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Green Planet

Dangerous Plastics Are a Threat to Us and Future Generations

Meena Miriam Yust

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Every day people make decisions about what to eat, sometimes opting for colorful fruits and veggies, sometimes finding the smell of bacon irresistible.  At the end of the day people are controlling their own health.  What is remarkable though, is the possibility that something one swallows today could have a lasting effect on future offspring – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  New research is finding a generational impact of certain chemicals.  This time it’s not the bacon we’re worried about – but plastics and the toxins within them.  

Twenty years ago, researchers  at Washington State University discovered accidentally that the now-infamous bisphenol A (BPA) was leaching out of plastic cages, harming the mice within.  The contamination caused abnormalities in mice eggs and fertility.  Numerous subsequent studies found BPA exposure affects adult fertility and health across species, including monkeys, fish, and humans.  Known to decrease sperm count in rats and to cause breast cancer in women, BPA was banned in 2012 by the FDA from being used in baby bottles and sippy cups.  Yet BPA is still used in many products, including epoxy resins used to coat canned foods.  A 2004 study of 2,517 people found that 93% had detectable quantities of BPA’s by-product in their urine. 

Since the toxic effects of BPA came to light, several replacement bisphenols were quickly brought to market by chemical companies and are now in widespread use.  Twenty years after the BPA toxicity discovery, by remarkable chance, the same Washington State University lab recently noticed again that something was amiss with their mice.  This time the mice were housed in cages comprised of replacement bisphenols, largely believed to be safer than BPA.  The researchers subsequently performed controlled studies with several of the replacement bisphenols including BPS, a widely used replacement.  

Results demonstrated that the new bisphenols behaved similarly to BPA, causing health problems including detrimental effects on fertility in both males and females, reported in Cell Biology in September 2018.  Scientist Sarah Hunt explained, “This paper reports a strange déjà vu experience in our laboratory.”  What the lab discovered once with BPA, it was seeing again with the replacements.  Perhaps most troubling were the long-lasting effects of the toxins.  Even if all bisphenols could be magically eliminated today, the toxic effects would still last about three generations through the germline of people already exposed.  This means bisphenols ingested today could affect the fertility of one’s great grandchildren.

The bisphenol case demonstrates that FDA bans do not necessarily solve the root problem.  Chemical companies tend to roll out similar chemicals to those that have been banned, because this is the easiest way to bring something to market quickly.  But more testing is needed before chemicals are released into the environment.  Long term problems such as generational infertility and cancer risk often cannot easily be examined in clinical trials, and environmental effects are not rigorously analyzed prior to release.  

The Washington State University study also proved that damaged and heated plastics are particularly deadly, as the damaged cages leached more toxins.  This should serve as a warning for those who microwave food in plastic containers for their families.  And it should remind us that discarded plastic bottles degrading in oceans and rivers are releasing toxins that cause irreversible infertility.

The current estimate of plastics in our oceans is approximately 150 million metric tons. By 2050, the amount is expected to ‘outweigh the fish,’ according to Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.  A recent study has determined microplastics (small plastic particles) are present in every river and lake in Britain.  And they have been found in tap water, everywhere from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC to the Trump Grill in New York.  A study of 159 drinking water samples on five continents found that 83% of those samples were contaminated.  Plastics are everywhere, from the highest mountains to the deepest parts of the ocean and Arctic.  Nanoplastics less than 50 nanometers long have even been found in plankton, which is ingested by fish that humans eat.

Scientists are finding that plastics are disrupting marine mammals’ ability to reproduce.  Many forms of plastic including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Bisphenol A are endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect the hormonal systems of animals.  An orca of adult age called Lulu, researchers recently found, was barren as if she was a juvenile.  Analysis revealed very high levels of PCBs in her lipid tissues.  One orca pod off the coast of Scotland has not produced a calf in 25 years.  Despite bans on PCBs 30 years ago,  toxins remain in orca mothers’ milk, and are passed from mother to baby.  A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that half the world’s population of orcas will be extinct in just a few decades due to PCB poisoning.  Researchers have also found that despite the PCB ban in Europe, levels of PCBs have not decreased, indicated that they may be leaching out of landfills.  Hormone disruptors have also been found to impair male frogs’ fertility, and to cause tadpoles to more frequently develop ovaries rather than testicles, thus skewing the proportion of males to females.  Similar problems have been found in fish.  Reproductive risks associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals span species.

