2014 was the warmest year on record globally

Even as half of the United States shivered, exceedingly warm temperatures in most other places pushed winter temperatures globally to their second highest on record, according to figures just released by NASA. This past December through February period — meteorological winter — was topped only in 2007. February itself was second warmest for the month, exceeded only by 1998. Much of Europe, Siberia and the Arctic were particularly warm, as was North America, which helped 2014 finish as the warmest year on record.

Unfortunately for California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the so-called “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” of high pressure became locked in place again over the eastern Pacific Ocean, solidifying record warmth in the western part of North America. This is particularly bad news for California, which is suffering through its worst drought on record and may have just one year of water supply left in its reservoirs. Heat makes drought worse through evaporation.

For the entire world, the U.K. Meteorological Office has this long-range prediction: It looks like it may be shaping up to be another quite warm year globally.

That’s particularly so in the north, where Arctic sea ice has already taken an early dive. In the ten days between February 25 and March 7, swaths of sea ice floating across an area of the Arctic the size of Washington state simply vanished.

– edited from Discover. com, March 15, 2015
PeaceMeal, March/April 2015

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Global warming dials up our risks, U.N. report says

YOKOHAMA, Japan – If the world doesn’t cut pollution of heat-trapping gases, the already noticeable harms of global warming could spiral “out of control,” Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned March 31 upon issuing a new 32-volume, 2,610-page report on global warming.

“We’re now in an era where climate change isn’t some kind of future hypothetical,” said the overall lead author of the report, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science in California. “We live in an area where impacts from climate change are already widespread and consequential.”

After several days of late-night wrangling, more than 100 governments unanimously approved the scientist-written 49-page summary, which is aimed at world political leaders. The Obama White House said it is taking this new report as a call for action, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying “the costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

“Things are worse than we had predicted” in 2007, when the group of scientists last issued this type of report, said report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh. “We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

The problems have gotten so bad that the panel had to add a new and dangerous level of risks. In 2007, the biggest risk level in one key summary graphic was “high.” The latest report adds a new level, “very high.” The report predicts that the highest level of risk would first hit plants and animals, both on land and in the acidifying oceans.

These risks are both big and small, now and in the future. They hit farmers and big cities. Some places will have too much water, some not enough. Other risks mentioned in the report involve the price and availability of food, and to a lesser and more qualified extent some diseases, financial costs and even world peace.

Climate change will worsen problems that society already has, such as poverty, sickness, violence and refugees, according to the report. And on the other end, it will act as a brake slowing down the benefits of a modernizing society, such as regular economic growth and more efficient crop production. “Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts,” the report says.

While the problems from global warming will hit everyone in some way, the magnitude of the harm won’t be equal, coming down harder on people who can least afford it, according to the report. It will increase the gaps between the rich and poor, healthy and sick, young and old, and men and women, said one of the study’s authors, Maarten van Aalst, a top official at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Eespecially in places like Africa, climate change and extreme events mean people are going to become more vulnerable to sinking deeper into poverty.

“Rich people benefit from using all these fossil fuels,” University of Sussex economist Richard Tol said. “Poorer people lose out.” Huq said he had hope because richer nations and people are being hit more, and “when it hits the rich, then it’s a problem” and people start acting on it.

Global warming is triggered by heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, that stay in the atmosphere for a century. Much of the gases still in the air and trapping heat came from the United States and other industrial nations. China is now by far the No. 1 carbon dioxide polluter, followed by the United States and India.

The report is based on more than 12,000 peer reviewed scientific studies. Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, a co-sponsor of the climate panel, said this report was “the most solid evidence you can get in any scientific discipline.”

Part of the report talks about what can be done: reducing carbon pollution and adapting to and preparing for changing climates with smarter development. “We have a closing window of opportunity,” said study co-author Patricia Romero-Lankao of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. “We do have choices. We need to act now.”

– edited from The Associated Press, March 31, 2014
PeaceMeal, March/April 2014

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Development goals must sustain people and planet

A group of international scientists have published a call in the journal Nature arguing for a set of six Sustainable Development Goals that link poverty eradication to protection of Earth’s life support. The researchers argue that in the face of increasing pressure on the planet’s ability to support life, adherence to out-dated definitions of sustainable development threaten to reverse progress made in developing countries over past decades.

Ending poverty and safeguarding Earth’s life support system must be the twin priorities for the Sustainable Development Goals, say the researchers. The team identified six goals that, if met, would contribute to global sustainability while helping to alleviate poverty.

