Inslee to task for delaying action on new clean air
regulations to help curb greenhouse gas emissions:
“Petitioners assert, the department does not dispute, and this court finds that current scientific evidence establishes that rapidly increasing global warming causes an unprecedented risk to the Earth, including land, sea, the atmosphere and all living plants and animals…
“In fact, as petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming by accelerating the reduction of emission of GHGs (greenhouse gases) before doing so becomes too costly and then too late.
“The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law cannot achieve the GHG reductions necessary to protect our environment and to ensure the survival of an environment in which petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.”
It is ironic that Gov. Inslee finds himself under attack for
failure to act against greenhouse gas emissions, given that he is
one of the nation’s leading advocates for action on climate change.
Inslee literally wrote the book on this issue while serving in
Congress: “Apollo’s Fire:
Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy.”
Unable to get the Legislature to act on his specific program,
the governor is now on a course to impose new regulations to force
a reduction in greenhouse gases. Initially, the new standards would
apply to large industrial sources. The governor says his authority
stems from a 2008
law passed by the Legislature requiring a reduction to 1990
emission levels by 2020. We can expect the rule to be challenged by
Originally, the rule was to be completed this summer, but the
proposal was withdrawn in February in light of an overwhelming
number of comments and new ideas that needed to be addressed. The
rule is scheduled to be re-released later this month and adopted by
the end of the year.
Judge Hill’s latest ruling from the bench on April 29
requires Ecology to adopt the rule by the end of the year.
That fits within Ecology’s current schedule, said Camille St. Onge,
spokeswoman for Ecology. Whether the agency might appeal the ruling
to preserve its options won’t be decided until after the judge’s
written findings are issued, she said.
“We agree with Judge Hill,” St. Onge told me in an email.
“Climate change is a global issue, and science is telling us that
what was projected years ago is happening today, and we need to act
now to protect our environment and economy for future generations.
We’re working vigorously on Washington’s first-ever rule to cap and
reduce carbon pollution and help slow climate change.”
Gov. Inslee said in a
news release that he has no dispute with Judge Hill’s findings,
which actually support his approach to combatting climate
“This case is a call to act on climate, and that call is one that has been a priority for me since taking office. Our state is helping lead the way on climate action in our country…
“In a way it is gratifying that the court has also affirmed our authority to act, contrary to the assertion of those who continue to reject action on climate change and ocean acidification. Hundreds of people have participated in the creation of our state's Clean Air Rule and the draft will be out in just a few weeks.”
Meanwhile, Washington state is not the only state where youth
have filed lawsuits to assert their rights to a healthy future.
Cases also are pending in Oregon, Massachusetts, Colorado and North
Carolina, according to Our Children’s Trust, which provides
about the state lawsuits on its website.
At the same time, another case is underway in U.S. District
Court in Oregon, where Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled that
the young plaintiffs have standing and legitimate claims to be
adjudicated. He allowed the case to move forward with additional
evidence to be submitted. Read his
April 8 ruling (PDF 3.2 mb) on the website of Our Children’s
The video below features reporter Bill Moyers discussing the
legal issues in these cases, which include claims related to the
Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient principle that asserts the
public’s right to use and enjoy certain natural resources that
cannot be ceded to private property owners.
A graph showing the rise in global temperature or the increase
in ocean acidity is really just ink on paper. Emotionally, the
impact is minimal, unless a person truly understands the meaning
behind the lines and numbers shown on the chart.
That’s why I am thrilled and amused with the work of artist Jill
Pelto, who has uniquely bridged the gap between scientific charts
and living creatures. Jill has incorporated real climate data —
charts and graphs — into the backgrounds of her paintings, which
also tell compelling stories about the changing environment.
Take the water-color painting of clownfish (first on this page),
for example. The anemone in the background is outlined by pH data
from 1998 to 2012, as Jill explained to me in an email.
Ocean acidification results when atmospheric carbon dioxide
dissolves in the water to form carbonic acid. Higher-than-normal
levels of acidity can affect the brains of some fish, leading to
disorientation and a reduction in their ability to avoid
“The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion,
separated from the anemone in which they live,” Jill told me. “The
oceans may be vast, but if the pH drops globally, there is
literally nowhere marine life can go. They are confined to the
The decline in pH, along with a further explanation of ocean
acidification, can be found on Climate Central’s website
WXshift (pronounced “weather shift”).
