Leading Brexiters support the transfer of public money from the poor to the rich

George Monbiot writes: The common agricultural policy is a €55bn incentive to destroy wildlife habitats and cause floods downstream.

All the good things the EU has done for nature are more than counteracted by this bureaucratic idiocy. Millions of hectares of wildlife habitat in the EU are threatened by this rule; clearance has taken place already across vast areas. Why do we hear so little about it?

I spent part of this spring in Romania, in the midst of hundreds of thousands of hectares of wood pasture: a mosaic of flowering meadows, marshes and trees. I have seldom seen such a profusion of life anywhere on earth. I watched golden orioles, hoopoes, honey buzzards, red-backed and great grey shrikes, lesser spotted eagles, black storks, yellow wagtails, roe deer, wild boar and bears. Cuckoos were so common they flew around in flocks. All nine species of European woodpecker live in one small valley where I stayed; so do bee eaters, goshawks, corncrakes, quails, nightjars, tortoises, tree frogs, pine martens, wildcats, lynx and wolves.

All this is now on the brink. Across Romania, farmers are beginning to realise that they can make money simply by cleansing the land. In eastern Transylvania I saw the heartbreaking results: the mass felling of trees and destruction of wildlife, not for any productive purpose, but just to meet the European rules. It’s the same kind of vandalism, driven by diktat and blindly enforced by bureaucrats, that the Romanians suffered under their former despot, Nicolae Ceausescu. The European subsidies rules are responsible for one of the world’s great unfolding disasters, which ranks only a little way behind the fires in Indonesia and the collapse of coral reefs.

This dog that hasn’t barked exposes the real agenda of the leading Brexiters. They denounce the transfer of public money from rich to poor; they are intensely relaxed about the transfer of public money from poor to rich. It also challenges those who wish to remain.

I will vote in on Thursday, as I don’t want to surrender this country to the unmolested control of people prepared to rip up every variety of public spending and public protection except those that serve their own class. But if we are to live in Remainia, we should insist on sweeping change. Daylight robbery and mass destruction: the EU is supposed to prevent them, not deliver them. [Continue reading…]

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Global warming’s evil twin: ocean acidification

Climate Reality reports: Our oceans are an incredible carbon sink — they absorb about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide humans produce every year. But this is changing sea surface chemistry dramatically: when carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, it dissolves to form carbonic acid. The result, not surprisingly, is that the ocean becomes more acidic, upsetting the delicate pH balance that millions and millions of organisms rely on.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our seas have become about 30 percent more acidic, a rate not observed in 300 million years. This has a wide range of consequences for marine ecosystems, as well as for the billions of people who depend on the ocean for food and survival. [Continue reading…]

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RIP Bob Paine, a keystone among ecologists

Ed Yong writes: I’m deeply saddened to learn that Bob Paine, a giant of ecology, passed away yesterday. You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know the ideas that he pioneered.

Back in 1963, Paine began prying ochre starfish off a rocky beach in Washington and hurling them into the sea. After a year, the mussels that the starfish would normally have eaten had overrun the beach, turning a wonderland of limpets, anemones, and barnacles into a monoculture of black gaping shells.

The experiment was ground-breaking. It showed that not all species are equal, and that some — like the starfish—are secret lynchpins of the natural world. Their absence can ripple outwards, triggering the rise and fall of connected species and can even reshape the landscape. For example, when sea otters vanish, the sea urchins they eat transform lush forests of kelp into desolate barrens, dooming the fish, crabs, and other animals that once lived there. Paine called these ripples “trophic cascades”, and he billed the animals behind them — the starfish, otters, and others — as “keystone species”, after the central stone that stops an arch from collapsing. These concepts are so familiar today that we take them for granted, but we didn’t always know about them. We only do because of Paine. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists have found yet another part of Antarctica that may be in trouble

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The Washington Post reports: The forces affecting the ice in West Antarctica are an area of urgent focus for climate scientists who are all too aware of the ice sheet’s huge potential contributions to global sea-level rise. A great deal of this attention has centered on a specific region bordering the Amundsen Sea, south of the Antarctic Peninsula, where research has suggested that a set of rapidly retreating glaciers — including the famous Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers — may be increasingly vulnerable to collapse.

