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Unprecedented Die-offs, Melting Ice: Climate Change Is Wreaking Havoc in the Arctic and Beyond

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KODIAK ISLAND, Alaska — 

Forces profound and alarming are reshaping the upper reaches of the North Pacific and Arctic oceans, breaking the food chain that supports billions of creatures and one of the world’s most important fisheries.

In the last five years, scientists have observed animal die-offs of unprecedented size, scope and duration in the waters of the Beaufort, Chukchi and northern Bering seas, while recording the displacement and disappearance of entire species of fish and ocean-dwelling invertebrates. The ecosystem is critical for resident seals, walruses and bears, as well as migratory gray whales, birds, sea lions and numerous other animals.

Historically long stretches of record-breaking ocean heat and loss of sea ice have fundamentally changed this ecosystem from bottom to top and top to bottom, say researchers who study its inhabitants. Not only are algae and zooplankton affected, but now apex predators such as killer whales are moving into areas once locked away by ice — gaining unfettered access to a spoil of riches.

Scientists describe what’s going on as less an ecosystem collapse than a brutal “regime shift” — an event in which many species may disappear, but others will replace them.

“You can think of it in terms of winners and losers,” said Janet Duffy-Anderson, a Seattle-based marine scientist who leads annual surveys of the Bering Sea for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Something is going to emerge and become the more dominant species, and something is going to decline because it can’t adapt to that changing food web.”

A team from The Times traveled to Alaska and spoke with dozens of scientists conducting field research in the Bering Sea and high Arctic to better understand these dramatic changes. Their findings suggest that this vast, near-polar ecosystem — stable for thousands for years and resilient to brief but dramatic swings in temperature — is undergoing an irreversible transition.

“It’s like the gates of hell have been opened,” said Lorenzo Ciannelli, a fisheries oceanographer at Oregon State University, referring to a once ice-covered portion of the Bering Sea that has largely disappeared.

Since 2019, federal investigators have declared unexplained mortality events for a variety of animals, including gray whales that migrate past California and several species of Arctic seals. They are also examining large die-offs — or “wrecks,” as avian biologists call them — in dozens of seabird species including horned puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and shearwaters.

At the same time, they are documenting the disappearance of the “cold pool” — a region of the northern Bering Sea that for thousands of years has served as a barrier that protects cold-water species, such as Arctic cod and snow crab, from subarctic species, such as walleye pollock and Pacific cod. In the last five years, many of these Arctic species have almost entirely disappeared from the northern Bering, while populations of warmer-dwelling fish have proliferated.

In 2010, a federal survey estimated there were 319,000 metric tons of snow crab in the northern Bering Sea. As of this year, that number had dropped by more than 75%. Meanwhile, a subarctic fish, the Pacific cod, has skyrocketed — going from 29,124 metric tons in 2010 to 227,577 in 2021.

Whether the warming has diminished these super-cold-water species or forced them to migrate elsewhere — farther north or west, across the U.S.-Russia border, where American scientists can no longer observe them — remains unclear. But scientists say animals seem to be suffering in these more distant polar regions too, according to sporadic reports from the area.

Kodiak, like many communities in Alaska, depends on the health of the region’s fisheries for commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Which gets to the basic challenge of studying this ecosystem: For so long, its remoteness, freezing temperatures and lack of winter sunlight have made the region largely inaccessible. Unlike in temperate and tropical climates, where scientists can obtain reasonably accurate population counts of many species, the Arctic doesn’t yield its secrets easily. That makes it hard to establish baseline data for scores of species — especially those with little commercial value.

“That part is really frustrating,” said Peter Boveng, who studies Arctic seals for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He said he and his colleagues wonder if the information they are now gathering is truly baseline data, or has already been shifted by years of warming.

Only recently have he and other scientists had the technology to conduct these kinds of counts — using cameras instead of observers in airplanes, for instance, or installing sound buoys across the ice and sea to capture the movement of whales, seals and bears.

“We’re only just beginning to understand what is happening up there,” said Deborah Giles, a killer whale researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. “We just couldn’t be there or see things in the way a drone can.”

