Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — The stricter the lockdown, the better for eagles

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — The stricter the lockdown, the better for eagles
© Getty Images

Today is Thursday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Where the cars go quiet, the birds move in.

That's one clear conclusion of a new study published in Science Advances, which found that the urban populations of most American bird species — from warblers to ruby throated hummingbirds — had seen increases in their urban populations throughout the pandemic, according to The Guardian. 

Bald eagles showed a clear preference for areas with the tightest lockdown restrictions, the study found. 

The biggest change centered around roads, providing a tantalizing possibility for the future of cities, the study found. “Traffic has displaced birds and once you remove cars they will move back in again,” study co-author Nicola Koper told The Guardian.

As birds and cars vie for their rightful places in the now looser stages of the pandemic, we’ll look at two attempts to extend the idea of fundamental rights. First, we’ll travel to the U.N. to hear from world leaders trying to secure universal access to nutritious food. Then we’ll visit the desert Southwest to explore how trees and rivers may well be earning the right to sue in court.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


Global leaders push for inclusive food system 

International officials and heads of state called upon fellow world leaders to prioritize the creation of a more inclusive global food system at the United Nations Food Systems Summit on Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged the challenge of securing nutritious and affordable food for many people around the world was complicated further by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

"It has deepened inequalities, decimated economies, plunged millions into extreme poverty and raised the specter of famine in a growing number of countries. At the same time, we are waging a war against nature and reaping the bitter harvest," he said at the event.

The summit, which took place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, was the culmination of an 18-month process in which 148 countries pushed to develop national strategies to create more resilient, sustainable and inclusive food systems, a news release prior to the event said.

Some 80 countries had already submitted their national pathways prior to Thursday's event, with numbers expected to grow through the end of the week, the release added.

How can we build a more inclusive system? By engaging in cross-border collaboration on agricultural innovation, expanding access to nutritious meals and creating resilient supply chains that can withstand climate and security emergencies, world leaders agreed on Thursday.  

“Malnutrition, hunger and famine, are not forces of nature,” Guterres said. “They are the result of the actions, or inactions, of all of us. As a global community we need to ramp up emergency food and nutrition systems in areas affected by conflict or climate emergencies.”

Early warning systems: The U.N. chief emphasized the need to invest in early warning famine prevention systems and also to shock-proof everything that plays a role in nutrition — including health, food, water and sanitation. Governments and businesses, he continued, must work together to improve access to healthy diets and incentivize changes in behavior.

“Universal access to nutritious meals in schools is a great example of how social protection can support resilience, food security, and the rights of children and young people,” Guterres added.

“A fundamental right”: During the summit, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina discussed how her country recognizes food and adequate nutrition “as a fundamental right” and how Bangladesh “has become self-sufficient in food production.” 

“However, greater frequency of extreme weather events due to climate change are affecting our momentum,” Hasina said. “As a global leader in addressing the challenges of climate change, we are also working on [a] climate resilient agriculture and food system.”



The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.


Hasina laid out four steps toward ensuring a resilient global food system:

  1. Invest in advanced technologies for agricultural development
  2. Increase funding for developing countries to achieve sustainable agricultural sectors
  3. Promote global partnerships
  4. Reduce food waste through cross-border initiatives 

Greater inclusivity, fewer barriers: “To achieve the sustainable development goals, including a world with zero hunger, we must ensure our global food systems are both more sustainable and more inclusive," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, while praising efforts made by New Zealand's Pacific neighbors to manage local fisheries. 

The New Zealand leader further emphasized the need to minimize trade barriers and include Indigenous people in the governance of food systems to make them inclusive. For New Zealand, she explained, this means promoting the role of the Maori in the country’s food sectors, as well as encouraging Maori agribusiness and leadership.  

Ardern touted her country’s successes in working with international partners through the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. Adding that New Zealand also recently joined a United States-United Arab Emirates initiative to accelerate global agricultural innovation, Ardern invited other nations to participate in this multinational effort as well. 

Last words: “We cannot solve global food security and environmental challenges through isolationism,” Ardern said.

To read the full story, please click here.

‘Rights of nature’ idea awaiting its day in court

Federal officials may soon need to weigh climate considerations when designating species under the powerful Endangered Species Act (ESA), after a federal court called out a Biden administration mishandling of an iconic Southwestern cactus — the Joshua tree. 

The decision signals a potentially far-reaching change that — in conjunction with a growing movement to grant legal rights to nature — could transform the way that both businesses and governments interact with the environment. 

First steps: U.S. District Judge Otis Wright, a George W. Bush appointee, offered a stinging rebuke of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which he ruled had behaved in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when it rejected a 2019 bid to grant ESA status for the picturesque yuccas.

Wright directed the FWS to reconsider the refusal, finding that it had ignored evidence that climate threats posed an urgent future danger to the Joshua trees.

