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Nature and racism, prairie powerhouses, Arctic drilling: 3 stories you may have missed

© Art Wolfe/

Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares stories from the past week that you should know about.

In U.S. cities, poor communities of color experience higher temperatures due to a lack of fresh water and green space.

The Story: A recent study found that racial and economic inequality in U.S. cities has a negative impact on the planet’s biodiversity and could accelerate climate change, reported Arianne Cohen for Fast Company. By compiling data from 170 different studies that examine the link between systematic inequality and the environment, the study’s authors discovered that low-income city areas with predominantly Black populations experience higher temperatures due to a lack of fresh water and green space, which is a phenomenon known as the “heat island” effect.” The lack of tree cover in these areas has also led to a decrease in wildlife species populations because they no longer have adequate space for habitats. 

The Big Picture: "Racism is destroying our planet, and how we treat each other is essentially structural violence against our natural world," said Christopher Schell, the study’s lead author, in a press release. "Rather than just changing the conversation about how we treat each other, this paper will hopefully change the conversation about how we treat the natural world." Studies show that systematic inequality is not just having an environmental impact on the United States. According to recent research, periods of extreme heat at temperatures unhealthy for humans have more than doubled since 1979, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. To slow rising temperatures, countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by protecting nature, which experts agree is only effective if they first address structural racism.

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Protecting grasslands in the United States could help slow climate breakdown. 

The Story: Scientists estimate that protecting prairie grasslands in the United States could help store up to 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, reported Mary Beth Gahan for the Washington Post. Grasslands absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store the majority of it in their roots and soil, where it is protected from natural weather events such as fires and floods. However, human activities such as development and agriculture are driving the destruction of these grasslands — and releasing the carbon they store. To prevent this, a group of environmental organizations and institutions are developing a system for prairie landowners to incentivize them to protect their land through the sale of carbon credits, which are reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for emissions made somewhere else.

The Big Picture: “[Prairie grasslands are] a good locker to put the carbon into,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and Rice University professor, who is helping to develop the carbon market for prairies in the United States. “Carbon will stay in the soil for centuries." According to a recent study by Conservation International’s senior director of natural climate solutions, Bronson Griscom, soil holds three times more carbon globally than the atmosphere. The study found that protecting or restoring carbon in the soil of ecosystems such as grasslands can provide 3 billion tons of cost-effective climate mitigation per year. 

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A recent political decision could drive the destruction of the largest swath of untouched wilderness in the United States.

The Story: The Trump administration recently finalized plans to allow oil and gas development in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a 7.8-million hectare (19.28-million acre) swath of protected land in northeastern Alaska — reported Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain for The New York Times. Along with releasing excess amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas development in this region could negatively impact the habitats and health of Arctic wildlife, including endangered polar bears and migrating caribou. This change is the latest is a series of more than 100 deregulatory actions the Trump administration has taken against rules that protect clean air and water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Big Picture: “In the United States and around the world, some governments have taken advantage of the pandemic to weaken or remove environmental protections,” said Rachel Golden Kroner, Environmental Governance Fellow at Conservation International. “The decision to remove protections in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a particularly egregious example of this.” Research shows that loosening restrictions for protected areas such as ANWR could accelerate climate change and harm wildlife populations, which could also be detrimental to humanity, Golden Kroner explained. “These rollbacks would increase mining, fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure development, which is short-sighted. We need a healthy environment and intact ecosystems not only to conserve biodiversity, but also to protect our climate, clean air and water, and reduce the risk of future pandemics.”

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News Spotlight

Scientists discover 30 new forms of deep-sea life in the Galápagos

Off the coast of the Galápagos Islands, researchers submerged a remotely operated vehicle more than 3 km (2 miles) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean — and discovered 30 invertebrate species new to science, including crustaceans, corals and jellyfish. 


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.