Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Coloradan cattle test ‘Google Maps for cows’

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

Ranchers on Colorado’s Western Slope are test-driving a virtual fencing system that guides their cattle where they should be grazing, in a Bureau of Land Management effort to maintain a healthier ecosystem and prevent overgrazing, Colorado Public Radio reported. 

The cows are outfitted with shock collars similar to those used for dogs, which employ GPS to connect to a virtual fence powered by Vence (short for “virtual fence”) — creating what one CPR editor described as “Google Maps…for cows.”

Because the cattle’s location is accessible on a real-time digital map, ranchers can remain alert if any of the cows breach the (virtual) fenced-in zone, the report said. Meanwhile, the virtual nature of the fences eliminates the risk that people recreating on public land will leave a cow gate open, while wildlife are able to wander freely across the landscape, according to CPR.

Today we’ll look at a new report that finds the insurance industry is heavily enmeshed with the fossil fuel industry, whose emissions are making the world riskier.  Then we’ll explore some of the public health effects of some of those emissions, looking at some new research that details how exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of heart failure in women and impair cognitive performance in men. 

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

Let’s get to it.


Many insurance company board members tied to fossil fuels

Twenty percent of U.S. insurance company board members have ties to the fossil fuel industry, according to a report released Thursday by DeSmog, a global consortium of investigative journalists focused on climate change.

That helps explain why “insurers have been very slow to act on climate change,” a fact that is otherwise “surprising for that sector, given the risk that climate change and the support of volatile assets poses,”study author Rachel Sherrington told Equilibrium. 

And that poses a new question, she said. “Given the volatility and risk of fossil fuels, is the insurance industry putting people in leadership who are most likely to understand and deliver on that challenge?”

First steps: Sherrington found that American insurance company boards featured current or former fossil fuel company executives or board members about twice as much as the global average of 10 percent.

And two-thirds of board members — who oversee and set priorities for their companies — are what she calls “climate conflicted,” with ties to high-carbon industries like shipping, mining, agribusiness and steel production.

One particular example is Boston-based Liberty Mutual. Its director is a board member at the oil major ExxonMobil, and six of its directors hold roles in fossil fuel extraction or utility companies like Koch Industries or gas-powered utility Eversource, the report found.

All insurance boards examined had “ties to polluting industries,” and a quarter had ties to coal, the report found.


The DeSmog report is being released against the backdrop of a growing unease around the question of new fossil fuel development. 

In May, the International Energy Agency, originally founded to ensure the smooth and reliable flow of oil, called for an urgent halt on new coal, oil and gas development. They advocated this measure in order to keep the world beneath the red line of 1.5 Celsius of warming seen as the threshold of serious climate instability, according to The Hill.

Meanwhile, the insurance industry, whose active involvement in underwriting is necessary for any new development, fossil fuel or otherwise, has continued to insure new fossil fuel developments. This insurance virtually guarantees that their carbon emissions will continue for decades.

Have they taken any steps? It’s a mix. While 30 U.S. companies have agreed to stop underwriting new coal plants, many companies still back this industry, considered the dirtiest of fossil fuels. And virtually all insurance companies still insure gas and oil — even, in most cases, the particularly carbon-polluting heavy crude of the Canadian tar sands.

“U.S. insurers are making sustainability statements and releasing [environmental, social and governance] reports, and putting out their commitments to tackle the climate crisis,” Elana Sulakshana, insurance campaigner for Rainforest Action Network, told Equilibrium.

These tend not to be very specific: Instead, they typically focus on the emission generated by companies’ direct and indirect operations — Scope 1 and Scope 2, as the Environmental Protection Agency categorizes them.

That’s as opposed to the companies’ far greater emissions generated by the fossil fuel projects that could not exist without their underwriting, Sulakshana said.

Greening their operations would also do little to address the $582 billion of capital that U.S. insurers have directly invested in fossil fuels, Sulakshana added.

Perspective: For Sulakshana, the DeSmog report helped answer a question as well. Liberty Mutual, she said, was quick to announce it was moving out of coal, “but they’ve been steadfast in their refusal to adopt restrictions on oil and gas.”

The fact that their director is a board member at Exxon and eight other Liberty Mutual members are linked to oil-dependent industries, she said, “puts that into context.”

Counterpoint: Liberty Mutual’s Board of Directors is composed of experienced and committed independent directors, and its committees have strong, experienced chairs and members,” the company wrote Equilibrium in a statement. 

“We recognize the risk of climate change to our planet and environmental sustainability has been a key focus for us for some time.”

Last words: “We’re seeing that these boards don’t have directors that are well versed in climate risk and climate mitigation,” Sulakshana said. “In fact, it’s the opposite: many have personal stakes in the continued expansion of fossil fuels, which casts doubt on their ability to manage risk for society.”