Big implications: The potential expansion of ESA protections based on climate protections is a very big precedent. It shifts the focus of protections away from current or proposed activities into a realm of competing interpretations of what the deep future will hold — and says that federal agencies can’t simply wave away more pessimistic predictions.

The ruling “will force the federal government to confront the reality of climate change and begin focusing on how to help species adapt,” attorney Jennifer Schwartz of WildGuardians, the organization that filed the suit, said in a statement.


Rights for rivers and mountains: Let’s consider Wright’s decision alongside another emerging legal idea: the notion that nature has inherent rights. 

One strand of this is the movement — the criminal law side —  to make the destruction of ecosystems a crime, often called “ecocide.”

But in countries like Ecuador, New Zealand and India, a civil law approach has been more effective. in those countries, courts or popular amendments have established legal “personhood” for rivers, forests or mountains, according to Inside Climate News.

More than 30 jurisdictions in the U.S. have followed suit, One such measure established legal rights for the waterways of Orange County, Fla. — home of Disney World, ICN reported. 

That measure passed with 89 percent of the vote, in a county President BidenJoe BidenJan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms MORE won with 61 percent.

Has legal personhood won any additional protections for nature?  No: The rights of nature is an idea still awaiting its day in court in the United States. Local-level efforts backing such measures, often supported by national nonprofits or advocacy groups, are beginning to face off against powerful state-level opposition.

That’s coming particularly from the agricultural industry, which could be a potential target of lawsuits based on damages — say, from fertilizer pollution — to any waterway granted such protections.

In a 2020 newsletter from the Turfgrass Producers of Florida, Farm Bureau executive Charles Shinn called the move a “direct threat” to agriculture — and he cautioned industrial agriculture groups against “thinking that this idea is just crazy and that it can never happen.” 

Cutting off at the pass: In Florida’s 2020 Clean Waterways Act, the state legislature added language prohibiting any city from establishing rights to nature — from doing, in other words, what Orange County went ahead and did two months later — making their ballot measure dead on arrival, and setting up a jurisdictional fight.

A fight is brewing: In April, the group that led the push for Orange County’s rights of nature law filed suit against a proposed residential development on behalf of local waterways: proposed plans to dredge wetlands, they wrote, violated “the rights of the plaintiff water bodies to exist.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for November. 

Takeaway: This idea is ultimately going to end up in front of a judge, and if that judge is sympathetic it could spell a serious change in the regulatory landscape.

If they take an expansive view of the threat caused by climate change and the legal measures that could be required to stop it — as Wright did — then entire industries whose practices lead to water pollution could face sudden, sweeping changes in their legal liability or the prospect of regulation.




The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.

Thirsty Thursday 

Pumpkins pricier amid California drought

  • As Halloween approaches, drought conditions are driving up the cost of pumpkins, Action News Now reported, from the northern Californian city of Chico.
  • In an environment with little water to spare, pumpkins require about an inch of water a week to grow — which translates to about 16 gallons of water per pumpkin, the report said.
  • The mother of two pumpkin farming sisters, Nelle Peterson, told Action News Now that the effects of drought this year had been exacerbated by a virus that had been circulating among squash and pumpkins in the Sacramento Valley.
  • But Peterson assured the reporter that their pumpkins were now doing fine, and that they use a drip irrigation system and fertilizer to make growth as efficient as possible.

Lake Powell might not be able to generate electricity by 2023

  • There’s a one in three chance that drought could cut off the power supply from key Colorado reservoir Lake Powell, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
  • This could threaten the power supply to almost 6 million businesses and households across the West, according to CNN. 
  • That’s on top of a 1 in 5 chance that Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s biggest reservoir, located above the Hoover Dam, could be “dead pool” — meaning, its water level would be too low to generate power — by 2025, CNN reported.
  • The findings emphasized what has become clearer this drought season: that the water crisis is also a power crisis.

Receding reservoir uncovers pioneer ghost town in Utah

  • Drought conditions in Utah have become so severe that a desert reservoir has receded enough to uncover an old pioneer ghost town, The Salt Lake City Tribune reported.
  • Rockport Reservoir — located in Summit County, just east of Salt Lake City — reached 29 percent capacity, revealing the foundations of Rockport, a town flooded in the 1950s to create that basin, according to the Tribune. The reservoir is at its lowest-ever capacity, with an annual average of 85 percent capacity for Sept. 1.
  • The town is the remnant of a pioneer settlement first built in 1860, but it declined from a peak of 100-200 people to just 27 families in 1952, when the federal government announced plans to construct a nearby dam, according to the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation.
  • The 1,080-acre lake was completed in 1957 and inundated most of Rockport, aside from a few buildings that are still visible at the Lagoon Amusement Park’s Pioneer Village, according to the Tribune.


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday.