Syria’s war helped create an epic dust storm, scientists say

The Washington Post reports: Last month, a thick yellow cloud of dust blanketed parts of the Middle East and extended all the way to Cyprus. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were forced to scurry for shelter from the choking plume, while Israelis were instructed to stay indoors and ports in Egypt were shut. Health officials in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said more than 1,200 people, including 100 children, were hospitalized with breathing difficulties; in Lebanon, two women died as a result of the dust storm.

It was an unusual, unseasonal event, as my colleague Hugh Naylor reported. And, according to a team of Israeli scientists, it may have been the consequence of extreme, man-made conditions in Syria and Iraq right now.

As Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes, researchers at Ben-Gurion University’s Institute for Desert Research scrutinized the storm, the likes of which are usually seen in the spring. They found that the particles of dust kicked up were larger than anything their instruments had previously recorded (since being operation in 1995) and that the dust traveled at a rather low level. [Continue reading…]


Nearly a third of world’s cacti face extinction, says IUCN


The Guardian reports: Nearly a third of the world’s cacti are facing the threat of extinction, according to a shocking global assessment of the effects that illegal trade and other human activities are having on the species.

Cacti are a critical provider of food and water to desert wildlife ranging from coyotes and deer to lizards, tortoises, bats and hummingbirds, and these fauna spread the plants’ seeds in return.

But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)‘s first worldwide health check of the plants, published today in the journal Nature Plants, says that they are coming under unprecedented pressure from human activities such as land use conversions, commercial and residential developments and shrimp farming.

But the paper said the main driver of cacti species extinction was the: “unscrupulous collection of live plants and seeds for horticultural trade and private ornamental collections, smallholder livestock ranching and smallholder annual agriculture.” [Continue reading…]


How do we get people to care about the environment? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

Brooke Jarvis writes: [Chris] Jordan is a photographer who once referred to himself, while joking with Stephen Colbert, as a paparazzo of garbage. Before going to [the Pacific atoll] Midway, he spent years trying to visually represent the baffling scale on which we produce and scrap the materials of consumer society. He explored ports and scrap yards, photographing immense, looming walls of crushed cars and oil drums, shipping containers and pallets, and later began creating digital composites to illustrate statistics too vast for the human brain to compute: a forest made from the cigarette butts thrown out every 15 seconds in the United States; a swirl of hundreds of thousands of cell phones, the discards of a single American day.

He’d created other series in the past — nature scenes, studies of alleys and puddles and urban trees bathed in the glow of neon signs — but nothing felt relevant to contemporary culture until he began trying to make the grand scale of human waste visible. It was his way of hunting the perpetual, elusive quarry familiar to environmentalists: a message that can get people to care.

But over time this work began to feel cold and conceptual, almost numbing. Jordan began to doubt that it could accomplish the breakthrough he wanted. So he started searching for something different: a way to help people make a powerful emotional connection to a broken world.

That’s when he heard about what happens to many Laysan albatrosses on the verge of flight. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis encourages Congress and the U.S. to promote a ‘culture of care’

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis said: In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue—a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons—new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223). [Continue reading…]

For readers unfamiliar with Thomas Merton, here’s a video with clips from the last lecture he gave, shortly before his death in 1968.


Nature can’t pay its own way – so let’s take the market out of conservation

By Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

For years, scientists and environmentalists have debated the best ways to conserve and protect natural resources from pollution and over-exploitation.

In the late 19th century, conservation advocates with the help of President Roosevelt succeeded in making Yellowstone the first US national park. Yellowstone’s status sent a strong message against unregulated commercial extraction and the model has since been replicated worldwide. However, the strict exclusionary nature of national parks was extremely burdensome for local and indigenous peoples who remained reliant on natural resources within protected areas.

The policy of “fortress conservation” was intended to give way in the late 20th century to a host of more sustainable alternatives, announced at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Conservation and development would be better integrated, and rural poverty addressed by bringing the poor into a global marketplace, while simultaneously delivering the market deep into the rainforests.

Since Rio, market-based conservation has gained a lot of traction, and almost all forms of nature have been commodified. Packaged into sleek financialised terminology such as carbon credits, ecosystem services or species banking, the market has become such a supposed panacea for conservation that selling nature has become, for many, the only method of conserving it.

