TIME energy

The (Slow) Greening of America

Solar panels
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A new poll reveals that the U.S. is reluctant to recognize and address climate change

Americans who don’t believe in global warming should visit my Miami Beach neighborhood at high tide, when Biscayne Bay surges through our storm drains and swamps our streets. In May, the New York Times ran a photo of sunny-day flooding outside my local Walgreens, above an article headlined, “Miami Finds Itself Ankle-Deep in Climate Change Debate.” Really, the debate should be over. Scientists have already documented 5 in. to 8 in. of sea-level rise around South Florida over the past 50 years. This kind of phenomenon has encouraged President Obama to start emphasizing that climate change is not a someday thing. “This is not some distant problem of the future,” he said recently. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

That’s true. But as a new global survey conducted by TIME about attitudes toward energy and conservation illustrates, many Americans don’t believe it. This sets them apart from the people Time surveyed in five other countries. Only 40% of Americans “strongly agreed” that the earth is getting warmer, even though the earth is, in fact, getting warmer; 71% of Indians strongly agreed. Globally, 57% of the 3,505 people surveyed strongly agreed that the polar ice caps are melting because of global warming, including the 39% of Americans who strongly agreed. On almost every question, Americans were the least likely to back the scientific consensus on climate–and among the least likely to support doing anything about it. One out of three Americans wanted their politicians to fight global warming, compared with 3 out of 4 Brazilians.

This may seem odd because, as Obama’s new National Climate Assessment makes clear, the U.S. is already feeling the effects of global warming. The first 13 years of the 21st century were among the 14 hottest on record. California is enduring a historic drought. Wildfires are getting worse throughout the West. And while it’s premature to blame climate change for any particular storm–that stock phrase seemed to appear in every story about Superstorm Sandy–our weird weather trends are consistent with expectations for a warmer world.

Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence of the viability of clean energy, with wind power often cheaper than coal, solar costs plunging over 80% in five years, energy-efficient lightbulbs taking off and every major automaker offering electric vehicles in the U.S.

But compared with citizens of Germany, South Korea, India, Turkey and Brazil, Americans were among the least likely to turn off the lights when leaving a room or power down their computer at night and by far the least likely to walk or take public transit instead of driving. Americans were also more opposed to carbon taxes, carbon limits and even bike lanes than the rest of the world. They were less concerned than the global average about polluted air, higher sea levels and almost every other problem the pollsters asked about except higher gas prices. (While Americans are somewhat more likely than citizens of other nations to believe that the U.S. could do more to fight global warming, they are by far the least likely to think the U.S. should accept “most of the burden” for reducing emissions.)

Why are we so unenlightened? green issues often take a backseat in tough economic times, but most of the world is enduring much tougher times than we are. Our relative apathy in part reflects our polarized politics. The Republican Party’s rejection of climate science during the Obama era has helped fuel denial among members of its base. In any case, addressing problems like climate change–requiring some perceived short-term sacrifice to avert long-term problems–is not exactly our national comparative advantage.

So Obama’s here-and-now arguments are understandable. But if global warming is our most important problem, it’s not our most imminent one. The real pain–from climate refugees to agricultural depressions–lies in the future. Even low-lying Miami Beach is not Kiribati, the Pacific island nation that’s on the verge of disappearing. We’ve got bigger headaches than the monthly flooding in the nearby Whole Foods parking lot.

If climate action depends on getting Americans outraged about what they can see now, we’re in trouble. There’s not much to see yet. The puddles at Walgreens are not gripping evidence of the need to limit emissions, although the danger of Miami Beach becoming Kiribati in this century ought to be. And while our expressed concern for future generations does not match the rest of the world’s, it does exist. That’s fortunate. Global warming has the potential to singe us, but it could roast our kids and grandkids. If we do nothing until the pain becomes unbearable, we’ll be way too late.

FOR MORE POLL FINDINGS, GO TO time.com/newenergy

TIME Environment

Supreme Court Rules Against Homeowners in Toxic Water Case

Court says too much time has passed in North Carolina case for legal action against electronics company CTS Corp

The Supreme Court ruled against homeowners from North Carolina attempting to a sue an electronics company that contaminated their drinking water decades ago.