“Climate change and other global environmental threats will increasingly become serious barriers to further human development,” says lead author Professor David Griggs from Monash University in Australia. Humans are transforming Earth’s life support system — the atmosphere, oceans, waterways, forests, ice sheets and biodiversity that allow us to thrive and prosper — in ways “likely to undermine development gains,” he added.

Co-author Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center said, “Mounting research shows we are now at the point that the stable functioning of Earth systems is a prerequisite for a thriving global society and future development.”

The team asserts that the model of sustainable development that has served nations and the U.N. for over a decade is flawed because it does not reflect reality. The researchers say that the Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015 have helped focus international efforts on eight poverty-related goals. However, despite successes in some areas — the number of people living on less than one dollar a day has been more than halved — many MDGs have not been met, and some remain in conflict with one another. Economic gains, for example, have come at the expense of environmental protection.

The new set of goals — thriving lives and livelihoods, food security, water security, clean energy, healthy and productive ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies — aim to resolve this conflict. The targets beneath each goal include ending poverty and hunger, combating HIV/AIDS, and improving maternal and child health. But they also define a set of “must haves” for planet Earth: climate stability, reduction of biodiversity loss, protection of ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle and oceans, sustainable nitrogen and phosphorus use, clean air and sustainable material use.

The new research is linked to Future Earth, a new international research program designed to “develop the knowledge required for societies worldwide to face challenges posed by global environmental change and to identify opportunities for a transition to global sustainability.”

Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. But science can inform what combination of goals can achieve a sustainable future and can identify measurable targets and indicators.

– edited from ScienceDaily, March 20, 2013
PeaceMeal, March/April 2013

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Overseas pollution is hitting the United States

Every summer, a combination of car exhaust, other chemicals, and solar radiation cooks into ozone, which is a big pollution problem. Forty-five percent of the U.S. population now lives in major cities that exceed the health standard limit for ozone.

Ozone (O3) is a rare component of our atmosphere. There are only about three molecules of ozone for every 10 million air molecules, and yet it plays a vital role in human health. Ninety percent of ozone exists in the upper layer of the earth’s atmosphere, where it is beneficial because it absorbs most of the damaging ultraviolet sunlight, which can cause skin cancers, among other conditions. The remaining 10 percent is found in the lowest part of the earth’s atmosphere, where it reacts with fine airborne particles to produce smog, which has toxic effects on crops, forest growth, and human health.

Smog can make breathing difficult, trigger asthma attacks, and make human beings more susceptible to cardio-pulmonary diseases. People already suffering from heart or lung disease are particularly affected.

Now, environmental scientists have developed mathematical models to calculate the impact of pollution from Europe and Asia on areas in the United States. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have documented how much of our ozone problem actually comes from across the Pacific Ocean.

“Just like the Eastern U.S. is affected by power plants in the Midwest, so the United States is affected by upwind emissions coming from Asia and Europe,” Tracey Holloway, Ph.D., said. Dr. Holloway’s mathematical models indicate that almost 12 percent of pollution in the western U.S. comes from those countries, and about 10 percent in the eastern U.S.

“So if you’re trying to figure out what policies you should design to meet a particular ozone standard, you want to know how much you can control and how much you can’t control,” she said.

 – edited from ScienceDaily
PeaceMeal, March/April 2013

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Climate change is here and worse than we thought

James E. Hansen

When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988, I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels. But I was too optimistic. My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather. In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.

This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data are gathered, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the United States just suffered through.

The odds that natural variability created these extremes are vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.

Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability.

But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the die would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.

But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you.

Our new study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate (up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century), the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide. The change is so dramatic that one face of the die must now represent extreme weather to illustrate the greater frequency of extremely hot weather events.

Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the last three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 percent of the globe.

This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.

There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.

The future is now. And it is hot.

Dr. James E. Hansen is one of NASA’s principal climate scientists and author of the book Storms of My Grandchildren, which paints a devastating picture of what can happen in our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes if we continue to follow the course we’re on. His article is edited from The Washington Post, August 3, 2012, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2012.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

More Americans believe climate change is happening

The number of Americans who believe global warming is happening is on the rise, according to a Brookings Institution report on the latest National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change conducted in December. The report shows much of that new-found belief comes from direct experience, with other studies showing that four out of five Americans have been directly impacted by climate change.