But research is increasingly suggesting that the region is not the only area deserving of concern. Just last month, a new study suggested that the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica, which has typically been considered much less of a threat than West Antarctica, is also thinning quickly and has retreated inland by close to two miles in some areas. Overall, the glacier has the potential to raise sea levels by about 13 feet should it collapse.

And now, a new study just published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has identified a new area of concern. The new research focuses on the Bellingshausen Sea region, an area just above the Amundsen Sea on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Using four decades’ worth of satellite data, researchers have found that ice in this region has also experienced significant retreat, particularly since 1990, and could be a bigger threat than expected. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear plants, despite safety concerns, gaining support among environmentalists

The New York Times reports: Just a few years ago, the United States seemed poised to say farewell to nuclear energy. No company had completed a new plant in decades, and the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 intensified public disenchantment with the technology, both here and abroad.

But as the Paris agreement on climate change has put pressure on the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some state and federal officials have deemed nuclear energy part of the solution. They are now scrambling to save existing plants that can no longer compete economically in a market flooded with cheap natural gas.

“We’re supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said recently at a symposium that the department convened to explore ways to improve the industry’s prospects.

As a result, there are efforts across the country to bail out nuclear plants at risk of closing, with important test cases in Illinois, Ohio and New York, as well as proposed legislation in Congress.

Exelon, one of the country’s largest nuclear operators, for example, is deciding whether to close two of its struggling plants in Illinois after efforts to push a bailout through its Legislature fell apart.

Nuclear power remains mired in longstanding questions over waste disposal, its safety record after the catastrophes at places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the potential for its plants to be converted into weapon-making factories. In spite of the lingering issues, policy makers, analysts and executives, along with a growing number of environmentalists, say that at stake is the future of the country’s largest source of clean energy.

“Nothing else comes close,” Mr. Moniz, a nuclear physicist, said at the symposium. [Continue reading…]

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Reading Edward Said in a warming world

Naomi Klein writes: Edward Said was no tree-hugger. Descended from traders, artisans and professionals, he once described himself as ‘an extreme case of an urban Palestinian whose relationship to the land is basically metaphorical’.​ In After the Last Sky, his meditation on the photographs of Jean Mohr, he explored the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives, from hospitality to sports to home décor. The tiniest detail – the placing of a picture frame, the defiant posture of a child – provoked a torrent of insight from Said. Yet when confronted with images of Palestinian farmers – tending their flocks, working the fields – the specificity suddenly evaporated. Which crops were being cultivated? What was the state of the soil? The availability of water? Nothing was forthcoming. ‘I continue to perceive a population of poor, suffering, occasionally colourful peasants, unchanging and collective,’ Said confessed. This perception was ‘mythic’, he acknowledged – yet it remained.

If farming was another world for Said, those who devoted their lives to matters like air and water pollution appear to have inhabited another planet. Speaking to his colleague Rob Nixon, he once described environmentalism as ‘the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause’. But the environmental challenges of the Middle East are impossible to ignore for anyone immersed, as Said was, in its geopolitics. This is a region intensely vulnerable to heat and water stress, to sea-level rise and to desertification. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change predicts that, unless we radically lower emissions and lower them fast, large parts of the Middle East will likely ‘experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans’ by the end of this century. And that’s about as blunt as climate scientists get. Yet environmental issues in the region still tend to be treated as afterthoughts, or luxury causes. The reason is not ignorance, or indifference. It’s just bandwidth. Climate change is a grave threat but the most frightening impacts are in the medium term. And in the short term, there are always far more pressing threats to contend with: military occupation, air assault, systemic discrimination, embargo. Nothing can compete with that – nor should it attempt to try.

