Welcome back to the Climate Crisis News Roundup. We are now fully in the throes of election season and halfway done with the scheduled debates. For the weeks ahead, this space will cover election themes, but also importantly, the stories lost in electoral hoopla. 

If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup, or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at steve@therealnews.com or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.

“American Murder” Not Unique

The Netflix film “American Murder,” released on Sept. 30, was the top watched film on the streaming platform last week. A spoiler alert is in order. 

The documentary uniquely utilizes footage almost exclusively from law enforcement, a home security system, social media posts and text messages, as well as court procedures, to tell the story of how in 2018 Chris Watts killed his two young children and wife, Shan’ann Watts, via strangulation.

The fact that Watts worked for the fracking industry in Colorado, though, served as both a side note and a centerpiece of the film simultaneously. Colorado is a key fracking state, and work in that industry provided the impetus for Watts and his family to move there. But that setting meets the main plot when the film reveals that Watts confessed to murdering his whole family, driving 45 minutes from their home in Frederick to his work site, and burying his wife near an oil storage site and putting his dead girls in an oil storage tank.

The oil storage tankers were located in Weld County, where 88% of the state’s oil and gas drilling takes place. Watts confessed the murders were a way to attempt to get rid of his past and begin a relationship with his mistress. While grisly, what the film misses is that, unfortunately, people are frequently murdered or missing in and around US shale basins—in particular Indigenous women, a subject covered in the 2017 film “Wind River”, which the director said was informed by real life events.

According to an October 2019 story published by Yes! Magazine, citing data on murdered and missing Indigenous women (MMIW, as it’s known due to the scope of the crisis), the oil and pipeline boom states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska had 529 missing and murdered Indigenous women. “Nearly 80% of these cases are unsolved or no perpetrators have been found, and 30% are active missing persons cases,” the publication reported.

One of those victims was Olivia Lone Bear, a 32-year-old resident of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, which is located in the Bakken Shale basin. Less than a year before the Watts murders, law enforcement declared Lone Bear missing in New Town, North Dakota. New Town is an incorporated city within Fort Berthold, a major oil producing section of the Bakken. Then, 13 days before law enforcement declared Watts’ family missing, the FBI found her body on the reservation in Lake Sakakawea, in a submerged pickup truck with her seatbelt fastened. 

More than two years later, law enforcement has still not solved the crime. Because it is still a pending investigation, state investigative agencies have declared records pertaining to her death not subject to state open records law.

“Law enforcement are not helpful, especially in the beginning hours when it matters most,” Annita Lucchesi, executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute—a nonprofit which keeps data on MMIW—said in a May 2019 episode of Al Jazeera’s “Faultlines.” “So, whether someone has gone missing or has been killed, usually there’s very little communication with families and families are not made to be known that they’re being heard.” 

According to data crunched by the Urban Indian Health Institute in 2016, 5,712 Native American women and girls were reported missing, but the Department of Justice only logged 116 of them. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that murder is the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous women in the United States, and that rates of violence against women on reservations can be up to ten times higher than the national average.

“People ask me a lot: ‘Why are Native women going missing and being murdered?’ And the reality is unfortunately there is no one reason,” Lucchesi further explained to “Faultlines.” “I think the one unifying factor would be colonialism and ongoing colonial occupation. It teaches people, Native or non-Native, to undervalue Native women and to see us as less than human and exotic and sexy and easy to use and abuse.”

Indiana Climate Impacts

The Oct. 7 vice presidential debate featured a segment on climate change, in which Kamala Harris and Mike Pence attempted to outflank one another from the right. 

Pence claimed Harris and Biden support a ban on fracking and the Green New Deal, while admitting that the “climate is changing” but then essentially saying the government shouldn’t do anything about it. Harris, asked about whether the team supports a Green New Deal, did not respond, and instead said, “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact. That is a fact.” She then proceeded to say that Biden “believes in science,” despite the fact that science says methane is a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent that carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, and methane leakage is a major issue associated with fracking and the natural gas supply chain. 

While wildfires and forest management practices came up as a talking point for Pence, the climate impact on his home state of Indiana—which he formerly represented both as governor and in the House of Representatives—also went undiscussed. California has been at the center of climate discussion over the past month in the aftermath of record wildfires, Indiana is a state seldom mentioned nationally as a site of major climate impacts, likely due to its politically red orientation and its status as an afterthought in the dominant news media narrative. But like everywhere else in the United States and the world, it will not be spared by the climate crisis.

Though thought of in the popular ethos as sitting in the “middle of nowhere,” Indiana is known as the “Crossroads of America” due to being geographically situated along several key interstate highway routes, smack dab in the middle of the country. It also borders Lake Michigan,  is a major agricultural hub, and is home to the pristine Indiana Dunes National Park. Climate change puts that all at risk, however.

According to a 2018 Purdue University report, by 2050 winter will decrease in length by 20 to 25 days in the Hoosier State. Hot days, days that reach 85 to 95 degrees, will, vice versa, go from 52 to 72 days per year. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a 2019 report, concluded that there could be “40 or more days per year with a heat index above 100°F” in Indiana by later this century. These temperature impacts will have far-reaching effects on the state’s ecological systems.

