Explained | The global push to make ecocide a crime

The story so far: Mexico’s Maya train project has earned a contradictory reputation. Some describe it as a “Pharaonic project”, the train route covers 1,525 km (about the distance from Florida to New York City), connects tourists in the Caribbean with historic Maya sites and costs $20 billion (almost four times India’s Great Nicobar Project). It has also been described as a “megaproject of death” — it imperils the Yucatán peninsula’s rich wilderness, ancient cave systems and indigenous communities. The Tribunal for the Rights of Nature in August said the project caused “crimes of ecocide and ethnocide”.

Ecocide, derived from Greek and Latin,translates to ‘killing one’s home’ or ‘environment’. Such ‘killing’ could include port expansion projects that destroy fragile marine life and local livelihoods; deforestation; illegal sandmining; polluting rivers with untreated sewage. Mexico joins several nations that are mulling ecocide legislations — Congresswoman Marina Marlen Barrón Perales recently proposed a Bill to criminalise any “unlawful or wanton act committed with the knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment”. There is also a push to elevate ecocide to the ranks of an international crime, warranting similar legal scrutiny as genocide.

What is ‘ecocide’?

Biologist Arthur Galston in 1970 is credited be the first to link environmental destruction with genocide, which is recognised as an international crime, when referring to the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange (a herbicide) during the Vietnam War. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, two years later, used the term in a speech at the United Nations, warning that unchecked industrialisation could cause irreversible damage to the environment. British lawyer Polly Higgins became the linchpin, when in 2010, she urged the United Nations’ International Criminal Court (ICC) to recognise ecocide as an international crime.

At present, the Rome Statute of the ICC deals with four atrocities: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. The provision on war crimes is the only statute that can hold a perpetrator responsible for environmental damage, albeit if it is intentionally caused and during wartime situations.

Ms. Higgins proposed that the Statute should be amended to treat crimes against nature on par with crimes against people. Her description of ecocide was: “Extensive loss, damage to or destruction of ecosystems…such that the peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.” Here, “inhabitants” applies to all living creatures, not limiting crime to an anthropogenic legal view.

Ecocide as defined by the Stop Ecocide Foundation.

Ecocide as defined by the Stop Ecocide Foundation.

There is no accepted legal definition of ecocide, but a panel of lawyers in June 2021 for Stop Ecocide Foundation prepared a ‘historic’ 165-word articulation that, if accepted, would locate environmental destruction in the same category as crimes against humanity. Ecocide, they proposed, is the “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Why should ecocide be a crime?

Ecocide is a crime in 11 countries, with 27 other nations mulling laws around criminalising environmental damage that is wilfully caused and harms humans, animals and plant species. The European Parliament voted unanimously this year to enshrine ecocide in law. Most national definitions penalise “mass destruction of flora and fauna”, “poisoning the atmosphere or water resources” or “deliberate actions capable of causing an ecological disaster.” The ICC and Ukraine’s public prosecutor are investigating Russia’s role in the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam, which unleashed a catastrophic flood drowning 40 regions, and caused oil spillage and toxic leakage into the Black Sea.

Ecocide laws, at one level, act as legal instruments to plug a lacuna in environmental protection. “None of the existing international criminal laws protect the environment as an end in itself, and that’s what the crime of ecocide does,” Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College London and co-chair of the panel that drafted the definition, said in 2021.

The movement also responds to harsh climate realities. Over one-third of the Earth’s animal and plant species could be extinct by 2050; ‘unprecedented’ heat waves have broken records globally; changing monsoon patterns and anthropogenic causes have made floods the norm in States like Assam. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reiterated in March that global climate action is “insufficient”; indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels, polluting land and waterways with plastics and fertilisers, and species loss have pushed us to a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Criminalising ecocide “can lead to a shift in social norms”, experts Alexandre Antonelli and Pella Thiel argue in an article.

An amendment to the Rome Statute could have a ‘catalysing’ impact across nations to formulate their own laws; individual nations enshrining ecocide in their legislation could, in turn, build up pressure on the ICC.

Nabeela Siddiqui, an expert in environment constitutionalism, explains the purpose of ecocide laws is to define the ‘significant harm’ and the consequences of the harm ensuing due to environmental damage, weaving in accountability and liability. Deforestation of the Amazon, deep-sea trawling or even the catastrophic 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy could have been avoided with ecocide laws in place, per Stop Ecocide International.

Laws can hold individuals helming corporations accountable and possibly deter environmental damage. “That something is morally questionable usually doesn’t hinder investment. Laws provide boundaries and sanctions for investment, as no company or organisation – such as the World Bank – would want to invest in something potentially criminal,” Mr. Antonelli and Ms. Thiel wrote. A 2019 analysis found that 20 fossil fuel companies were responsible for a third of carbon emissions despite being aware of the industry’s hazardous impact.

Ecocide laws could also double as clarion calls for justice for low- and middle-income countries disproportionately shouldering the impact of extreme weather. Small nation-states like Vanuatu and Barbuda are lobbying for the ICC to declare crimes against the environment as violations of international law.

There’s also a symbolic impact in equating a crime against nature to a war crime. Among other things, it changes the way nature is valued — undoing an anthropocentric legal view and acknowledging that ecosystems are deserving of protection by themselves, activists say.

Some Indian judgments have affirmed the legal personhood of nature by recognising rivers as legal entities with the right to maintain their spirit, identity and integrity.

“An ecocide law is part of that broader process of changing public consciousness, recognising that we are in a relationship with our environment, we are dependent for our well-being on the wellbeing of the environment, and that we have to use various instruments, political, diplomatic but also legal to achieve the protection of the environment”Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College London, in an interview

Limitations of defining ecocide

Arguments against ecocide laws are varied: some question the need for a separate law, others question the definition of ‘ecocide’ itself.

Experts argue the 2021 definition is ambiguous andsets the threshold too low for implicating an entity. Words like “long-term” or “widespread damage” are abstract and leave room for misinterpretation, Prof. Siddiqui explains. The definition describes ‘wanton’ as damage “clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic benefits anticipated.” This constructs a development-versus-environment narrative, she adds, with the implication that it is okay to destroy the environment as long as it benefits humans. Case in point- activists criticised the Great Nicobar Project for imperilling indigenous communities and biodiversity; the government claims the Project is in service of “holistic development.”

Also read | A grave mistake in Great Nicobar

The threshold to prove an ecocide may simultaneously be too high, others worry. Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in the 1940s proposed a law against ‘genocide’ to prosecute individuals who killed members of a national, ethnic, racial, religious or political group. But the final law requires proof on two accounts —mens rea (an intention to kill) and actus reus (a guilty act) — to prove a crime was committed.

Mr. Sands in an interview noted a high burden of proof would make it impossible to show “that someone intended to destroy the environment on a massive scale.” Countries like Belarus and Moldova specify “intentional” or “deliberate” destruction; however, “environmental disasters are not caused intentionally or deliberately,” argued Bianca Cassandro, an international law professor, in an article. “This wording… may have the effect of limiting, if not excluding, the liability of corporations’ top managers’ and Governments’ officials’,” she writes.

The ICC in itself has limited legal powers, and has a speckled track record when it comes to converting prosecutions into convictions. The court’s power is limited to “natural persons,” and without any changes, ICC would be unable to hold corporate entities criminally liable.

Moreover, “Even if you’re able to define ecocide, how will you define the idea of jurisdiction?” asks Prof. Siddiqui. Experts note most ‘crimes’ are transnational in nature; corporations have private or state-owned corporations in other countries (which are not members of the Rome Statute) that are responsible for polluting activities. For example, Coca-Cola was accused of poisoning the land in India with waste sludge and pushing thousands of farmers out of work by draining the water that feeds their wells.

What has been India’s stance?

Some Indian judgments have used the term ‘ecocide’ in passing, but the concept hasn’t fully materialised in law. In Chandra CFS and Terminal Operators Pvt. Ltd. v. The Commissioner of Customs and Ors, the Madras High Court noted, “… the prohibitory activities of ecocide has been continuing unbridledly by certain section of people by removing the valuable and precious timbers…”

The ongoing T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union Of India & Ors case in Supreme Court called attention to an “anthropogenic bias” and argued that “environmental justice could be achieved only if we drift away from the principle of anthropocentric to ecocentric.”

India’s environmental regime includes the Environmental (Protection) Act of 1986, Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, and Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 (CAMPA) as well as separate rules to prevent air and water pollution. According to Prof. Siddiqui, these separate laws have to be consolidated into a code, and institutions need to be streamlined, for debates like ecocide and rights of nature to find “their proper way through legal channels”.

Further, the National Green Tribunal, India’s apex environmental regulatory body, does not hold jurisdiction to hear matters relating to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and other State-enacted laws. Mining in Chambal, or even the Himachal floods, qualify as being environmental crimes under the current articulation, Prof. Siddiqui says. “But how would one go about addressing this, considering the institutions in the way?”

Indian laws are themselves in a state of conflict: the Indian Parliament passed the controversial Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and Biodiversity (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which experts say can dilute current legal protections and will lead to the loss of 20%-25% of forest area in the country.

Prof. Siddiqui notes a critical challenge is to tackle problems of liability and compensation — an example of the “friction between committing to environmental protection and actual action.” For example, Bhopal gas tragedy survivors are still fighting for compensation; the disaster’s aftermath is sketched by an intergenerational impact on health and mass-scale contamination of soil and groundwater. Investigations have found misuse and diversion of funds earmarked for CAMPA. But despite the National Green Tribunal having slapped fines worth ₹28,180 crore on seven States, there is little clarity on the total fines collected and the way they were used, per a 2022 report in Down to Earth.

“Even before ecocide laws come up internationally, India needs to first bring its [environmental] laws in tune with the idea of ecocide,” she says.

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No respite for fragile ecosystems as late-summer heatwave pummels France

A protracted heatwave crawling across much of Europe has brought scorching temperatures to France this week, dealing a further blow to ecosystems already weakened by drought – while also putting human health at risk.

French authorities placed large swaths of southern France on the highest heat warning level – a “red alert” – on Wednesday as temperatures shot past 40°Celsius (104°F), shattering seasonal records.

Meteorologists have spoken of a “heat dome” weather pattern settling over the country, with a period of stable high pressure leading to torrid conditions and a lack of wind.

France as a whole experienced its hottest day ever recorded in the period after August 15 on Monday, according to the national weather service Météo France, which described the current heatwave as “intense, long-lasting” and occurring “particularly late in the season”.

Since 1947, only six heatwaves have been recorded in France after the August 15 mark, all of them this century.

“While heatwaves are not exceptional, what is surprising is that they should happen so late,” said climatologist Pascal Yiou, saying it was likely a consequence of climate change.

“You would normally get these types of temperatures between July 15 and August 15 – not after that,” he added.

Threat to forests, vines and crops

The latest heatwave is a new blow to fragile ecosystems across Europe, coming on the heels of a summer marked by widespread drought and devastating wildfires in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

While France has experienced relatively few forest fires this summer compared to last year, experts have flagged a heightened risk in the coming days, particularly in the country’s south.

“These high temperatures come at the end of a cycle, when trees are already weakened by the stress of the summer season,” said Serge Zaka, an expert in the ecological impact of climate change.

“This is normally the time when trees start getting a little respite,” Zaka added. “Instead, they are drying up further, meaning they become even more flammable.”

Météo France’s daily forest bulletin placed much of southeast France at high risk of fire on Wednesday. Local authorities have also closed most forest parks to the public as a precautionary measure.

The unseasonal heat comes at a critical time for farmers in areas famed for their wines and fruit production.

“As with the forests, this time of year usually marks the end of a cycle for vines and other fruit trees such as apples, pears, peaches and kiwis,” Zaka explained. “It’s the time when the grape harvest and picking begin. But the plants suffer if temperatures continue to exceed 35°C.”

The heatwave has forced these wine growers in the Ardèche area of south-central France to harvest their grapes at night.
The heatwave has forced these wine growers in the Ardèche area of south-central France to harvest their grapes at night. © Clotaire Achi, Reuters

In places where temperatures are reaching 42°C, such as the wine-growing Rhône Valley, crops are already showing signs of weakness.

“Leaves exposed to the sun are turning brown and fruit is burning,” Zaka said. “It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but there will certainly be yield losses.”

The heat could also affect sunflowers and maize, he warned, while leading to a fall in the milk yield of dairy cows that are particularly sensitive to high temperatures.

“What’s most worrying is that this will be another blow to crops and ecosystems after a catastrophic 2022 and two difficult years before then,” Zaka said. “With each new extreme weather event, they emerge a little weaker.”

Water stress

The heatwave is also likely to exacerbate an ongoing drought that has left businesses and households grappling with water shortages.

According to the latest figures from the French Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM), 72% of water tables remained below normal seasonal levels last month. Nearly 90 municipalities in the south are currently without drinking water and have to be supplied by tankers.

On Monday, the government ordered 15 industrial sites to cut back the amount of water they use to operate. Part of a wider water-saving plan unveiled earlier this year, the measure is designed to reduce groundwater and river abstraction in France by 10% by 2030.

Meanwhile, local authorities in several French departments have announced tighter rules on water use, including restrictions on nautical sports and bans on watering gardens, parks and golf courses.

Electricity operator EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power stations, has also issued warnings about its plants on the Rhone River amid concern that the water they rely on to cool the reactors is getting too hot.

Nuclear reactors use vast quantities of cooling water before dumping it back into rivers at much higher temperatures, potentially damaging local ecosystems.

France’s nuclear plants are legally required to slow down their output when the water temperature crosses a certain threshold – a risk EDF has so far ruled out.

‘Cannot lower our guard’

The heatwave’s impact on human health – both physical and mental – is another concern as millions return to work and schools prepare to reopen following the summer break.

“When the outside temperature rises, our body needs to adapt to ensure its temperature remains at around 37°C,” said Bruno Megarbane, head of the intensive care unit at Lariboisière Hospital in Paris. “That involves using certain regulatory mechanisms, such as sweat.”

However, extreme heat can cause such mechanisms to fail among vulnerable people, including children, the elderly and those with cardiovascular problems, putting them at risk of heat strokes.

Across Europe, at least 62,000 people died “prematurely” as a result of record heat in 2022, including more than 5,000 in France, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Medicine.

“Fortunately, since 2003 we have understood the need for preventive measures to cope with extreme heat,” said Megarbane, referring to the severe heatwave 20 years ago that was blamed for tens of thousands of deaths across Europe.