[Read more…]


Our seas are being degraded, fish are dying – but humanity is threatened too

Callum Roberts writes: Sardines were once extraordinarily abundant in the south-west of England, leading one 19th-century guidebook to say: “Pursued by predaceous hordes of dogfish, hake and cod, and greedy flocks of seabirds, they advance towards the land in such amazing numbers as actually to impede the passage of vessels and to discolour the sea as far as the eye can reach … Of a sudden they will vanish from view and then again approach the coast in such compact order and overwhelming force that numbers will be pushed ashore by the moving hosts in the rear. In 1836 a shoal extended in a compact body from Fowey to the Land’s End, a distance of at least 100 miles if we take into consideration the windings of the shore.” (Handbook for Travellers in Devon and Cornwall, John Murray and Thomas Clifton Paris, 1851).

Today people travel thousands of miles to dive and film such scenes, not realising they were once commonplace on our own coasts. Last week the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London issued their most comprehensive look at the state of life in the sea. The report makes uncomfortable reading. Taking in more than 1,000 species worldwide and 5,000 populations of fish, turtles, marine mammals and a host of others, it draws the bleak conclusion that there is only half the amount of wildlife in the sea today as in 1970.

Although 1970 is their baseline year and seems long ago, life in the sea has been in decline for much longer. In short, that means the picture is worse than the report suggests. And the waters around Britain demonstrate the same patterns that are slashing fish stocks around the world. [Continue reading…]


Tuna and mackerel populations suffer catastrophic 74% decline, research shows

The Guardian reports: Tuna and mackerel populations have suffered a “catastrophic” decline of nearly three quarters in the last 40 years, according to new research.

WWF and the Zoological Society of London found that numbers of the scombridae family of fish, which also includes bonito, fell by 74% between 1970 and 2012, outstripping a decline of 49% for 1,234 ocean species over the same period.

The conservation charity warned that we face losing species critical to human food security, unless drastic action is taken to halt overfishing and other threats to marine life.

Louise Heaps, chief advisor on marine policy at WWF UK, said: “This is catastrophic. We are destroying vital food sources, and the ecology of our oceans.” [Continue reading…]


Living without money: What I learned

Mark Boyle writes: With little idea of what I was to expect, or how I was to go about it, seven years ago I began living without money. Originally intended as a one-year experiment in ecological living, I wanted to explore how it felt as a human being to live without the trappings and security that money had long-since afforded me. While terrifying and tough to begin with, by the end of the first year I somehow found myself more content, healthier and at peace than I had ever been. And although three years later I made a difficult decision to re-enter the monetary world – to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives – I took from it many lessons that have changed my life forever.

For the first time I experienced how connected and interdependent I was on the people and natural world around me, something I had previously only intellectualised. It is not until you become physically aware of how your own health is entirely reliant on the health of the great web of life, that ideas such as deep ecology absorb themselves into your arteries, sinews and bones.

If the air that filled my lungs became polluted, if the nutrients in the soil that produced my food became depleted, or if the spring water which made up 60% of my body became poisoned, my own health would suffer accordingly. This seems like common sense, but you wouldn’t think so by observing the way we treat the natural world today. Over time, even the boundaries of what I considered to be “I” became less and less clear. [Continue reading…]


The Amazon tribe protecting the forest with bows, arrows, GPS and camera traps

The Guardian reports: With bows, arrows, GPS trackers and camera traps, an indigenous community in northern Brazil is fighting to achieve what the government has long failed to do: halt illegal logging in their corner of the Amazon.

The Ka’apor – a tribe of about 2,200 people in Maranhão state – have organised a militia of “forest guardians” who follow a strategy of nature conservation through aggressive confrontation.

Logging trucks and tractors that encroach upon their territory – the 530,000-hectare Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land – are intercepted and burned. Drivers and chainsaw operators are warned never to return. Those that fail to heed the advice are stripped and beaten.

It is dangerous work. Since the tribe decided to manage their own protection in 2011, they say the theft of timber has been reduced, but four Ka’apor have been murdered and more than a dozen others have received death threats. [Continue reading…]


UK backs bid by fossil fuel firms to kill new EU fracking controls, letters reveal

The Guardian reports: The UK government has added its weight to a behind-the-scenes lobbying drive by oil and gas firms including BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil to persuade EU leaders to scrap a series of environmental safety measures for fracking, according to leaked letters seen by the Guardian.

