21 December 2007

Future food

Human behaviour is negatively impacting on our food supply. The more insidious effects of climate change and other human-induced environmental woes are one cause. Another more immediate cause is that policy decisions on resource use and exploitation are being driven from a misguided agenda of short-term gain. Judging from the increased exposure in traditional media sources, a potential crisis is brewing.

The reason for the exposure? Soaring food prices worldwide. Food prices worldwide have increased by 40% in the last year. In the US, the current amounts of food inflation have been unseen since the 1970s. While some of this increase in the result of increased drought over many areas (a sign of climate change?), for instance in Australia, much of it is due to humans and the policy decisions made for us. The increasing diversion of grains, especially corn, to the production of ethanol and other biofuels is a major culprit in the price rises.

This is just the immediate threat. Warming temperatures, increasing droughts and the like – the expected effects of climate change-- will likely make agriculture more difficult in the near future. It is not just now we should be worried about, but the future as well.

Indeed, the effects of climate change are already being felt. The regions of the earth that experience tropical weather are expanding poleward, likely to bring a change in traditional growing conditions in a given area. Such shifts are being noted in around the world:

Rising CO2 levels may also effect aquatic food sources like fish, wither directly through ocean acidification or indirectly by alterations in oceanic bacteria, the basis of life on our planet. Despite the harsh realities already being felt, some recent research suggests that we may be underestimating the likely effects of climate change on agriculture, as previous research was likely oversimplified and failed to account for important second-order effects.

So what to do? A necessary step is to expand research in this area. Investing in new, heartier crop varieties like heat-tolerant beans or higher-yielding wheat is essential. Also crucial to understand are farming methods to maintain production levels with less fossil-fuel-based fertilizer. In general, the whole idea of mass-produced industrial agriculture will be nonviable. Having enough to eat without cheap oil is going to be tricky. Ask the Cubans (with sarcastic commentary from Bruce Sterling). Food is going to have to be produced more locally. Nations (like Australia) will have to ensure the capacity to feed themselves. Whether you are a nation, a tribe or an individual, when push comes to shove and resources are scarce, human nature says you will be unable to rely the goodwill of neighbours. (But growing enough of you own food is hard work...). New areas for growing food, indoor and urban growth for example, will also have to be exploited. That said, expanding cultivated land by clearing forests is likely to lead to diminishing returns. Agriculture and climate change is a two-way interaction.

A shift in our policies to something more sensible is needed. Human beings, not economic systems, should be our primary concern. For example, recent bumper harvests in Malawi suggest policies set by organizations like the World Bank to instill some rigid ideological economic purity reduce food amounts and cost human lives. The increasing push for biofuels is also short-sighted. Do you really need to deprive people of food so that you can go to the mall and buy some useless junk? Sustainable policies -- those that will provide a benefit now, but also conserve to provide a boon next year, next decade and next century – are also desperately needed. Instead, our current focus is on the needs of the economic system. The recent decision to raise the North Sea cod quota is just such an example. A slight upturn in surviving baby cod numbers results in an 11% increase in the catch. Great! Let's risk the future for a profit today! The failure of the recent Bali climate to set a meaningful target for climate change mitigation is another example. This mostly occurred because of the constant obstruction of the US, worried solely about themselves and their profits.

Not having enough food is a sure-fire step to instigating societal collapse. The time for profit uber alles is over. The time is now to focus on preserving the environment and our food supply for now and future generations.

Image: iStockphoto/Susan Stewart

18 December 2007

Glacial language changes

Languages are constantly evolving. As new ideas and experiences are introduced into a given culture, their language adds new words to facilitate communication. Similarly, as ideas become outmoded or fall out of favour, words become obsolete or obscure, no longer used in normal discourse. This is a natural part of a living language.

Unfortunately, the realities of climate change may help in driving the future evolution of the English language. In particular, the word glacier may become obsolete because we may no longer have the concept of “an extended mass of ice formed from snow falling and accumulating over the years and moving very slowly..." As has been noted before on planet doom?, glaciers around the world are in retreat. Further instances on this trend have also been noted of late.