The number of extreme weather events has been growing for years. The year 2010 was among the hottest and wettest years on record. The 2010 State of the Climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicated a steady rise in ocean temperatures around the world. The same report cites clear evidence that the period between 2000 and 2010 was the warmest decade on record.

2011 was a “year for the record books” bringing record drought and heat waves, hurricanes, floods, winter storms and wildfires. Record-breaking heat waves affected almost every state. In the first month of the summer, according to NOAA, a total of 1,966 high temperature records and 4,376 highest minimum temperature records were tied or broken. There were also 14 record weather-related events in 2011 that each caused at least $1 billion in damage. Hurricane Irene alone caused more than $7 billion in damages.

On June 1, 2011, Massachusetts was hit by several deadly tornadoes, which was one of the most bizarre weather events in the state’s history. The Massachusetts tornadoes came after an outbreak of dozens of tornadoes that killed 314 people in five states in April 27 and a massive twister that killed 138 in Joplin, Missouri on May 22. Those two events represent one of the deadliest days and one of the deadliest single tornadoes since record keeping began in 1950.

2012 is continuing the same trend. The swath of destructive, late-winter tornadoes that recently tore through the South and Midwest, killing 39 people and injuring hundreds more, brought back uncomfortable memories of last year’s record-breaking tornado season.

Americans are citing not only their local weather, but also reports of declining Arctic sea ice and melting ice sheets as driving their concern about changing climate and global warming. Of course, for some, there is little that will sway their disbelief that global warming is occurring. Though the number of climate-change deniers has dropped to 26 percent, those who are left are dug in, and mostly Republican. Only 47 percent of Republicans believe there is evidence of global warming, as opposed to nearly 80 percent of Democrats.

 Some conservatives, though, still call for a more sensible approach. Last year former Republican congressman Bob Ingles pleaded for his conservative colleagues to “return to true conservatism” in dealing with global warming.

Whatever people choose to believe and for whatever reason, however, does not alter the occurrence of extreme weather and climate events. Extreme events like those seen across the country last year are quickly becoming part of the “new normal” all Americans can expect to experience in a warming world.

– edited from globalwarmingisreal.com, March 1 & 21, 2012
PeaceMeal, March/April 2012

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Vatican-appointed panel warns of climate change

VATICAN CITY — A Vatican-appointed panel of scientists has reported what climate change experts have been warning for years: the Earth is getting warmer, glaciers are melting, and urgent measures are necessary to stem the damage. The scientists called for urgent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and reductions in methane and other pollutants that warm the air, and for improved observation of mountain glaciers to better track their changes.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a Vatican advisory panel, hosted a conference in April on the causes and consequences of retreating mountain glaciers. Its final report dated May 5 was signed by independent glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists and chemists.

“We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home,” the report said. “We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us.”

A Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, noted that it was a “significant scientific contribution” to the concerns that Pope Benedict XVI has voiced in both his encyclicals and public statements. Benedict has been dubbed the “green pope” for his environmental concerns. In 2008, the Vatican installed photovoltaic cells on the roof of its main auditorium. A year later it installed a solar cooling unit for its main cafeteria. The Vatican has also joined a reforestation project aimed at offsetting its CO2 emissions.

Brenda Ekwurzel, the assistant director of climate research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Massachusettss-based think tank, said the report was a “straightforward recap of major known findings about glaciers,” that was penned by high-caliber scientists. “Perhaps the reality that the Vatican recognizes this fact, as the report indicates, is worth mentioning to those who remain unconvinced of human-induced climate change,” she said.

– edited from The Associated Press, May 10, 2011
PeaceMeal, May/June2011

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The climatic consequences of nuclear war

Although the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review is supposed to include all aspects of the strategy and doctrine that govern the use of U.S. nuclear weapons, it will not consider one crucial question: What would be the long-term consequences to Earth’s environment if the U.S. nuclear arsenal were detonated during a conflict? This isn’t a question to be avoided. Recent scientific studies have found that a war fought with the deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals would leave Earth virtually uninhabitable. In fact, NASA computer models have shown that even a “successful” first strike by Washington or Moscow would inflict catastrophic environmental damage that would make agriculture impossible and cause mass starvation.

