Columbine High School. Platte Canyon High School. Virginia Tech. Deer Creek Middle School. Aurora movie theater. Arapahoe High School. Santa Fe High School. ProPublica reporter Jenny Deam reflects on covering them all.
When a Texas law enforcement official last week laid out how police waited in the halls of Robb Elementary School while children trapped with the gunman pleaded for help, my mind went back to 23 years ago.
April 20, 1999. I remember it all too clearly. Two teenagers methodically murdered 12 classmates and a teacher inside Columbine High School in Colorado, and even though police swarmed to the scene quickly, they stayed outside, waiting. Those within hung a sign in a window to alert officers below: “1 bleeding to death.” The SWAT team ignored it. When officers finally searched the building, they found the body of Dave Sanders, a teacher shot hours before.
Patrick Ireland also was waiting for help as he dragged himself 50 feet across broken glass in the school library after being shot three times, including twice in the head. The then-17-year-old propelled himself out a second-story window, captured on live television by news crews in helicopters. He became known as the “boy in the window.”
Law enforcement response to mass shootings was supposedly overhauled after Columbine to no longer wait before storming a building. Society, too, supposedly turned introspective, drawing a line of demarcation. Lots of talk of never again. Back then it was my solace — as a reporter, a mother, a human. The image of terrified children with their arms raised was surely part of never again.
But in the more than two decades since that promise has turned into an American myth.
In a journalism career that has taken me from Colorado to Texas to Washington, D.C., I have covered seven of these shootings, some in the chaos of the moment, some in their aftermath.
Columbine. Platte Canyon High School. Virginia Tech. Deer Creek Middle School. Aurora movie theater. Arapahoe High School. Santa Fe High School.
I have written thousands of words about them over the years, searching for ways to convey the massive damage to a public who thinks it could never happen in their community. None of my words ever came close.
I carry with me the anguished faces and voices, a kind of personal shrapnel that can never be dislodged. I suspect every reporter on this duty does.
I think of the carful of teenage boys who circled the parking lot of Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado, five times throughout the day July 20, 2012. They hung from open car windows shouting to anyone who would listen: “Where’s A.J.?” “Has anyone heard from A.J.?”
They had been chasing social media rumors all day to find their friend in the hours after a gunman sprayed bullets into a packed movie theater. They knew A.J. had gone there to see the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
They called hospital after hospital and continued to return to the high school, now set up as a gathering place for the family members of the missing. The last time I saw them it was starting to get dark, 20 hours after the shooting. The hope I saw earlier had been replaced with dread.
Alexander Jonathan Boik, 18, an aspiring artist, was among the 12 people who died in the massacre.
I think of Reagan Weber, the seventh grader who lived just a few blocks away from me. She was shot and wounded Feb. 23, 2010, when a man opened fire on students at Deer Creek Middle School in Jefferson County, Colorado. All three of my kids went to Deer Creek, not that year but the year before and after.
I sat with Reagan’s father, Craig Weber, in their living room the day after the Aurora theater shooting. He quietly talked about how worried he was about her, watching closely for signs of reignited trauma. He spoke of feeling helpless. Earlier that day, Reagan’s older sister texted “I love you” to her as word spread across Denver of the massacre. By coincidence, Reagan was in a midmorning showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Reagan texted back, “I’m terrified.”
I think, too, of Whitney Riley matter-of-factly rattling off the questions she asked herself after hearing the first gunshots at Arapahoe High School on Dec. 13, 2013. Riley, along with six other students and two teachers, had crammed into a tiny sprinkler supply room, no bigger than a closet. She wondered if she should confront the gunman? Should she run, and if she did, would she stop to help the wounded even if it meant sacrificing her own life?
I watched Whitney’s father stiffen as his 15-year-old daughter talked about how this had simply become part of her adolescence. It was Whitney’s second school shooting in three years. She had been at Deer Creek.
I think of Andrew Goddard sitting in a darkened hospital room at the bedside of his son, Colin, who had been shot four times in a Virginia Tech classroom. Andrew described how blood seeped out of bullet holes in Colin’s shattered body and spread across the sheets and pillowcases. The face of the shooter seemed to glare down from the television above his son’s bed. Goddard said he made a silent pact with the universe in that moment that if Colin were allowed to survive, he would do everything he could to make sure no other parent had to feel what he was feeling.
I also remember the Aurora movie theater 911 calls, played in a courtroom. In the background of those frantic calls was an odd thumping boom like the bass of a rap song turned up too high. I remember the collective gasp as everyone, including me, realized the sound was the rhythmic blasts of semiautomatic weaponry picking off people inside the theater.
The language and way mass shootings are reported has evolved in my time of writing about them. Mostly gone is the “thoughts and prayers” cliché. In the Aurora aftermath, parents of the victims started the “No Notoriety” campaign, chiding the news media to stop writing more about the gunman (and they are almost always male) than the victims, elevating murderers to the celebrity status they craved. That has stuck.
Now there is a new discussion making the rounds of newsrooms. Have we sanitized the carnage? Last week, Vanity Fair posed the question of whether it is time to post images of what gunfire actually does to bodies. I understand the impulse to shake the nation’s conscience, and maybe that is what we now need. But the reality of those pictures would be horrifying. In the hours after the Columbine shootings, parents still waiting for word about their children were asked to bring dental records to help identify the dead.
When my editor first suggested I write this piece, I was hesitant. Anything I have felt pales to the lifelong grief of the survivors, witnesses and families of the slain. And other reporters have covered more and seen worse. Some say our part of this now familiar dance is ghoulish. I cannot disagree. But I think, too, it is crucial.
Two decades in, though, I am no longer naïve. I no longer believe in never again.
Reporting was contributed by Jenny Deam of ProPublica.
The EPA allows polluters to turn neighborhoods into “sacrifice zones” where residents breathe carcinogens.
From the urban sprawl of Houston to the riverways of Virginia, air pollution from industrial plants is elevating the cancer risk of an estimated quarter of a million Americans to a level the federal government considers unacceptable.
Some of these hot spots of toxic air are infamous. An 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana that’s thronged with oil refineries and chemical plants has earned the nickname Cancer Alley. Many other such areas remain unknown, even to residents breathing in the contaminated air.
ProPublica undertook an analysis that has never been done before. Using advanced data processing software and a modeling tool developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, we mapped the spread of cancer-causing chemicals from thousands of sources of hazardous air pollution across the country between 2014 and 2018. The result is an unparalleled view of how toxic air blooms around industrial facilities and spreads into nearby neighborhoods.
At the map’s intimate scale, it’s possible to see up close how a massive chemical plant near a high school in Port Neches, Texas, laces the air with benzene, an aromatic gas that can cause leukemia. Or how a manufacturing facility in New Castle, Delaware, for years blanketed a day care playground with ethylene oxide, a highly toxic chemical that can lead to lymphoma and breast cancer. Our analysis found that ethylene oxide is the biggest contributor to excess industrial cancer risk from air pollutants nationwide. Corporations across the United States, but especially in Texas and Louisiana, manufacture the colorless, odorless gas, which lingers in the air for months and is highly mutagenic, meaning it can alter DNA.