One of those systems is agricultural production, an area in which Indiana ranks in the top ten for overall yield. It is the country’s fifth biggest producer of corn and the fourth biggest producer of soybeans. Yet, according to the Purdue University report’s agriculture section, this production yield is in peril if climate change continues apace. Recent reporting by the Indiana Environmental Reporter points to Department of Agriculture data which further demonstrates that shortages of those commodities are already present in the state due to record rainfalls. The outlet concluded that, “Indiana corn production was down 16% compared to 2018, and soybean production was down 20% from 2018.” This led to a loss of nearly half a billion dollars of revenue for corn-growing farmers in 2019.

Then there’s the state’s crown jewel national park, the Indiana Dunes, a 15,067 acre span along Lake Michigan. According to a 2009 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, the park is one of the top 25 most threatened in the country due to looming climate impacts. 

Indiana Dunes National Park; Credit: Yinan Chen/Wikimedia Commons

A subsequent 2018 report published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Chicago Field Museum, and other partnering organizations chronicled further climate risks. They include the increase of invasive species, inhabitability for native plants and species, the drying up of some of the wetlands and loss of beach area, and the blowing of sands inland with warmer and windier conditions.

Image Credit: NOAA

And then there’s Lake Michigan. The lake’s coast is increasingly eroding in northern Indiana due to warmer winters, which are melting away ice sheets that previously protected the coast from whipping winter waves. In a 2016 report, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that warmer annual temperatures and more ice-free days on the Great Lakes could pose water quality issues. 

“Warmer water tends to cause more algal blooms, which can be unsightly, harm fish, and degrade water quality,” the EPA report reads. “Severe storms also increase the amount of pollutants that run off from land to water, so the risk of algal blooms will be greater if storms become more severe. Increasingly severe rainstorms could also cause sewers to overflow into the lake more often, threatening beach safety and drinking water supplies.”

The state is also a major coal producer and home to 28 coal power plants, which is more than it has natural gas plants. Pence has referred to Indiana as a “proud pro-coal state,” leading the state’s legal fight against President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would regulate carbon emissions for coal plants. BP has the largest in-land tar sands refinery in the United States, located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Whiting, Indiana, in an area known as Chicagoland. In short, the state is a major contributor to climate change and will increasingly bear the crisis’ brunt.

Pence, like Donald Trump, is a climate change denier. On his 2001 House election campaign website, Pence said, “Global warming is a myth. The global warming treaty is a disaster. There, I said it.” Then in 2014, he told Chuck Todd on MSNBC that he didn’t think climate science was yet “resolved,” pointing to Indiana’s cold winter that year as his proof. Later, in 2019, he offered no response to CNN’s Jake Tapper as to whether he thought the climate crisis posed an urgent threat. 

In Wednesday night’s debate, Pence deployed climate denial talking points again.

“There are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago,” Pence said and mentioned “climate alarmists use hurricanes and wildfires to try to sell the goods of a Green New Deal.”

Amazon Savanna

The Amazon rainforest could become 40% savanna in a matter of years, instead of the originally projected decades, if the current trajectory of the climate crisis is not reversed. This is according to a new study published by the journal Nature Communications. Translated, that means 40% of what is rainforest today—the dense canopy that sustains millions of species and complex ecosystems—could transform into something with an open canopy with far more open grasslands. 

The study’s conclusion is based on recently observed trends in rainfall patterns akin to prolonged drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis. This could cause acceleration of recent record wildfires in the Amazon, creating its own climate feedback loop.

“The dynamics of tropical forests are interesting. As forests grow and spread across a region, it affects rainfall—forests create their own rain because leaves give off water vapor, and this falls as rain further downwind” said Arie Staal, one of the study’s co-authors, in a press release describing the study’s findings. “As forests shrink, we get less rainfall downwind and this causes drying leading to more fire and forest loss: a vicious cycle.”

Another study, published earlier this year, concluded that if current climate trends are not reversed, the Amazon could transform from a net carbon sink into a net carbon source in the next 15 years. This is due to some of the same dynamics tackled in this latest study. 

“Stronger Than Storms” Forum

Last week on Sept. 30, The Real News Network was a media partner for a forum hosted by the global climate justice group 350.org. Titled “Stronger Than Storms: Climate & Just Recovery Forum,” the event featured youth and millennial voices on the front lines of the climate crisis throughout the United States. 

Speakers included Jasilyn Charger, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and activist fighting against Keystone XL in South Dakota; Cesar Aguirre, an activist with the group Central California Environmental Justice Alliance, which is fighting against fracking and for a 2500-foot setback distance between oil drilling sites and homes, schools, playgrounds and medical facilities; Verónica Noriega, a Puerto Rican activist working on post-Hurricane Maria recovery efforts; Troy Robertson, an organizer with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, and others. The discussion ranged from the impact of oil drilling and wildfires on Latinx farmworkers in California, to building a Green New Deal for the South rooted in a Black Lives Matter framework, to the push for universal healthcare as a core tenet of climate justice during and after the COVID-19 era.

The conversation conceptualized and explained the reality of environmental racism and ways to achieve a just transition away from a fossil fuel economy. Thousands of people attended, and the forum is now archived online on Facebook here:

Our climate team was proud to be a media partner alongside outlets such as PBS NewsHour Weekend, Front Page Live, Common Dreams and Climate Nexus. If you missed the event, do give it a watch. It’s well worth the 45 minutes. 

Steve Horn

Climate Change Reporter

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.