Similarly, in the January Scientific American, Alan Robock and Brian Toon, the foremost experts on the climatic impact of nuclear war, warn that the environmental consequences of a “regional” nuclear war would cause a global famine that could kill one billion people. They predict that the detonation of 100 15-kiloton nuclear weapons in Indian and Pakistani megacities would create urban firestorms that would loft 5-million tons of thick, black smoke above cloud level — smoke that would engulf the entire planet within 10 days. Because the smoke could not be rained out, it would remain in the stratosphere for at least a decade and have profoundly disruptive effects. Specifically, the smoke layer would block sunlight, heat the upper atmosphere, and cause massive destruction of protective stratospheric ozone. A 2008 study calculated ozone losses after the described conflict would allow intense levels of harmful ultraviolet light to reach Earth’s surface, even with the stratospheric smoke layer in place.

Beneath the smoke, the loss of warming sunlight would produce average surface temperatures colder than any experienced in the last 1,000 years. There would be a corresponding shortening of growing seasons by up to 30 days and significant reductions in average rainfall in many areas. Basically, the Earth’s surface would become cold, dark and dry.

Humans have had some experience with this sort of deadly global climate change. In 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history took place in Indonesia. Mount Tambora exploded and created a stratospheric layer of sulfuric acid droplets that blocked sunlight from reaching Earth. During the following year, which was known as “The Year without Summer,” the northeastern United States experienced snowstorms in June and debilitating frosts every month of the year.

In an earlier study, Robock, Toon and their colleagues predicted that the decreases in average surface temperatures following the nuclear conflict described above would be 2-3 times colder than those experienced in 1816 and that the black soot produced by subsequent nuclear firestorms would remain in the stratosphere five times longer than the acid clouds from volcanic eruptions. Most likely, the long-lived smoke layer would produce a “decade without a summer.”

The 100 Hiroshima-size weapons hypothetically detonated in Robock and Toon’s scenario contain only about 3 percent of the combined explosive power in the 4,700 strategic nuclear warheads the United States and Russia have deployed. If even half of those weapons were detonated in urban areas, Robock and Toon have predicted that the resulting nuclear darkness would cause Earth’s average global surface temperatures to become colder than those experienced 18,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age.

Amazingly, no follow-up studies have been initiated to further evaluate the decreases in temperature, precipitation or ozone depletion predicted to arise from either regional or strategic nuclear war. Large studies were conducted in the 1980s on “nuclear winter,” but Robock and Toon’s new research has found that those early studies significantly underestimated the climatic and environmental consequences of nuclear war. Given the catastrophic effects on the planet of such a dangerous possibility, Washington and Moscow, with 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, should be required to investigate the environmental and climatic consequences from a nuclear war created by their nuclear arsenals.

In the United States, there appears to be a legal basis to force the Defense Department to evaluate the likely consequences of use of its nuclear arsenal. According to the EPA’s website, “The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. To meet NEPA requirements, federal agencies [must] prepare a detailed statement known as an Environmental Impact Statement.” So, why not require the Pentagon to write an Environmental Impact Statement for the more than 1,000 U.S. strategic nuclear warheads now on launch-on-warning status?

To date, the discussion of a nuclear-weapons-free world has included no mention of the environmental consequences of nuclear war. Regardless of how “safe from use” U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons are considered to be, they still could wipe out humanity.

– edited from an article by Steven Starr in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 12, 2010
PeaceMeal, March/April 2010

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World must share, not war over water

ROME – With climate change now adding to the pressures, sharing rather than warring over the world’s fresh-water resources represents the “challenge of the 21st century,” the United Nations said March 22 as it marked World Water Day. “The bulk of that challenge lies in finding more effective ways to conserve, use and protect the world’s water resources,” the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a statement.

In a report on the state of the world’s water resources, the FAO stated that “climate change is expected to account for about 20 percent of the global increase in water scarcity. Countries that already suffer from water shortages will be hit hardest.” Already 1.1-billion people lack access to adequate clean water. And with the world’s population set to grow from the current 6.5 billion to 8 billion by 2030, 1.8 billion people will face water scarcity by then, the FAO estimates. Cities in Texas, California and Australia are already building or planning desalination plants to provide more potable water.

The FAO added that “climate change has raised the stakes,” since some studies indicate warming temperatures might cause more frequent droughts as well as more intense storms and flooding, “which destroy crops, contaminate freshwater, and damage the facilities used to store and carry that water.”

“Particularly vulnerable to climate variability,” the FAO said, are the world’s poorest farmers, who “often occupy marginal lands and rely on rainfall to sustain their livelihoods.”