The dramatic shifts that Giles, Boveng and others are observing have ramifications that stretch far beyond the Arctic. The Bering Sea is one of the planet’s major fishing grounds — the eastern Bering Sea, for instance, supplies more than 40% of the annual U.S. catch of fish and shellfish — and is a crucial food source for thousands of Russians and Indigenous Alaskans who rely on fish, birds’ eggs, walrus and seal for protein.

“Globally, cold-water ecosystems support the world’s fisheries. Halibut, all of the cod, all of the benthic crabs, lobsters…. This is the majority of the food source for the world,” said NOAA’s Duffy-Anderson.

The potential ripple effect could shut down fisheries and leave migrating animals starving for food. These include gray whales and short-tailed shearwaters — a bird that travels more than 9,000 miles every year from Australia and New Zealand to feed in the Arctic smorgasbord before flying home.

“Alaska is a bellwether for what other systems can expect,” she added. “It’s really just a beginning.”

::

Flying along the southeastern coastline of Alaska’s Kodiak Island, Matthew Van Daele — wearing a safety harness tethered to the inside a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk — leaned out the helicopter door, scanning the beaches below for dead whales and seals.

The clouds hung low, so the copter hugged close to the sandstone cliffs that rise from this green island, which gets about 80 inches of rain and 60 inches of snowfall every year. Although few dead animals were spotted on this September afternoon, plenty of furry brown Kodiak bears could be seen bounding across open fields and along the beaches, trying to escape the ruckus of the approaching chopper.

Matthew Van Daele, left, checks on a dead gray whale he spotted during an aerial survey around Kodiak Island. Joe Sekerak stands by with a rifle in case any Kodiak bears object to their presence.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s one!” yelled Van Daele, natural resources director for the Sun’aq Tribe, speaking through the intercom system to the chopper’s pilots as he pointed to a rotting whale carcass on the beach.

The pilots circled and deftly landed on a little strip of sand, careful to keep the rotor blades from hitting the eroding wall of rock on the beach’s edge.

Joe Sekerak, a NOAA enforcement officer, jumped out after Van Daele, holding a rifle should hungry Kodiak bears arrive to challenge the small team in its attempt to examine the whale carcass.

According to Van Daele, the whale had been dead several weeks; her body was in poor shape, with little fat.

Since 2019, hundreds of gray whales have died along North America’s Pacific coastline, many appearing skinny or underfed.

Although researchers have not determined the cause of the die-off, there are ominous signs something is amiss in their high Arctic feeding grounds.

Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of any mammal and have proved themselves adaptable. But can they adjust to rapidly changing oceans?

“We’re used to change around here,” said Alexus Kwatchka, a commercial fisherman who has navigated Alaskan waters for more than 30 years. He noted some years are cold, some are warm; sometimes all of the fish seem to be in one area for a few years, and then resettle elsewhere.

This fall has been extremely cold in Alaska; the town of Kotzebue, in the northwest, hit minus-31 degrees on Nov. 28 — the record low for that date. This follows several years of record-setting warmth in the region.

What is new, said Kwatchka, is the persistence of this change. It’s not like it gets super warm for one or two years and then goes back to normal, he said. Now the changes last, and he said he’s encountering things he’s never seen before — such as gray whales feeding along the beaches of Kodiak, or swimming in packs.

“Usually there are whales just scattered around the island,” he said. “But I’ve seen them kind of bunched up and podded up, and I’m seeing them in places where I don’t ordinarily see them.”

A gray whale off Kodiak Island in Alaska. (Kevin Bierlich / Oregon State University)

In September, an emaciated young male gray whale was seen off a beach near Kodiak, behaving as though it were trying to feed, scooping material from the shallow shore bottom and filtering it through his baleen, a system many leviathans use to separate food from sand and water.

Three weeks later, that same young male washed ashore dead, not far from where he had been spotted previously.

Dozens of scientists validated Kwatchka’s observations, describing these periods of intense ocean heat and cooling as “stanzas,” which are growing more extreme and lasting longer than those of the past.

That’s a problem, said Duffy-Anderson, because the longer you stress a system, the deeper and broader the impacts — and therefore the harder for it to bounce back.