Such measures include the creation of cooling areas in cities, adapting work hours to avoid the hottest hours, and cancelling certain outdoor events.

“This late spell of heat is a reminder that we cannot lower our guard now that the summer holidays are over, and that we must be ready to put such measures in place at any time,” Megarbane said.

He also warned of the possible repercussions on people’s mental health, noting that heatwaves lead to sleep deprivation, “with negative effects on memory and concentration”.

He said other ailments – including “growing anxiety, parasitic thoughts and mood disorders” – all threaten to become more acute as heatwaves grow in frequency and intensity.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Maui wildfire: Death toll hits 89 as authorities expect number to rise

As the death toll from a wildfire that razed a historic Maui town reached 89, authorities warned Saturday that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. It’s already the deadliest US wildfire for over a century.

Crews with cadaver dogs have completed just three per cent of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.


“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles and it is full of our loved ones. And we’ve got 89 so far. Today we identified two,” noting that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

He spoke as federal emergency workers picked through an ashen moonscape left by the fire that razed the centuries-old town of Lahaina. Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange X for an initial search and HR when they found human remains.

Pelletier said that identifying the dead is extremely challenging because “we pick up the remains and they fall apart… When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal.”

Dogs worked the rubble, and their occasional bark – used to alert their handlers to a possible corpse – echoed over the hot and colourless landscape.

“It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced,” Gov. Josh Green remarked Saturday as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. “We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”

At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, of which 86 per cent were residential. Across the island, he added, the damage was estimated at close to $6 billion. He said it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.”

At least two other fires have been burning in Maui, with no fatalities reported thus far: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry. A fourth broke out Friday evening in Kaanapali, a coastal community in West Maui north of Lahaina, but crews were able to extinguish it, authorities said.

Green said the Upcountry fire had affected 544 structures, of which 96% were residential.

Emergency managers in Maui were searching for places to house people displaced from their homes. As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook early Saturday, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.

Pelletier said the police are bringing in more dogs, but the search for remains is still in the early stages.

He encouraged those with missing family members to go to the family assistance centre.


“We need you to do the DNA test. We need to identify your loved ones,” Pelletier said. He noted that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

Those who escaped counted their blessings, thankful to be alive as they mourned those who didn’t make it.

Retired fire captain Geoff Bogar and his friend of 35 years, Franklin Trejos, initially stayed behind to help others in Lahaina and save Bogar’s house. But as the flames moved closer and closer Tuesday afternoon, they knew they had to get out. Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s wouldn’t start, he broke through a window to get out, then crawled on the ground until a police patrol found him and brought him to a hospital.

Trejos wasn’t as lucky. When Bogar returned the next day, he found the bones of his 68-year-old friend in the back seat of his car, lying on top of the remains of the Bogars’ beloved 3-year-old golden retriever Sam, whom he had tried to protect.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica, had lived for years with Bogar and his wife, Shannon Weber-Bogar, helping her with her seizures when her husband couldn’t. He filled their lives with love and laughter.


“God took a really good man,” Weber-Bogar said.

The newly released death toll surpassed the toll of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire broke out in drought-stricken northern Minnesota and raced through a number of rural communities, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds.

The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted the development of a territory-wide emergency alert system with sirens that are tested monthly.

Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate the warning sirens sounded before fire hit the town. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island.


US Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said the Lahaina fire moved quickly. “It was a low-to-the-ground fire. It was grass-fed by all evidence that we could observe today,” she said.

“It outpaced anything firefighters could have done in the early hours,” she said, adding that it moved horizontally, structure to structure and “incredibly fast.”

The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000, leaving a grid of grey rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes.

Maui water officials warned Lahaina and Kula residents not to drink running water, which may be contaminated even after boiling, and to only take short, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated rooms to avoid possible chemical vapor exposure.

The danger on Maui was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan updated in 2020 identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and several buildings at risk. The report also noted West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan stated.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may have been hampered by limited staff and equipment.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said there are a maximum of 65 county firefighters working at any given time, who are responsible for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.

“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”

Riley Curran said he fled his Front Street home after seeing the oncoming fire from the roof of a neighbouring building. He doubts county officials could have done more, given the speed of the onrushing flames.

“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from zero to 100.”

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Brazil’s Amazon Summit ends with a plan to protect the world’s rainforests, but no measurable goals

Brazil’s Amazon Summit closed on August 9 with a roadmap to protect tropical rainforests that was welcomed as an important step in countering climate change, but without the concrete commitments sought by some environmentalists to end deforestation.

Leaders and Ministers from eight Amazon nations signed a declaration on August 8 in Belem, Brazil, that laid out plans to drive economic development in their countries while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise “from reaching a point of no return.”

Several environmental groups described the declaration as a compilation of good intentions with little in the way of measurable goals and timeframes. However, it was lauded by others, and the Amazon’s umbrella organisation of Indigenous groups celebrated the inclusion of two of its main demands.

“It is significant that the leaders of the countries of the region have listened to the science and understood the call of society: the Amazon is in danger, and we do not have much time to act,” the international group WWF said in a statement. “However, WWF regrets that the eight Amazonian countries, as one front, have not reached a common point to end deforestation in the region.”

Joining the summit on August 9 were the Presidents of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, an emissary from Indonesia’s President, and France’s Ambassador to Brazil, representing the Amazonian territory of French Guiana. An emissary of Norway, the largest contributor to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for sustainable development, also attended.

The national representatives on August 9 signed a similar, but much slimmer, agreement to that of their counterparts the prior day; it likewise contained no concrete goals and mostly reinforced criticism of developed nations for failure to provide promised vast climate financing.

The eight nations attending on Tuesday — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela — are members of the newly revived Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, or ACTO, who hope that a united front will give them a major voice in global environment talks ahead of the COP 28 climate conference in November.

The summit reinforces Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s strategy to leverage global concern for the Amazon’s preservation. Emboldened by a 42% drop in deforestation during his first seven months in office, he has sought international financial support for forest protection.

Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s meeting, Mr. Lula railed against “protectionist measures poorly disguised as environmental concern” that restrict imports from developing nations, and said developed nations must make good on their pledges to provide monetary support for forest protection.

“Nature, which industrial development polluted for 200 years, needs them to pay their part so we can revive part of what was ruined. Nature is in need of money,” Mr. Lula said.

The Amazon stretches across an area twice the size of India. Two-thirds of it lies in Brazil, with seven other countries and the territory of French Guiana sharing the remaining third. Governments have historically viewed it as an area to be colonized and exploited, with little regard for sustainability or the rights of its Indigenous peoples.

All the Amazon countries have ratified the Paris climate accord, which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But cross-border cooperation has historically been scant, undermined by low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence.

The members of ACTO — convening for only the fourth time in the organization’s 45-year existence — demonstrated on August 8 they aren’t fully aligned on key issues.

Forest protection commitments have been uneven. And their joint declaration didn’t include a shared commitment to zero deforestation by 2030, as some had hoped. Brazil and Colombia have already made that commitment.

Some scientists say that when 20% to 25% of the forest is destroyed, rainfall will dramatically decline, transforming more than half of the rainforest to tropical savannah, with immense biodiversity loss.

The Climate Observatory, a network of dozens of environmental and social groups, as well as Greenpeace and The Nature Conservancy lamented the lack of detailed pledges in the declaration.