In all, ProPublica identified more than a thousand hot spots of cancer-causing air. They are not equally distributed across the country. A quarter of the 20 hot spots with the highest levels of excess risk are in Texas, and almost all of them are in Southern states known for having weaker environmental regulations. Census tracts where the majority of residents are people of color experience about 40% more cancer-causing industrial air pollution on average than tracts where the residents are mostly white. In predominantly Black census tracts, the estimated cancer risk from toxic air pollution is more than double that of majority-white tracts.
Union Carbide Corporation, a subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, in Seadrift, Texas. Dow is the single biggest contributor to hot spots of toxic air pollution in the nation, according to our analysis.
After reviewing ProPublica’s map, Wayne Davis, an environmental scientist formerly with the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said, “The public is going to learn that EPA allows a hell of a lot of pollution to occur that the public does not think is occurring.”
Our analysis comes at a critical juncture for the fate of America’s air. After decades of improvement, air quality has, by some metrics, begun to decline. In the last four years, the Trump administration rolled back more than a hundred environmental protections, including two dozen air pollution and emissions policies.
The EPA says it “strives to protect the greatest number of people possible” from an excess cancer risk worse than 1 in a million. That risk level means that if a million people in an area are continuously exposed to toxic air pollutants over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least one case of cancer on top of those from other risks people already face. According to ProPublica’s analysis, 74 million Americans — more than a fifth of the population — are being exposed to estimated levels of risk higher than this.
EPA policy sets the upper limit of acceptable excess cancer risk at 1 in 10,000 — 100 times more than the EPA’s more aspirational goal and a level of exposure that numerous experts told ProPublica is too high. ProPublica found that an estimated 256,000 people are being exposed to risks beyond this threshold and that an estimated 43,000 people are being subjected to at least triple this level of risk. Still, the EPA sees crossing its risk threshold as more of a warning sign than a mandate for action: The law doesn’t require the agency to penalize polluters that, alone or in combination, raise the cancer risk in an area above the acceptable level.
In response to ProPublica’s findings, Joe Goffman, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said in an emailed statement, “Toxic air emissions from industrial facilities are a problem that must be addressed.” Under President Joe Biden’s administration, “the EPA has reinvigorated its commitment to protect public health from toxic air emissions from industrial facilities — especially in communities that have already suffered disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental burdens.”
ProPublica’s reporting exposes flaws with EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act, a landmark law that dramatically reduced air pollution across America but provided less protection to those who live closest to industrial polluters.
The 1970 law resulted in outdoor air quality standards for a handful of widespread “criteria” pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which could be traced to exhaust pipes and smokestacks all over the country and were proven to aggravate asthma and lead to early deaths. But 187 other dangerous chemicals, now known as hazardous air pollutants or air toxics, never got this level of attention. At the time, the science demonstrating the harms of these compounds, which primarily impact people in neighborhoods that border industrial facilities — so-called fence-line communities — was still in its early stages. The EPA did not receive enough funding to set the same strict limits, and industry lobbying weakened the agency’s emerging regulations.
In 1990, Congress settled on a different approach to regulating air toxics. Since then, the EPA has made companies install equipment to reduce their pollutionand studied the remaining emissions to see if they pose an unacceptable health risk.
The way the agency assesses this risk vastly underestimates residents’ exposure, according to our analysis. Instead of looking at how cancer risk adds up when polluters are clustered together in a neighborhood, the EPA examines certain types of facilities and equipment in isolation. When the agency studies refineries, for example, it ignores a community’s exposure to pollution from nearby metal foundries or shipyards.
Matthew Tejada, director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, told ProPublica that tackling hot spots of toxic air will require “working back through 50 years of environmental regulation in the United States, and unpacking and untying a whole series of knots.”
“The environmental regulatory system wasn’t set up to deal with these things,” he said. “All of the parts of the system have to be re-thought to address hot spots or places where we know there’s a disproportionate burden.”
The Clean Air Act rarely requires industry or the EPA to monitor for air toxics, leaving residents near these plants chronically uninformed about what they’re breathing in. And when companies report their emissions to the EPA, they’re allowed to estimate them using flawed formulas and monitoring methods.
“These fence line communities are sacrifice zones,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Before there was climate denial, there was cancer denial. We release millions of pounds of carcinogens into our air, water and food and act mystified when people start getting sick.”
Brittany Madison is worried about the air. Madison, who is 31, lives in Baytown, Texas, a city next to the Houston ship channel where the skyline is dense with the glittering towers of chemical plants. In the apartment she shares with her 7-year-old son, her 39-year-old sister and her nieces and nephew, the low, steady hum of air purifiers is unremitting. Her 3-year-old niece, K’ryah, has suffered from debilitating asthma attacks since she was born. Even on good days, the family tries to keep K’ryah indoors as much as possible. On bad days, they shut the windows. And about once a month, they rush her to the hospital, where she’s given oxygen and injected with steroids.
Madison, who’s six months pregnant, loves taking long walks and watching the kids at the playground, but lately she’s been spending more and more time inside. Her home lies a few miles north of ExxonMobil Baytown Complex, one of the largest refineries in the world. Over the years, Exxon’s massive petrochemical operation has sent millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the sky during accidents, unplanned discharges and fires. (ExxonMobil did not respond to requests for comment.) After a particularly smoky fire in 2019, Madison came down with a migraine, her first. Her son, who didn’t know the word for headache, told her that his brain was hurting.
Madison began to wonder if living near all these pipes and tanks and towers had something to do with the health conditions that afflicted her neighborhood. Air toxics are associated with a host of adverse effects that range from headaches and nausea to lung damage, heart failure and death, and they’re especially hazardous for kids and the unborn. A study by the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children living within 2 miles of the Houston ship channel had a higher risk of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia. Madison’s father, who worked at several nearby plants, died from a heart attack at 43. Friends and family have died of cancer. “You wonder what causes it. Is it the air we breathe? Or the food?” Madison asked. “There are just all these different questions that no one has answers to.”
The cancer risks from industrial pollution can be compounded by factors like age, diet, genetic predisposition and exposure to radiation; the knock-on effect of inhaling toxic air for decades might, for example, mean the difference between merely having a family history of breast cancer and actually developing the disease yourself. While the cancer and asthma rates in Houston’s Harris County are comparable with those in the rest of the state, Texas officials have identified cancer clusters in several of the city’s neighborhoods.
Large swaths of the Greater Houston area make up the third-biggest hot spot of cancer-causing air in the country, according to our analysis, after Louisiana’s Cancer Alley and an area around Port Arthur, Texas, which is on the Louisiana border. For many homes closest to the fence lines of petrochemical plants in cities like La Porte and Port Neches, Texas, the estimated excess risk of cancer ranges from three to six times the level that the EPA considers acceptable.
But because of the way that the EPA underestimates risk, the true dangers of living in a toxic hot spot are often invisible to regulators and residents.
The agency breaks things down into the smallest possible categories “to avoid addressing what we call cumulative risk,” said John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who formerly worked as an EPA lawyer advising the Office of Air and Radiation. “But our bodies do not parse out air pollution according to rule labels or industrial equipment or industrial source categories.” The cancer risk from each facility or type of equipment may be at levels the agency considers “acceptable,” but taken together, the potential harms can be substantial.