The deregulatory push against safety measures, which could include the monitoring of on-site methane leaks and capture of gases and volatile compounds that might otherwise be vented, appears to go against assurances from David Cameron that fracking would only be safe “if properly regulated”.

In a comment piece in 2013 the prime minister wrote: “We must make the case that fracking is safe … the regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world.”

But UK government sources say that any new form of industry controls would be “an unnecessary restriction on the UK oil and gas industry”. [Continue reading…]


French spy who sank Greenpeace ship apologises for lethal bombing

The Guardian reports: A French secret service diver who took part in the operation to sink Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior 30 years ago has spoken publicly for the first time to apologise for his actions.

Jean-Luc Kister, who attached a mine to the ship’s hull, says the guilt of the bombing, which killed a photographer, still weighs heavily on his mind.

“We are not assassins and we have a conscience,” the former agent told investigative website Mediapart. “I have the weight of an innocent man’s death on my conscience … It’s time, I believe, for me to express my profound regret and my apologies,” Kister said.

He said he wanted to apologise to the family of the dead man, Fernando Pereira, “especially his daughter Marelle … for what I call an accidental death but what they consider an assassination”, to the Greenpeace crew aboard the ship and the people of New Zealand where the Rainbow Warrior was sunk. [Continue reading…]


Teddy Roosevelt on why environmentalism is a patriotic duty

On August 31, 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt said: Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.[Continue reading…]


Wind power sets records as countries seek climate fixes

National Geographic reports: As global climate efforts intensify this year, a renewable power source is setting new records. Wind’s costs are plummeting in the United States, and offshore farms are soaring in Europe — at least for now.

Worldwide, wind power expanded more last year than ever before, and new reports show it’s continuing to gain ground. Since it emits no heat-trapping carbon dioxide, wind will be a key tool for countries crafting a new UN-led climate accord this December in Paris.

Europe’s offshore wind farms are producing record amounts of power. They tripled capacity in the first six months of this year compared to the same period of 2014, owing largely to “explosive growth in Germany and the use of higher capacity wind turbines,” according to a recent report by European Wind Energy Association, an industry group.

In the U.S., wind now provides 5 percent of the nation’s electricity, the Department of Energy reported this week. It can produce 66 gigawatts (a gigawatt is a billion watts), enough to power 17.5 million homes. American companies are also joining the move off land. This year, near the coast of Rhode Island, the first U.S. offshore wind farm broke ground. [Continue reading…]


Nine out of ten seabirds have plastic waste trapped in their guts

The New York Times reports: Seabirds like albatross, petrels and penguins face a growing threat from plastic waste in parts of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans, according to a new study published on Monday.

Brightly colored floating bits – debris that includes items such as discarded flip-flops, water bottles and popped balloons – often attract seabirds, which confuse them for food like krill or shrimp. Many die from swallowing the plastic.

The problem received some national attention in 2013 with the documentary “Midway,” which showed a remote island in the Pacific covered in corpses of baby albatross. Their exposed innards revealed lighters, bottle caps and toothbrushes mistakenly fed to them by their parents.

The number of incidents like these is rapidly increasing, according to the new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers from Australia and Britain analyzed a number of papers from 1962 to 2012 that had surveyed 135 seabirds. The team found that fewer than 10 percent of seabirds had traces of plastic in their stomachs during the 1970s and 1980s. They estimated that today that number has increased to about 90 percent of seabirds. And they predict that 99 percent of all seabirds will swallow plastic in 2050. [Continue reading…]


No escaping the Blue Marble

By Clive Hamilton

It is often said that the first full image of the Earth, “Blue Marble”, taken by the Apollo 17 space mission in December 1972, revealed Earth to be precious, fragile and protected only by a wafer-thin atmospheric layer. It reinforced the imperative for better stewardship of our “only home”.

But there was another way of seeing the Earth revealed by those photographs. For some the image showed the Earth as a total object, a knowable system, and validated the belief that the planet is there to be used for our own ends.