The greatest effects of climate change are being experienced in
the polar regions. Data describing the melting of Arctic sea ice
from 1980 to the present are expressed in Jill’s painting of the
“Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to
decline so quickly that species cannot adjust,” Jill wrote. “The
Arctic fox is small and extraordinarily resilient to the most
severe cold. They can withstand the frigid north and thus have this
corner of the world in which to hunt. But when the temperatures
mellow, competition from larger species could overcome them, as
other species move farther north to escape their own warming
“I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish. One
is hunched and defensive; the other is yowling in panic. The sea
ice, from which they are separated, is spaced out by large expanses
of dark blue water absorbing the sun’s heat.”
Changes in sea ice are described in Climate Central’s website
Jill has studied both art and science, graduating in December
from the University of Maine with a double major in studio art and
“I have always loved the outdoors and want to use my creative
skills to communicate information about extreme environmental
issues with a broad audience,” she says on her website, Glaciogenic Art. “I see
nature as a work of art and the origin of my observational skills.
I enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing, reading, running,
camping and spending time with my friends and family. I make art
inspired by all of these experiences.”
Jill’s father, Mauri Pelto, a professor in environmental science
at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., has studied glacier recession
in Washington’s Cascade Mountains for decades. He founded the
Cascades Glacier Climate Project in 1983. Jill has assisted
with research on that and other projects around the country since
research paper on the North Cascade glaciers (PDF 1.6 mb)
contains these unsettling observations: “All 47 monitored glaciers
are currently undergoing a significant retreat, and four of them
have disappeared.” He goes on to add that this glacial retreat is
“ubiquitous, rapid and increasing.”
Experiencing such environmental changes first-hand has helped
shape Jill’s future.
“To me, it’s really dramatic and it means a lot because it’s
something I personally experienced,” she told Brian Kahn of
Climate Central. “Seeing signs of climate change that were more
evident inspired me to pursue science at the same time as art.”
The decline in salmon inspired Jill to incorporate a graph of
coho population data into one painting. Receding glaciers, last
year’s lack of snowpack and a shortage of rainfall contributed to
real problems for salmon. Streams were too low and too warm,
reducing the amount of spawning.
“Seeing the rivers and reservoirs looking so barren was
frightening,” Jill said. “The salmon are depicted swimming along
the length of the graph, following its current. While salmon can
swim upstream, it is becoming more of an uphill battle with lower
streamflow and higher temperatures. This image depicts the struggle
their population is facing as their spawning habitat declines.”
The final example on this page captures multiple measures of
climate change occurring across the globe, such as glacier mass
balance, sea level rise and temperature increase.
“I wanted to convey in an image how all of this data must be
compared and linked together to figure out the fluctuations in
Earth’s natural history,” Jill said. “One of the reasons scientists
study what happened in the past is to understand what may happen
now as a result of human-induced climate change.
“I represented this by illustrating that glaciers are melting
and calving, sea levels are rising and temperatures are increasing.
The numbers on the left y-axis depict quantities of glacial melt
and sea level rise, and the suns across the horizon contain numbers
that represent the global increase in temperature, coinciding with
the timeline on the lower x-axis.”
I am really looking forward to seeing more of Jill’s work in the
future, as she continues her academic pursuits at the University of
Maine. Prints of her paintings are available for sale, and Jill can
be contacted through her website.
A school play about climate change, featuring a worried mother
polar bear and evil villains named “Mr. Carbon” and “Mr. Methane,”
have captured the imaginations of elementary and junior-high-school
students across the country.
The program, called “Cool the Earth,” includes
follow-up activities that encourage the young students to bring
climate-saving ideas home with them.
The first video on this page shows a play performed by teachers
at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. I love the
laughter of the children in the background. The second video shows
an NBC News story from 2011.
The “Cool the Earth” program was developed in 2007 by Carleen
and Jeff Cullen, parents in Marin County, Calif., who became
inspired to take action on climate change after viewing Al Gore’s
documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Showing the film to others
failed to gain the action they desired, so they expanded their
horizons by developing an easy-to-understand message that could be
shared with kids and their parents.
The program was launched at Bacich Elementary School in
Kentfield, Calif., and has grown to involve more than 200 schools
across the country, though most are in California. See the list at
Schools and Troops.”