“The 113 operating paragraphs of the declaration have the merit of reviving the forgotten ACTO and recognize that the biome is reaching a point of no return, but doesn’t offer practical solutions or a calendar of actions to avoid it,” the Climate Observatory said in a statement.

Colombian Indigenous leader Fany Kuiru, from the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, praised the declaration for fulfilling two of their primary requests — an acknowledgment of their rights to traditional territories and the establishment of a mechanism for the formal participation of Indigenous peoples within ACTO.

Bruna Santos, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said the summit demonstrated “an effort to treat the Amazon as a regional agenda,” but that it also highlighted ambiguities in the priorities of Brazil’s government, including with respect to oil exploration.

Colombia’s President spoke forcefully about the hypocrisy of pushing for Amazon preservation while pursuing oil, equating it to betting “on death and destroying life.”

Mr. Lula has refrained from taking a definitive stance on oil, citing the decision as a technical matter. Meanwhile, Brazil’s state-run Petrobras company has been seeking to explore for oil near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Despite disagreements, there were signs of increased regional cooperation and growing global recognition of the Amazon’s importance in arresting climate change. A collective voice — along with funnelling more money into ACTO — could help it serve as the region’s representative on the global stage ahead of the COP climate conference, leaders said.

Anders Haug Larsen, the head of international advocacy at Rainforest Foundation Norway, said that the Amazonian nations are correct to demand more money from developed nations, and that their political will to protect the rainforest represents a historic opportunity.

“With the plan from this summit and continuous reduced deforestation, this is where the international community should put its climate money,” he said.

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Leaders from South American Nations Challenge Developed Countries to Stop Amazon Destruction at Belem Summit

View of the forest cut by the Combu Creek, on Combu Island on the banks of the Guama River, near the city of Belem, Para state, Brazil. Belem is playing host to the Amazon Summit – IV Meeting of the Presidents of the States party to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, with the participation of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Guyana, French Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
| Photo Credit: AP

Leaders from South American nations that are home to the Amazon challenged developed countries on August 8 to do more to stop the massive destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, a task they said can’t fall to just a few when the crisis has been caused by so many.

Assembling in the Brazilian city of Belem, the members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, or ACTO, also sought to chart a common course on how to combat climate change, hoping a united front would give them a major voice in global talks.

The calls from the Presidents of nations including Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia came as leaders aim to fuel much-needed economic development in their regions while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise “from reaching a point of no return,” according to a joint declaration issued at the end of the day. Some scientists say that when 20% to 25% of the forest is destroyed, rainfall will dramatically decline, transforming more than half of the rainforest to tropical savannah, with immense biodiversity loss.

“The forest unites us. It is time to look at the heart of our continent and consolidate, once and for all, our Amazon identity,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “In an international system that was not built by us, we were historically relegated to a subordinate place as a supplier of raw materials. A just ecological transition will allow us to change this.”

The two-day summit ending on August 9 reinforces Mr. Lula’s strategy to leverage global concern for Amazon’s preservation. Emboldened by a 42% drop in deforestation during his first seven months in office, he has sought international financial support for forest protection.

The Amazon stretches across an area twice the size of India. Two-thirds of it lie in Brazil, with seven other countries and one territory share the remaining third. Governments have historically viewed it as an area to be colonized and exploited, with little regard for sustainability or the rights of its Indigenous peoples.

All the countries at the summit have ratified the Paris Climate Accord, which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But cross-border cooperation has historically been scant, undermined by low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence.

Aside from a general consensus on the need for shared global responsibility, members of ACTO— convening for only the fourth time in the organization’s existence— demonstrated on August 8 that they aren’t fully aligned on key issues. This week marks the first meeting of the 45-year-old organization in 14 years.

Forest protection commitments have been uneven previously and appeared to remain so at the summit. The “Belem Declaration,” the gathering’s official proclamation issued on August 8, didn’t include shared commitments to zero deforestation by 2030. Brazil and Colombia have already made those commitments. Mr. Lula has said he hopes the document will be a shared call to arms at the COP 28 climate conference in November.

A key topic dividing the nations on August 8 was oil. Notably, leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for an end to oil exploration in the Amazon— an allusion to the ambivalent approach of Brazil and other oil-producing nations in the region— and said that governments must forge a path toward “decarbonized prosperity.”

“A jungle that extracts oil — is it possible to maintain a political line at that level? Bet on death and destroying life?” Mr. Petro said. He also spoke about finding ways to reforest pastures and plantations, which cover much of Brazil’s heartland for cattle ranching and growing soy.

Mr. Lula, who has presented himself as an environmental leader on the international stage, has refrained from taking a definitive stance on oil, citing the decision as a technical matter. Meanwhile, Brazil’s state-run Petrobras company has been seeking to explore for oil near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Despite disagreements among nations, there have been encouraging signs of increased regional cooperation amid growing global recognition of the Amazon’s importance in arresting climate change. Sharing a united voice— along with funnelling more money into ACTO— could help it serve as the region’s representative on the global stage ahead of the COP climate conference, leaders said.

“The Amazon is our passport to a new relationship with the world, a more symmetric relationship, in which our resources are not exploited to benefit few, but rather valued and put in the service of everyone,” Mr. Lula said.

Bolivian President Luis Arce said the Amazon has been the victim of capitalism, reflected by the runaway expansion of agricultural borders and natural resource exploitation. And he noted that industrialized nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions.

“The fact that the Amazon is such an important territory doesn’t imply that all of the responsibilities, consequences and effects of the climate crisis should fall to us, to our towns and to our economies,” Mr. Arce said.

Mr. Petro argued that affluent nations should swap foreign debt owed by Amazon countries for climate action, saying that would create enough investment to power the Amazon region’s economy.

Signed by officials from eight nations, the Belem Declaration also:

1. Condemns the proliferation of protectionist trade barriers, which signatories said negatively affects poor farmers in developing nations and hampers the promotion of Amazon products and sustainable development.

2. Calls on industrialized nations to comply with their obligations to provide massive financial support to developing nations.

3. Calls for the strengthening of law enforcement cooperation. Commits authorities to exchanging best practices and intelligence about specific illicit activities, including deforestation, human rights violations, trafficking of fauna and flora and the sale and smuggling of mercury, a highly toxic metal widely used for illegal gold mining that pollutes waterways.

Colombia’s Petro also called for the formation of a military alliance akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying such a group could be tasked not only with protecting the Amazon but tackling another major problem for the region: organized crime.

Few border areas are policed seriously and there has been scant international cooperation as rival organized crime groups compete for drug-trafficking routes. Drug seizures have increased in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru over the past decade, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in June. Mr. Lula previously announced a plan to create an international police center in Manaus.

Also attending the summit on August 8 were Guyana’s Prime Minister, Venezuela’s Vice President and the Foreign Ministers of Suriname and Ecuador.

On August 9, the summit will welcome representatives of Norway and Germany, the largest contributors to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for sustainable development, along with counterparts from other crucial rainforest regions: Indonesia, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. France’s ambassador to Brazil will also attend, representing the Amazonian territory of French Guiana.

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Spiralling costs and melting snow: What’s the Winter Olympics’ future?

An increasingly hotter planet and rising costs are threatening the future of the Winter Games, as host cities struggle with a lack of investment – and of snow.