In Chile, the 30 000-year-old San Rafael glacier has retreated 12 km since 1871. This behaviour is consistent with the majority of Chile's glaciers, which 'are not in balance with current climatic conditions'. The warming temperatures mean that new snow is unable to replenish the lost mass as icebergs calve off the glacier.

In the high Alps of Europe, glaciers were once a source of ice for the cafes of Paris and Marseille. Swiss glaciers are now in retreat, being replaced by vegetation where once there was only ice. The changes are widespread, causing problems for ski resorts and resulting in a loss of water supplies, as the source melts away in the warming climate.

The Rockies in western North America are seeing similar problems. The glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park will likely be melted away before 2030. Computer modeling suggests that about a quarter of this melting is due to natural temperature variations; the remainder is due to human alterations of climate. Only 25 of 150 glaciers remain in the park today. In British Columbia, retreating glaciers have recently revealed tree stumps that are 7000 years old, indicating the last time the region was ice-free.

In Tibet, recently drilled ice cores are lacking the signs of the radioactive tests of the 50s and 60s present in every other ice core around the world. This missing signal suggests that this Tibetan ice field has been shrinking at least since the A-bomb test half a century ago. As noted in a previous post, this spells trouble for the substantial portion of the world's population who depend on these glaciers for water. In western China, high-altitude glaciers in Xinjiang and portions of Tibet have shrunk by 18% over the last five years due to global warming.

The adjective glacial isn't particularly apropos here, either. The changes are happening at anything but “extremely slowly”. That usage of the word may be headed for the language's rubbish bin as well. However, the real tragedy here isn't the potential loss of a few words from the English language. Rather, the true disaster is the rapid loss of glacial ice, along with rapid ice melt also occurring in Greenland and in the sea ice of the Arctic. This will disrupt the ecosystem, leading to a loss of biodiversity, and negatively impact the lives of those who depend on these regions for their livelihood. Once gone, they are unlikely to return. The loss is likely permanent.

While opinions vary, in my view the Bali conference resulted in a watered-down agreement (with glacial meltwater?). It does nothing meaningful to stop crises like these from occurring. I guess it's better than nothing, but more must be done. Cracks in our society are already appearing, and delaying action just makes future mitigation more difficult. Citizens of the world must continue to pressure their governments to act responsibly on climate change. But it can't just be left up to governments; they won't act unless forced. We -- particularly in the so-called developed world -- must act as individuals to reduce our ecological footprint and live a more sustainable lifestyle. Lots of small actions can add up to a meaningful difference.


Image of Glacier National Park from NASA Earth Observatory

12 December 2007

On the realities of climate change

Go and read this excellent essay "Beyond the point of no return" by Ross Gelbspan posted over at Gristmill. I think he has managed to crystallize the essence of everything I have been trying (or wanting) to say here at planet doom? (in an admittedly much more scattershot way) in his post. A few excerpts:

We have failed to meet nature's deadline. In the next few years, this world will experience progressively more ominous and destabilizing changes. These will happen either incrementally -- or in sudden, abrupt jumps.
This slow-motion collapse of the planet leaves us with the bitterest kind of awakening. For parents of young children, it provokes the most intimate kind of despair. For people whose happiness derives from a fulfilling sense of achievement in their work, this realization feels like a sudden, violent mugging. For those who feel a debt to all those past generations who worked so hard to create this civilization we have enjoyed, it feels like the ultimate trashing of history and tradition. For anyone anywhere who truly absorbs this reality and all that it implies, this realization leads into the deepest center of grief.
To keep ourselves afloat, we need to change the economic and political structures that determine how we behave. In this case, we need to elevate the ethic of cooperation over the deeply ingrained reflex of competition. We need to elevate our biological similarities over our geographical differences. We need, in the face of this oncoming onslaught, to reorganize our social structures to reflect our most humane collective aspirations.