The EPA initially sent ProPublica a statement saying that it “ensures that risks from individual source categories are acceptable and that the standards provide an ample margin of safety to protect public health.”
In another statement sent after an interview, the agency added, “We understand that communities often confront multiple sources of toxic air pollution and face cumulative risks greater than the risk from a single source.” The EPA added that it was working both to better harness the science on cumulative risks and “to better understand risks for communities who are overburdened by numerous sources of multiple pollutants.”
Madison can’t help but notice that when her family travels, K’ryah’s asthma improves. “The first chance I get, I’m moving far away from Texas and never looking back,” she said. “I love being outside. I love seeing the stars. I don’t want to feel like someone is pumping gas onto our front porch.”
The locations of the hot spots identified by ProPublica are anything but random. Industrial giants tend to favor areas that confer strategic advantages: On the Gulf Coast, for instance, oil rigs abound, so it’s more convenient to build refineries along the shoreline. Corporations also favor places where land is cheap and regulations are few.
Under federal law, the EPA delegates the majority of its enforcement powers to state and local authorities, which means that the environmental protections afforded to Americans vary widely between states. Texas, which is home to some of the largest hot spots in the nation, has notoriouslylaxregulations.
Between 2008 and 2018, lawmakers cut funding for state pollution-control programs by 35% while boosting the state’s overall budget by 41%, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group founded by former EPA staffers. A Texas Tribune story from 2017 found that during the prior year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had levied fines in fewer than 1% of the cases in which polluters exceeded emission limits. Even when penalties are issued, many polluters see these fines as part of the cost of doing business, said Craig Johnston, a former lawyer at the EPA and a professor of environmental law at Lewis and Clark Law School.
Gary Rasp, a TCEQ spokesperson, told ProPublica that the agency “has taken actions to monitor, mitigate, and improve the air quality in fenceline communities.” The agency runs dozens of stationary air toxics monitors across the state, he added, and “by continuously evaluating air monitoring data, which is more accurate than modeling, TCEQ can identify issues.” The agency also inspects industrial facilities and “has an active enforcement program, referring particularly egregious cases to the Texas Office of the Attorney General.”
That the people living inside these hot spots are disproportionately Black is not a coincidence. Our findings build on decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated: People of color are exposed to far greater levels of air pollution than whites — a pattern that persists across income levels. These disparities are rooted in racist real estate practices like redlining and the designation of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color as mixed residential-industrial zones. In cities like Houston, for example, all-white zoning boards targeted Black neighborhoods for the siting of noxious facilities, like landfills, incinerators and garbage dumps. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has called the practice “PIBBY” or “Place In Blacks’ Back Yard” — a spin on the acronym “NIMBY” (“Not In My Back Yard”).
Many of the neighborhoods that border chemical plants are low-income and lack the same resources, access to health care and political capital that wealthier neighborhoods can bring to fights against intrusive commercial activities. In places like Baytown, working-class people depend on the very companies that sicken them to earn a living. Over the years, the shadow of industry can permanently impair not just a neighborhood’s health but also its economic prospects and property values, fueling a cycle of disinvestment. “Industries rely on having these sinks — these sacrifice zones — for polluting,” said Ana Baptista, an environmental policy professor at The New School. “That political calculus has kept in place a regulatory system that allows for the continued concentration of industry. We sacrifice these low-income, African American, Indigenous communities for the economic benefit of the region or state or country.”
Tejada, the EPA’s director of environmental justice, said that the Biden administration and the EPA are focused on confronting these disparities. “These places didn’t happen by accident. The disproportionality of the impacts that they face, the generations of disinvestment and lack of access are not coincidences. These places were created. And it is the responsibility of everyone, including the government — chiefly the government — to do something about it.”
The federal government has long had the information it would need to take on these hot spots. The EPA collects emissions data from more than 20,000 industrial facilities across the country and has even developed its own state-of-the-art tool — the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model — to estimate the impact of toxic emissions on human health. The model, known as RSEI, was designed to help regulators and lawmakers pinpoint where to target further air-monitoring efforts, data-quality inspections or, if necessary, enforcement actions. Researchers and journalists have used this model for variousinvestigations over the years, including this one.
And yet the agency’s own use of its powerful modeling tool has been limited. There’s been a lack of funding for and a dearth of interest in RSEI’s more ambitious applications, according to several former and current EPA employees. Wayne Davis, the former EPA scientist, managed the RSEI program under the Trump administration. He said that some of his supervisors were hesitant about publishing information that would directly implicate a facility. “They always told us, ‘Don’t make a big deal of it, don’t market it, and hopefully you’ll continue to get funding next year.’ They didn’t want to make anything public that would raise questions about why the EPA hadn’t done anything to regulate that facility.”
Nicolaas Bouwes, a former senior analyst at the EPA and a chief architect of the RSEI model, recalled the occasional battle to get colleagues to accept the screening tool, let alone share its findings with the public. “There’s often been pushback from having this rich data sheet too readily available because it could make headlines,” he said. “What I find annoying is that the EPA has the same information at their disposal and they don’t use it. If ProPublica can do this, so can the EPA.”
In its statement, the EPA said that it plans to improve its approach for sharing air toxics data faster and more regularly with the public. “EPA has not published calculated cancer risks using RSEI modeled results,” it continued. “RSEI results are not designed as a substitute for more comprehensive, inclusive, or site specific risk assessments,” but as a potential starting point that should only be used “to identify situations of potential concern that may warrant further investigation.”
Indeed, our map works as a screening tool, not as a site-specific risk assessment. It cannot be used to tie individual cancer cases to emissions from specific industrial facilities, but it can be used to diagnose what the EPA calls “situations of potential concern.”
Our analysis arrives as America faces new threats to its air quality. The downstream effects of climate change, like warmer temperatures and massive wildfires, have created more smoke and smog. The Trump administration diluted, scuttled or reversed dozens of air pollution protections — actions estimated to lead to thousands of additional premature deaths. In 2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt created a massive air toxics loophole when he rolled back a key provision of the Clean Air Act, known as “Once In, Always In,” allowing thousands of large polluters to relax their use of pollution-controlling equipment.
Biden has yet to close this loophole, but he has signaled plans to alleviate the disproportionate impacts borne by the people who live in these hot spots. Within his first few days in office, he established two White House councils to address environmental injustice. And in March, Congress confirmed his appointment of EPA administrator Michael Regan, who has directed the agency to strengthen its enforcement of violations “in communities overburdened by pollution.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Environmental advocates say that the Biden administration should lean on the EPA to test the air in toxic hot spots and take action against polluters who are violating their permits. It should also push for new rules that take into account the much greater risks posed when multiple facilities are grouped together in an area. Advocates also say the EPA should reexamine its tolerance of 1 in 10,000 as an acceptable excess cancer risk and extend the limit of 1 in 1 million to all, given how much the knowledge and technology surrounding air toxics has advanced since the 1980s. “We recognize that what was acceptable then is not OK now,” said Emma Cheuse, an attorney and air toxics expert at the advocacy group Earthjustice.