There are other reasons why environmentalism might have looked like a bourgeois playground to Said. The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos. And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads. It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green’, boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region. In publicity materials, the JNF bills itself as just another green NGO, concerned with forest and water management, parks and recreation. It also happens to be the largest private landowner in the state of Israel, and despite a number of complicated legal challenges, it still refuses to lease or sell land to non-Jews.

I grew up in a Jewish community where every occasion – births and deaths, Mother’s Day, bar mitzvahs – was marked with the proud purchase of a JNF tree in the person’s honour. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to understand that those feel-good faraway conifers, certificates for which papered the walls of my Montreal elementary school, were not benign – not just something to plant and later hug. In fact these trees are among the most glaring symbols of Israel’s system of official discrimination – the one that must be dismantled if peaceful co-existence is to become possible.

The JNF is an extreme and recent example of what some call ‘green colonialism’. But the phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it unique to Israel. There is a long and painful history in the Americas of beautiful pieces of wilderness being turned into conservation parks – and then that designation being used to prevent Indigenous people from accessing their ancestral territories to hunt and fish, or simply to live. It has happened again and again. A contemporary version of this phenomenon is the carbon offset. Indigenous people from Brazil to Uganda are finding that some of the most aggressive land grabbing is being done by conservation organisations. A forest is suddenly rebranded a carbon offset and is put off-limits to its traditional inhabitants. As a result, the carbon offset market has created a whole new class of ‘green’ human rights abuses, with farmers and Indigenous people being physically attacked by park rangers or private security when they try to access these lands. Said’s comment about tree-huggers should be seen in this context.

And there is more. In the last year of Said’s life, Israel’s so-called ‘separation barrier’ was going up, seizing huge swathes of the West Bank, cutting Palestinian workers off from their jobs, farmers from their fields, patients from hospitals – and brutally dividing families. There was no shortage of reasons to oppose the wall on human rights grounds. Yet at the time, some of the loudest dissenting voices among Israeli Jews were not focused on any of that. Yehudit Naot, Israel’s then environment minister, was more worried about a report informing her that ‘The separation fence … is harmful to the landscape, the flora and fauna, the ecological corridors and the drainage of the creeks.’ ‘I certainly don’t want to stop or delay the building of the fence,’ she said, but ‘I am disturbed by the environmental damage involved.’ As the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti later observed, Naot’s ‘ministry and the National Parks Protection Authority mounted diligent rescue efforts to save an affected reserve of irises by moving it to an alternative reserve. They’ve also created tiny passages [through the wall] for animals.’

Perhaps this puts the cynicism about the green movement in context. People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said’s intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don’t ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first ‘save the world’ – but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said – and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers – because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. So what follows are some thoughts – by no means complete – about what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world. [Continue reading…]

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Humans damaging the environment faster than it can recover, UN finds

The Guardian reports: Degradation of the world’s natural resources by humans is rapidly outpacing the planet’s ability to absorb the damage, meaning the rate of deterioration is increasing globally, the most comprehensive environmental study ever undertaken by the UN has found.

The study, which involved 1,203 scientists, hundreds of scientific institutions and more than 160 governments brought together by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), concludes that without radical action the level of prosperity that millions of people in the developed world count on will be impossible to maintain or extend to poorer countries.

Water scarcity is the scourge of some of the poorest regions on Earth, the study found, leaving developing countries increasingly unable to feed themselves, and causing hardship for millions of people. There appears little prospect of this dire situation being remedied, according to the UN, without radical action being taken. [Continue reading…]

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William deBuys: No more wide open spaces?

