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5 solutions (and one major takeaway) from Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before the Flood”

Climate change is scary. It’s fueling wildfires, sea level rise, extreme heat, and drought. It’s displacing people from their homes in Alaska. It’s causing sunny day floods on the East and West coasts. It’s increasing mosquito days and causing heavy downpours and melting sea ice and swamping forests and… yeah you get the picture.

But Leonardo DiCaprio wants to bring solutions to this scary problem. And through “Before the Flood,” the UN Messenger of Peace does just that. These are the 5 most important solutions he made cases for in his documentary (which you can watch on YouTube).

1. Palm oil is really bad for the climate. But you can help.

Palm oil is really terrible for the climate because it fuels deforestation. Deforestation prevents trees from doing their job (acting as a carbon sink), especially when “peatlands hold up to 28 times as much carbon as rainforests,” Ensia reports. Burning forests for deforestation also release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of smoke.

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Palm oil plantations (NatGeo/YouTube)

Back to palm oil, though. It’s used in pretty much everything, from lipstick to chocolate to detergent. It can be grown almost anywhere, and is really cheap to produce, making large corporations a lot of money.

That’s where you come in. If enough people worldwide boycott (or cut back on) consumption of products containing palm oil, these companies wouldn’t have to clear-cut as many forests to harvest it, which would allow trees to remain in place and do their jobs as carbon sinks.

2. Methane is also terrible (but again, you can help).

Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change (like carbon dioxide does) but is about 34 times more potent than CO2 over a 100 year period (cutting the science jargon — it’s worse than CO2). New studies have pointed to cattle, landfills and agriculture as huge sources of methane in the U.S.

So how can we help? In short – eat less beef. In “Before the Flood,” DiCaprio (along with Dr. Gidon Eshel) explains that the largest reason for tropical deforestation is beef farming. This, like palm oil production, removes trees (and in turn, carbon sinks are disrupted).

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NatGeo/YouTube

In a short segment, Eshel explains that in the U.S., 47% of land is used for food production, and of that, 70% is used to grow feed for cattle.

That feed goes to fuel cows, who produce methane through burping while eating (no, really). And as mentioned, methane is way worse for the climate. “Every molecule of methane (CH4) is equivalent to 23 molecules of CO2. And of the methane in the atmosphere, nearly all of it is due to livestock.”

So the seemingly simple solution is cutting down on beef in our diets, switching to another alternative like chicken or just having meat-free days. “Let’s face it — it’s fairly easy to switch your diet from one choice to another,” Eshel explains.

3. 100 gigafactories can serve the entire world renewable energy.

In case you haven’t heard, Elon Musk is building a gigafactory to build his Tesla batteries. When completed, the building will have the largest footprint of any in the world.

Elon Musk chatted with Leonardo DiCaprio about the future of the energy industry and how solar and batteries completely punt the need for energy plants in developing nations

“Batteries are critical to the sustainable energy future,” Musk says in this NatGeo clip..

… in which he also explains how 100 gigafactories could power the ENTIRE WORLD on renewable energy. The whole world. 100 gigafactories. The catch is that Tesla can’t build 100 of them — in order to move to this clean energy/battery future, other corporations will have to follow suit. “If the big industrial countries in China and the U.S. and Europe, the big car companies, if they also do this, then collectively, we can accelerate the transition to renewable energy,” he says. “Unless there’s a price put on carbon, we’re never going to be able to make the transition we need to in time.”

4. A carbon tax should really be considered.

A carbon tax would be a tax on any activity that puts carbon into the atmosphere — everything in the transportation sector (flying, shipping, driving, etc) and energy development (oil, coal, etc). It’s based on the principle that if you tax it, people will consume less (because it’s costing them money).

Gregory Mankiw, econ professor at Harvard, calls a carbon tax the “silver bullet” for climate change — which will cost taxpayers $44 trillion by 2060. So why don’t we have a carbon tax already if it’s such a good idea?

“Politicians don’t always do what professors want them to do,” Mankiw says. “If we want to change the President’s view on a carbon tax, we need to change the public’s view on a carbon tax.”

A carbon tax hasn’t been widely adopted, but Washington is putting the option on the ballot this year, and Canada just released plans for a nationwide carbon tax, but it’s not likely to be brought up U.S.-wide any time soon.

Side note: You can go on this website and calculate how much you contribute to climate change (hint: if you travel a lot, get ready for a heavy blow…). It also allows you to pay monthly to offset your carbon use.

5. Renewables really are the future.

Elon Musk hits the nail on the head when he says “If government sets the rules to favor sustainable energy, we can get there really quickly.”

“Before the Flood” really focused on renewables as the future of energy, and everyone else in the world agrees. The Paris Agreement has called for investments in renewable energy. Some countries are going carbon neutral (and using LOADS of renewable energy) just because they can (Costa Rica is well on its way, and so is Sweden, and Iceland, and…).

Renewables are also on track to be the source of 28% of the world’s energy by 2021, according to Climate Central, so we’re on our way.

The major takeaway… Can we actually possibly maybe do it?

Maybe we can limit warming to 1.5°C — but it’s going to take a lot of work, and maybe even carbon capture technology. Or 100 gigafactories. But the world needs to do it together. The Paris Agreement was the first step, but getting countries to limit their emissions through renewables is going to be the real test. Can we do it?

Watch the whole movie for free on YouTube until Sunday.

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Water pollution may make #Rio2016 the most hazardous yet

Olympic visitors flocking to Rio de Janiero, Brazil for this year’s Olympic games have been warned: “Don’t put your head underwater.”