An article on the Green Schools
Initiative website quotes Heather Dobbs, a parent coordinator
at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, N.J., who says “Cool
the Earth” explains climate change in a meaningful way:
“The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts
are big hams. It tugs at the kids’ heart strings when they hear
about polar bears in danger. Kids can take in that story more
easily than just hearing about carbon emissions.”
Students then take home coupon books offering 20 ideas for no-
or low-cost actions that they can do on their own or with their
parents to earn points and sometimes prizes, such as earth-friendly
Carleen Cullen explains the program in the video below.
Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very
difficult thing to do.
Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams,
wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent
to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated
At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by
commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region.
The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown
alterations to ecosystems.
In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward
and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step
Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,”
released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the
effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is
being made in restoring habitat, according to a
news release about the report, but “measures for chinook
salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native
species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality
still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”
“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex
ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said
Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we
need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work
to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and
reopen shellfish beds,”
Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators
for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories
called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the
latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the
Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).
Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally
identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic
systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing
improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental
None of the indicators for species or food-web health are
While there has been local-level progress in some indicators,
the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while
marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them
safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have
very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.
I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions
of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress
in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year
investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found
in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at
the series, “Taking
the Pulse of Puget Sound.”
At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many
of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution,
population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of
Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than
when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related
to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which
also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook?
Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other
marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt
and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage
fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat,
spawning habitat, predation, or something else?
It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is
damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have
not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going.
The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this
question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t
tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the
investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions
would be far worse than they are today.
Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting
better at establishing priorities that will make the most
difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of
places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all
needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the
Puget Sound ecosystem.
Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working
together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve
federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses
and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the
Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to
me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their
It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by
U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our
Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the
Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of
society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington
state’s congressional delegation. Check out a
summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the
story by Tristan Baurick in the
Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed
piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.
The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot
be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing
development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and
“best-management practices” are important — but the key is to
locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage,
then use construction techniques that will cause the least
disruption of ecological functions.
Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to
old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington
State University finally published her findings about the effects
of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her
colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the
stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material
found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal
of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).
Development regulations by local government have always been a
weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been
discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In
the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local
officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn
around and blame the state when local residents complain about the
higher costs of development.
On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local
officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to
judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the
ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to
swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as
I described in the
“Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local
government can do. Another major role of local government is to
protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say
in the near future. (“Water
Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)
Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the
combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this
waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to
save Puget Sound is on the right track.
I admit it seems kind of quaint, but I look forward to turning
out all the lights in my house once a year and sitting in the dark.
It’s a time to contemplate all our marvels of technology while
considering the needs of many people around the world.
Earth Hour is coming up on Saturday beginning at 8:30 p.m. The
question of the hour: What can we each do to make things
If you get the chance, bring your family and/or friends
together. You can go out to dinner or do other things before or
after the designated hour, but for 60 minutes let your thoughts
wander to other places in the world.
For me, that kind of reflection is enough for the moment, but
the Earth Hour
website talks about inspiring people to join environmental
projects across the globe. By reviewing the website, Earth Hour can
become a time of learning about worthwhile causes. Listen to Jason
Priestly and others in the video player on this page.
If you want to make a difference, check out the five-step
program for creating an Earth Hour event. Maybe think about
doing something over the next year and sharing it on the Earth Hour
website in 2015.
What I like about Earth Hour is that it unites people from
around the world, if only for an hour. For those who wish to take a
leadership role, Earth Hour is one place to start. As founder Andy
Ridley says in a
“What makes Earth Hour different is that it empowers people to
take charge and use their power to make a difference. The movement
inspires a mixture of collective and individual action, so anyone
can do their part.”
Earth Hour begins each year in New Zealand, the first place the
clock strikes 8:30 on the designated Saturday night.
Famous landmarks involved in the lights-out event include the
Empire State Building, New York; Tower Bridge, London; Edinburgh
Castle, Scotland; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin; the Eiffel Tower,
Paris; the Kremlin, Moscow; and the Bosphorus Bridge connecting
Europe to Asia.
Business and government officials involved in the lucrative
geoduck export market got some bad news on Friday, when federal
authorities released a letter they had received from the Chinese
The letter raises many questions — at least from a Chinese
perspective — about how the U.S. regulatory system protects public
health. The message from Chinese health authorities dashes the
hopes of industry officials for a quick lifting of the Chinese ban
on shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast.