One summer 43 years ago, I headed west with a photographer friend, interviewing Americans at minor league baseball parks, fairgrounds, tourist spots, campgrounds, wherever the moment and our Volkswagen van took us.  Grandiosely enough, our goal was “to tap the mood of the nation,” which led to my first book, Beyond Our Control: America in the Mid Seventies.  Looking back, I now realize that, in 1973, three decades ahead of schedule, we met the precursors to the Tea Party movement, angry and unnerved white Americans of a certain age, camped out in their RVs and distinctly dyspeptic about where this country was going.  This was a crowd, as I wrote at the time, that when it came to the lifestyles they had known and enjoyed could already “feel the tremors under their feet” and I predicted that one of these days they would be the ones to suffer.  “You can bet,” I observed, that “America’s corporate pushers won’t be going through the same sort of withdrawal pains as their victims.”  And I added, “What makes it so frightening is this: When these people find themselves desperate, they may panic and grab for the first help in sight, and I’m afraid to think what that will be.”  All these decades later, we may finally have a better idea of what that, in fact, is.

As it happened, for this born and bred New York City boy for whom Central Park was the wilderness, there was another unforgettable aspect of that journey from coast to coast.  I saw up close and personal something of the West, of lands that seemed to stretch out toward eternity, that could take your breath away, and that, as TomDispatch regular William deBuys points out today, still — though for how long we don’t know — belong to all of us.  Of our visit to Yellowstone Park (where the warnings about grizzlies in the campgrounds touched off the panic button in this urbanite), I wrote:

“Early this afternoon, we rested by a lake and watched a Swainson’s hawk hover and hunt, all its energy focused on a few yards of field. Suddenly, it plummeted out of sight, rose with a field mouse in its claws and was gone.  Yellowstone’s been like that, just the opposite of our expectations.  Gigantic, wild-looking, beautiful. The roads don’t even dent it, at least in the eastern part where we’ve come in. Strangest of all, it’s not crawling with people.  We didn’t see anybody until we pulled into the parking lot of the Hamilton General Store.”

And here’s a small miracle: in this era of privatization — even the military now goes into its war zones with a set of corporate warriors in tow — those awesome American lands are still ours, still public.  My children can still spend time in them and appreciate a world they would otherwise have no access to.  But my grandson when he grows up?  Who knows?  As deBuys makes clear today, behind the latest wing-nuts of the American West lie corporate interests that, in this age of growing inequality, might someday take part in one of the great land grabs of modern times.  Fortunately, there are still writers like deBuys to remind us of just what’s at stake. Tom Engelhardt

Privatizing America’s public land
How the raid on Malheur screened a future raid on real estate
By William deBuys

It goes without saying that in a democracy everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. The trouble starts when people think they are also entitled to their own facts.

Away out West, on the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands that most Americans take for granted (if they are aware of them at all), the trouble is deep, widespread, and won’t soon go away. Last winter’s armed take-over and 41-day occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon is a case in point. It was carried out by people who, if they hadn’t been white and dressed as cowboys, might have been called “terrorists” and treated as such. Their interpretation of the history of western lands and of the judicial basis for federal land ownership — or at least that of their leaders, since they weren’t exactly a band of intellectuals — was only loosely linked to reality.

[Read more…]

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The birth and death of a landscape

Justin Nobel writes: To reach the youngest land in the United States you need a boat. Robert Twilley still vividly remembers the first time he made the trip. The Louisiana State University coastal ecologist piled into a 24-foot Boston Whaler with a bunch of geomorphologists from Minnesota and motored out to an arc of spongy islands along the central coast of Louisiana called the Wax Lake Delta. It was the best place to learn about how a delta develops. The way the land eventually stabilizes and becomes home to a unique ecosystem that changes as the delta gets older is a process that ecologists call succession. “Succession is one of the most fascinating concepts in ecology,” said Twilley, “though one of the hardest to study. But in the Wax Lake Delta you can see it all. Biologic communities link up A to Z; it is the holy grail of ecosystem succession.”

What is remarkable for scientists like Twilley is that with good muck boots, a small boat, and a non-aversion to intense sun, freak thunderstorms, biting insects, and devastating humidity, the aging process of this new land can be studied in a human lifespan. In just over 40 years, the Wax Lake Delta has grown from nothing to an area twice the size of Manhattan. Meanwhile, since the European settlement of North America, the Mississippi River Delta has lost approximately one-third of its original wetland area. A delta that was once about twice the size of Delaware and on maps resembled a head of cauliflower now looks more like a string bean. The slow death of the Mississippi River Delta has severe consequences, including reduced hurricane protection for cities like New Orleans. Not only an important food source for humans and wildlife, this rich habitat also helps filter pollutants and absorb excess nutrients that would deplete the oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico’s water.