Bisphenol A is known to decrease sperm count and to cause cancer in many species.  Its counterpart replacement plastics (BPS, BPF, BPAF, BPZ, BPP, BHPF… to name just a few), researchers have recently discovered, are no better.  Whether these pollutants have already affected humans is anyone’s guess, but it would be wise to view statistics during the time period since plastics became popular, starting in the 1960s, and to see if there is a significant trend over time.  

It appears there is.  Notably, a 2017 study found that sperm counts per milliliter declined by more than 50% from 1973 to 2011, with total sperm counts down almost 60%.  Two other recent studies have demonstrated that over the past few decades in the U.S. and Europe, both sperm count and motility have decreased.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) recently debated a proposed legally binding treaty to address plastic pollution.  One objective of the proposed treaty was to phase out single use plastics by 2025.  Norway also suggested a global agreement for handling ocean plastic pollution.  Sadly, the U.S. was the largest voice against the proposed treaty and the proposed global waste disposal plan.  

Eventually a non-legally-binding agreement was reached in which the U.S. watered down the language to “significantly reduce” plastics by 2030, eleven years from now.  One UN delegate described the Trump representatives as “trying to remove all targets and timelines.”  

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been exporting large quantities of plastics overseas for years, historically mostly to China.  In the previous year, 70% was exported to China and Hong Kong.  But in 2018, China banned imports of plastic waste.  Since the ban the U.S. has looked to poorer nations for its overseas garbage dump.  Unearthed, Greenpeace’s research group, has found that in the first six months of 2018, almost half of U.S. plastic waste was sent to developing countries: Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.  U.S. plastic waste exports to Thailand went up by nearly 2,000% this year.  

Most developing nations do not have sufficient recycling infrastructure to properly handle plastic waste.  On Earth Day 2018, the top producers of mismanaged ocean plastic waste were ranked by tons of waste.  The top five after China were Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  In some cases as in parts of the Philippines, recycling is done laboriously by hand, picking bottles out of large dumps.  As this is very difficult and time consuming, large quantities find their way into oceans and rivers.  Sadly and not surprisingly, the Pasig River in the Philippines transports approximately 72,000 tons of plastic downstream, and has been declared “biologically dead” since 1990.  Instead of helping these countries to develop recycling infrastructure, we are sending them more toxic waste.

We might think we are kicking the can down the road by sending plastics overseas but they will wash right back up on the Hawaiian and California coast.  Beachgoers might witness solid litter washing ashore, or unearthed from the stomachs of dead whales.  Or they might not notice the pollution  — instead unknowingly consuming microplastics in their next Ahi Tuna sandwich.  On the East Coast, one might encounter them in a glass of water at the Trump Grill in New York.  There is only one world sink after all.  Tossing poison to the other end of the tub only works for so long – it will inevitably, over time, mix and wash back to your side of the water.  And when one of us is diagnosed with cancer, do we really know the cause? 

It is instructive to remember the orca Lulu, a mammal like us, who no longer produces eggs.  And to remember that if sperm counts continue to decline at the present rate, they will soon reach levels where it becomes difficult to have children.  By then, the world’s water supply may be irreversibly contaminated and an enforceable treaty will be too late.

Postponing a legally binding treaty may put us on the path of our fellow mammals the orcas, half of which already face inevitable extinction worldwide.  And we can not forget the tragedy of the orca Tahlequah, who last summer carried her dead calf for a record 17 days and 1,000 miles in mourning. 

Eleven years may be too late.  

Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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Green Planet

Tiger Conservation in South and Southeast Asia and The Indian Experience

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Every year 29th July is being celebrated as Tiger Day since 2010 when thirteen tiger range countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam adopted the Global Tiger Recovery Program  in St. Petersburg, Russia in November 2010 to double the number of wild tigers from about 3,200 to more than 7,000 by 2022. Earlier in the same year Governments from across Asia’s tiger range countries took initiatives to save wild tigers from extinction and total protection of critical tiger habitats on January in 1st Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation at Hua Hin, Thailand.

Degradation in Tiger Population in Southeast Asia

Maximum tigers were roaming on those areas of Asia where human beings are now densely populated. Presently over one-third of tiger conservation sites in the world are still under the risk and the majority of those areas are located in Southeast Asia. Bhutan is the home to the highest altitude tigers in the world and Indonesian island of Sumatra is one of the last places on earth where tigers, elephants and orangutans coexist in the wild. Sunderban mangrove area of India and Bangladesh is the habitat of largest number of wild Royal Bengal tigers. One hundred years ago, there were 100,000 wild tigers in the nature but in 2010 as few as only 3,200 wild tigers remained. The sole cause of declination in tiger population is human activity and nearly 97% has been extinct due to rampant poaching and habitat loss. The borders of India-Nepal, Indonesia-China and Russia-China are very well known hot spots for trans-boundary smuggling of tiger body parts.