On 31 July, the deadline for companies to submit their bid to build Italy’s costly new bobsled track for the 2026 Winter Olympics came and went.

And not a single construction company came forward.

The announcement was made by a puzzled SIMICO, the Italian company put in charge of the handling of all Olympics structure, who said that it will now be forced to look on the market for companies able to take on the job.

“It’s not particularly surprising that nobody wants to build a new bobsled track,” said Madeleine Orr, a sport ecologist based in the Institute of Sport Business at Loughborough University London, citing how controversial the project has been since the cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo were awarded the honour – and the burden – of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics.

“I know that the organisers of the Olympics have been concerned about how climate change is going to impact this event,” she added.

In the last two years, the efforts that the cities have undertaken to prepare hosting the Games have also been criticised by the Italian press as too costly and environmentally unsustainable, with many pointing out that the structures built ad hoc for the event will have no use after the end of it.

The new bobsled track – which will have to be built from scratch after the demolition of the old one – is estimated to cost between €93 million and €120 million, according to Veneto’s president Luca Zaia. It will have to be built fast, as the completed track, which can also be used for the skeleton and luge competitions, must be ready by December 2024 for the first test event ahead of the Olympics.

The changing face of the Winter Olympics

Both the Winter Olympics and the Summer Olympics are facing a few of the same issues when it comes to climate change, Orr told Euronews, “where weird weather patterns, which are becoming the new normal, are increasing.”

“In the past you could expect the winter to be cold and the summer to be hot,” Orr added. “Now we’re seeing warm winters and even hotter summers, and it’s getting to the point where in many cases it’s becoming unsafe to compete in those conditions.”

In the case of winter sports, the impact of climate change is even more dramatic. “It’s getting really hard to maintain the track or bobsled,” Orr said. “Most tracks, all except one in St Moritz, are manmade and use artificial ice and snow, so they are supported by energy systems that can do a good job of keeping them relatively cold. But even with all the technology, if you get a really hot day, it’s going to be very challenging.”

Most of the recent Winter Olympic host sites have had artificial snow – a very common supplement normally used in most ski resorts around the world, Walker Ross, a lecturer in Sport Management & Digital Marketing at the University of Edinburgh, told Euronews.

“Every ski resort you go to has additional artificial snow as they’re trying to remain open for as long as it’s profitable, it’s a very common practice,” he said. “But in Beijing [host of the last Winter Olympics], every single snowflake was artificial. And I hope that’s not going to be the trend going forward.”

But that could in fact be a possible solution, especially as the number of cities that can feasibly host the Winter Olympics is expected to drop dramatically in the near future.

Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, led a 2022 study that found that, if we don’t cut emissions significantly, by the end of the century only one of 21 former Winter Olympics host cities may have the ideal temperatures to hold the Games.

“If you take the projections for the global average rise in temperature that we’re seeing from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you see that as many as half of those cities which hosted the Winter Olympic in the past will no longer be able to host the event in the future,” Walker Ross said.

These communities won’t have the temperatures to host these kinds of sports, Ross said – though that might not stop them from hosting, as long as they rely on artificial snow.

The lost legacy of the Games

Countries have always hosted the Olympics – Winter or Summer – for the clear benefits that this traditionally brings, including a boost in tourism, widespread sports enthusiasm, and the opportunity to build key infrastructure that will be used for decades to come.

That might no longer be happening in the future, as critics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezza fear.

“Whatever we are building right now or have built might not be usable in the future,” Ross said. “If you go out of your way to build a giant winter sports complex, it might not be climatically viable in the future. If our planet warms up by 1.5C or 3C in the future, that infrastructure, that legacy, that goodwill will be lost in the long term, because we might not be able to enjoy that sport.”

In places like Rio de Janeiro, Ross said, sports venues were built in low-lying regions that are expected to flood from time to time, with these events expected to become more frequent in the future.

“Whatever we thought we were doing by building the Olympics right now, thinking that in 50 years we’ll still be able to remember these great times that we had in our city because we’ll still be able to do X, Y, and Z – that might not be possible if the scenario doesn’t change.”

‘Throwing money at the problem’

Increasing costs and the devastating impact of the climate crisis are problems that have now proven able to make or break sports mega-events.

The Australian state of Victoria recently pulled out of hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2026, saying that the cost was simply too high – leaving the future of the competition in limbo. Adding to the games’ woes, the Canadian province of Alberta cancelled its bid to host the 2030 Commonwealth Games, mentioning its rising costs.

The estimated cost of hosting the games, at C$2.7bn (over €1.8bn), was a burden “too high for the province to bear,” said Tourism and Sports Minister Joseph Schow. The decision leaves the Commonwealth Games with no clear host for 2030.

Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world with a haunting track record of human rights violations, has secured some of the biggest sports events on the planet in the coming years, as it’s simply one of the few willing hosts who can rely on significantly large pockets.

In 2029, the country will host the Asian Winter Games – despite the fact that snow is rare in Saudi Arabia.

“The number of communities that have the capacity to host these events and have the climate to host these events is shrinking quite rapidly,” Ross said. “As these communities lack the climate to host this event, you might start turning to anybody who’s going to be willing to give you the money to pull this thing off,” he added.

Orr thinks that, in the case of the Winter Games, “there’s going to have to be a little step back from the really big event, the big spectacle, because many of the places that have a climate that can accommodate this don’t necessarily have enough tourism infrastructure to host something at that calibre.”

“If we can shift our minds a little bit around what the Olympics looks like for the Winter Games, and make it a slightly smaller event, then all of a sudden it becomes an option to host it in much smaller tourist towns,” Orr said.

But shrinking or cutting these events might not be what the IOC wants, Ross added, both for profits and for the sake of expanding access to sports, the IOC’s mission. “I worry about the kind of future the Olympics will have if it just turns into a question of who has the money to throw at this problem, instead of asking ourselves how to radically rethink what these events look like and where they get hosted.”

What future for the Winter Olympics?

No host city has yet been named for the 2030 Winter Olympics, though the IOC said that Salt Lake City, Barcelona, and Sapporo are all in the running.

But there might not be so many options in the future. The agency said it’s considering rotating the Winter Olympics among an approved pool of climate-reliable hosts, as cities might need to meet new temperature criteria as the impact of the climate crisis continues exacerbating.

The IOC is currently weighing a proposal that would require host cities to have had an average minimum temperature of below 0C for snow competition venues over a 10-year period by the time of holding the Games.

Another solution being investigated by the agency is the option of awarding both the 2030 and the 2034 Games to the same city, but no concrete decisions have yet been taken.

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This summer is what climate change looks like, scientists say

The blistering heat threatening lives and fueling wildfires across Southern Europe and North America this July would have been “virtually impossible” without man-made global warming, scientists said on Tuesday.

Their findings come as the planet’s ocean and land temperatures hit new records in recent weeks, with waters around Florida and the Mediterranean coast surpassing 30 degrees Celsius and parts of the Northern Hemisphere baking in heat of 45C or more.

Scientists have long warned climate change would make heat waves hotter, longer and more frequent. Tuesday’s study found that this month’s extreme temperatures are no longer an outlier now that humans have warmed the Earth by about 1.2C above pre-industrial levels.

In fact, “it could well be that this is what will be a cool summer in the future unless we rapidly stop burning fossil fuels,” said study co-author Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London. “This is not the new normal. As long as we keep burning fossil fuels, we will see more and more of these extremes.”