The court ruled that the state’s statute of repose, which states that a plaintiff loses the right to seek property damages 10 years after contamination occurred, should stand. The ruling is a setback for property owners in similar positions.

The case on Monday involved property owners living where CTS Corp. made electronics in 1987. The residents did not realize their water was contaminated with chemicals until 2009, the Associated Press reports. The chemicals in the water can cause health problems ranging from birth defects to cancers.

Homeowners argued that under federal environment laws, their case was still valid despite the statute of repose. The Supreme Court did not agree.

The ruling is a blow for U.S. Marines families involved in a separate case in Camp Lejeune, N.C. It’s estimated that up to 1 million people may have been exposed to contaminated groundwater over several decades in Camp Lejeune. The Associated Press says the U.S. government is relying on the same law to avoid liability for the contamination.

[AP]

 

TIME Environment

Carbon Regs Will Help Your Health More Than the Planet’s

EPA coal pollution
Carbon dioxide is the chief target of EPA regulations, but they'll also help curb conventional pollutants Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Public health—through cleaner air—will benefit more from EPA carbon rules than climate change, and that's O.K.

When the White House rolled out the proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on power-plant carbon emissions on June 2—regs that will reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels—President Barack Obama attended a conference call with a number of public health groups, including the American Lung Association. Obama talked about the importance of treating carbon as a pollutant, of investments in energy efficiency that would cause electricity bills to shrink, of the momentum behind the move to a low-carbon economy.

But he spent much of his time talking about the health benefits that would come as the regulations cracked down on coal plant pollution:

“I got a letter from Dian Coleman, who is a mother of four. Her three kids have asthma. [...] She keeps her home free of dust that can trigger asthma attacks. Cigarettes aren’t allowed across the threshold of her home. But despite all that, she can’t control the pollution that contributes potentially to her kids’ illnesses, as well as threatening the planet. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing something on behalf of Dian, and doing it in a way that allows us also to grow the economy and get at the forefront of our clean energy future.”

Carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant—at least, not in the sense that breathing it in damages health. (If it were, trees would be a lot more dangerous.) CO2 does cause climate change, which in turn can directly threat health by increasing ozone levels, intensifying heat waves and floods and even worsening allergies, all of which the White House detailed in a new report out today. But Obama and his officials have been talking up a different sort of public health benefit that will come with the regulations: the reduction of dangerous, conventional pollutants like nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and simple soot. “Our role in this initiative is to protect public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told me in an interview last week. “It’s key in this rule that when we lower carbon, we reduce traditional pollutants.”

The EPA says that the regulations will reduce those conventional pollutants by more than 25% over the lifetime of the rules as a co-benefit. That in turn will avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and nearly 500,000 missed work or school days. That might just be the beginning—the more we learn about air pollution, the more dangerous it seems even at lower levels. A new study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to air pollution at a young age caused changes in the brains of mice, including an enlargement in the parts of the brain that is seen in humans with autism and schizophrenia. And air pollution is still a major problem in the U.S.—a recent report from the American Lung Association found that nearly 5 in 10 Americans live in places where the air can be dangerous to breathe.

There’s an added political value to the White House’s focus on the public health benefits of carbon regulations. Note the huge partisan gap on the issue in recent polls: climate change, unfortunately, remains an area where there is deep political division. But air quality and public health is something that Americans can get together on, at least somewhat, without the conversation turning into a debate over temperature trends and IPCC assessments. That could help these regulations, which are supported by a strong majority of Americans, overcome kneejerk Republican opposition. “You don’t need to have a debate over climate change,” says Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana and a member of the White House task force on climate change. “Who doesn’t want to breathe clean air?”

As I wrote last week, the EPA regulations by themselves will have only a small impact on total U.S. carbon emissions, and a negligible one globally. The hope is that these rules are just the beginning, that they will help prompt other countries to push their own carbon-cutting efforts further, and encourage businesses to find even better ways to accelerate the clean energy revolution. But countless Americans will breathe easier—literally—thanks in part to these rules. That’s reason enough to celebrate.