Indian Tiger Protection Laws and National Tiger Conservation Authority

The main legislative action was undertaken by then Indian government through the insertion of the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006 which was also known as ‘Tiger Amendment’. This Amendment of 2006 introduced some important statutory and administrative steps including National Tiger Conservation Authority (Section 38L), Tiger and Other Endangered Species Crime Control Bureau (Section 38Y), Tiger Conservation Plan (Section 38V) and Tiger Conservation Foundation (Section 38 X). This Amendment was made on the recommendation of Tiger Task Force (TTF) consisting of biologists, social scientists, activists and forest officers across the country constituted by then Prime Minister in July 2005 on the backdrop of vanishing of tigers by rampant killing and poaching. Since its inception in 2006, National Tiger Conservation Authority has worked tremendously and till now declared nearly 50 protected areas as Tiger Reserves having critical tiger habitats with the consultation of State Governments. Though few Tiger Reserves were established earlier after launching of Project Tiger during 1973 but those reserves have got the statutory status (Section 38V) after this Amendment. Central Government notified many bye laws for better functioning of National Tiger Conservation Authority and those are The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Qualifications and Experience of Experts or Professional Members) Rules, 2006; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Salaries, Allowances and other Conditions of Appointment) Rules, 2006; The Tiger Conservation Authority Fund (Regulation) Guidelines, 2007; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Tiger Conservation Foundation) Guidelines, 2007; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Annual Reports and Annual Statement of Accounts) Rules, 2007; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Recruitment and Conditions of Service of Officers and Other Employees) Rules, 2007 and The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Normative Standard for Tourism activities and Project Tiger) Guidelines, 2012. The Act has played nicely the federal features of Indian government as ‘wild animals’ are subject of State as well as Union.

Indian legal framework for wild animal protection

There is an elaborated interpretation of Indian Constitution after 42nd Amendment in 1976 through which protection of wild animals came under the Directive Principles of State Policies (Article 48A) and Fundamental Duties (Article 51A(g)) of citizen. This Amendment also brought the subject protection of wild animals within the legislative approach of States as well as Centre. In 1992, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments widened the legislative power on forestry and ecological aspects to local governments of panchayats and municipalities.  The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 instituted office of Director of Wildlife Preservation [Section 3(a)], Asst. Director of wildlife preservation [Section 3(b)] and Wildlife Advisory Board [Section 6] at central level and Chief Wildlife Wardens [Section 4 (a)] and Wildlife Wardens [Section 4 (b)] at State level. After the Amendment of 1991, Central Zoo Authority [Section 38A] came into force to regulate all zoos in the country and National Board for Wildlife [Section 5A] at State level. The Amendment of 2003 introduced National Board for Wildlife [Section 5A] and a Standing Committee of the National Board [Section 5B] and for state level Honorary Wildlife Wardens [Section 4 (bb)], State Board Wildlife [Section 6], Advisory Committee [Section 33 B], Conservation Reserve Management Committee [Section 36 B] and Community Reserve Management Committee [Section 36 D]. There are several other administrative authorities constituted for protection of tigers and wild animals directly or indirectly. In 1962 the Animal Welfare Board of India was established under Ministry of Environment and Forests as per provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and National Biodiversity Authority was established through the provision of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 to regulate, transfer and use of diversified biological resources at the national level. The National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board, was set up in 1992 for promoting afforestation, tree plantation, ecological restoration and eco-development activities.

Collective Initiatives by Member Countries

Countries like India, Nepal and Russia have shown that tiger recovery is possible but other governments in Southeast Asia are facing the challenges in poaching and man-tiger conflicts. In November 2009, representatives from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the World Bank (IBRD) decided in Vienna to form the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) to jointly move forward in a coordinated manner with mandates in law enforcement and criminal justice to prevent and combat illegal trade in wild animals and plants. Finally the Consortium was launched by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in November 2010 during the International Tiger Forum held in St. Petersburg, Russian Federation. ICCWC is the first initiative where these five international agencies cooperate together towards crimes against animals, birds and fish, as well as timber and non-timber forest products to achieve a common goal of delivering multi-agency support to affected countries. In 2014, Nepal became the first country to achieve a full year of zero poaching for three of the world’s most iconic species –tiger, rhino and elephant. Last year Indian Prime Minister on the event of global tiger day declared that India is the safest habitat for tigers in the world and having largest numbers of wild tigers in the nature. India along with other participant countries decided to double their tiger population within 2020 at the St. Petersburg Tiger Summit, Russia in 2010 and as per recent press release of National Tiger Conservation Authority, since 2006, the 33% rise in tiger numbers is the highest ever recorded between cycles which stood at 21% between 2006 to 2010 and 30% between 2010 and 2014.