11 December 2007

Breaking down in Bali

All's not well at the UNFCCC conference in Bali. News reports suggest that the negotiations to create a roadmap for the post-Kyoto climate agreements are becoming bogged down. It would seem that the various nations of the world have come with their set-in-stone predetermined positions rather than coming to honestly negotiate. And they aren't moving from those positions.

Following the findings of the IPCC, the draft UN resolution is calling for industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% by 2020.In the same objections we we have all heard before, the Canadians (with support the US) have said:

"The agreement should include binding emission reduction targets for all major emitters.

"Developed countries should be required to take action more quickly, but major industrialised developing countries should also have binding targets."

And the pro forma response from the developing nations is that their per-capita emissions are a long way below western levels, and that taking on targets would slow their economic growth.

Stop me if you've heard this before...

Of course, the US -- the prime supporter for the exploitative capitalism which has done so much of the damage -– is acting to undermine the talks, pushing to hold their own, separate meetings. They have, along with the EU, also pushed for a lowering of trade barriers for so-called green goods to gain access to markets. All for their advantage, of course.

It is particularly sad to see Australia's (apparent) complicity in all of this. While ratifying Kyoto was a good thing, new PM Rudd had rapidly backed off election promises to set emissions targets,while blaming the previous government for their inaction on the issue. It is especially disheartening because one of his main agenda items was making a difference on climate issues. But it looks like the same old game so far...

I don't want to be completely cynical as the conference isn't over yet, but basically it looks like we humans are going to pursue our great 'carbon dioxide enhancement experiment' to the bitter end. Some climate scientists also see an agreement as unachievable. The early warning signs aren't enough to make us realize the harm we are doing. Instead we hold out faint hopes that technology or the Sun will somehow save us. I suppose that, like a train wreck or some natural calamity, raises unfolding climate change makes for fascinating 'disaster porn', as well as unveiling some fascinating scientific questions. But I'd personally rather not be titillated in that way, and there are lots of other scientific enqueries to make.

Solving the issue all comes down to economics. A fundamental problem of our society is that we live our lives in servitude to an malignant economy that has been specifically constructed to externalize costs to the greater environment. Nothing matters but the financial bottom line. Little penalty is applied in our current system for destruction of our 'natural capital', be it air, land or sea. A healthy economy should serve our needs, not vice versa. Further, we are conditioned through relentless advertising to consume at all costs in a futile attempt to fulfill our otherwise meaningless existence. Community and family have become unimportant, replaced by extreme competition. This is all completely artificial, a man-made construct. It doesn't have to be this way. Taking back the world from the bankers and the economists is a key step to repairing the environmental damage to our world. I don't know what comes after, but it's got to be better than leaving our children a legacy of social chaos, a disaster-plagued landscape and an ocean full of nothing but jellyfish.

05 December 2007

Indonesia: Microcosm of climate change

The UNFCCC Conference on Climate Change is taking place in Bali, Indonesia until 14 December. This international meeting is the opening stages of negotiations for a comprehensive treaty on the adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. In many ways, the location is ideal. While the meeting is happening in Bali, a resort island, Indonesia as a whole represents a world in miniature for climate change. A wide range of the expected impacts of climate change are already beginning to be observed there.

Indonesia is an archipelago, with over 17 500 islands (6000+ inhabited) and a predominantly Muslim population of over 230 million. The country has seen its share of internal political strife, with several separatist movements in the last decade. It has also faced economic turmoil, particularly hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Straddling a major thrust fault, the nation is also subject to strong earthquakes and significant volcanic activity (source: CIA World Factbook). More to the point of this blog, there are many environmental issues of concern in Indonesia.

As an archipelago, the nation has an intimate relation with the sea. There are numerous coral reefs in the country. These have been long damaged by blast fishing and pollution, but now warming of the oceans associated with climate change is resulting in large-scale bleaching of the reefs. If unchecked, these could disappear within decades. Rising sea-levels are also a threat, with the possible disappearance of many small islands. Jakarta's airport could be flooded with sea water by 2035, and the Presidential Palace, 10 km inland could be flooded by 2080.