The study was published by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) consortium of scientists, which uses peer-reviewed methods to conduct rapid analyses of the role climate change plays in extreme weather events.

The researchers found heat waves like those seen in mid-July can now be expected roughly once a decade in Southern Europe and every 15 years in North America. But if the global average temperature rises to 2C above pre-industrial levels, the upper limit of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, “events like this will become even more frequent, occurring every 2-5 years,” the researchers said.

Current climate policies put the planet on track to warm at least 2.4C by the end of this century.

China, which registered a new temperature record of 52.2C in mid-July, can already expect such heat waves to occur every five years, the WWA study found. Climate change made the Chinese heat wave 50 times more likely to occur, according to their models.

But global warming hasn’t just made such heat waves more likely. It’s also made them more intense.

The study found the European, North American and Chinese heat waves were 2.5C, 2C and 1C hotter, respectively, than they would have been without climate change.

On the ground, these abstract-seeming numbers translate into record-smashing temperatures. In the U.S., the city of Phoenix saw three weeks above 43C; across the Atlantic, Catalonia and Rome hit new heat records last week. Sardinia reached 46C.

Such extreme heat is dangerous to human health. More than 60,000 Europeans died in last summer’s heat waves, a recent study found. Italian hospitals reported an uptick in hospitalizations last week; doctors in the southwestern U.S. are warning of an increase in severe, and sometimes deadly, burns from extreme surface temperatures.

In countries like Canada and Greece, the heat contributed to tinderbox conditions allowing wildfires to spread with ease. The smoke from Canada’s fires continues to choke North American cities, while dramatic evacuation efforts are underway on several Greek islands.

“The Mediterranean has seen a dramatic increase in the frequency of the hot-dry conditions that were considered extreme at the end of the last century, and these increases are expected to accelerate for each added degree of warming in future,” said Matthew Jones, a fellow at East Anglia University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

NASA scientists expect this July to become the world’s hottest month on record.

Other parts of the Northern Hemisphere have seen flash flooding, record-breaking hail, intense storms or a combination of all three this month. Last week, a hail storm sent a flood of ice through the northern Italian town of Seregno.

While scientists say that climate change will fuel extreme precipitation or flash flooding in some parts of the globe, not all such events are attributable to global warming. A WWA study earlier this year, for example, found that climate change had no significant impact on deadly spring floods in Italy.

Attributing heat waves to climate change is a more straightforward matter, and numerous studies have found a clear link.

“It’s a very boring study, from a scientific point of view,” said Otto. “We see exactly what we expected to see.”

She also said that the arrival of El Niño — the warming cycle of a naturally occurring phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean — contributed very little to the high temperatures seen across the Northern Hemisphere.

“Increased global temperatures from burning fossil fuels is the main reason the heat waves are so severe,” the study authors noted.

Scientists have also said that El Niño, whose full warming effect won’t be felt until later this year, also isn’t to blame for current sea temperature anomalies in the North Atlantic.

Coastal waters in Florida have reached about 35C — an existential threat to coral reefs — while last month, the sea around the British Isles registered temperatures 5C above normal.

The EU’s Copernicus climate change service, which described the North Atlantic heating as “off the charts,” says a mix of global warming and “unusual” atmospheric circulation is driving the anomaly. Scientists also point to a reduction in shipping pollution and an absence of Saharan dust over the Atlantic as contributing factors.

While the North Atlantic’s temperature spike looks especially dramatic, global sea surface temperatures have hit record highs in recent months.

The arrival of El Niño will fuel warming both in the oceans and on land, boosting the likelihood of extreme weather events, according to the World Meteorological Organization, whose scientists have warned that the planet is entering “uncharted territory.”

As the Northern Hemisphere’s extreme summer goes on, all’s not well on the other side of the planet, either.

Antarctica’s sea ice is in sharp decline, setting new records at such a pace that scientists are increasingly fearing for its capacity to recover in the winter.

Oceanographer Edward Doddridge told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this weekend the unprecedentedly low sea ice extent “is a five-sigma event. So it’s five standard deviations beyond the mean. Which means that if nothing had changed, we’d expect to see a winter like this about once every 7.5 million years.”

Doddridge added the root cause of the decline is likely climate change, although he cautioned that other factors can’t yet be ruled out.

But there’s no doubt that ice loss at the poles further accelerates climate change. The bright ice caps reflect the sun’s warming rays back into space, while the dark polar waters absorb them. Less ice means the planet absorbs more heat.

Earlier this year, a study found the rapidly melting Antarctic ice is slowing deep ocean currents, with potentially devastating consequences for ecosystems and the broader climate.

The authors of Tuesday’s heat study stressed that governments now have to take urgent action on two fronts — reducing emissions to avoid disastrous climate change and enacting measures to adapt to rising temperatures.

“Even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, temperatures will not go down. They will just stop getting even higher,” said Otto. “And so the heat waves we are seeing now, we definitely have to live with that.”

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Phoenix hits 43C for 19th straight day, breaking US city records in global heat wave

A dangerous 19th straight day of scorching heat in Phoenix set a record for U.S. cities Tuesday, confined many residents to air-conditioned safety and turned the usually vibrant metropolis into a ghost town.

The city’s record streak of 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) or more stood out even amid sweltering temperatures across the globe. It reached 117 degrees (47.2 Celsius) by 3 p.m.

Human-caused climate change and a newly formed El Nino are combining to shatter heat records worldwide, scientists say.

No other major city – defined as the 25 most populous in the United States – has had any stretch of 110-degree days or 90-degree nights longer than Phoenix, said weather historian Christopher Burt of the Weather Company.

“When you have several million people subjected to that sort of thermal abuse, there are impacts,” said NOAA Climate Analysis Group Director Russell Vose, who chairs a committee on national records.

For Phoenix, it’s not only the brutal daytime highs that are deadly. The lack of a nighttime cooldown can rob people without access to air conditioning of the break their bodies need to function properly.

With Tuesday’s low of 94, the city has had nine straight days of temperatures that didn’t go below 90 at night, breaking another record there, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Salerno, who called it “pretty miserable when you don’t have any recovery overnight.”

On Monday, the city also set a record for the hottest overnight low temperature: 95 (35 Celsius). During the day, the heat built up so early that the city hit the 110 mark a couple minutes before noon.

Dog parks emptied out by the mid morning and evening concerts and other outdoor events were cancelled to protect performers and attendees.

The city’s Desert Botanical Garden, a vast outdoor collection of cactus and other desert plants, over the weekend began shutting down at 2 p.m. before the hottest part of the day.

In the hours before the new record was set, rivers of sweat streamed down the sunburned face of Lori Miccichi, 38, as she pushed a shopping cart filled with her belongings through downtown Phoenix, looking for a place to get out of the heat.

“I’ve been out here a long time and homeless for about three years,” said Miccichi. “When it’s like this, you just have to get into the shade. This last week has been the hottest I ever remember.”

Some 200 cooling and hydration centers have been set up across the metro area, but most shut down between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. due to staffing and funding issues.

The entire globe has simmered to record heat both in June and July. Nearly every day of this month, the global average temperature has been warmer than the unofficial hottest day recorded before 2023, according to University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer. U.S. weather stations have broken more than 860 heat records in the past seven days, according to NOAA.