The EPA adopted the 1 in 10,000 threshold based on a 1988 agency report that listed the probability of dying from unusual things like “ignition of clothing,” “venomous plants” or drowning and then choosing a risk level roughly in the middle of the range. EPA’s decision was “essentially arbitrary,” said Patricia Ross McCubbin, a professor of environmental law at Southern Illinois University who’s researched the agency’s risk program.
Tejada said that the potential reevaluation of the EPA’s acceptable risk limit was “a big-time policy question.”
“We want to see progress” on hot spots, Tejada added, but given the complexity of the problems, he warned that progress could take time. “We’re not going to lie to anybody and say, ‘Well, by the end of this administration, everyone’s going to be fine.’ I don’t think anybody would buy that.”
Without stronger protections, many of the people living in fence-line communities worry about becoming collateral damage. For residents of Mossville, Louisiana, it is already too late.
Among the most polluted pockets of the country, the community in southwest Louisiana has all but disappeared amid the steady encroachment of the South African chemical giant Sasol. The company’s most recent construction led to a buyout of more than half of the area’s remaining residents. In the late 1990s, more than 500 people lived in Mossville. Residents say only 50 or so remain.
Mossville was founded by formerly enslaved people in the 1790s, long before the Civil War. Debra Sullivan Ramirez, 67, remembers her childhood there as a kind of idyll. She and her family lived off the land, with its shady swamps and leafy orchards. They grew their own fruits and vegetables, hunted and fished, and strained juice from Mayhaw trees to make jelly. After church on Sundays, Sullivan Ramirez remembers, she would fall asleep on her grandma’s front porch to the soothing hum of the Conoco chemical plant across the street.
In hindsight, there had always been warning signs. Fluorescent ponds. Plumes of yellow smoke. The occasional explosion in the sky. Not to mention all the sickness. Many of her neighbors suffered from respiratory problems and heart disease. Her father had diabetes, which may have been triggered by dioxin, a chemical that attacks the pancreas. Her sister Sandra died of ovarian cancer at 61. Her neighbor Kathy Jones died at 58 from an 8-pound tumor near her kidney.
“It wasn’t one block that didn’t have cancer,” Sullivan Ramirez said.
Over the years, Sullivan Ramirez herself has struggled with nerve degeneration and scleroderma, a rare condition that involves the tightening of the skin and connective tissues. While it can be difficult to link specific cases of disease to pollution exposure, the evidence in Mossville has accumulated: In a 1998 health survey conducted by the University of Texas, 84% of Mossville residents reported having headaches, dizziness, tremors and seizures. An EPA study from the same year found that theaverage level of dioxins in the blood of Mossville residents was dangerously high — triple that of the general U.S. population. Even small amounts of dioxin, one of the most poisonous chemicals released by facilities, can cause developmental problems, damage the immune system and lead to cancer. A 2007 report found that the types of dioxin compounds in the blood of Mossville residents matched those emitted by local industrial facilities.
In an emailed statement, Sasol noted that its property buyout stemmed from direct requests from Mossville residents and that the company offered owners more than the appraised value of their homes. “Sasol and its predecessor have produced or handled chemicals at our Lake Charles complex for more than 60 years. We understand the science and have controls in place to ensure our operations are safe, protective of the environment, compliant with regulations and sustainable over the long term,” wrote Sarah Hughes, a spokesperson for Sasol. “Sasol is proud of our engagement with our neighbors in Mossville and the positive impact it has had on many of its residents.”
Sullivan Ramirez is wary of too much talk. She knows that the new administration has promised something more for communities like hers, but she doesn’t want to get her hopes up. The presentations from captains of industry, the listening sessions with earnest bureaucrats, the proposals from slick attorneys, the promises tossed off by politicians — over the years, she’s heard it all.
The people of Mossville are right to be skeptical, the EPA’s Tejada acknowledged. “I would be skeptical if I was from Mossville,” he added. “They should be skeptical until we actually show up and do the things that they’ve been asking us to do for a long time. But there’s now a level of commitment to actually tangling with these issues in a really serious, substantive way.”
After years of activism in Mossville, Sullivan Ramirez moved to Lake Charles, just a short drive away. But she worries the industrial sprawl will one day overtake her new home. To Sullivan Ramirez, Mossville is “the key” — a warning of what the future holds for America’s other hot spots if business continues as usual.
“This is the 21st century,” she said. “The act of polluting our lands and robbing our communities — when will enough be enough?”
The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has reached its highest level in recorded human history. Again.
In April, the level of CO2 was 27% higher than it was 50 years ago, according to the latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Methane, a gas with about 85 times the near-term warming effect of CO2, has risen more than 16% since 1984, the first full year that NOAA collected data.)
This new reality threatens the Southwest, the fastest-growing region in the U.S., and the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River, while offering a glimpse at what climate change will bring there and elsewhere.
“This happens to be one of those years when we can look out the window and look at the future as the smoke pall floats overhead,” said David Gutzler, a professor emeritus who researches climatology and meteorology at the University of New Mexico’s Earth and Planetary Sciences department.
To better understand how climate change is and will continue to affect the Southwest, ProPublica spoke to three experts: Gutzler; Mikhail Chester, a professor in Arizona State University’s engineering school and the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering; and Gregg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona and co-lead author of the Southwest chapter in the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
In a Q&A with ProPublica, experts describe how a new climate reality threatens the Southwest, the fastest-growing region in the U.S. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Wildfires are burning near Santa Fe, while the Boulder, Colorado, area is still reeling from a fire that burned a developed area in the dead of winter. What are the connections between a changing climate and wildfires?
Gutzler: We make the extremes worse. That’s a bit different than saying a wildfire is caused by climate change. As temperatures rise, hot temperature-related extreme events are likely to become more frequent and more severe, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing across the West right now.
Garfin: There are also parts of the region where there’s a link between fire severity and climate change. The way that plays out is that climate change affects the hydrology, so it leads to a shorter snow-cover season, less snow-covered area, soils that are desiccated, and then temperature also puts stress on trees that dries out the fuels.
Research also suggests the Colorado River’s flow is down about 20% this century. How might the region’s river systems be shaped by climate change?
Gutzler: We should plan for diminished flows, particularly out of snow-fed rivers. … What snow there is melts earlier and melts faster. That’s exactly what we saw this year. In the Rio Grande Basin, snowpack was pretty close to what most people would consider average right around the time of peak snow, a month and a half ago. But it has just melted really fast in this hot weather, so the effect of that on streamflow is we get less flow in the river for the same amount of snow that fell last winter.
Garfin: We’re seeing less snow-covered area, less water content in the snowpack, early runoff in the late winter and early spring at elevations lower than around 7,000 feet, an increased fraction in the precipitation that we get coming as rain rather than snow and reduced soil moisture. All of these things combine to reduce the efficiency of runoff. …
We’re already seeing an increasing water supply coming from treated effluent that’s primarily being used to irrigate parks or golf courses. Probably we’ll be seeing more of our potable water supply coming from treated effluent. Another thing — we saw this in Arizona in the State of the State address from Gov. (Doug) Ducey — he said let’s put billions of dollars into developing desalinated water supplies, and there have been plenty of feasibility studies. It’s expensive and it takes a lot of energy, but we could end up with some technological breakthroughs. … Water managers throughout the Colorado River Basin have been creative in finding ways to keep more water in the reservoirs. Obviously that’s not enough, but I think there will be water marketing and trading maneuvers — because some tribes have large amounts of water — to create the legal mechanisms for the cities to buy more water from tribes.