Indonesia also faces a threat to its food stocks. More erratic weather patterns have been observed over the past few years, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to successfully maintain crop yields. Indonesia lost 300 000 tons of crop production every year between 1992 and 2000, three times higher than the previous decade. Fish stocks are also dwindling, likely due to overfishing. Increasingly erratic climate variability associated with climate change suggests that these trends are likely to continue in the future.

Indonesia's extensive tropical forests are also in danger. Land clearing, particularly of the peatlands, can result in an enormous CO2 source. Much of the forest is being deliberately burned off to make room for palm oil plantations to make allegedly 'green' bio-fuels. At other times, the erratic climate results in widespread drought over the region, which dries out the forest an creates conditions suitable for massive wildfires. Conditions during the 1997-8 El Nino resulted in a particularly dramatic fire season here. Should such conditions become more frequent the resulting emissions of CO2 and destruction of forest could be devastating. Indonesia has made a proposal for wealthier nations to pay to avoid deforestation. It reeks of blackmail, but it may have to be adopted to avoid even worse consequences.

Climate-change-affected disease is also on the increase in the nation. This year has seen a particularly virulent strain of dengue fever become widespread. Whereas previously, fatalities from the disease mostly occurred among children, now 20% of the fatalities are adults. This is out of the realm of past experience. There have also been an unusually high number of cases of dengue in SE Asia in the past year.

This is not meant to single Indonesia out for particular blame. These problems, and many variants thereof, are occurring worldwide even as the negotiations ensue. Rather, this is a call to the delegates who are negotiating our future in Bali: Consider the impacts on the local environment of the conference. Take a look at what is happening around you. Do not underestimate the impact that climate change can and will have on our future. Of course, it is not just climate change but a whole host of environmental issues, like overfishing and deforestation, that need to be considered in the negotiations. Overpopulation and peak oil also should not be neglected. The basic framework for the future of our species and our planet is being decided at this meeting.

To use a sporting analogy, it's late in the second half and we are a few goals down. We can give up; we are sure to lose that way. Or we can keep playing like there is no tomorrow (because there isn't...). It is time to put aside our differences and play together as a team. Let's win one in spite of what the Gipper (and his ilk) have done to put us so far behind.

03 December 2007

Climate change: Who pays?

In the lead-up to the UNFCCC Bali conference, many of the difficult issues facing negotiators have been reported in the press. Many of the issues deal with the question 'Who pays?', which is discussed in the following. The answers thus far are all over the map and depend on where on the map you are. Most nations support calls for action, but few seem willing to lead. I fear that many are still underestimating the enormity and urgency of the situation. For instance, there is little agreement on what constitutes dangerous climate change.

Many developing nations say the “rich” countries should pay. India is pledging to keep its per-capita emissions lower than those of the rich world. China argues that global warming is primarily the fault of Western industrialised nations and they should be made to bear the brunt of cleanup costs. Other Latin American nations, including Brazil, offer much the same rationale.

Many of the developed world nations brings similarly short-sighted reasons primarily based on their self interest and a perceived financial threat. The United States has refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol primarily because China is exempted from greenhouse gas reductions. Canada, once a world leader in environmental issues, has lost its way , a result heavily influenced by industry interests. Until recently Australia followed a similar path to the US, but the newly elected government is seeking to remedy this situation. Japan and Europe are meeting their obligations under the treaty through purchase/transfer of carbon credits and have been generally willing participants and leaders on the issue.

There is merit in the arguments of both rich and poor countries. Rich countries did create most of the problem, largely through energy intensive, wasteful consumer-driven lifestyles. This story on the desire for perceived bargains shows that we are generally unwilling to give up this lifestyle. This report, issued in the US, holds out the idea that CO2 can be reduced without a change to the consumer lifestyles. (What about the rest of the environment?). This lifestyle choice perpetuates the problem. At the same time, nations like China and India can do more. While their per capita numbers are low, those two nations are quite high in total emissions, ranking among the developed nations. This is a result of the environmental issue that is rarely discussed: overpopulation.