TIME China

A Mining Accident in Southwest China Has Killed 22 Workers

The tragedy is only the latest in a slew of mining catastrophes to have hit the world's biggest coal producer

An accident at a coal mine in southwest China on Tuesday evening killed 22 workers and left two injured. The tragedy at the Yanshitai Coal Mine in Wansheng District, located near the city of Chongqing, is one of a slew of mining catastrophes that have been plaguing the coal-rich country recently. In January, two miners were killed in northern Shanxi province, while 14 workers were killed during a gas explosion at a coal mine in the southwestern province of Yunnan in April.

The Chongqing Municipal Administration of Coal Mine Safety told the state-owned Xinhua news agency that 28 miners were working in a shaft at 5:40 p.m., when a “gas incident” occurred. Six escaped and survived, and the bodies of the 22 fatalities have been recovered.

China’s mines produce the most coal in the world, but maintain the highest fatality rates because of lax safety precautions. News of the accident came on the same day that China, which has the highest levels of pollution partially due to the burning of carbon-releasing coal, vowed to lower carbon emissions.

[Xinhua]

TIME Environment

Republicans Make Hay from Obama’s ‘War on Coal’

Not even 24 hours after the Obama administration announced new EPA rules, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was set to roll out robo-calls Tuesday attacking Democratic senators in energy-rich states

Not even a day after the Obama administration announced proposed new regulations to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions at power plants, Republicans had already planned a new offensive, using the new rules to hammer vulnerable Democrats in states across the country in a bid to retake the Senate.

On Tuesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is set to roll out robo-calls in energy-rich states Virginia, Louisiana, Colorado, and Alaska to target four incumbent Democrats in tight races for re-election.

Swing voters in those states will hear variations of this message: “Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs.”

The RNC released a web video Monday morning accusing Obama of continuing a “war on coal,” while Speaker of the House John Boehner called the plan “nuts.”

“Democrats like Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, John Walsh, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Pryor, Mark Udall, Bruce Braley, Gary Peters, Mark Warner, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Natalie Tennant all claim to be independent Democrats who stand up to President Obama yet it turns out they are completely ineffective and we will be reminding voters of that throughout the summer and fall,” said NRSC Press Secretary Brook Hougesen.

Democrats acknowledge that the new rules will make it more difficult to compete in a number of coal-country House districts, but argue their impact won’t be felt nearly as much in less parochial—and more consequential—Senate races.

Several of those Democrats are publicly breaking with the White House over the proposal, a move the White House expected. “While it is important to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, this should not be achieved by EPA regulations,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Congress should set the terms, goals and timeframe. Greater use of natural gas and stronger efficiency measures adopted by the industry have already helped us reduce carbon emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years, and this should continue. I will work with leaders of both parties to build on the progress we have already made.”

Others are trying to turn the issue around on Republicans: In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall is firing back at Republican Rep. Cory Gardner’s attacks.

“The Pentagon says climate change is a threat to America¹s military infrastructure and global stability. Yet Congressman Gardner voted to ban the Department of Defense from taking crucial steps to protect our nation in a changing world,” said Udall spokesperson Chris Harris. “Droughts, wildfires, floods, heat waves and storms are driving up the price of groceries, hurting our economy and costing our state billions each year. Gardner’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the facts of climate change is out-of-touch with mainstream Coloradans and will put our state at risk.”

Asked if the President was concerned at the adverse impact on Democrats seeking re-election, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the benefits would speak for themselves — eventually. “The President thinks this is the right thing to do,” he said. “And he’s confident that there will be significant benefits to our health, public health, and to our economy as the years pass.”

The NRSC call scripts:

VA:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising Mark Warner stands by Obama’s costly regulations, because he stood with liberal senators in support of a plan that would have imposed a radical cap-and-trade plan on Virginia. A cap and trade agenda that one study said could increase gas prices in Virginia by 64 cents a gallon. Tell Mark Warner higher gas prices and new EPA regulations, just don’t make sense for Virginia.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000. 425 2nd St NE, Washington, DC 20002.