What about the impact of climate change on living things in the region? What do we know about changes to ecosystems and biodiversity?
Gutzler: The change in the climate is happening at the same time as humans affect ecosystems in other ways that aren’t connected to climate change, just by habitat destruction and all the other things that people do to change the environment. I view climate change as an added stress to wild ecosystems that are already stressed by large numbers of people moving into the Southwest.
One way for mobile species to adapt to climate change is to move north. … If people have built fences or, at the U.S.-Mexico border, a wall, then the combined effect of a changing climate and barriers to migration can jeopardize the health of species and ecosystems.
In addition to biodiversity, how does a changing climate interact with the Southwest’s rapid population growth?
Garfin: We’ve got a lot of people who have built their homes or expanded towns into the so-called wildland-urban interface, and that puts infrastructure at risk (to wildfires). Also, if we have severe fire, eventually there’s going to be rain — it doesn’t even have to be record rainfall — and all that stuff that has burned is going to find its way into watercourses. We end up with debris flows that can take out infrastructure, that can take out roads or that can end up in reservoirs and increasing the sediment load and decreasing water quality.
Chester: We are figuring out already how to deal with extremes in terms of heat, in terms of monsoons, in terms of drought that are beyond the forecasts of most other places in the United States. The worst of the worst in a particular place in Illinois, let’s say, is probably not close to what you get in Phoenix, so we’re already living with these extremes. … For the most part, things aren’t breaking right now. …
Now, you’re running into the reality that the conditions that we’re designing for are not necessarily what we will live with in the future. So, if we designed for 120 degrees Fahrenheit maximum temperatures, is that what’s going to be the max 20 years from now, 30 years from now, or is it going to be greater?
If the Phoenix metro area is doing pretty well overall, are there any examples of infrastructure that’s already nearing the breaking point?
Chester: You get a lot more blackouts and brownouts in the power system when you have these heat waves. That’s the case anywhere in the U.S., but you certainly have that here. You get inundation of the stormwater system. … Everything breaks more frequently when you have hotter temperatures. That’s the simpler way of looking at it.
The Southwest is a very ethnically diverse region. How does that affect the calculus as society pursues solutions?
Garfin: If we don’t deal with equity in climate solutions, then we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot. Through the impacts to vulnerable communities and less economically well-off communities, it’ll end up being more costly anyway. … Previous failures were that housing developments in less affluent parts of our cities have typically lacked the kinds of landscaping that would reduce the heat-island effect and that would absorb more stormwater, so we know that now and we know that we haven’t done well by those communities.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published reports this year that came with a warning — we’re likely to miss the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. What does that mean for the Southwest?
Gutzler: We’re living it this year. … You can take an extreme drought of the sort that we’re experiencing now and the way that it has impacted the environment, the water supply across the board, and say that is the direction the Southwest is headed unless we do something about climate change.
Garfin: We already have amplified heat in our cities from the urban heat-island effect, from just changing from natural vegetation to the built environment. Also, as you increase the background temperature, the effects that we see in our large cities — Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas — more people are exposed to the public health effects of extreme heat. … In places like Tucson or Las Cruces, our future might look like Phoenix, and Phoenix’s future might look like Middle Eastern cities. … Then, what’s projected is continued decreases in snowpack, perhaps more extreme high flows, but more days with very low flows. That leads to a much less reliable surface water supply.
Are there examples of steps being taken in the region to address climate change through mitigation or adaptation?
Garfin: If we look to some of the more progressive climate change plans like Flagstaff’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, they’re doing a couple things in terms of wildfire. One is insisting through their public policy that there’s more defensible space around houses and other structures that are in the wildland-urban interface. Then, they also had a bond in 2012 where city residents overwhelmingly voted to tax themselves to pay for forest treatments on public, federal lands in their watershed to reduce the risk of really severe fires.
Chester: There’s got to be a readjustment of how we utilize ecological infrastructure. … You’re going to have a lot of small-scale failures, and at times it might make sense to allow those failures to happen.
I’m not suggesting we allow loss of life. I’m not suggesting we allow major economic damages. So, a great example here of safe-to-fail infrastructure is Indian Bend Wash in Scottsdale. We’ve basically said, when the monsoon rains come, we are going to allow a giant river to move through the wash, and it might take out the golf courses, the bike paths, the Frisbee golf, the dog park. … The cost of replacing it is pretty low, but the benefit we get is enormous. The benefit is social in terms of all this space. The benefit is ecological; there’s a lot of green infrastructure in there. There’s also the benefit of stormwater attenuation.
With all this in mind, what does the future hold for the Southwest?
Chester: The problem — from my perspective as an engineer who studies infrastructure — is the rigidity of everything we’ve built out. … For the past century we’ve gotten away with these design assumptions that things can be rigid, can be based on a future that is largely predictable. Here we are in the future saying that doesn’t seem to be the case. We need a lot of flexibility.
Gutzler: Ultimately, carbon energy will be replaced on purely economic grounds by renewables, so there’s hope there. But the Southwest is inevitably going to become a hotter and drier place than it is now with huge stresses on human societies and wild ecosystems. That’s what’s in store for us, so we better adapt to it as intelligently as we can.
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Just before 11 a.m. Moscow Standard Time on March 1, after a night of Russian strikes on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, a set of Russian-language Twitter accounts spread a lie that Ukraine was fabricating civilian casualties.
One account created last year, @Ne_nu_Che, shared a video of a man standing in front of rows of dark gray body bags that appeared to be filled with corpses. As he spoke to the camera, one of the encased bodies behind him lifted its arms to stop the top of the bag from blowing away. The video was taken from an Austrian TV report about a climate change demonstration held in Vienna in February. But @Ne_nu_Che claimed it was from Ukraine.
Russian-language Twitter accounts posted a video that they claimed showed Ukrainian media had faked reports of civilian casualties. It is actually an unrelated clip from an Austrian TV report in February. The accounts were later removed by Twitter for violating its platform manipulation and spam policy. Credit:Screenshots captured by ProPublica
“Propaganda makes mistakes too, one of the corpses came back to life right as they were counting the deaths of Ukraine’s civilians,” the tweet said.
Two other accounts created last fall within a few days of @Enot_Kremle_Bot soon shared the same video and accusations of fake civilian casualties. “Ukrainian propaganda does not sleep,” said one.
The Twitter profiles are part of a pro-Putin network of dozens of accounts spread across Twitter, TikTok and Instagram whose behavior, content and coordination are consistent with Russian troll factory the Internet Research Agency, according to Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who, along with another professor, Patrick Warren, has spent years studying IRA accounts.
The IRA burst into the American consciousness after its paid trolls used thousands of English-language accounts across social media platforms to influence American voters during the 2016 presidential election. The IRA was at the center of a 2018 Department of Justice criminal indictment for its alleged effort to “interfere with elections and political processes.”