In the rich nations, there is an obligation to lead, assist developing nations with adaptation and technology transfer, and to change our lifestyles to something more ecologically sustainable. Repairing the environmental damage within those countries is also an obligation. In developing nations, the onus is to prevent future environmental damage (e.g. avoid deforestation), reduce population growth and develop sustainable economies, with the assistance of the rich nations. All nations need to act in concert to deal with the increasing number of natural disasters and to be willing to welcome and accept climate refugees as the need arises.

As it stands now, the various attitudes displayed by the 'two sides' reflect a deep disconnect with reality and a general failure to truly grasp the scale of the problem. Instead, the focus is only blame (and the avoidance thereof). The truth is we all have a moral obligation to do what we can. None of us are free from blame, and it is a pointless waste of time to partition it out. We all have to live with the consequences of climate chaos and we all need to bear the cost, each according to their ability.

02 December 2007

More on geo-engineering

Following my recent post on the perils of geo-engineering via iron fertilization of the ocean, several more related items have hit the news. Below is a synopsis of these items.

A new paper reported in National Geographic News provides further evidence for a significant (if not dominant) role of hydrogen sulfide in producing the mass extinction at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago. I was following a Scientific American article which hypothesized the same thing, along with the mechanism. This new article supports that mechanism, but any possible link with geo-engineering remains speculation on my part.

From ScienceDaily (and elsewhere)...”Research performed at Stanford and Oregon State Universities suggests that ocean fertilization may not be an effective method of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere...”

Basically, this method of sequestering carbon only works in the plankton sinks to the deep ocean. However, the authors found that “...less carbon was transported to deep water during a summertime bloom than during the rest of the year”.

In short, it doesn't appear that carbon is effectively sequestered using this methodology. Still, these findings apparently don't dissuade some:”Some scientists have suggested that verification may require more massive and more permanent experiments. Together with commercial operators they plan to go ahead with large-scale and more permanent ocean fertilization experiments” (emphasis added).

There are already efforts underway to begin a commercial venture based on this idea, regardless of any potential consequences. Actually, the experiment has been performed numerous times since the mid-1990s, as noted here. Here is the chief of the Planktos Corp says, responding to criticism

The iron ore to be used in the test is the same as dust blown naturally by the wind into the ocean...

"Hundreds of millions of tons of dust are landing in the ocean every year. How can anyone suggest that our 50 tonnes of rock dust will provoke some cataclysmic result?"

He is, of course, correct in this assertion. One experiment isn't going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things...I see several problems with this, nonetheless, and remain opposed to the idea in general.

Consider the simple arithmetic of the company's proposal. If the vast amounts of dust are already landing on the ocean and we still face ever-rising CO2 levels (2006 highest on record), how much more are dust/whatever is going to have to put in for this to be effective? It would seem to be an unfeasible amount given the numbers above. To truly sequester enough CO2 by this method would likely entail severe damage to the marine ecosystem. I don't think that this company is truly interested “sav[ing] the planet from the ravages of fossil fuels”, but rather profiteering on genuine societal problems. IMO, this behaviour is unethical.

This attitude is symptomatic of the larger problem at hand here. The “profit motive” is part of the attitude that got us into the current environmental mess we face in the first place. It seems unlikely to present a particularly useful solution to the problem. This just signals that we can keep doing what we want to the planet heedless of the consequences. Replacing this attitude is the key to the problem. There are lots of easier steps to take before we consider grandiose schemes -- Energy conservation, alternate energy research, emissions cuts,agricultural reform, better land management,a reduction in consumerism – let's try those before we resort to the extremely risky steps involved in schemes like geo-engineering.

Fortunately, wiser heads are beginning to prevail on this issue. There are more general calls, from the World Conservation Union for example, going out to at least do more farsighted research into the issues before simply charging in and hope it works out for the best. Personally, I think we should focus on other, more mundane alternatives first, rather than shilling out our limited research funding into crazy schemes designed to fix environmental problems with little or no cost.


James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt has a good take on the issue, commenting on the debate started at The Intersection.