CO:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising Mark Udall stands by Obama’s costly regulations, because he lobbied other senators to support a radical cap-and-trade plan that would have increased Colorado energy prices and hurt jobs. Tell Mark Udall higher electricity costs and new EPA regulations, just don’t make sense for Colorado.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000

LA:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. So why has Mary Landrieu given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-energy Democrats? Landrieu even claims that she and Harry Reid are a team, even though Reid says “Oil makes us sick”? Tell Mary Landrieu that this war on American energy just doesn’t make sense for Louisiana.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000

AK:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising Mark Begich stands by Barack Obama’s costly regulations, because he supported the same cap-and-trade energy tax plan as Obama. A cap-and-trade energy tax could have killed almost 6,000 Alaska jobs, and reduced disposable income for Alaskan households by more than $1,200. Tell Mark Begich that higher electricity costs, less jobs and these new EPA regulations, just don’t make sense for Alaska.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000

TIME Environment

New Obama Climate Regulations Could Help U.S. Pressure China

New regulations will only have lasting benefit if they help encourage countries like China to take similar steps

As my colleague Michael Grunwald points out, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed new rules on carbon emissions from the power sector are a big deal. (Vice President Joe Biden might use slightly different language.) The rules—which still have to go through a year of public comment and which will almost certainly face legal and Congressional challenges—would cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. These regulations—which will apply to existing power plants, not just new ones—are by far the biggest single step taken by the U.S. to fight climate change. With the stroke of a pen (though it was technically be EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s pen), President Barack Obama has done more about global warming than all of his predecessors combined.

But climate action is measured in carbon, not in political legacies. By that measurement, the U.S. carbon regulations are only a beginning, and will only have lasting benefit for the world if they help encourage the major future emitters—the big developing nations like China and India—to take similar steps to reduce their own rapidly growing carbon emissions.

The truth is that the EPA regulations are so historic largely because so little has been done to restrict carbon emissions before. As Eric Holthaus points out over at Slate, choosing 2005 as the baseline year for carbon cuts makes it that much easier for the U.S. to meet a 30% cut. (In a call with reporters, senior EPA officials made the case that 2005 is less a baseline than a point of comparison for the changes that will be made in emissions by 2030. The actual policy, which will be left to individual states, flows from the energy mix in the U.S. as of 2012. But 30% less than 2005 levels sounds a lot more impressive than a smaller percentage from 2012 levels, even though they ultimately mean the same thing.) That’s because U.S. carbon emissions have already fallen significantly since 2005, thanks to a mix of increasing natural gas (which emits around half as much carbon as coal), a growing contribution from renewables and the recession, which reduced consumption of everything, including energy. As of 2011 carbon emissions from the power plant sector alone—which accounts for a little less than 40% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—had fallen 16% since 2005, which means we’re already more than halfway there. Using 1990 as a benchmark year for emissions—which is what’s done in the UN climate process—the EPA regulations only amount to a 3.5% cut by 2020.

In fact, given that U.S. power plant emissions had been dropping, the reductions mandated in the regulations are likely much smaller than they seem. The EPA itself estimates that emissions from U.S. power plants will be 730 million metric tons less by 2030 than they would have been without the rules. That’s not a negligible amount—it’s equivalent to taking two-thirds of the country’s passenger vehicles off the road for a year—but it still amounts to just about 11% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. The EPA predicts that by 2030, coal and natural gas will still be the leading sources of U.S. electricity, each contributing 30% of power, with non-hydro renewables coming in at 9%, up from about 6.7% now. It’s impossible that anything tougher would have been politically feasible—witness Republican House Speak John Boehner’s two-word reaction to the news rules: “It’s nuts.” Still, if everything the EPA predicts comes true—obviously not likely—the U.S. of 2030 will be a cleaner, healthier place, but it will still be pouring a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

And even that may not matter all that much to the global climate. That’s because the U.S. has already been outpaced as the world’s top emitter by China, where carbon emissions have increased an astounding 52% since 2005. Rising India isn’t too far behind—carbon emissions have grown 50% since 2005. These giants, and other rapidly growing countries in the developing world, will be putting the vast majority of the new carbon into the atmosphere in the decades to come. The amount of carbon set to be saved by the EPA rules amounts to a little over 2% of total global carbon emissions in one year: 2012. It’s still China and the other big developing nations that control the future of the climate.