Rome reached an all-time high of 109 (42.9 degrees Celsius), with record heat reported throughout Italy, France, Spain and parts of China. Catalonia smashed records reaching 113 (45 Celsius), according to global weather record keeper Maximiliano Herrera.

And if that’s not enough, smoke from wildfires, floods and droughts have caused problems globally.

In addition to Phoenix, Vose and others found less populous places such as Death Valley and Needles, California; and Casa Grande, Arizona, with longer hot streaks, but none in locations where many people live. Death Valley has had an 84-day streak of 110-degree temperatures.

The last time Phoenix didn’t reach 110 F (43.3 C) was June 29, when it hit 108 (42.2 C). The record of 18 days above 110 that was tied Monday was first set in 1974.

“This will likely be one of the most notable periods in our health record in terms of deaths and illness,” said David Hondula, chief heat officer for the city. “Our goal is for that not to be the case.”

Phoenix City Parks and Recreation workers Joseph Garcia, 48, and Roy Galindo, 28, tried to stay cool as they trimmed shrubs. They work from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to avoid the hottest time of the day.

“It gets super hot out here and sometimes we have to take care of the public,” said Galindo, adding he sometimes find people passed out on the grass. “A lot of these people aren’t drinking water.”

Retired Phoenix firefighter Mark Bracy, who has lived in the city most of his 68 years, went on a two-hour morning climb Tuesday, up and down Piestewa Peak, which is 2,610 feet high.

“I’ve been going up there regularly since I was in the Cub Scouts, but it was never this hot back then,” said Bracy. “We’ve had hot spells before, but never anything like this.”

Dr. Erik Mattison, director of the emergency department at Dignity Health Chandler Regional Medical Center in metro Phoenix, recalled a hiker in his 60s who was brought in last week with a core body temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Heat makes people sick. Heat makes people die,” Mattison said.

“And it’s not just older people,” he added. “We’ve seen professional athletes fall ill in the heat during training camp.”

Phoenix’s heat wave has both long and short-term causes, said Arizona State University’s Randy Cerveny, who coordinates weather record verification for the World Meteorological Organization.

Long-term high temperatures over recent decades are due to human activity, he said, while the short-term cause is high pressure over the western United States.

That high pressure, also known as a heat dome, has been around the Southwest cooking it for weeks. When it moved, it moved to be even more centered on Phoenix, said National Weather Service meteorologist Isaac Smith.

The Southwest high pressure not only brings the heat, it prevents cooling rain and clouds from bringing relief, Smith said. Normally, the Southwest’s monsoon season kicks in around June 15 with rain and clouds. But Phoenix has not had measurable rain since mid-March.

“This heat wave is intense and unrelenting,” said Katharine Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona. “Unfortunately, it is a harbinger of things to come.”


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Parisians are most at risk of dying in European heatwaves

Faced with the urgent task of safeguarding its residents against the deadly consequences of scorching heat, Paris finds itself at the forefront of the battle against soaring temperatures. Its population is the most at risk of dying from heatwaves than any other capital in Europe.

Among European capitals, Paris has long been regarded as the epitome of elegance, culture and romance. But beneath its picturesque façade lies a simmering danger that threatens its bustling population.

Paris is the most vulnerable capital in Europe when it comes to heatwaves. Its population faces the highest risk of heatwave-related deaths, according to an article recently published in The Lancet journal.

Researchers from various countries in Europe studied mortality risks due to heat and cold across 854 cities from 2000 to 2019. The findings were unequivocal. Paris topped the list in heat-related risk across all age groups, with a likelihood of excess deaths due to rising temperatures 1.6 times higher than other European cities. Amsterdam and Zagreb followed closely behind.

With the advent of rising temperatures due to climate change, Paris is bound to continue feeling the heat. By 2050, the city could reach temperatures of up to 50°C.

Urban heat island effect

Pinpointing the exact reason behind the vulnerability of Paris’s population when it comes to heatwaves is a complex task. “It’s difficult to isolate specific factors,” says Dr. Pierre Masselot, author of the study and researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “The sheer size and density of the city definitely contribute to the heightened risk,” he says, explaining that with a population of over 2 million, the effects of heatwaves are amplified.

The socioeconomic standing of the city’s population is also an important variable to consider. “Being a big city, Paris has more disadvantaged inhabitants too,” says Masselot. Low-income neighbourhoods with limited access to green spaces, shade and air-conditioning bear the brunt of extreme heat, exacerbating the threat to vulnerable communities. “Add to this the fact that these communities often have higher rates of pre-existing health issues, and it becomes clear why” there is a greater risk to them, he says.

What is known as the “urban heat island effect” compounds the city’s deadly predicament. These hot spots occur when cities become significantly hotter than surrounding rural areas, primarily due to the proliferation of buildings and materials that absorb and retain heat. Paris’s famous grey rooftops are one example of this. While revered by famous painters like Vincent Van Gogh, the grey rooftops are made of zinc – a metal that absorbs heat. “The same goes for tarmac, which stores [and] then releases heat, making it more difficult for the city to cool down at night,” says Masselot. “And the presence of buildings blocks wind.”

Though the heat island effect can turn Paris into a veritable cauldron, temperature disparities exist from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. “Going from a dense industrial area to a park, for example, you can feel a significant drop,” Masselot explains.

Pollution also plays a significant role in Paris’s vulnerability to heatwaves. Largely generated by vehicle emissions, air pollution creates a “sort of greenhouse effect” that traps heat and intensifies extreme temperatures. “Exhaust fumes are darker and therefore reduce the city’s albedo (the proportion of incoming solar radiation reflected by the various surfaces in the urban environment), storing more heat,” the researcher explains.

And then there is the fact that heatwaves have been historically less common in Paris than other European capitals like Madrid, for example. “Cities used to heatwaves have adapted to them,” says Masselot. “So in Madrid, the mortality risk is slightly lower than in Paris for the same temperature.”

Lessons from a deadly summer

The summer of 2003 etched a harrowing chapter in European history. A heatwave of unprecedented magnitude swept across the continent, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. More than 70,000 people died as a result, with over 15,000 of those deaths recorded in France alone. Temperatures in Paris climbed above 40°C for weeks on end.

The healthcare system was overwhelmed, with hospitals struggling to cope with the influx of patients suffering from heatstroke and dehydration. Public authorities were completely unprepared and were later criticised for their reluctance to attribute heat as the primary cause of death. France’s director-general for health at the time, Lucien Abenhaim, handed in his resignation due to the “controversies surrounding the handling” of the deaths “connected with the heatwave”. A state of emergency was declared, allowing patients to be sent to military hospitals and for crisis morgues to be established to handle the influx of bodies.

Those most affected were the elderly. Half of those who died were over the age of 85 years old, and 92% of the victims lived in isolation, many without family, friends or social ties to claim their bodies. “It opened a lot of people’s eyes,” says Masselot. “It was a turning point for the whole continent.” Some climatologists even called the heatwave the “ground zero of global warming”.

The magnitude of the tragedy prompted a collective awakening, marking a pivotal moment for the French government to take proactive measures to protect its citizens. Paris took significant strides to combat the escalating threat of heatwaves and implemented measures to avoid another disaster.