“These accounts express every indicator that we have to suggest they originate with the Internet Research Agency,” Linvill said. “And if they aren’t the IRA, that’s worse, because I don’t know who’s doing it.”
An analysis of the accounts’ activity by the Clemson Media Forensics Hub and ProPublica found they posted at defined times consistent with the IRA workday, were created in the same time frame and posted similar or identical text, photos and videos across accounts and platforms. Posts from Twitter accounts in the network dropped off on weekends and Russian holidays, suggesting the posters had regular work schedules.
Many of the accounts also shared content from facktoria.com, a satirical Russian website that began publishing in February. Its domain registration records are private, and it’s unclear who operates it. Twitter removed its account after being contacted by ProPublica.
The pro-Putin network included roughly 60 Twitter accounts, over 100 on TikTok, and at least seven on Instagram, according to the analysis and removals by the platforms. Linvill and Warren said the Twitter accounts share strong connections with a set of hundreds of accounts they identified a year ago as likely being run by the IRA. Twitter removed nearly all of those accounts. It did not attribute them to the IRA.
Late last month, the network of accounts shifted to focus almost exclusively on Ukraine, echoing similar narratives and content across accounts and platforms. A popular post by the account @QR_Kod accused the Ukrainian military of using civilians as human shields. Another post by @QR_Kod portrayed Ukraine as provoking Russia at the behest of its NATO masters. Both tweets received hundreds of likes and retweets and were posted on the same day as the body bag video. At least two Twitter accounts in the network also shared fake fact-checking videos.
Twitter accounts such as @QR_Kod shared memes that echo propaganda spread domestically by Russian state media. @QR_Kod was later removed by Twitter for violating its platform manipulation and spam policy. Credit:Screenshots captured by ProPublica
The findings indicate that professionalized trolling remains a force in domestic Russian propaganda efforts and continues to adapt across platforms, according to Linvill.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of understanding the way that this is a tool for Putin to control narratives among his own people, a way for him to lie to his own people and control the conversation,” Linvill said. “To suggest that the West is blanketly winning this information war is true only in some places. Putin doesn’t have to win the information war, he just has to hold his ground. And these accounts are helping him do that.”
After inquiries from ProPublica, all of the active accounts were removed from TikTok, and nearly all were suspended by Twitter. Meta said it removed one Instagram account for violating its spam policy and that the others did not violate its rules. None of the platforms attribute the accounts to the IRA. Twitter and TikTok said the accounts engaged in coordinated behavior or other activity that violated platform policies.
A TikTok spokesperson said the initial eight accounts shared with it violated its policy against “harmful misinformation.” TikTok removed an additional 98 accounts it determined were part of the same pro-Putin network.
“We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation,” said a statement provided by the company. “We also partner with independent fact-checking organizations to support our efforts to help TikTok remain a safe and authentic place.”
A Twitter spokesperson called the roughly 60 accounts it removed “malicious” and said they violated its platform manipulation and spam policy, but declined to be more specific. They said the company had determined that the active accounts shared by ProPublica had violated its policies prior to being asked about them. Twitter decided to leave the set of 37 accounts online “to make it harder for bad actors to understand our detections,” according to the spokesperson.
The accounts were removed by Twitter within 48 hours of ProPublica contacting the company about them. The week before, Twitter removed 27 accounts that the Clemson researchers also identified as likely IRA accounts.
“Our investigation into these accounts remains ongoing, and we will take further action when necessary,” said a statement from a Twitter spokesperson. “As is standard, when we identify information operation campaigns that we can reliably attribute to state-linked activity, we will disclose this to the public.”
Twitter declined to offer more details on why it left roughly 30 accounts that it identified as violative online to continue spreading propaganda. It also declined to comment on connections between the roughly 60 accounts in this recent network and the hundreds of accounts flagged by Linvill and Warren last spring as possible IRA profiles. Linvill said he identified the recent accounts largely based on their commonality with the previous set of 200.
“I connect these current accounts to the ongoing activity over the course of the past year by carefully tracking accounts’ tactics, techniques and procedures,” he said.
Platforms may be hesitant to attribute activity to the IRA in part because the agency has adapted and made its efforts harder to expose, according to Linvill. But he said social platforms should disclose more information about the networks it removes, even if it can’t say with certainty who is running them.
“In every other area of cybersecurity, dangerous activity from bad actors is disclosed routinely without full confidence in the source of the activity. We name and disclose computer viruses or hacker groups, for instance, because that is in the public interest,” he said. “The platforms should do the same. The Russian people should know that some sophisticated and well-organized group is covertly using social media to encourage support for Putin and the war in Ukraine.”
The Internet Research Agency is a private company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian entrepreneur known as “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin is linked to a sprawling empire ranging from catering services to the military mercenary company Wagner Group, which was reportedly tasked with assassinating President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The IRA launched in St. Petersburg in 2013 by hiring young internet-savvy people to post on blogs, discussion forums and social media to promote Putin’s agenda to a domestic audience. After being exposed for its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, the IRA attempted to outsource some of its English-language operations to Ghana ahead of 2020. Efforts to reach Prigozhin were unsuccessful.
But it never stopped its core work of influencing Russian-speaking audiences. The IRA is part of a sprawling domestic state propaganda operation whose current impact can be seen by the number of Russians who refuse to believe that an invasion has happened, while asserting that Ukrainians are being held hostage by a Nazi coup.
Prior to the invasion, accounts in the network identified by the Clemson Media Forensics Hub and ProPublica celebrated Russian achievements at the Olympics.
“They were deep in the Olympics, tweeting about Russian victories and the Olympics and how the Russians were being robbed by the West and not allowed to compete under their own flag,” Linvill said.
After the invasion began, they moved to unify people behind Putin’s war.
“It was a slow shift,” he said. “And this is something I’ve seen from the IRA before: When a significant world event happens, they don’t always know immediately how to respond to it.”
By late February, the network had found its voice in part by echoing messages from Russian officialdom. The accounts justified the invasion, blamed NATO and the West and seeded doubts about civilian death tolls and Russian military setbacks. When sanctions kicked in and Western companies began pulling out of Russia, they said it was good news because Russian products are better. (Two Twitter accounts in the network shared the same video of a man smashing an old iPad with a hammer.)
“These accounts were sophisticated, they knew their audience, and they got engagement far surpassing the number of followers that they had,” Linvill said.
Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, reviewed content shared by more than two dozen of the Twitter accounts prior to their suspension. “A lot of this is the type of stuff I would expect from Russian trolls,” said Stronski, who reads and speaks Russian.
He said many of the accounts adopt an approachable and humorous tone to generate engagement and appear relatable to younger audiences present on social media.
“They’re very critical of prominent Russians who have criticized this war, questioning their patriotism,” Stronski said. “They’re saying in effect that during wartime you shouldn’t be criticizing your own. You should be lining up behind the state.”
When President Biden flubbed the pronunciation of “Ukrainians” during his recent State of the Union address, several of the accounts on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram shared the clip and mocked him. While that clip spread widely outside of the suspected IRA network as well, the accounts often spread more obscure content in coordination. Multiple Twitter accounts, for example, shared a screenshot of a Russian actor’s tweet that he cared more about being able to use Apple Pay than the war in Ukraine. The accounts criticized him, with one warning that “the internet remembers everything.”
