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MacKenzie Elmer's biweekly environmental news roundup (Mondays)
Meet our new environmental reporter, MacKenzie Elmer.
My name is MacKenzie Elmer and I’m your new local catastrophe reporter. I wrote that sentence two weeks ago when the climate crisis seemed to be the most pressing catastrophe facing our planet. The following is a personal preamble that has nothing to do with COVID-19 — until it later does.
When I was about 10 and the browsable internet was about 8, I took a “which career should you pursue” quiz. The algorithm fired back: a journalist or an oceanographer. So I tried to do both. I picked up a copy of National Geographic and learned that scientists were thinking about firing dust into the air to reflect the sun and prevent the globe from over-warming. Even then, I remember thinking, Is this the best we can do?
From that point on, I knew I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to cover science and the environment. That instinct never really wavered.
I enrolled in journalism school at the University of Iowa and spent my free time hanging with the program’s Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, Stephen Berry. Together we hatched a plan for an online, statewide investigative outlet run entirely by students, with our stories appearing in legit newspapers.
I spent six years climbing a traditional career ladder. The first rung was the Burlington Hawk Eye covering everything from county fair tractor pulls to the state’s historic corporate tax break, which lured an Egyptian fertilizer plant to the banks of the Mississippi River. I eventually landed at the Des Moines Register, where I took over the metro beat after chasing cop cars and criminal cases for a few years.
As newsrooms shrank, science and environment reporters were often the first to go. And, being a pragmatic journalist, I figured before I began covering the climate crisis that I better learn the science first. I moved west, joining the 2019 class of Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Climate Science and Policy master’s program. It gave me the freedom to mingle among some of the greatest scientific minds and the access to policy influencers all over the globe.
Seeing Voice of San Diego’s opening for a science and environment reporter flash across my desktop one afternoon was like the missing joint fastening my dreams together. I now find myself back in non-profit investigative journalism, pursuing that same question: Is this the best we can do?
Dear readers, we find ourselves in a different kind of crisis today. One that forces us to stay home with our families and friends, dust-off our deep creativities and learn how to cook and share together. It’s a pandemic, and not everyone has the luxury to work remotely, but for the most part we’re all experiencing the uncertainty of this moment together, all at once, not unlike the rapidly changing climate.
My own family, like yours, is deeply touched by COVID-19. My brother, a journalist at South China Morning Post, has covered the unraveling of the pandemic since he chose to leave Beijing with his children in February. Now the family is debating a move back to China since the virus appears to have peaked and is more contained there than in Europe. My father, a family physician, is still seeing sick people at his clinic and my mother, a dentist, is exposed to airborne spittle in her face eight hours a day.
Perhaps we can learn something grander than ourselves in these times. I look to you to share your own thoughts on the matter. But now on with the Environment Report.
North Americans rushed to the grocery store en masse in just a few days, stocking up on toilet paper and frozen dinners. Fresh food, it appeared, was blatantly neglected. President Donald Trump told the country to stop hoarding: “You don’t have to buy so much … Just relax.” But how do we obtain food without entering a grocery store and exposing ourselves to the virus?
Farmers markets, too, will likely close now that the federal government is restricting our elbow room Monday to gatherings of under 10 people. It made me wonder whether all of this produce will lie rotting in the fields.
Some farmers in San Diego are slowly putting together produce delivery services. The fall 2019 issue of the magazine Edible San Diego, lists 41 separate markets from Murrieta to Little Italy.
A local nonprofit organization called SD Sustainable is populating a list of farmers that are offering COVID-19-friendly shipping of their products. (You could have a whole cow shipped if you want. Just make sure you’re following proper Federal Food and Drug Administration storage guidelines.)
On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council almost unanimously passed a resolution declaring that a “climate emergency” had officially come to town.
Resolutions are typically just statements reflecting how elected leaders or their constituents feel about an issue. (Councilman Scott Sherman voted no, which he does on every resolution, because they are “non-binding” or in other words, useless.)
A contingent of Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists were among those to encourage the Council in this direction, laying out the evidence that humans are causing the climate to change more rapidly than normal — a fact on which 97 percent of actively researching scientists agree. Bonnie Ludka, who studies how the ocean interacts with the coastline, highlighted how beaches — one of our greatest defenses against sea level rise — are already “sand-starved” from human developments, including dammed rivers (which naturally bring fresh sediment) and cliff stabilization.
“We are at the beginning of the most consequential decade in human history,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who introduced the resolution. “Study after study shows the next 10 years are crucial for our biodiversity, reducing carbon pollution and making a lasting impact to save our planet. Every action we take today will have ramifications for days to come.”
Yes, it can. But at this point there are no reports of someone catching the virus from feces. (It has been detected in the feces of patients but whether it remains infectious is not known.) Still, the risk is “expected to be low” based on data from previous coronavirus outbreaks like SARs.
COVID-19 can concentrate and survive in both feces and urine, wrote Gui-Qiang Wang, a physician from Peking University’s department of infectious diseases, in an official brief on China’s experience with the virus. He said more attention should be paid in environments where fecal contamination could become airborne or there’s a risk of direct contact.
That raises red flags for some activists over raw sewage contamination in the Tijuana River Valley and likely reminds San Diegans of the questions that swirled during the Hepatitis A outbreak about whether a terrible spill of hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the San Diego River was responsible for or contributed to the crisis.
No cause for alarm, but it’s something local officials should be thinking about.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the timing and circumstances in which Elmer’s family left Beijing.