While it’s always possible the current stanza is temporary and the ecosystem could reset itself, “that is unlikely,” said Rick Thoman, an Alaska climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As a diver and photographer, I feel an urgency to document the Arctic’s vulnerable ice, which is vanishing due to climate change.

Due to atmospheric warming, the world’s oceans hold so much excess heat that it’s improbable the Chukchi Sea will ever be covered again with thick, multiyear ice, he said. Nor will we see many more years where the spring ice extends across the Bering, he said.

Even though Nome saw one of its coldest Novembers in 100 years of record keeping, and King Salmon — a town of roughly 300 near Katmai National Park and Preserve — recorded its all-time lowest November temperatures, “the escalator of warming is going up,” Thoman said.

He conjured up an image of a 5-year-old running up and down an ascending escalator. “Somebody standing off of the escalator might say, oh, it looks like the kid is going down. But as we know, the escalator is continuing to go up.”

“What we’ve seen in the Bering Sea in recent years is,” he added, “unprecedented.”

::

A Kodiak bear ventures close to town on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier, researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, have visited these waters every year since the 1980s, when they were graduate students at the University of Alaska. Their initial proposal centered on one basic question: What makes these Arctic-like waters of the northern Bering Sea so productive?

It was tough work. So much of the ocean was frozen, and therefore inaccessible. Other researchers faced the same challenge.

“When we started out, we couldn’t get north into the Bering Strait area because of ice until mid-June,” said Kathy Kuletz, a bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has been researching the northern Bering Sea and high Arctic since 2006 and studying Alaskan birds since 1978. “Even then, it wasn’t until late June that you could get into the Chukchi. And that’s certainly not been the issue … since, let’s see, about 2015 or so.”

Researchers are focused on ice — or the lack of it — because the frozen ocean is the foundation of the region’s rich ecosystems. It not only keeps the waters beneath it cool, but a layer of algae grows on the underside of these ice sheets — the key to the entire food web.

For eons, as the sun moved south in autumn and the temperatures dropped in the high latitudes, Arctic sea ice thickened near the North Pole. At its edges, it reached its frosty fingers into the inlets along the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, winding its way south through the Bering Strait and into the northern Bering Sea. By March, the northern Bering Sea was typically a vast field of white ice, its edges marked by broken sheets that had been pushed into a vertical position by whipping winds and churning currents below.

But for the last 50 years, as the region’s warm stanzas have increased in duration and intensity, that seasonal ice has dwindled.

A 2020 study published in the journal Science documented a reduction in ice extent unlike any other in the last 5,500 years: Its extent in 2018 and 2019 was 60% to 70% lower than the historical average. In an Arctic report card released just this week, federal scientists called the region’s changes “alarming and undeniable.”

A herd of sea lions gathers on the rocks along Kodiak Island’s shoreline.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Long before the sea was named for the 18th century Danish cartographer and Russian naval explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering, the icy water body consisted of two distinct ecosystems — one subarctic, the other resembling the high Arctic. Fish in the subarctic zone — such as Pacific cod — were deterred by the frigid temperatures of the cold pool, which hover just below 32 degrees. But other fish — such as Arctic cod, capelin and flatfish — evolved to thrive in this environment, with the cold pool serving as a protective barrier.

Now that “thermal force field” has all but vanished.

Lyle Britt, director of the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering division of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, leads annual trawl surveys in the Bering Sea, part of a U.S. effort to systematically monitor commercial fish populations and their ecosystems. The federal government has conducted a survey of the eastern Bering Sea every year since 1982 — with the exception of 2020, when COVID grounded the personnel and boats. Federal surveying of the northern Bering Sea began in 2010 amid concerns about the loss of seasonal sea ice; the government has surveyed it a total of five times.

With each survey, Britt and his mariner colleagues navigate the sea as if tracing over the same piece of graph paper, year after year, with 520 evenly dispersed stations at 20-mile intervals. At each one — 376 in the eastern Bering Sea and 144 in the northern Bering Sea — they stop to collect environmental data, such as bottom- and surface-water temperatures, as well as a sampling of fish and invertebrates, which they count and weigh.