Since then, authorities have created a heatwave plan. Information on best practices is dispersed across the city, with posters detailing what to do in case of extreme heat. A telephone hotline has been set up by the city so that vulnerable people in isolation are called regularly by authorities, who check in to ensure their state of health is adequate. “Cool islands”  oases of relief from sweltering temperatures  located in museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces have been created.

Climate Action Plan was created in 2018, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo at its head. Reducing vehicle traffic during heatwaves was noted as a key strategy. The mayor promised that by 2030, police would prevent the vehicles that pollute the most from being driven in the city during peak heat periods.

The plan outlined ways of improving building insulation and ventilation, changing construction guidelines that are adapted to the consequences of climate change like surging summer heat. It also set out to revolutionise Parisian roofs, stating that by 2050 all roofs must “produce at least one” of the following resources: renewable energy with solar panels, food through urban agriculture or water through rainwater collection and storage.  

For Masselot, both long-term and short-term solutions are necessary. “In the short term, it would be important for public health authorities to identify people at risk [of dying from a heatwave] so they can be notified in advance that high temperatures are looming and find ways of cooling down,” he says. “In the long term, cities will need more green spaces, less asphalt, but also to change their buildings so they store less heat, decrease pollution and ensure that they tend to populations with higher health risks,” Masselot explains.

To its credit, the city has acknowledged the vulnerability of its populace and is diligently working on implementing necessary measures. “Paris is far from being the black sheep when it comes to adapting for heatwaves,” says Masselot.

However, the urgency to act cannot be overstated. “Things are going to get worse and there will be longer heatwaves as time goes on,” he says. “Cities need to prepare for that as soon as possible.”

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Why is reporting on the climate impact of meat off the menu?

By Nico Muzi, Managing director and co-founder, Madre Brava

Contrary to the popular saying, more bad news about meat production will be good news for people and the planet, Nico Muzi writes.

No news is good news for the meat industry, but it’s terrible news for people and the planet.

Despite the oversized role of livestock production in driving climate change, mainstream media ignores the issue.

A new analysis by Faunalytics for Sentient Media revealed that 93% of climate-related news never mentions meat.

Researchers analysed 1,000 articles in 10 national US media outlets since September 2022 and found that within the very limited coverage that mentions animal agriculture, “much of the reporting covers climate impacts on livestock rather than how meat production is a source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Earlier research by our sustainable food advocacy group also shows that the topic of climate emissions from animal agriculture gets comparatively less media coverage than other climate problems.

Almost 450 out of 91,180 climate articles in top-tier English-language media outlets in the EU, UK and US between 2020 and mid-2022 mention meat or livestock as a source of emissions — 0.5% of overall climate reporting.

This is problematic: media narratives help to set the political agenda and are precursors to political action.

In other words, media coverage of the role of livestock in driving climate change is more likely to create political urgency, policy prioritisation and resource allocation.

Why are climate and environment reporters ignoring meat’s part in climate change?

For some, it’s a question of priorities

At least three main factors contribute to the underreporting of meat’s oversized climate impact by English-language media.

First, a lack of campaigning. Very few civil society groups are campaigning on the link between meat and climate change — compared to the sheer amount of public advocacy around fossil fuels extraction and emissions from cars, trucks, planes and ships.

In part, this corresponds with the minimal climate philanthropy funding going to the food and agriculture sector — 8% of the total known foundation funding dedicated to climate mitigation in 2020.

But it also has to do with a matter of prioritisation. So far, and rightly so, the environmental movement has focused on reducing emissions from the energy systems and transport: two sectors with massive emissions (34% and 15% of total emissions in 2019, respectively) and with technological solutions — solar, wind and electrification of transport — available at scale to decarbonise these industries.

Food is the next frontier in the climate fight: it’s responsible for 37% of global emissions, of which animal agriculture takes the lion’s share.

The sector’s size can be a stumbling stone

When presenting the latest IPCC report, Chairperson Hoesung Lee reminded the world that humanity needs to reduce livestock farming to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

We should now expect the attention of civil society (and climate philanthropists) to turn to the transformation of how and what food we produce to feed a growing population without frying the planet.

This is crucial for creating media attention: as Madre Brava’s media analysis shows, investigations by NGOs and studies by think tanks and universities are the leading generators of climate stories around meat and livestock.

The second factor is corporate capture: the continuous attempts by the meat industry to meddle with science and policymaking.

The global meat industry is a huge sector worth $1.3 trillion (€1.16tn) — three times the economic value of the smartphone industry.

People like meat — and telling them not to eat it can turn them hostile

Borrowing heavily from the playbook of the oil industry, media reporting and exposés have shown that big meat processors and dairy corporations use their abundant financial resources to manipulate the facts and sow doubts about climate science on animal products.

For instance, research led by academics at New York University and published in the journal Climate Change show that the 10 largest animal agriculture companies in the US “have contributed to research that minimizes the link between animal agriculture and climate change.”

In terms of lobbying efforts, the same researchers uncovered that “taken as a share of each company’s total revenue over those time periods, Tyson has spent more than double what Exxon has on political campaigns and 21% more on lobbying.”

Recently, the Dublin Declaration of Scientists on the Role of Livestock, a pro-livestock manifesto by scholars with close ties to the meat industry, also appear to further efforts to create a supportive scientific community around livestock and to downplay the impact of meat on climate change.

Also, many people love meat for its taste and for deeply held cultural reasons, which makes the topic contentious for reporting.

As Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel said when asked about the reasons why animal agriculture gets comparatively less coverage in climate stories than other sources of emissions: “The predominant one is that people like meat and … basically you end up telling people to eat less beef.”

“And that’s a message that people tend to be hostile to. When we’re talking about fossil fuels, we are giving people an alternative. But when we’re talking about meat, the alternative we give them is very unpalatable to a lot of people.”

Wrong framing can result in polarisation

How can we overcome the underreporting of meat’s role in climate change?

For one, to remove some of the key barriers to more climate coverage on meat production, the media needs a drumbeat of new content, which can be generated with more NGO campaigning and journalistic investigations.

In this regard, it would be impactful if climate and environmental NGOs join forces with animal welfare groups and health experts to amplify messages around the climate, health and animal harms of industrial meat — supported by increased climate philanthropic funding.

Likewise, audacious investigative journalists should dig deeper and unearth new episodes of corporate capture of science and policymaking in this realm.

Second, reworking how to frame narratives and where to place the burden of responsibility is critical in superseding the “contentiousness” of the topic for reporters.

Campaigns — if not framed right — can also create polarisation and fuel culture wars.

The onus of changing how and what food is produced should be on food retailers and governments, not consumers.

Instead of finger-pointing at people for not reducing their meat consumption, the call to action should be to improve the choice context so healthy and sustainable food is the easiest and most affordable option for consumers.

Bad news for some might be good news for people and the planet

Finally, like-for-like alternatives matter when trying to change deeply held cultural habits.

Industry disruptors should deliver more palatable alternative proteins that are as tasty and as cheap as conventional industrial meat to meet consumers where they are in terms of taste and nutritional preferences.

More reporting on the oversized role of livestock in driving climate change will help create political urgency, policy prioritisation and resource allocation.

Contrary to the popular saying, more bad news — about meat production — will be good news for people and the planet.

Nico Muzi is the managing director and co-founder of Madre Brava, a science-based advocacy organisation working to bring in line the food system with the 1.5C climate target.

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