Washington state has a proud reputation for protecting public
health when it comes to shellfish, and the letter from China does
little to dispel suspicions among those who think that China may
have ulterior motives. After all, Chinese authorities have done
nothing to limit the geographic scope of the import ban or even
limit the ban to geoducks only.
statement (PDF 114 kb) from the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration concludes that the letter contains about
20 separate requests for information about testing and safety.
“We don’t not have a full understanding of the US regulatory
system including the definition of sea region and management, the
official monitoring on PSP and heavy metals and the responsibility
among the relevant government agencies, and we have not conducted
an on-site evaluation neither.”
The letter says the suspension of imports may be reduced to a
specific area after certain questions are answered. It calls on the
U.S. to develop an action plan for evaluation and outlines a review
process, including a visit by an “expert team” from China to
evaluate the geoduck inspection programs.
Officials at all levels in the U.S. say they are evaluating the
questions posed in the letter and preparing a coordinated
Earth Hour is this Saturday beginning at 8:30 p.m. The annual
event is a chance for everyone on Earth to connect with everyone
else by turning off their lights for an hour.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found the symbolic event to be an
enjoyable time for sitting quietly in the dark with a few candles
and discussing with my family what we can do as individuals,
joining with others, to make this a better world.
As others have said, all important movements start with small
actions. I like Earth Hour, because one is joining something both
big and small. It’s big because it is taking place throughout the
world. It’s small because it is such a simple thing.
A dozen environmental groups say they will boycott the nine
“scoping meetings” the Navy is holding to kick off a new round of
studies regarding testing and training activities in the
In a letter dated March 13 (PDF 16 kb), the groups said the
format of the meetings is not designed to encourage public
discussion or even allow public comment. In addition, the Navy and
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ignored
ongoing calls for the Navy to better protect marine wildlife and
the environment along the Washington Coast and other biologically
important areas, they say.
The Navy will seek a new permit from NOAA for the incidental
harassment of marine mammals during testing and training
activities. Most of the activities are identical to what is taking
place now, but some new activities are added — including the
testing of sonar from ships docked at piers.
“As you know, the scoping process is the best time to identify
issues and provide recommendations to agencies on what should be
analyzed in the EIS. However, a process developed for activities
with controversial impacts, like those at issue here, that does not
provide opportunity for the public to testify or speak to a broader
audience, or to hear answers to questions raised by others, and
that fails to engage major population centers is not designed to
help citizens and organizations effectively participate in
agencies’ environmental reviews.”
Knowing more than a few sewer operators in my day, I can tell
you that their leading pet peeve is all the stuff that people dump
down their toilets and drains.
I’ll never forget the courtroom description of a giant “rag
ball” — some 30 feet long — found in Bremerton’s sewer. Rag balls
are the accumulation of diapers, tampons and baby wipes that get
flushed down the toilet and become caught somewhere in the sewer
Bremerton’s famous rag ball became wrapped up in courtroom
testimony during a lawsuit against a sewer contractor hired by the
city to run the operation. For details, check out my story from
April of 1998.
What I really wanted to share with you this week is a song
called “O Christmas Grease” by Steve Anderson, a water resources
analyst at Clean Water Services. This is the agency that manages
wastewater and stormwater in a 12-city region west of Portland,
Steve often writes music and performs in a band when he’s not
working at the utility. He told me that he started writing original
songs as well as parodies of existing tunes to entertain his fellow
water experts at conferences. Last week, for example, he showed up
at a conference to help educators decide whether humor is useful in
educating people about wastewater issues.
Steve says the public-education folks at Clean Water Services
tolerates his songs, but they do not fully embrace his activities.
His first song — a parody about the low levels of drugs that make
it through the treatment process — got him into a little hot water
with some folks in the business. “Dope in the Water” is sung to the
tune of the Deep Purple original.
“The Ballad of Betty Poop” was written as a kid’s song for
Take-Your-Children-to-Work Day. It’s about the adventures of a
plastic GI Joe and other characters. It includes these famous
lines: “Give it up, you toilet treasures… You’ll never make it all
the way to the river…”
Steve has not released these songs to the public, though he
readily shares them with friends and anyone who will listen. I must
thank Gayle Leonard, who writes a blog called “Thirsty
in Suburbia,” for bringing Steve’s songs out into the light and
putting me in touch with this creative force in the sewer