In this way, the “Blue Marble” image was not a break from technological thinking but its affirmation. A few years earlier, reflecting on the spiritual consequences of space flight, the theologian Paul Tillich wrote of how the possibility of looking down at the Earth gives rise to “a kind of estrangement between man and earth” so that the Earth is seen as a totally calculable material body.

For some, by objectifying the planet this way the Apollo 17 photograph legitimised the Earth as a domain of technological manipulation, a domain from which any unknowable and unanalysable element has been banished. It prompts the idea that the Earth as a whole could be subject to regulation.

This metaphysical possibility is today a physical reality in work now being carried out on geoengineering – technologies aimed at deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects.

While some proposed schemes are modest and relatively benign, the more ambitious ones – each now with a substantial scientific-commercial constituency – would see humanity mobilising its technological power to seize control of the climate system. And because the climate system cannot be separated from the rest of the Earth System, that means regulating the planet, probably in perpetuity.

[Read more…]


Droughts used to be given names as the came and went, but now the drought has no name because it never ends

Turane Mohamed says: I come from Wajir in Northern Kenya.

Pastoralists keep camels, cattle, sheep and goats. People also try to grow crops like maize, millet and sorghum, but they often fail because of poor soil and lack of rain.

The pastoralists have come through a long journey in adapting to climate variability.

From the 1950s to the 80s, the drought was minimal. Drought used to be given a name. You only needed a small number of animals to have food security.

As a child, I used to lose weight when I went to school in town and fill up on milk, ghee, meat and wild fruit when I came home for the holidays.

The trend from the 90s to today, the drought has been happening constantly. People have given up giving it a name. [Continue reading…]


Tropical forests will still exist in 2100 – but they will be a sorry sight

By Simon Lewis, UCL

By the end of the century, the world’s remaining tropical forests will be left in a fragmented, simplified, and degraded state. No patch will remain untouched – most remnants will be overrun by species that disperse well, which often means “weedy” plants like fast-growing pioneer trees and small rodents that thrive in disturbed areas. Most of the rest will be “the living dead” – tiny remnant populations of plants and animals hanging on with no future.

There is no cast-iron law that dictates this scenario – but it appears likely unless we see a series of major policy changes. What could unfold? In research published in the journal Science, colleagues and I outline an all too common chain of events.

The first cut of timber from any natural forest is the most lucrative. The most remote places, in the interior of Amazonia, in central Congo and the heart of Borneo are all coveted by industrial loggers. The logging frontier marches relentlessly on. They selectively take the biggest trees and along with them the habitat of species that rely them.

[Read more…]


Fukushima: The price of nuclear power

Michael Ignatieff writes: Four years ago, the fishing town of Namie, on the northeast coast of Japan, lived through an experience of malediction biblical in scope. Beginning at 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011, without warning, the town’s population of 23,000 was struck by a triple disaster in quick succession: an earthquake measuring nine on the Richter scale that severely damaged the upper town, a fifteen-meter tsunami that carried away the entire lower town, and finally, in the days that followed, a blanket of radioactivity, from explosions in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant just six miles away, that settled over the town’s ruins.

Today grass grows on the sidewalks in Namie. There are no cars, no people, anywhere. Through shop windows you can still see goods that tumbled off the shelves and remain on the linoleum floors gathering dust. Everything is as it was left in the panicked evacuation. In one building, the earthquake has left behind a three-inch fissure in a wall, a vase lies in pieces on the floor of a sitting room, and the windows of a sunroom have collapsed in shards. Nearby a store sign—in English—“Suzuki watch, jewelry, optical”—lies collapsed on the sidewalk; the bus shelter where the municipal buses turned around is empty; a sign saying “Louer: Total Beauty Salon” still hangs over a shuttered shop; and at the town’s main intersection, the single traffic light is still blinking on and off.

Four years after the calamity, no one from Namie can return home. It remains in the “red zone,” a contaminated area fifty miles by ten where the winds and rains carried a plume of radioactivity in the days after the disaster. Today there are parts of town where radiation measures twenty-six times the Tokyo level. Caesium-137 is washed down by the rains and accumulates in the weeds that grow near the gutters. Yet Japan — along with much of the world — still considers nuclear power an essential part of the energy mix necessary to meet the challenge of climate change. [Continue reading…]