According to a study contracted by the Associated Press, the waters along the coast of Rio are filled with a toxic sludge of raw sewage, “teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria.” In an amazingly horrible comparison, swimmers need to ingest only three teaspoons of water to be almost certain of contracting a virus, with levels of pollutants “1.7m times what would be considered alarming in the United States and Europe.”

But it’s not just a warning for the visitors — Olympians competing in the bay (sailors, rowers, and open-water swimmers) have had to take extra precautions in the form of antibiotics and anti-pollution microbial suits.

“[The water quality] is a real concern. We’re going to have to be very disciplined about how we’re taking care of ourselves,” said Meghan O’Leary, a member of the U.S. rowing team. “Don’t touch our face if we touch the water. Covering our water bottles with plastic bags. We get splashed a lot. I sit in bow. It’s going to happen. We’re just going to try to control everything we can.”

Unfortunately, the most polluted areas are the points where Olympic rowing and sailing races will take place.

The New York Times writes that a part of Rio’s Olympic bid was to “capture and treat 80 percent of the sewage that flows into Guanabara Bay,” which certainly isn’t happening by the time the Olympics start on Friday.

In the long term, Rio will be added to the list of Olympic host cities with issues — including the lack of snow in Sochi in 2014 and in the upcoming winter games in Beijing in 2022.

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Earth Week 2016: Happy Earth Day!

Day five in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read parts one, two, three and four.

Today is Earth Day!

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The signing of the Paris Agreement in December. Credit: United Nations Photo/flickr

This year, Earth Day has a special meaning. World leaders are meeting in New York City to sign the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement, which was ratified in Paris in December. 165 countries are planning to sign!

The agreement aims to lower carbon emissions in countries across the globe in order to limit our global warming to 2°C instead of 4°C, which is our current track of warming.

Limiting warming to 2°C may not seem like a lot, but it would decrease the amount of climate change impacts currently plaguing the world, including sea level rise, extreme weather and extreme heat.

There are still some climate change effects that won’t be completely eradicated, including ocean acidification. A lot of global heat is trapped in the oceans, and decreasing our emissions won’t decrease the current heat in the oceans. But, of course, it would help the overall rate of warming.

Because of the signing, world leaders are helping combat climate change by embracing renewable energy and carbon trading.

The main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen capability to deal with the impacts of climate change.

To reach these ambitious and important goals, appropriate financial flows will be put in place, thus making stronger action by developing countries and the most vulnerable possible, in line with their own national objectives.

World leaders are helping out, but we can too! Drive less (or ride public transit or buy an electric car!). Eat less meat. If your energy company allows you the option to choose wind or solar on your energy bill, pay the extra few dollars. A little from everyone goes a long way.

Thanks for tuning in this Earth Week! View the whole Earth Week Series here.

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Earth Week 2016: BP oil spill update

Day four in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read parts one, two, and three.

Since I’ve had this blog, I’ve written about tons of stuff — the Olympics and climate change, Montana coal, my outdoor explorations… the list goes on and on.

But some of my most popular posts are about crises that I just can’t ignore, so here’s an update on one of the most fascinating environmental crises of our time — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more commonly known as the BP oil spill, took place 6 years ago in April 2010. Here’s more background:

In April 2010, there was an oil spill of catastrophic proportions in the Gulf of Mexico due to negligence by BP executives and an explosion on an oil rig. This negligence caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history: 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over months, and the blast from the explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spewing into the Gulf for 87 days. In September 2014, BP was finally found liable for the oil spill in 2010 in court, and was charged with gross negligence. The oil giant could pay up to $4,300 per barrel spilled in fines on top of everything they have already paid (number is floating around $13.7 billion).

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The BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico 2 months post well explosion. Credit: NASA

A lot has happened since then — clean-up efforts have been partially successful, new numbers have come out on size of the spill, BP has been fined billions, and restoration efforts continue on. Here’s what’s been going on recently.

A new study shows that the BP spill “trashed more shoreline” than we previously thought. As if the biggest oil spill in U.S. history could get worse, it actually has. National Geographic reports that new estimates have increased the amount of oil on shorelines 19 percent above previous estimates. This revised number “makes the disaster the largest marine oil spill in history by length of shoreline oiled.”

Meanwhile, a federal court has approved BP’s final settlement number — $20 billion, according to the Associated Press.

That HUGE number includes billions in penalties for violation of the Clean Water Act and other environmental damages, as well as billions that go to the Gulf states and their local governments. According to the AP, “BP has estimated its costs related to the spill, including its initial cleanup work and the various settlements and criminal and civil penalties, will exceed $53 billion.”

There has been some backlash against BP (who would have thought?) because the oil giant can legally classify $15 billion of the debt as a business expense, and the write-offs could total $5 billion.

A federal court has also finally approved a settlement for natural resources injuries to the Gulf — and it clocks in at $8.8 billion. That number includes the $1 billion already committed during early restoration, $700 million to “provide for adaptive management,” and $7.1 billion for a 15-year restoration project launching April 2017.

For more info on the settlement, see the NOAA website.

The White House has recently proposed new deep-sea, offshore drilling regulations.

Several rules target blowout preventers, or BOPs (devices that can seal off a well in case of emergency, and prevent an uncontrolled leak).

The Interior Department is mandating that BOPs be designed to avoid certain weaknesses, and be broken down and inspected every five years. (NPR)

This is huge, considering the blowout preventer is what faulted, causing the Macando well to explode in the first place. These rules and regulations would be imposed on all deep-sea offshore drilling equipment, as this type of drilling is expanding.

Offshore drilling is still allowed in the Gulf, despite protests in 2016, reports International Business Times, right after the Obama Administration blocked offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

View the whole Earth Week Series here.