Before the account takedowns, the Russian government had begun closing off the country from global social media and information sources. It restricted access to Twitter and blocked Facebook. The Russian legislature passed a law that allows for a 15-year sentence for people who contradict the official government position on the war. As a result, TikTok announced it would pause uploads of new videos in Russia.
Some of the accounts in the network saw the writing on the wall and prepared their audience to move to Telegram, a Russian messaging service.
“Friends! With happiness I’d like to tell you that I decided to make the t.me/enot_kremlebot channel, in which you will see analytics to the fullest extent. Twitter could block us any minute!” tweeted @Enot_Kremle_Bot on March 5. “I really don’t want to lose my treasured and close-to-my-heart audience! Go to this link and subscribe.”
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Climate change will impact us all, no matter who we are or where we live. But that doesn’t mean it will hit us equally.
Climate change may not discriminate, but people do.
As a reporter at ProPublica, my focus is on environmental justice, how low-income, underserved and disenfranchised people have been forced to bear an unequal burden of pollution. That’s the same focus I’m bringing as one of the hosts of “Hot Mess” — a PBS Digital Studios YouTube series about the complexities of climate change.
People are the most complex variables in the climate change equation. And my first episode, out today, focuses on the nexus of climate change and environmental justice — and how we need to do a better job connecting the two.
As the effects of climate change intensify, so too will the stark differences in consequences experienced by the privileged and the disadvantaged. So as we see more intense storms and extreme temperatures, it’s important to examine the systemic and structural deficiencies that exacerbate inequity.
It’s why we dug into Houston’s response to Hurricane Harvey, and found that officials botched plans for an organized way to handle natural disasters. It’s why we held FEMA accountable for the anemic response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. It’s why we’re focusing on the rollback of key environmental regulations by the Trump administration, and the people who will be left unprotected.
Not everyone can move away from a floodplain, or a toxic site, or a disaster zone.
It’s important to talk about the choices people make that push the impacts of climate change more heavily onto certain groups.
When claims from Europe accused British America of being inferior on account of its colder weather, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers responded with patriotic zeal that their settlement was actually causing the climate to warm. Raphael Calel explores how, in contrast to today’s common association of the U.S. with climate change skepticism, it was a very different story in the 18th century.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1805). Note the furs – Source.
The United States has in recent years become a stronghold for climate change skepticism, especially since the country’s declaration in 2001 that it would not participate in the Kyoto Protocol. Nevertheless, though it is a well-documented fact, it might surprise you to learn that, a far cry from the United States’ recent ambivalence with respect to the modern scientific theory of man-made climate change, the country’s founders were keen observers of climatic trends and might even be counted among the first climate change advocates.
From the start, the project to colonize North America had proceeded on the understanding that climate followed latitude; so dependent was climate on the angle of the sun to the earth’s surface, it was believed, that the word ‘climate’ was defined in terms of parallels of latitude. New England was expected to be as mild as England, and Virginia as hot as Italy and Spain. Surprised by harsh conditions in the New World, however, a great number of the early settlers did not outlast their first winter in the colonies. Many of the survivors returned to Europe, and in fact, the majority of 17th-century colonies in North America were abandoned.
Jamestown colonists endured a severe winter in 1607-1608, black and white copy of a painting by Sidney King for the Colonial National Historical Park – Source.
A view formed in Europe that the New World was inferior to the Old. In particular, medical lore still held that climate lay behind the characteristic balance of the Hippocratic humors – it explained why Spaniards were temperamental and Englishmen reserved – and it was believed that the climate of the colonies caused physical and mental degeneration. Swedish explorer Pehr Kalm, who had travelled to North America on a mission from Carl Linnaeus, observed in his travel diary that the climate of the New World caused life – plants and animals, including humans – to possess less stamina, stature, and longevity than in Europe. The respected French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, explained in his encyclopaedia of natural history that “all animals of the New World were much smaller than those of the Old. This great diminution in size, whatever maybe the cause, is a primary kind of degeneration.” He speculated that the difference in climate might be the cause:
It may not be impossible, then, without inverting the order of nature, that all the animals of the new world originated from the same stock as those of the old; that having been afterwards separated by immense seas or impassable lands, they, in course of time, underwent all the effects of a climate which was new to them, and which must also have had its qualities changed by the very causes which produced its separation; and that they, in consequence, became not only inferior in size, but different in nature.
Dutch philosopher Cornelius de Pauw believed that “The Europeans who pass into America degenerate, as do the animals; a proof that the climate is unfavorable to the improvement of either man or animal.” Scientific and artistic genius, according to a prominent theory put forth by the French intellectual Jean-Baptiste Dubos, only flourished in suitable climates – climate accounted for the marvels of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Italian Renaissance, and, thanks to rising temperatures on the European continent that Dubos thought he observed, the Enlightenment. French writer Guillaume Raynal agreed, and made a point of saying that “America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.”
In this edition of Cornelius de Pauw’s Researches Philosophiques sur les Américains, the usual ornamentation preceding the chapter on the American climate is sardonically replaced with this apparently frozen landscape – Source.
In the New World, refuting such theories became a matter of patriotism. In the rousing conclusion to one of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote:
Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America–that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere. Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the Europeans. It belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother, moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!
Building on the theories of John Evelyn, John Woodward, Jean-Baptiste Dubos, and David Hume – who all believed that the clearing and cultivation of land in Europe accounted for the temperate climate that had enabled the Enlightenment – the colonists set about arguing that their settlement was causing a gradual increase in temperatures and improvement of the flora and fauna of North America.
Hugh Williamson, American politician and a signatory of the Constitutional Convention, believed that “within the last forty or fifty years there has been a very great observable change of climate, that our winters are not so intensely cold, nor our summers so disagreeably warm as they have been,” a fact he attributed to the clearing of forests. “The change of climate which has taken place in North America, has been a matter of constant observation and experience,” wrote Harvard professor Samuel Williams. Benjamin Franklin wrote of the “common Opinion, that the Winters in America are grown milder.” Measurements were as yet inadequate to the task of proving this, he said, but he found the proposed mechanism (i.e. clearing and cultivation) sufficiently persuasive that, even if the winters were not milder already, he could not “but think that in time they may be so.” Benjamin Rush, physician and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, speculated that, if cultivation kept pace with clearing of new lands, climate change might even reduce the incidence of fevers and disease.
Thomas Jefferson was especially eager to rebut Buffon and the proponents of the theory of climatic degeneracy. He expended substantial efforts to this effect in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), with page after page of animal measurements showing that the American animals were not inferior to their European counterparts. He also had help from James Madison, who shared his own measurements with Jefferson, urging him to use them in his arguments against Buffon.
Thomas Jefferson compared the weight of European and American animals, in order to disprove Buffon’s claims that the animals of the New World were smaller degenerate forms of their Old World counterparts. Notice that he includes the Mammoth at the top of his list. – Source.