But that doesn’t mean U.S. action can’t make a difference—as much by example as by actual numbers. The EPA regulations should allow the U.S. to reach the 17% reduction below 2005 that Obama promised during the doomed U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. U.N. climate talks, which resume at the end of the year in Lima, have always been hobbled by the refusal of the U.S. to take the lead on cutting carbon, going back to the fact that Washington failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Representatives from Beijing and New Delhi could—and did—argue that it was unfair to expect still poor countries to cut carbon if the world’s top historical emitter refused to take action. But U.S. diplomats will now be able to point to EPA regulations as proof that the U.S. has pledged itself to long-term carbon cuts—and cuts that come under national law, not more amorphous international promises. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example,” Obama told graduating West Point cadets in an address last week. “We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”

That doesn’t mean the dream of a global climate deal has been saved. The reality is that the future of climate action will look like this—national or regional entities taking steps on their own, for their own reasons, that will hopefully add up to something real. China is already taking aggressive steps on carbon, less to deal with climate change than to counter the truly horrific air pollution the country faces. Beijing will continue on that path to save itself, but U.S. leadership can’t hurt. “I fully expect action by the United States to spur others in taking concrete action,” said Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s top climate official.

We’ll see. But here’s my prediction: The policies put in place in Washington or Beijing or New Delhi will ultimately matter far less than the technological changes that are already sweeping the energy industry. U.S. carbon emissions have fallen over the past decade—in the absence of national action—largely because of new technologies, including the fracking revolution, which made it economical for cleaner natural gas to displace dirty coal. In the years to come, solar panels will keep getting cheaper and cheaper, which could potentially upend the utility model, much in the same way that mobile phones disrupted landline companies. Big data will change how we use and produce electricity, reducing waste. Obama’s climate regulations will help cement those changes and encourage new ones as states mix and match to meet their emissions reductions goals.

But 2030 will look very different from 2014—and will almost certainly be much cleaner in the U.S.—for reasons that go far beyond a 626-page regulatory order coming out of Washington.

TIME Environment

Meet the Solar-Powered Plane That Will Fly Around the World

A look at Solar Impulse 1 and 2 as the second aircraft makes its inaugural voyage in preparation for the aircraft's global trip in 2015.

TIME housing

Tiny Houses With Big Ambitions

Is the tiny-houses movement a viable solution for American homeowners?

Anyone who’s been to the suburbs in the past half-century knows that American homes have been getting larger and more elaborate year after year. The average size of new homes has swelled by 50 percent since 1970, despite that the average family size decreased during the same period. And it’s not just here; similar trends have held sway in other prosperous, mostly Western countries.

As with most things, a countertrend, focused on homes that are smaller and simpler than the norm, emerged in recent decades. Sometimes referred to as the “tiny house movement,” the concept describes efforts by architects, activists and frugal home owners to craft beautiful, highly functional houses of 1,000 square feet or less (some as small as 80 square feet). It’s both a practical response to soaring housing costs and shrinking incomes, and an idealistic expression of good design and sensible resource use.

The most ardent advocates and early adopters of the concept were often looking to downsize and simplify their lives, create an affordable second home or find innovative ways to live outside the mainstream. Some small homes are on wheels and therefore resemble RVs, but they are built to last as long as traditional homes. Others represent clever architectural solutions to odd building lots or special design challenges. Aging baby-boomers see them as an efficient way to adapt to their changing needs. Most tiny houses are tailored for middle-class and wealthy families who made a conscious decision to “build better, not bigger.”

But natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and economic catastrophes like the Great Recession inspired many people to wonder if the movement might offer solutions to pressing housing crises, whether temporary or long-term. Cheaper to build and maintain, built mostly of ecologically friendly materials, requiring no building permits and taking up far less real estate than traditional houses, the appeal of “living small” is obvious to many people. Some imagine entire villages built of tiny homes as solutions to homelessness.