As one delta dies, another one grows. The budding Wax Lake Delta has allowed Twilley and his team of researchers to study how a delta ages. First, the nascent delta takes shape as lobes of sediment accumulate below the water. The delta is born when it breaches the surface of the water. Colonized by plants that gradually enhance the soil’s organic content and raise its elevation, it rolls through childhood. And eventually, it grows into a landscape able to support large shrubs and black willow trees. “The delta is almost like an organism,” says Twilley, “There is a birthing, there is an aging process, and there is a death.” [Continue reading…]

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200 years ago, the sky went dark and there was no summer

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Ishaan Tharoor writes: As summer approaches, many in the United States will be awaiting warmer, balmier days. It’s a prospect keenly felt right now by those in the nation’s capital, which has endured two weeks of ceaseless rain.

But things could be much worse. Two hundred years ago, the U.S. Eastern Seaboard registered record-low temperatures. On June 6, 1816, six inches of snow fell across wide swaths of New England. “The heads of all the mountains on every side were crowned with snow,” one area farmer wrote. “The most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen.”

A Connecticut clockmaker recalled at the time having to wear an overcoat and mittens for much of the summer; another bookkeeper noted in his diary that “the vegetation does not seem to advance at all.” Frosts set in and crops failed. In Montreal, there were reports of frozen birds dropping dead on the city streets. Denizens of Vermont were forced to subsist on “nettles, wild turnips and hedgehogs.”

These early Americans probably did not know the cause of the epic cold spell: A year prior, after months of rumbling, a colossal eruption occurred at Mount Tambora, on a small island in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia. Millions of tons of ash and sulfurous gas went dozens of miles up into the stratosphere, creating a kind of dusty veil around the planet and plunging part of Asia in darkness. [Continue reading…]

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WHO report: Europe trails U.S. in cutting air pollution

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The New York Times reports: European countries, which rely heavily on diesel-fueled vehicles, remain far behind the United States in their efforts to reduce harmful air pollution, according to a report to be issued Thursday by the World Health Organization.

The report, which compiled air quality readings from 3,000 cities in 103 countries, found that more than 80 percent of people in those cities were exposed to pollution exceeding the limits set by W.H.O. guidelines, above which air quality is considered to be unhealthy. And in poorer countries, 98 percent of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants were out of compliance with the health organization’s guidelines.

Lower levels of pollution were far more prevalent in North America and higher-income European countries than in most other places, especially countries like India, Pakistan and China.

But in Europe, a higher percentage of cities exceeded the limits set by the W.H.O. than in North America.

That disparity was greatest in wealthier countries; more than 60 percent of European cities failed to meet the guidelines, compared with less than 20 percent in North America. [Continue reading…]

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Are oxygen-depleted oceans from California to Namibia a harbinger of the next mass extinction?

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Moises Velasquez-Manoff writes: It was crabbers who first reported something amiss. In 2002, they began pulling in traps full of corpses. (Crabs should be alive when you catch them.) And they mentioned something else: Little octopuses had followed their crab lines to the surface, as if fleeing inhospitable conditions below.

Then heaps of dead crustaceans began washing ashore along a stretch of Oregon’s coast. When scientists sent a robotic submersible offshore, they discovered mile upon mile of dead crustaceans, the water brown and murky with detritus.

The killer was low oxygen, or hypoxia. Nearly all animals require oxygen to live, and, that year, dissolved oxygen had fallen so low off Oregon’s coast that whatever mobile creatures could had fled, while more-sessile life had simply suffocated.