FAO Director Jacques Diouf said the repercussions of not meeting the challenge would be enormous. “Water conflicts can arise in water-stressed areas among local communities and between countries, he told a conference marking World Water Day. “The lack of adequate institutional and legal instruments for water sharing exacerbates already difficult conditions. In the absence of clear and well-established rules, chaos tends to dominate and power plays an excessive role,” he said.

To improve cross-border cooperation on water use, the ten countries on the Nile River are already negotiating a water sharing agreement that the FAO hopes will be a model for other areas where the scarce resource can be shared peacefully.

– edited from MSNBC and The New York Times
PeaceMeal, March/April 2008

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Tensions rise as world faces food shortage

Food prices are soaring, a wealthier Asia is demanding better food, and farmers can’t keep up. In short, the world faces a food crisis, and in some places it’s already boiling over. Around the globe, people are protesting and governments are responding with often counterproductive controls on prices and exports — a new politics of scarcity in which ensuring food supplies is becoming a major challenge for the 21st century. Global food prices, based on United Nations records, rose 35 percent in the year to the end of January, markedly accelerating an upturn that began in 2002. Since then, prices have risen 65 percent. In 2007 alone, according to the U.N. FAO’s world food index, dairy prices rose nearly 80 percent and grain 42 percent.

Plundered by severe weather in producing countries and by a boom in demand from fast-developing nations, the world’s wheat stocks are at 30-year lows. Grain prices have been on the rise for five years, ending decades of cheap food. Drought, a declining dollar, a shift of investment money into commodities, and use of farm land to grow fuel have all contributed to food woes. But population growth and the growing wealth of China and other emerging countries are likely to be more enduring factors.

World population is set to hit 9 billion by 2050, and most of the extra 2.5 billion people will live in the developing world. It is in these countries that the population is demanding dairy and meat, which require more land to produce. Each pound of beef takes about seven pounds of grain to produce, which means land that could be used to grow food for humans is being diverted to growing animal feed.

Governments, including Egypt, Argentina and China, have imposed restrictions to limit grain exports and keep more of their food at home. This response to food emergencies can result in farmers producing less food and threatens to undermine years of effort to open up international trade. “If one country after the other adopts a ‘starve-your-neighbor’ policy, then eventually you trade smaller shares of total world production of agricultural products, and that in turn makes the prices more volatile,” said Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Waves of discontent are already starting to be felt. In Mexico, tens of thousands took to the streets last year over the cost of tortillas, whose price skyrocketed with the price of corn. Mexico’s government, after long opposition, is considering lifting a ban on genetically modified crops, to allow its farmers to compete with the United States, where high-yield, genetically modified corn is the norm.

The industrialization of China, with 1.3 billion people, and the emergence of China’s middle class is adding hugely to demand for meat, milk and other high-protein foods. The Chinese ate just 44 pounds of meat per capita in 1985. They now eat 110 pounds a year.

Moreover, as the West seeks to tackle the risk of global warming, a drive toward greener fuels is compounding the world’s food problems. It is estimated that one in four bushels of corn from this year’s U.S. corn crop will be diverted to make ethanol for fuel.

“Turning food into fuel for cars is a major mistake on many fronts,” said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group based in Washington. “One, we’re already seeing higher food prices in the American supermarket. Two, perhaps more serious from a global perspective, we’re seeing higher food prices in developing countries, where it’s escalated as far as people rioting in the streets.” Violent protests hit Cameroon and Burkina Faso in February. Protesters also rallied in Indonesia recently and news media reported deaths by starvation.

But despite the rising criticism of biofuels, the U.S. corn-fed ethanol industry enjoys wide political support because it boosts farmers, who suffered years of low prices.

Because of the rising food prices, the director of the U.N. World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, is on a global tour in search of donations to fill a $500-million funding gap. The largest U.S. aid program, Food for Peace, has seen its commodity prices jump 40 percent and may have to curtail donations.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, British political economist Thomas Malthus said population had the potential to grow much faster than food supply, a prediction that efficient farming consistently proved wrong. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, some are revisiting his predictions.

– edited from Reuters, March 31, 2008
PeaceMeal, March/April 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Climate change outlook is bleak

In a bleak and powerful assessment of the future of the planet, the leading international network of climate change scientists has concluded for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal” and that human activity has almost certainly caused most of the rise in temperatures since 1950. In a draft report released February 2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations said the world is already destined to centuries of warming, shifting weather patterns and rising seas, resulting from the buildup of gases in the atmosphere that trap heat. However, the warming can be substantially blunted by prompt action.