Matthew Van Daele scans the beaches below during an aerial survey of gray whales and other species around Kodiak Island.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Data from a Bering Sea mooring shows the average temperature throughout the water column has risen markedly in the last several years: in 2018, water temperatures were 9 degrees above the historical average.

Not only have the scientists noticed, so too have the fish.

Consider the plight of the walleye pollock — also known as Alaska pollock — one of the region’s most important fisheries.

While adult walleye pollock are averse to super cold water, juveniles are known to gravitate to the interior of the cold pool. In this protective chilly dome, the young fish are not only walled off from cold-hating predators, but as their metabolisms slow in the frigid temperatures, they can gorge on and grow from the Arctic ecosystem’s fatty, rich food sources.

With the cold pool gone, “there’s no refuge” for small fish seeking to grow big, said Duffy-Anderson. “Instead, the adult fish can now move into those spaces.”

So what has happened to the Arctic fish? Have they just moved north, following the cold water?

It’s not that simple, said Britt. The northern Bering Sea is very shallow. When ice is not there to cover it, it warms up quickly — and can exceed temperatures detected in the subarctic southern Bering Sea.

Freshly caught halibut and a lingcod seen from above on a Kodiak dock.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“So we don’t fully understand all the implications of why the fish are moving in the directions and patterns that they are,” he said. But in some places — particularly the places that once harbored cold-loving fish such as Arctic cod and capelin — they are just gone.

In a healthy Arctic system, thousands of bottom-dwelling species — bottom fish, clams, crabs and shrimp-like critters — feast on the lipid-rich algae that falls from the ice to the bottom of the sea. But in a warm-water system, the algae gets taken up in the water column, said Duffy-Anderson.

The healthy system is highly energy-efficient — with sediment-dwelling invertebrates and bottom fish feeding on the rain of algae, and then birds and large-bodied mammals, such as walrus and whales, scooping them up.

“One of the things I’m really concerned about is … that the whole food web dynamic kind of comes apart,” she said. As warmer waters and animals infiltrate the system, “you put more links in the food chain, and then less and less of that energy is transferred efficiently. And that is what we’re beginning to see.”

Ice is also essential habitat for some Arctic mammals. As with gray whales, several types of ice seals — which include ringed, spotted and bearded seals — started showing up skinny or dead around the Chukchi and Bering seas in 2018, spurring a federal investigation. These Arctic-dwelling species rely on sea ice to pup, nurse and molt. Without it, they spend more time in the cold water, where they expend too much energy. Young seals are particularly vulnerable; their chances for survival plummet without the ice, said the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Boveng.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on a 2018 research cruise in the Chukchi Sea. Warming waters have meant not only the loss of habitat, but the introduction of harmful species including toxic algae and killer whales.
(Devin Powell / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

There are also reports of killer whales — also known as orcas— showing up in areas they haven’t been spotted before, feeding on beluga whales, bowheads and narwhals, said Giles, the University of Washington orca researcher.

“They are finding channels and openings through the ice, and in some cases preying on animals that have never seen killer whales before,” she said.

Climate scientists worldwide have long warned that as the planet warms, humans and wildlife will become more vulnerable to infectious diseases previously confined to certain locations and environments. That dynamic could be a factor in the massive die-off of birds in the Bering Sea — experts estimate at least tens of thousands of birds have died there since 2013.

The culprit was avian cholera, a disease not previously detected in these high latitudes, and one that elsewhere rarely fells seabirds such as thick-billed murres, auklets, common eiders, northern fulmars and gulls.

Toxic algae associated with warmer waters has also been detected in a few dead birds (and some healthy birds) in the Bering Sea, said Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — and may have been responsible for the death of a person living on St. Lawrence Island.

Kuletz, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who has been observing birds in Alaska since the late 1970s, said she’s never before seen the large-scale changes of recent years. In 2013, the dead birds did not show signs of being emaciated, but in 2017, hundreds to thousands more began to wash up dead on beaches with clear signs of starvation, she said.

“There’ve always been little peaks” of die-offs that would last a year or so, but then things would go back to normal, she said. “These animals are resilient. They can forgo breeding if they aren’t getting enough nutrition.”