Air pollution exposure may increase heart failure risk in women 

Prolonged exposure to air pollution and traffic noise may increase the risk of heart failure in women, a new study has found, The Hill reported.

With a rise in the level of exposure to both road noise and two common air pollutants — fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide — came a decline in the heart muscle’s ability to pump blood, according to a study published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association. While the researchers found that air pollution had a greater impact than noise, they observed that women exposed to high levels of both were most likely to develop heart failure.

“We were surprised by how two environmental factors – air pollution and road traffic noise – interacted,” lead author Youn-Hee Lim, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a news release.  

Tracking heart failure in Danish nurse data: Lim and her colleagues analyzed data for 22,000 women ages 44 and older who had been followed for more than 20 years as part of a larger “Danish Nurse Cohort” — a register through which Danish Nurse Organization members gave permission to track their health data for research purposes. 

The University of Copenhagen researchers found that increased exposure to fine particulate matter over a three-year period increased the risk of developing heart failure by 17 percent. Raising nitrogen dioxide exposure drove up the risk of heart failure by 10 percent.

For road noise, heart failure risks rose 12 percent for every 9.3 decibel increase in exposure, the researchers found.

Those impacts were even worse for those with preexisting conditions. When smokers were exposed to fine particulate matter, their risk of heart failure increased by 72 percent, the news release said. 

Meanwhile, about 12 percent of the participants had high blood pressure when they enrolled in the study, while 30 percent of those diagnosed with heart failure had a history of the condition. 

“To minimize the impact of these exposures, broad public tactics such as emissions control measures should be implemented,” Lim said. “Strategies like smoking cessation and blood pressure control must be encouraged to help reduce individual risk.”


Air pollution also may be linked to lower test scores. An increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter on examination day decreased student test performance by 6.1 points, according to another new study, which examined the impact of air pollution in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo on academic performance.

The study, published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, also determined that the effects of air pollution on exam performance influenced males more adversely than females.

Preexisting issues made things worse here too: “Our results also suggest that poorer students may be more susceptible to air pollution than wealthier exam takers,” the authors said in a news release. “Our findings provide plausible evidence to suggest that cognitive performance may be hindered by poor air quality, but unequally so.”

In San Francisco Bay Area, a creative solution to curb air pollution: Bay Area officials are trying to reduce air pollution by paying car owners $9,500 to swap their gas guzzlers for electric vehicles, The Mercury News reported.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District now has $8.3 million in state funding to encourage people to buy cleaner vehicles — and the agency is specifically targeting residents of lower-income neighborhoods, where air pollution tends to be the highest, according to The Mercury News.

Last words: “Not only is transportation the largest source of air pollution in the Bay Area, it accounts for 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions,” Cindy Chavez, a Santa Clara County supervisor, told The Mercury News.

Thursday Throwdowns 

Protesters rally in Austin against Texas's restrictive abortion law in May 2021

Fighting words, border conflicts and blockades around the world.

Federal judge slams, reverses Texas abortion ban

  • Abortions resumed in some Texas clinics after U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman published a scathing order overturning what he called “an unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme,” according to The Associated Press (AP). 
  • Pitman went so far as to accuse Texas of covertly banning an accepted Constitutional right, the AP reported.
  • But as Texas prepares an appeal, providers are stuck in the whipsaw of regulatory uncertainty.
  • “There’s actually hope from patients and from staff, and I think there’s a little desperation in that hope,” Amy Hagstrom Miller of clinic chain Whole Women’s Health told the AP. 
  • “Folks know this opportunity could be short-lived,” she added.

Canada invokes 1977 treaty to save cross-border pipeline

  • The Canadian government has invoked a 1977 treaty with the U.S. in order to save a pipeline that environmental activists have warned would be disastrous to the region if a spill were to occur, The Guardian reported.  
  • The pipeline, owned by Calgary-based Enbridge,  has moved oil and gas from western Canada through Michigan and the Great Lakes to refineries in Ontario for 67 years. 
  • But Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has said that the aging Line 5 section of the pipeline is a “ticking time bomb” and has ordered its closure, according to The Guardian. 
  • However, the 1977 treaty guarantees the uninterrupted flow of oil between the two countries and only allows for temporary shutdowns during emergencies, The Guardian reported. 

Peruvian villagers blockade multinational-owned mine over ESG concerns

  • An indigenous community in the Peruvian Andes has blockaded a major road through a principal mining region over environment, social and governance disputes (ESG) with Switzerland-based mining company Glencore, according to Reuters.
  • Local leader Flavio Huanque told Reuters that “the blockade will continue until Antapaccay addresses their grievances, which includes decades of complaints of environmental degradation.”
  • Andean communities often block roads as a calculated act to pressure companies or the Peruvian government to acknowledge their complaints, which generally hinge on ESG concerns about the impact of mining, particularly on communities that did not consent to the operations.
  • The blockaded road had only recently reopened after being blocked for three weeks in September, Reuters reported.


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


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