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Has CCS Really Got Us Covered?

Mehre Taban

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It is widely said and preached that one is responsible for one’s actions, but little do we pay attention to our actions towards our atmosphere. To cut it short, the ever-increasing temperature, scorching heat from the Sun and unbearable summers are all due to us-the humans. It may come to us as a shock, but it is the truth. Hotter days are the consequence of global warming. Global warming is the unusual rapid increase in the average temperature of earth. The Earth is getting hotter and hotter day by day due to human activities. Human inventions which involve burning fossil fuels(coal, oil, and natural gas) for industrial and domestic purposes is one of the major causes of global warming as combustion of these release methane, nitrogen oxides, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, etc.  but most importantly carbon dioxide (CO2).

Even though carbon dioxide is a natural greenhouse gas which helps sunlight reach the Earth but it also prevents some of the heat from radiating back into space but this is a natural process to keep the Earth’s temperature within limit otherwise we would have frozen to death. But the main concern here is that we are adding extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by combustion of fossil fuels which is causing great problems to deal with. Scientists are burning the midnight oil to address this pressing issue and save our planet. They have come up with ways to prevent carbon emissions by using carbon-free devices and if not prevent then at least with ways to get rid of this extra carbon dioxide that we have added and continue to add in the environment.

One of the ways that lets 90% of the carbon dioxide to get rid of is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This technique collects the carbon dioxide from the emission sources, transports it to a storage location -underground and/or underwater and “dumps” it there. The method of Carbon Capturing has been in use for many years or to be precise for decades to get speedy recovery of oil and gas in industries, but it is only now that scientists have thought it to use for environmental reasons.

Carbon Capturing is done using three ways. All of them prevent up to 90% of the carbon dioxide from making the atmosphere toxic. One of the ways is ‘post-combustion capturing’ which lets us capture carbon dioxide after the fossil fuels are burnt. In the technique, a ‘filter’ can be added to the power-plant and the job is done. It allows us to modify the old plants with low expense. The second method is ‘pre-combustion capturing’ in which the carbon is collected before the fuel is burned. Unfortunately, this method is costly because new plants must be employed. The last and third method is ‘oxy-combustion capturing’ which separates carbon dioxide form steam after the fuel has been burnt in oxygen.

After the carbon capturing process comes the transportation step. Carbon dioxide can be transported in three states-solid, liquid, and gaseous. Solid CO2also known as dry ice, is very hazardous and sometimes fatal so it is very dangerous to transport, it would require huge manpower and it is also not very much friendly monetarily. So, transporting carbon dioxide in solid state is not feasible.  It is also possible to transport carbon dioxide in liquid state through ships and tankers butliquid carbon dioxideneeds low pressure and a constant low temperature, so cargo tankers or ships must be both pressurized and refrigerated. For that special mechanisms ought to be installed which is again not very pocket friendly but still in use as it does not go very hard on budget. The last option is to transport it in gaseous form. This is the best possible option and widely in use because in gaseous form, carbon dioxide is transported through pipelines which can be installed anywhere- underground or underwater (on sea-beds). A compressor compresses the gas all the way through the pipeline and moves it forward. Occasionally, a pipeline will have compressors after a measured distance to keep the gas moving and avoid any interruption. The CO2 must be free of any impurities and moisture or else, it can corrode the pipes. But pipelines built from stainless steel are said to have a low risk of corrosion.

As much as this method of transportation sounds easy and feasible, it is not. The reason being that this is a new method and there is not much data regarding this. There have not yet been many accidents due to mishandling or pipe leakage but the ones that occurred have gone without much harm. If there is leakage of carbon dioxide at a place, a condition called asphyxiation is common. It is shortness of breath due to lack of oxygen and excess of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a colorless and odorless gas. To avoid accidents due to leakage one thing that can be done is to add color and odor to the gas before transporting.

The last step in this method is storing the carbon dioxide. There are three possibilities to store carbon dioxide- in deep geological formations, underwater and in the form of mineral carbonates.

Considering storing carbon dioxide as mineral carbonates which is done by reacting CO2 with naturally occurring magnesium and calcium to form their respective carbonates which are very stable so there is no possibility of re-formation of carbon dioxide but this is a very slow process under normal conditions. It requires high temperature and pressure along with some catalyst. Once it is done then we are good to go.