Every year since, those hypoxic waters have appeared in late summer and early autumn. In 2006, they became anoxic, meaning they lost all their oxygen. “You didn’t see a single fish in a day,” says Jack Barth, a professor at Oregon State University, “just the piles of crab carcasses and worms that had come out of the bottom, sort of wafting in the current.” When scientists examined the roughly 50-year record of oxygen measurements from the region, they couldn’t find a single comparable event in the past. The hypoxia, it seemed, was unprecedented.

And then it spread.

In 2013, low-oxygen water showed up off the California coast just north of San Francisco. The following year, crabbers pulled in dead crabs in Half Moon Bay, just below San Francisco. Further south, the Monterey Bay Aquarium registered a decline in the oxygen content of the water it pumps in from the ocean.

“It seems like something has changed,” says John Largier, head of the Coastal Oceanography Group at the University of California-Davis. He tries to remain skeptical, but he suspects “large-scale global change.”

These suffocated patches of ocean aren’t just bad for fishermen and their catch; they represent a change in the ocean that has, at times in Earth’s past, heralded mass extinction. [Continue reading…]

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One in five of world’s plant species at risk of extinction

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Phys.org reports: The first annual State of the World’s Plants report, which involved more than 80 scientists and took a year to produce, is a baseline assessment of current knowledge on the diversity of plants on earth, the global threats these plants currently face, as well as the policies in place and their effectiveness in dealing with threats.

“This is the first ever global assessment on the state of the world’s plants. We already have a ‘State of the World’s …birds, sea-turtles, forests, cities, mothers, fathers, children even antibiotics’ but not plants. I find this remarkable given the importance of plants to all of our lives- from food, medicines, clothing, building materials and biofuels, to climate regulation. This report therefore provides the first step in filling this critical knowledge gap.” said Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at the report launch on Monday.

“But to have effect, the findings must serve to galvanise the international scientific, conservation, business and governmental communities to work together to fill the knowledge gaps we’ve highlighted and expand international collaboration, partnerships and frameworks for plant conservation and use,” she added.

The status of plants outlined in the report is based on the most up to date knowledge from around the world as of 2016 and is divided into three sections; describing the world’s plants, global threats to plants and policies and international trade. [Continue reading…]

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Why we need to tackle the growing mountain of ‘digital waste’

By Chris Preist, University of Bristol

We are very aware of waste in our lives today, from the culture of recycling to the email signatures that urge us not to print them off. But as more and more aspects of life become reliant on digital technology, have we stopped to consider the new potential avenues of waste that are being generated? It’s not just about the energy and resources used by our devices – the services we run over the cloud can generate “digital waste” of their own.

Current approaches to reducing energy use focus on improving the hardware: better datacentre energy management, improved electronics that provide more processing power for less energy, and compression techniques that mean images, videos and other files use less bandwidth as they are transmitted across networks. Our research, rather than focusing on making individual system components more efficient, seeks to understand the impact of any particular digital service – one delivered via a website or through the internet – and re-designing the software involved to make better, more efficient use of the technology that supports it.

We also examine what aspects of a digital service actually provide value to the end user, as establishing where resources and effort are wasted – digital waste – reveals what can be cut out. For example, MP3 audio compression works by removing frequencies that are inaudible or less audible to the human ear – shrinking the size of the file for minimal loss of audible quality.

This is no small task. Estimates have put the technology sector’s global carbon footprint at roughly 2% of worldwide emissions – almost as much as that generated by aviation. But there is a big difference: IT is a more pervasive, and in some ways more democratic, technology. Perhaps 6% or so of the world’s population will fly in a given year, while around 40% have access to the internet at home. More than a billion people have Facebook accounts. Digital technology and the online services it provides are used by far more of us, and far more often.

[Read more…]

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Fort McMurray and the fires of climate change

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: No one knows exactly how the fire began — whether it was started by a lightning strike or by a spark provided by a person — but it’s clear why the blaze, once under way, raged out of control so quickly. Alberta experienced an unusually dry and warm winter. Precipitation was low, about half of the norm, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the seventies; two days ago, the thermometer hit ninety, which is about thirty degrees higher than the region’s normal May maximum. “You hate to use the ​cliché, but it really was kind of a perfect storm,” Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told the CBC.