Their impassioned advocacy would occasionally lead them astray, though. Samuel Williams claimed that winter temperatures in Boston and eastern Massachusetts had risen by 10-12˚F in the previous century and a half, a climatic transformation too rapid to be believed perhaps. Jefferson, convinced that the American climate could sustain large animals too, insisted to a friend that “The Indians of America say [the Mammoth] still exists very far North in our continent.” Anxious to disprove claims of degeneracy, he wrote a letter to the American Philosophical Society in which he openly speculated that elephants, lions, giant ground sloths, and mammoths still lived in the interior of the continent. Later, believing he was on the verge of proving the skeptical Europeans wrong, he wrote a letter to the French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède boasting that “we are now actually sending off a small party to explore the Missouri to it’s source,” referring to Lewis’ and Clark’s expedition. “It is not improbable that this voyage of discovery will procure us further information of the Mammoth, & of the Megatherium,” Jefferson continued, concluding “that there are symptoms of [the Megalonyx’s] late and present existence.”
The Founders did not settle for mere advocacy, though. Keen to present as strong a case for climate change as possible, and moderated by their scientific temperament perhaps, they wanted more and better evidence. To decide the issue of lions and mammoths, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to pay special attention to “the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S. the remains and accounts of any which may [be] deemed rare or extinct.” Although they didn’t find mammoths, they discovered many animals and plants previously unknown to science.
On the question of whether the winters were getting milder, Franklin wrote to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, encouraging him to make “a regular and steady Course of Observations on a Number of Winters in the different Parts of the Country you mention, to obtain full Satisfaction on the Point.” Madison made regular observations at his estate, which he assiduously entered into his meteorological journals. Jefferson, too, kept meticulous records, and encouraged his friends and colleagues to submit their measurements to the American Philosophical Society, “and the work should be repeated once or twice in a century, to show the effect of clearing and culture towards the changes of climate.” Jefferson himself made significant contributions to the development of modern meteorology. In 1778, for instance, Jefferson and the Reverend James Madison, president of The College of William & Mary and cousin of the fourth President of the United States, made the first simultaneous meteorological measurements. Jefferson promoted methodological standardization and expansion of geographical coverage, and was an early proponent of establishing a national meteorological service.
Detail from a page of Thomas Jefferson’s “Weather Record (1776-1818)”, in which he meticulously and somewhat obsessively notes down the temperature on everyday of the year. In this detail, from the year 1777, we see evidence of a particularly cold spring in Virginia, with frost on the ground as late as early April – Source.
One need hardly belabor the point that the early climate change advocates were wrong. Modern climate reconstructions show there was a brief warming period in New England during the late 1700s, but Jefferson’s and Williams’ measurements predate any actual man-made climate change. Their theories were pre-scientific in the specific sense that they predate a scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect. It is true that the French scientist Edme Mariotte had, as early as 1681, noticed the greenhouse effect, but it was not until the 1760s and 1770s that the first systematic measurements were made, and it would still be another century before anyone imagined that human activities might influence atmospheric composition to such an extent that the climate might be modified by this mechanism. Their pre-scientific theories also led them to believe that a changing climate would necessarily be beneficial, whereas today we are much more aware of the dangers of climate change.
Yet one should not belittle the efforts of these early climate change advocates. Fighting back against the European ‘degeneracy theory’ was necessitated by pride as much as a concern that these ideas might negatively affect immigration and trade from Europe. Their search for evidence, moreover, resulted in substantial contributions to zoology, and was instrumental to the foundation of modern meteorology and climatology. One might speculate, even, that a belief in degeneracy contributed to England’s refusal to afford its North American colonial subjects representation in parliament, and so helped spark the American revolution. In this case, one might construe the Founders’ climate change advocacy partly as an attempt to facilitate a peaceful resolution of their grievances with the Crown. Indeed, so politically important was their advocacy efforts thought at the time that Senator Sam Mitchell of New York, in his eulogy at Thomas Jefferson’s funeral, raised them to the same level as the American revolution itself.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by his close friend, soldier and part-time painter, Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817). Jefferson’s turn to the hot-coloured break in the clouds perhaps not entirely devoid of symbolism – Source.
It is an interesting historical footnote that, during a visit to London, Benjamin Franklin met and became friends with Horace Benedict de Saussure, the Swiss scientist credited with the first systematic measurements of the greenhouse effect. Franklin exchanged letters with Saussure, and encouraged his experiments on electricity. So impressed by Saussure’s work was Jefferson that he would later write to George Washington to suggest recruiting Saussure to a professorship at the University of Virginia, which was then under construction.
Far from a stronghold of climate change skepticism, as the United States is sometimes seen today, the country’s founders were vocal proponents of early theories of man-made climate change. They wrote extensively in favor of the theory that settlement was improving the continent’s climate, and their efforts helped to lay the foundation of modern meteorology. Much of the climate change skepticism of the day, on the other hand, was based on the second- and third-hand accounts of travelers, and the skeptics rarely made efforts to further develop the science. In addition, one cannot ignore its political convenience for many in Europe; for instance, Cornelius de Pauw was even hired by the King of Prussia to discourage Prussian citizens from emigrating or investing their capital in the New World.
Even if the parallels between the past and present are too obvious to spell out, they can be of some use to us today. While modern climate change advocates and skeptics have become experts at pointing to each other’s errors, we are usually the last to notice our own faults. An episode in our history that bears such strong resemblance to our present provides a rare opportunity to examine ourselves as if through the eyes of another. Today’s climate change advocates may recognize in themselves some of the overzealousness of the Founding Fathers, and therefore better guard against potential fallacies. Skeptics may recognize in themselves the often anti-scientific spirit of the degeneracy-theorists, and hopefully make greater efforts to engage constructively in the scientific enterprise today. One can hope, at least.
The Problem We are Addressing:
Existing social media platforms have transformed in recent years. The promise of free advertising has resulted in monied interests taking advantage of once vibrant and well-meaning communities. Toxic users, fake profiles, corporate and political agendas often dominate our screentime, threaten our well being and the very foundations on which our societies are built.
Platforms that rely on timelines to interact do not encourage meaningful discussion and often exacerbate 24-hour news cycles and worsen the spread of misinformation and fake news.
The Geo platform provides an alternative to social media companies that answer to stakeholders and corporate agendas. Turning the tables on companies that earn profit from user’s screentime, our app allows people to earn revenue from the content they create.
By providing for a network of like-minded individuals with the common goal of improving our environment, communities, and advancing the arts, we are creating a safe space for thoughtful discussion and professional networking.
With Geo, users can write and manage content and have access to other professionals where they can communicate using their timeline, private messaging, and custom content. We place a strong emphasis on equity with helping underserved communities as one of our primary goals.
Geo is a non-profit organization and our platform is open source.
We have been working to incorporate feedback from our partners and users. Some of the technical improvements include allowing users to password protect pages, security enhancements, the ability to draft pages and keep multiple revisions. We have also reworked the networking aspect of our platform and now allow posting links, videos, and images to private and public messages and user timelines.
The next phase of this project is to create a series of content pieces to demonstrate the power of the platform. Over the coming weeks, we will be collaborating with individuals and organizations to craft content pieces about the work they are doing to improve our communities. Any and all proceeds from this collaboration will go towards the causes that they support.
Our app is currently in beta and will go live on July 1, 2021.