The second option of storing it under water also seems quite promising but the environmental effects are believed to be very terrible. The excess carbon dioxide in the water reacts with water to form carbonic acid which leads to acidification of oceans. Also, the extra carbon dioxide in the water acts as asphyxiant and breathing becomes difficult for marine organisms. The last option is to store it underground. Carbon dioxide is stored in deep geological formations known as geological sequestration. In this technique, carbon dioxide is converted to ‘supercritical carbon dioxide’ which is a runny liquid. It is then injected into sedimentary rocks and the runny liquid then seeps into them underground. Various physical and geochemical mechanisms prevent carbon dioxide from escaping.

Although ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ technique seems like a miracle solution, but it is important to keep in mind that it is not a permanent solution. It is just a way to get rid off already present carbon dioxide and we surely should not emit more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere thinking that CCS has got it all covered. It should be given keen intention that we should still come up with ways and devices with little or no carbon emission. Fossil fuels should not be used anymore. Rather than wasting time and money on coming up with ways to get rid of carbon dioxide being emitted, our goal should be to get invested in replacing fossil fuels with alternatives which has less adverse effects to the environment.

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Green Planet

Organic Farming and Climate Change

Alek Karci Kurniawan

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In early 2019, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, published an interesting study related to the effects of organic agriculture on the Earth’s climate. Stefan Wirsenius, Professor of environmental sciences who wrote the study concluded that organic food production has a worse impact on the climate as compared to conventional farming methods. Summary of the thesis published in Ekologisk news mat ärsämreförklimatet by chalmers. seon 8th January, 2019.

The approach is based on the argument that organic food requires a larger area of ​​land, so it contributes more to deforestation. The data source was statistics on total production in Sweden — yields per hectare for organic versus conventional agriculture for 2013-2015.

Findings in Sweden showed that yields from organic foodper hectare were much lower – mainly because there was no fertilizer used. Thus, a much larger area of ​​land was needed to produce organic food with the same amount of that produced by conventional method.

Until now, it is still a problem formulation for environmental experts and observers regarding what systems are suitable for developing sustainable global agriculture. It is due to the number of human populations continues to grow as a geometric progression, while the growth of food resources for consumption moves slowly following the arithmetical count.

Is it true that the organic farming system is no more sustainable than conventional farming system? Certainly it is not enough to conclude from one sample in an area. Even the different methods used in a system that want to be applied in the same area can show different results.

Simply put, the essence of organic farming emphasizes locality or the use of surrounding resources to grow plants – not dependent on industrial chemicals that help agricultural production. Then the problem is that there are certainly different and highly diverse local resources in each region.

There are areas with local resources that are sufficient to replace chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, there are also areas with very little local resources. It is not that simple, every local resource available must further be tested for its compatibility with local land. Whether or not organic farming is successful depends on it.

Several things needed are water resistance testing, comparison of soil texture, observation of the development of land ecosystems, and how toself-produce vegetable extracts from local resources for pest repellant.

December 2018 ago, in an activity covering the organic rice harvest in Sumpur Kudus Sub-District, Sijunjung Regency, West Sumatra, Indonesia, I found facts that were contrary to the Wirsenius Thesis that we discussed earlier. Through organic farming system, farmers in Sumpur Kudus could produce 7.7 tons of rice per hectare. Previously, through fertilization and spraying methods, farmers in Sumpur Kudus produced 4 tons of rice per hectare. Their production costs were reduced and organic rice could be sold at a higher value than the price of common rice.

These results were obtained after conducting a compatibility test between the local resources and local land. A group of organic rice farmers in Sumpur Kudus found that unburnt straw was the most powerful material in maintaining water sustainability for their rice fields. Meanwhile, the highest nutrient content was found in a mixture of rice mud with cow dung. To repel pests, they replaced pesticides with papaya leaf extract.

Rice is only one example of various types of plants that can be applied to organic farming system. But the point is whether local resources are sufficient and suitable to support the agriculture. We can get different yields in one hectare of land if we use different local materials to support agriculture.

Another experience was found by Verena Seufert and Navin Ramankutty, both of whom are geography professors from the University of British Columbia. They conducted a study on the application of organic agriculture in North America, Europe and India. In an article entitled “Organic Farming Matters, Just Not In The Way You Think”, the researchers found that organic farming was up to 35% more profitable than conventional farming. In a number of regions, organic agriculture provides more rural employment opportunities because organic management is more labor intensive than conventional practice. In terms of health, the biggest advantage is that organic system can reduce exposure to toxic agrochemicals.

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