The movement itself remains small, however promising. Only about one percent of home buyers today go for houses of 1,000 square feet or less. That may be changing as more people become familiar with the ideas that animate the movement and as middle-class finances remain precarious.

Watch the video above and make up your own mind: Would you opt to live small if you could?

TIME Environment

Invasive Species: Not Always the Enemy

Endangered bird in invasive species
The California Clapper Rail has come to depend on invasive Spartina cordgrass Image courtesy of Robert Clark

The usual policy with invasive species is to eradicate them whenever possible. But in a changing world, that may not be possible

By some estimates, invasive species are the second-biggest threat to endangered animals and plants. Which is a problem, because invasions are on the rise, thanks to increasing global trade, climate change and habitat loss, all of which are turning the planet into a giant mixing bowl as invasive species spread across the globe. So it’s not surprising that many conservationists treat invasive species as enemy combatants in a biological war. The federal government spent $2.2 billion in 2012 trying to prevent, control and sometimes eradicate invasive species, in an effort that involved 13 different agencies and departments.

But un-mixing the global mixing bowl may be impossible—human activity has simply altered the planet too much. And as a new study in Science suggests, some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis examined the relationship between the California Clapper Rail—an endangered bird found only in San Francisco Bay—and the invasive saltmarsh cordgrass hybrid Spartina. The Army Corps of Engineers originally introduced the grass Spartina alterniflora into San Francisco Bay in the mid-1970s in an effort to reclaim lost marshland. Unsurprisingly, though, the introduced species didn’t stay in its niche—it hybridized with native Spartina grass and began spreading, displacing the native Spartina and eventually invading more than 800 acres. That was a problem for the clapper rail, because the bird depended on the native Spartina as a habitat. So the Spartina casebecame a classic example of an invasive species causing trouble for an endangered native, which is why efforts began in 2005 to eradicate it. Those efforts were successful—more than 90% of the invasive Spartina has been removed, though the native plant has been slow to recover.

But something unexpected happened: Between 2005 and 2011, populations of the federally endangered clapper rail fell by nearly 50%. That’s likely because the bird came to depend on the invasive Spartina for habitat just as it had on the native. And since the population of the native grass wasn’t rebounding, the eradication of the invasive Spartina left the clapper rail that much more vulnerable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to prohibit further eradication of the invasive Spartina, while transplanting nursery plants of the native Spartina.

As an invasive species, though, the hybrid Spartina was still marked for death—the question was how to complete eradication of the plant without accidentally eradicating an endangered species as well. The Science researchers modeled out possible interventions and found that the best solution was to slow down the eradication of the invasives until the native plants could recover and the ecosystem could return to something like its natural state. The default reaction to invasives is to stamp them out whenever possible, but the Science study demonstrated that the collateral damage would simply be too great.

“Just thinking form a single-species standpoint doesn’t work,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis environmental science and policy professor and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “The whole management system needs to take longer, and you need to have much more flexibility in the timing of budgetary expenditures over a longer time frame.”

This isn’t the only example of a conflict between eradicating an invasive species and protecting an endangered one that has come to depend on it. In the Southwest, a program to eradicate invasive Tamarisk was eventually scaled back when it was discovered that the tree provided a nesting habitat for the endangered Southern Willow fly-catcher bird. And as the pace of invasions around the world gains speed—and efforts to fight those invasions scale up—we can expect those conflicts to intensify.

That’s one reason why a small but growing number of wildlife ecologists have begun to question the wisdom of fighting an open-ended war against invasive species. In 2011, 19 ecologists co-authored an influential article in Nature arguing that we should judge species not by their origin, but by their impact on the environment. That piece produced serious pushback by mainstream ecologists accustomed to the eradication paradigm, but in a planet that has been so fundamentally remade by human beings—the ultimate invasive species—it’s clear that an all-out war can’t go on. “The planet is changing,” Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College and the lead author on the Nature article, told me not long ago. “If conservation is going to be relevant, it has to accept that.”

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