Though it’s tough to pin any particular disaster on climate change, in the case of Fort McMurray the link is pretty compelling. In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the past decade. In some areas, “we now have year-round fire seasons,” Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service, recently told the Times.

“You can say it couldn’t get worse,” Jolly added, but based on its own projections, the forest service expects that it will get worse. According to a Forest Service report published last April, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.” Over the past three decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled, and the service’s scientists project that it’s likely to “double again by midcentury.” A group of scientists who analyzed lake cores from Alaska to obtain a record of forest fires over the past ten thousand years found that, in recent decades, blazes were both unusually frequent and unusually severe. “This extreme combination suggests a transition to a unique regime of unprecedented fire activity,” they concluded.

All of this brings us to what one commentator referred to as “the black irony” of the fire that has destroyed most of Fort McMurray.

The town exists to get at the tar sands, and the tar sands produce a particularly carbon-intensive form of fuel. (The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is, at its heart, a fight over whether the U.S. should be encouraging — or, if you prefer, profiting from — the exploitation of the tar sands.) The more carbon that goes into the atmosphere, the warmer the world will get, and the more likely we are to see devastating fires like the one now raging. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: Wildfires raging through Alberta have spread to the main oil-sands facilities north of Fort McMurray, knocking out an estimated 1 million barrels of production from Canada’s energy hub. Fire officials say the out-of-control inferno may keep burning for months without significant rainfall.

The blaze, forecast to expand to more than 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) in the next few days, made an “unexpected” move to the north Saturday, rapidly encroaching bitumen mining operations run by Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude Canada Ltd. The fires may soon cover an area the size of Luxembourg.

“It is a dangerous and unpredictable and vicious fire that is feeding off an extremely dry Boreal forest,” federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters Saturday in Regina, Saskatchewan. He said the swirling fire is not yet a threat to any additional communities.

The wildfires have led to combined productions cuts of more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, or about 40 percent of the region’s output of 2.5 million barrels, based on IHS Energy estimates. The cuts, and the mass exodus of more than 80,000 people from the fires raging in Fort McMurray, represent another blow to an economy already mired in recession from the oil price collapse. [Continue reading…]

The Los Angeles Times reports: Though the cause of the fire has not been determined, the inferno has become symbolic of the tension within Canada over its role in climate change.

Some Canadians see the fire as nature lashing back at those who mistreat it in the name of profit.

Others see the hard science: a wildfire formed in conditions consistent with climate change striking with academic irony, not vengeance, in a place that helps supply the world with a fossil fuel. The evacuees were really climate refugees, they say.

Still others view it as just very bad luck, a setback the oil industry will find a way to overcome.

The debate reflects a country wrestling within itself at a difficult moment — and it is testing that famous Canadian civility.

A provincial politician who called the fire “karmic” was quickly castigated and later apologized. When Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the fire was “very related to the global climate crisis,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested she was making “a political argument.”

Some environmentalists have been accused of lecturing to or, worse, condemning people who have lost everything. In Fort McMurray, more than 2,000 structures were consumed by the flames.

“I wish I could kick every person posting ‘That’s what you get for living by the oil sands’ comments,” a young Edmonton woman tweeted Tuesday evening at the peak of the evacuation, when flames were whipping across Highway 63, the only road out of Fort McMurray. “You’re terrible people.”

Janet Keeping, the Green Party leader within Alberta, was among several people who invoked climate change early in the week — and did so without clearly expressing support for fire victims. She soon tried to strike a new chord.

“Caring about people means caring about #climatechange,” Keeping wrote Thursday on Twitter.

Alberta’s oil sands are said to hold the third largest reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. They made Alberta rich even as they have made Canada uneasy.

Conservation groups have long despised the intensive extraction process involved in gleaning crude from the sands — Alberta would have been the source for the Keystone XL oil pipeline that President Obama rejected last year — and many Canadians loathe what they view as an excessively capitalist culture in Fort McMurray. [Continue reading…]

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