The horned puffin is just one of dozens of seabird species that have suffered large die-offs in recent years.
(Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images)

Not all bird species are suffering. Albatross, which are surface feeders, are booming, underscoring for Kuletz the idea that there could be “winners and losers” in the changing region. Albatross do not nest in Alaska. They only come in the summer to feed, and are therefore not tied to eggs or nests while looking for food.

Yet for some scientists, it isn’t easy to reconcile how a system in balance could so quickly go off the rails, even if some species adapt and thrive as others struggle.

“For me, it’s actually very emotional,” said Thoman, the University of Alaska climate specialist, recalling his elementary school days, when he read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and other stories from the Arctic.

“The environment that he described, the environment that I saw going through National Geographics in the 1970s? That environment doesn’t exist anymore.”

A lone boat heads out at dawn in Kodiak, Alaska.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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The Senate Has a Climate Deal. Now Comes the Hard Part

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After decades of inaction on the climate crisis, the federal government is on the verge of enacting a sweeping plan to slash planet-warming pollution, with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema agreeing late Thursday to support the bill.

Now comes the hard part — or at least, the next hard part.

Phasing out coal, oil and natural gas — the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis — will require building huge amounts of clean energy infrastructure, including solar farms, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and electric power lines. The Senate bill sets aside nearly $370 billion to support those technologies and others that could help reduce carbon emissions.

But finding good spots to put all those renewable energy projects — and contending with opposition from nearby landowners, Native American tribes and even environmental activists — could be just as challenging as getting a bill through Congress.

Across the country, local opposition has slowed or blocked many renewable energy facilities. And land-use conflicts are likely to intensify. Princeton University researchers estimate that zeroing out U.S. carbon emissions by 2050 could require installing solar panels and wind turbines across more than 225,000 square miles, an area much bigger than California.

“There’s this misperception that there’s plenty of land,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That is true, but [solar and wind farms] have to go in specific places.”

The Senate deal, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, should accelerate America’s renewable energy buildout. It was the product of months of negotiations between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), and it needs support from all 50 Senate Democrats to overcome unified Republican opposition.

Sinema, the final holdout, now says she’ll “move forward” with the bill once it overcomes a final procedural hurdle.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) outside the Capitol in May.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The bill would extend and expand tax credits for companies to build and buy climate-friendly technologies, from solar and wind power to energy storage and carbon capture. Other provisions include $4,000 tax credits for buying used electric cars and rebates for homes that replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. The bill would establish a “green bank” with a $27-billion budget, force oil and gas companies to pay fees as high as $1,500 a ton on methane leaks and pay farmers to change their practices.

Senate Democrats say it would help cut U.S. carbon emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, assuming it passes the Senate and House and is signed by President Biden. Independent analyses support that claim. Rhodium Group estimates emissions would fall 31% to 44%, compared to 24% to 35% under current policy. The research firm Energy Innovation offered a similar projection.

Those would be big cuts — but not enough to meet U.S. climate targets. President Biden pledged to slash emissions at least 50% by 2030. Steeper reductions will be needed over the following decades to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

That won’t be easy. And if policymakers fail to grapple with local opposition to solar and wind power, it might not be possible.

Two recent studies help explain the sources of that opposition — and what might be done to alleviate local concerns.

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The first study, from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored 53 renewable energy projects that were delayed or blocked over more than a decade. It found the most common sources of opposition were concerns about environmental impacts and land use.

California and neighboring states have seen both types of conflicts.

Some conservation groups have tried to block solar and wind farms in the Mojave Desert, citing potential harm to animals and plants such as desert tortoises, golden eagles and Joshua trees. Just this month, Ormat Technologies Inc. paused construction of a geothermal project in Nevada while federal wildlife officials study whether it would harm the endangered Dixie Valley toad.

Then there’s San Bernardino County — California’s largest by land area. Three years ago, it banned solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres, spurred by locals who worried the sprawling projects would industrialize their rural communities.

A solar farm in California’s Kern County.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Some clean energy advocates consider that type of opposition NIMBYism at best and thinly veiled climate denial at worst.

But Lawrence Susskind, an urban planning professor and the MIT study’s lead author, said local concerns of all kinds need to be taken seriously. His research has convinced him that speeding up the clean energy transition will be possible only if developers slow down and make a good-faith effort to gather input from communities before dumping solar and wind farms on them.

Too often, Susskind said, companies exclude local residents until the last minute, then try to steamroll opposition — to their own detriment. His study cited 20 projects that were ultimately blocked, some by lawsuits or other forms of public resistance.

“If you want to build something, you go slow to go fast,” he said. “You have a conversation, not a confrontation.”

That was the thinking behind the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ambitious government effort to map which parts of the California desert are suitable for solar and wind farms and which parts should be protected. The plan took eight years to complete and covered more than 10 million acres — and barely survived a Trump administration attempt to scrap it.

Renewable energy companies criticized the maps as too restrictive. But they didn’t take their complaints to court, and so far the desert plan seems to be standing the test of time. The Biden administration recently approved its third clean energy facility under the plan — a 500-megawatt solar plant, with 200 megawatts of battery storage, off Interstate 10 in Riverside County.

An 11th-hour Trump administration proposal foreshadows a tough balancing act for Biden on public lands.

Stanford University researchers hope to facilitate similar compromises for the rest of the country.

Stanford’s Dan Reicher told The Times he’s convened more than 20 groups and companies — representing the solar industry, environmental advocates, Native American tribes, the agriculture industry and local governments — in an “uncommon dialogue” to discuss land-use conflicts involving large solar farms. It’s modeled after a similar dialogue that Reicher convened for the hydropower industry and conservation groups, which led to an unprecedent agreement between those long-warring factions.

Reicher hopes the solar discussions will lead to companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects — and do a better job communicating with local residents and conservationists when they think they’ve found good locations.

“Done well, siting is a highly technical process that also lends itself to significant input,” Reicher said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

O’Shaughnessy agrees on the need for public engagement up front.

The Lawrence Berkeley researcher was lead author of the second recent study, which found that solar and wind farms typically get built in rural areas with low incomes — and those projects can be either a benefit or a burden to those communities, depending on local factors. Construction jobs and tax revenues can be a boon, while loss of agricultural land can be a big loss.

Renewable energy facilities can also destroy land held sacred by Native American tribes or disrupt treasured views.

The visual impacts of renewable energy could be one of the biggest roadblocks to fighting climate change.

The potential harms from solar and wind energy pale in comparison to the dangers of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel projects, which unlike renewable energy can expose nearby residents to cancer-linked chemicals and other toxins. The low-income communities of color that have born the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also especially vulnerable to climate change consequences.

But taking steps to make sure solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities don’t worsen ongoing injustices is important, O’Shaughnessy said. And it’s a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.

“There will be projects that move forward despite some degree of local opposition. That’s inevitable,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It comes back to making sure there are participation processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”

They key question is whether enough clean energy can still be built fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Susskind, the MIT researcher, thinks it’s doable. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and to offer financial compensation to people or businesses who feel they’re still being harmed.

“More stuff would get built faster,” he said.

The Solar Energy Industries Assn., an influential national trade group, agrees with that assessment.

Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early — and giving them a real opportunity to be heard — is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area where the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford initiative — and the Senate deal makes it more important than ever.

“This is such a historic opportunity that we’re on the cusp of that we need to get it right,” Norris said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the Inflation Reduction Act at a news conference.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Not everything in the Senate bill has been embraced by climate activists.

To win Manchin’s support, Schumer included provisions that require continued oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore, which activists have been fighting to shut down for years. Democratic leaders also agreed to support legislation designed to speed up permitting for all kinds of energy projects — including climate-disrupting natural gas pipelines and gas export terminals.

Sempra Energy is seeking federal approval for a new proposal to ship fossil fuel overseas.

As far as Energy Innovation is concerned, the bill’s benefits far outweigh its harms. The research firm estimates that for every ton of carbon pollution caused by the fossil fuel leasing mandates, 24 tons of carbon would be avoided by other provisions.

Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, also thinks the tradeoffs are worthwhile. The best way to cut down on oil and gas production, he said, is to reduce demand for the fuels — and the Senate bill does that.

The separate permitting bill could also be helpful, Gerrard said, because it could streamline approval of clean energy projects.

“Local opposition has emerged as one of the major inhibitors of [solar and wind farms],” Gerrard said. “Trying to clear away those obstacles is extremely important, even if it is at the price of making it somewhat harder to fight new fossil projects.”

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Gerrard pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a possible model for speeding solar and wind development. The law prevented local governments from banning cell towers and required them to approve or reject towers within a few months.

It also prohibited local governments from rejecting cell towers because they emit electromagnetic fields, or EMFs — a type of radiation that has spurred fears of cancer and other health problems, despite a lack of strong evidence to support those fears. Gerrard thinks similar rules could be helpful for solar and wind projects dogged by misinformation over alleged health effects.

“Whether it’s wind farms or vaccines or elections, people don’t always listen to evidence,” he said.

“Going to communities early and trying to engage them — it’s helpful,” he added. “But it’s not a guaranteed silver bullet.”

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Possible Pelosi Visit Elicits Shrugs in Taiwan, Long the Focal Point of Geopolitical Standoff

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — 

On the top of Iris Hsueh’s list of concerns living in Taipei are COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices and, if she’s being honest, the latest news on Taiwanese pop stars. Nowhere on that list is the proposed visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the potential Chinese backlash.

“Whether she comes or not won’t really change” anything, the 37-year-old saleswoman speculated. “I think China will think it’s a provocation, but I also don’t think they will escalate any actual military behavior because of this.”

Asked how her circle of friends feels about the standoff, which has prompted the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait and China to conduct live fire military drills Saturday, Hsueh said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think they really care.”

As tensions flare between the two superpowers — risking the worst crisis in the region in a quarter of a century — people in Taiwan appear by and large to be responding with a collective shrug, occupying their attention with things like the summer heat wave and local elections rather than the specter of war.

Such is life on the self-governed island of 23 million that has long served as the focal point of an explosive geopolitical standoff. The threat of Chinese military action has loomed for so long that few seem to raise an eyebrow when Beijing lashes out, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Thursday in warning President Biden on a call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi departed for Asia on Friday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

While the invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns around the globe about a possible Chinese assault, many in Taiwan still view Beijing’s bellicose threats as largely bluster.

“The Chinese Communist Party is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. “They’re making a fuss about nothing.”

Pelosi, a frequent critic of China’s human rights abuses, left for Asia on Friday. Her itinerary includes U.S. ally countries Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, no plans were revealed about stopping in Taiwan. Biden said the Pentagon advised against her visit.

The rancor over the trip underscores how badly the U.S.-China relationship has soured in recent years and how firmly Taiwan remains its most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi wouldn’t be the first House speaker to visit the democratically-ruled island; Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi is a much more powerful and assertive country than it was back then, and it’s determined to dominate Asia in a way befitting of a great power.

Standing immediately in its way is Taiwan, a teardrop-shaped island roughly the size of Maryland located less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

Formerly known as Formosa, the island was taken over by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after it was defeated by the communists in 1949, in the Chinese civil war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more Taiwanese say they are willing to fight if attacked by China. But without firearms or sufficient military training, many wonder how to prepare.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and after urging peaceful unification for years, has warned it will take the island by force if necessary — particularly if Taiwan formally declares independence.

Washington switched diplomatic relations to Communist China in 1979, adopting a “one China” policy that acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, but doesn’t endorse it. To deter China from invading, the U.S. provides Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintains a policy called strategic ambiguity designed to leave China guessing as to whether American troops will defend the island if it is attacked.

While that approach has fostered a peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has grown more fraught with the elevation of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi has hitched Taiwan to his grand project of national rejuvenation, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year with a speech that described unification as “a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.”

Much of China’s military planning and modernization is geared toward an invasion of the island. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has tripled the number of sorties it’s flown around Taiwan the first half of this year compared with the same period a year ago, a tactic aimed at prodding and exhausting the territory’s air defenses.

Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

In June, Beijing said the sea separating China from Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, did not qualify as international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and challenging the U.S. Navy’s presence there.

Beijing has also accused the U.S. of blurring its “one China” policy when Cabinet officials and Congress members visit Taiwan with growing frequency. On three occasions Biden has made remarks suggesting the U.S. had discarded strategic ambiguity by pledging to defend Taiwan with force, but the administration has walked back the comments each time.

The tension between the nations with the world’s two largest economies shows few signs of abating. Xi will be less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year when he’s expected to secure his third five-year term, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two-term limits in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited by the bipartisan enmity for China, one of the few issues rival lawmakers agree on in an otherwise severely polarized political climate. The call between the two leaders Thursday offered no offramps.

Caught in the cycle of escalation is Taiwan, whose voice is often drowned out by the din of Washington and Beijing. The government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has said little about a Pelosi visit — even as analysts say her appearance provides no concrete benefit to the territory and may be more trouble than it’s worth.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. makes chips for iPhones, video game consoles and fighter jets. Now it’s being forced to choose sides.

“Taiwan’s agency in the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan triangle has varied over time, but at this moment, the drivers are the U.S. and China,” said Shelley Rigger, a leading Taiwan expert at Davidson College, using the initialism for the People’s Republic of China. “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with U.S. officials,” Rigger continued. “The U.S. is Taiwan’s primary defender, and U.S. officials have shown a lot of ego and arrogance in the relationship. Offending American leaders by pointing out the downside of their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials are really in a position to do.”

Taiwan generally views visits by high-level U.S. officials and politicians as a political boost for the ruling party and a show of much-needed international support. Beijing has diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the point where it’s recognized by just over a dozen mostly small nations. China also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization assembly during the pandemic.

A Pelosi visit “would definitely encourage the people of Taiwan, basically saying that ‘you are not alone,’” said Chen Kuan-ting, chief executive of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank politically aligned with the governing Democratic Progressive Party.

That’s important because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan in an invasion scenario has waned. A survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed a 30% decline between last October and March in the number of respondents who believe the U.S. will come to the island’s aid.

Many in Taiwan say Pelosi can’t afford to back down, worrying another cancellation (she initially postponed a trip to the territory in April after testing positive for COVID-19) will send a signal to Beijing it can coerce and intimidate Washington.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has urged her country to better prepare for an invasion.
(Shioro Lee / Associated Press)

“Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to welcome any friend who supports” us, said Freddy Lim, a pro-independence legislator who met with Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.

Beijing, which views a visit by Pelosi as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would respond forcefully to her arrival. Analysts say China could place sanctions on the U.S. lawmaker, test missiles, or in the most provocative scenario, scramble fighters to try to turn her aircraft around. Doing nothing would make China’s leadership look weak, a problem China faces after threatening Taiwan for years.

“To have the same effect of cowing the Taiwan population, Beijing is forced to be more threatening,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle may continue until Beijing either has to follow through with its threats or its bluff is called.”

The last time tensions were this high in the region was in 1995, when then-President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan sparked a furor in Beijing by visiting the U.S., breaking diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups before upcoming Taiwan elections, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in the waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration deployed more warships to the Taiwan Strait than had been assembled since the Vietnam War.

Many in Taiwan don’t expect the same muscular U.S. response — not when China’s military has advanced enough to inflict massive harm to the U.S. Navy.

But in a country where air raid sirens and military drills are a regular occurrence, few seemed fazed by the latest crisis.

“Pelosi’s visit will add to the intensity of [Beijing’s] diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu Di-Sheng, a 23-year-old graduate student in political science at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been high.”

Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Pierson from Singapore.

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Podcast: to Be Queer in Singapore

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Just this year, Singapore’s top court upheld section 377A. That’s a British colonial-era law prohibiting consenting sex between men. And while the government says it doesn’t strictly enforce that law, anyone who breaks it could face up to two years behind bars.

Meanwhile, thousands of Queer Singaporean activists and LGBTQ allies will gather in Hong Lim Park this weekend for an annual gay pride event — and send a clear message to lawmakers that they’re done being denied their basic human rights.

Read the full transcript here.

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