The report summarizes the fourth assessment since 1990 by the IPCC, sizing up the causes and consequences of climate change. But it is the first in which the panel — a U.N. network of 2,000 scientists as authors and reviewers — asserts with more than 90 percent confidence that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases from human activities have been the main causes of warming during the past half-century. In its last report in 2001, the panel put the confidence level at 66-90 percent.

“Since 2001 there has been a torrent of new scientific evidence on the magnitude, human origins and growing impacts of the climatic changes that are underway,” according to John Holdren, an energy and climate expert at Harvard University. “In overwhelming proportions, this evidence has been in the direction of showing faster change, more danger and greater confidence about the dominant role of fossil fuel burning and tropical deforestation in causing the changes that are being observed,” he said.

A key element of the final document, released April 6 in Belgium, is a projection of the effects of global warming: with every degree of temperature rise, the number of species going extinct rises, as does the number of people who may starve or face water shortages or floods. University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, one of the lead authors of the draft report, called the projections “a highway to extinction.”

The report says it has become increasingly clear that worldwide precipitation is shifting away from the equator and toward the poles. That will nourish crops in warming regions like Canada and Siberia while parching countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, which are already prone to drought. Hence, it might be necessary to abandon the notion that all places might someday feed themselves.

As the world’s average temperature warms from 1990 levels, the projections get more serious. Add 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and between 400 million and 1.7 billion extra people can’t get enough water, some infectious diseases and allergenic pollens rise, and some amphibians go extinct. But the world’s food supply could increase, due to longer growing seasons in northern areas. That’s the likely outcome around 2020.

Add another 1°C and as many as 2 billion people could be without water and about 20-30 percent of the world’s species near extinction. Also, more people start dying because of malnutrition, disease, heat waves, floods and droughts. That would happen around 2050, depending on the level of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels.

At the extreme end of the projections with even higher temperature increases, the effects are far more dire. And while humanity will survive, hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of people may not, if the worst scenarios happen.

The conclusions came after a three-year review of hundreds of studies of past climate shifts, observations of retreating ice, warming and rising seas, and other global changes, and greatly expanded supercomputer simulations used to test how earth will respond to a growing blanket of gases that hold heat in the atmosphere.

Rise in sea level, due to thermal expansion of the oceans caused by global warming, has already for the first time washed an inhabited island off the face of the Earth. The obliteration of Lohachara island in India reported in December, where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, marks the moment when one of the most apocalyptic predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists has started coming true.

Researchers at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University first learned of the island’s submergence when they saw it had vanished from satellite pictures. The disappearance of Lohachara, once home to 10,000 people, is unprecedented. Two-thirds of nearby populated Ghoramara Island has also been permanently inundated and refugees have fled to Sagar, an island that has already lost 7,500 acres of land to the sea. Dr Sugata Hazra, director of the university’s School of Oceanographic Studies, says there are now a dozen islands in India’s part of the delta, home to 70,000 people, in danger of being submerged by the rising seas. The area’s 400 tigers are also threatened.

While the new report projects a modest rise in seas of between 7 and 23 inches by 2100, it also concludes that seas would continue to rise and crowded coasts retreat for at least 1,000 years to come. By comparison, seas rose about 6 to 9 inches in the 20th century.

Big questions remain about the speed and extent of some impending changes, both because of uncertainty about future population and pollution trends and the complex interrelationships of the greenhouse gases, clouds, dusty kinds of pollution, the oceans and Earth’s veneer of life, which both emits and soaks up carbon dioxide and other such gases. But a broad array of scientists, including authors of the report and independent experts, said the latest analysis was the most sobering view yet of a century of transition — after thousands of years of relatively stable climate conditions — to a new norm of continual change.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, which oversees the IPCC along with the meteorological group, said society now has plenty of information on which to act. “The implications of global warming over the coming decades for our industrial economy, water supplies, agriculture, biological diversity and even geopolitics are massive,” he said. “This new report should spur policymakers to get off the fence and put strong and effective policies in place to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.”

The full IPCC report, thousands of pages of technical background, will be released in four sections through the year, concluding with a synthesis of all of the findings near year’s end. Both the 2001 and 2007 reports of the IPCC are online at http://www.ipcc.ch

 – edited from The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Independent (U.K.)
PeaceMeal, March/April 2007

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