Blue Marble - December 2010

How Children Suffer From Climate Change

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 6:00 AM EST

As MoJo's Kate Sheppard discusses here, a new report by international humanitarian organization DARA finds that climate change could kill up to 5 million people in the next 10 years—and most of them are children under the age of 5 in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. This predicted increase in mortality isn't due to Hollywood-style tsunamis or apocalyptic winters. Instead, the killers are much more ordinary: malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition.

Of course, one way to help the planet—and the families most impacted by the planet's health—is to bear fewer kids in the first place. As Julia Whitty wrote in "The Last Taboo," overpopulation is a huge climate change driver that's rarely discussed—until this week. During the UN-sponsored climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, media mogul Ted Turner suggested such radical ideas as one-child policies and monetary rewards for not reproducing. Turner was quickly shut down by former Irish president Mary Robinson, who said, "If we do it the wrong way, we can divide the world...A lot of people in the climate world could communicate this very badly."

Turner's statements may have been the flashiest, but they weren't the only population-related ideas to come out of the Cancun climate talks. Population Action International's Roger-Mark de Souza told me that whenever he attended sessions on REDD, deforestation, or financing, someone would say, "'What about overpopulation? How does this factor in?'" PAI's panel there on female empowerment and family planning attracted 100 attendees, where consensus was that there continues to be a "strong unmet need for family planning." (See side panel schedule here: PDF.)

Unfortunately for the climate, and women, many of the countries that will be most affected by climate change are poor ones where high gender inequality hinders female education and access to contraceptives. Notes de Souza, "it's important to also get men engaged and understanding why family planning is important. The more that we have men serving as champions for the issue, the more success we will have."

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Russia Says No to Kyoto

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 1:01 AM EST

Japan's been the bad guy in Cancun for the past week and a half, after the country took a firm stance against agreeing to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. Japan argues that it wants a new global deal, one that includes big emitters like the US and China, and will not consent to extending its commitment under the 13-year-old treaty, whose first round of commitments is set to expire in 2012. But on Thursday night, Russia formally joined Japan in that stance.

Here's an excerpt of the prepared remarks from Alexander Bedritsky, Russia's special envoy for climate, from the Thursday night plenary:

"Russia has repeatedly stated, including at the highest political level, that the adoption of commitments for the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, as it stands now, would be neither scientifically, economically nor politically effective … Russia will not participate in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

Well, you don’t get much more clear than that. Everyone here knew that Russia and Canada were not very enthusiastic about a second commitment period, but Russia made it's unwillingness quite apparent tonight.

Bedritsky did note, however, that it would be "judicious to continue to use Kyoto Protocol mechanisms, including in a new agreement." He also said that Russia supports listing new commitments in a successor global deal and intends to hold itself to the pledge it made in Copenhagen last year to cut emissions 15 to 25 percent below 1990 by 2020.

The fate of Kyoto remains a major rub here in Cancun, as leader head into the final day of negotiations on Friday. Developing countries have insisted that they need a second period for what is currently the only legally binding global agreement on climate, but it looks like extending it is a deal-breaker for at least a few countries as well.

Citizen Solutions in Cancún

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 7:21 PM EST

The international climate change summit in Cancún wraps up tomorrow, and envoys are jostling over draft agreements into the eleventh hour. Cancún has been almost as disappointing as Copenhagen, but this week I came across a number of citizen-organized solutions that offer a glimmer of hope. They aren’t silver bullets. Still, definitely worth noting.

Warmer Atlantic Bad for Zooplankton

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 6:59 PM EST

A paper in press at PNAS finds that summer temperatures in the North Atlantic have risen higher than winter temperatures since 1353. The research involved constructing a climate record between 1353 and 2006 for the shallow inshore waters of the North East Atlantic, then comparing these records to the abundance of marine zooplankton.

The results showed that summer marine temperatures have increased nearly twice as much as winter temperatures since 1353. And that beginning in 1700 a new instability emerged, characterized by climate oscillations approximately every 5 to 65 years. These oscillations appear to be a recent phenomenon.

The warming summer waters also correlate to diminished zooplankton populations. Which means that even warmer summers are predicted to hammer zooplankton even harder in the coming decades. Fewer zooplankton will ricochet hard through an already-battered foodweb once dominated by overfished cod. From the abstract:

Enhanced summer-specific warming reduced the abundance of the copepod Calanus finmarchicus, a key food item of cod, and led to significantly lower projected abundances by 2040 than at present. The faster increase of summer marine temperatures has implications for climate projections and affects abundance, and thus biomass, near the base of the marine food web with potentially significant feedback effects for marine food security.

The paper: Nicholas A. Kamenos, North Atlantic summers have warmed more than winters since 1353, and the response of marine zooplankton. PNAS. DOI

 

What Do You Do When Your Country Disappears?

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 6:58 PM EST

The pacific island nation of Kiribati is well aware of the looming threats that climate change poses to the small atoll. Increased flooding from storms and rising seas are already problematic for the 100,00 citizens of the nation, or i-Kiribati as they call themselves. A sea-wall improvement project for the country recently cost $2 million, President Anote Tong said at the Cancun climate summit this week.

The nation's GDP is just $152 million a year—meaning the investment in sea walls is significant for the country. "If we had to cover the whole country, we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars," said Tong. The republic is made up of 32 atolls and one island, spread over 1.3 million square miles—roughly the size of the United States. Tong has said previously that the government is already considering evacuation plans as another way to deal with the rising seas, which would also come at great cost.

Tong and other island nations, organized within the UN as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and other vulnerable countries have argued for the inclusion of a loss-and-damage plan in the context of an agreement here, one that would cover effects linked to climate change that were not prevented or could not be adapted to. The Cook Islands, on behalf of AOSIS, submitted a proposal that would create an international mechanism to deal with loss and damage, in addition to funding programs for adaptation and mitigation efforts. The provision also calls for assistance in improving risk-reduction assessment and management, and planning for the likely impacts.

The point of the provision is, of course, that even if countries set and follow through on their pledges to cut emissions, the world is still on a path to substantial warming. And that warming is going to have significant effects—sea level rise, loss of glaciers, diminished biodiversity, ocean acidification, and decline of forests. Many of those will have very real economic costs for countries. And that's before you even get to more dramatic costs like relocating an entire population or rebuilding a village destroyed by a cyclone—or the cost if an island community is someday completely submerged by the sea.

As they note, many of these countries have trouble getting insured for losses, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Maliegaoi, tells Mother Jones, further increasing the need for an alternative way to deal with potential losses. The country suffered a tsunami in September 2009, which he said caused an estimated $300 million in damage—to a country with an annual GDP of just $567 million. Of course, the tsunami was not caused by climate change, but the island has also faced more frequent cyclones as well. But the events have made insurance premiums exceptionally high for the country, he said. "It is almost impossible even for government to insure its own properties, let alone the damage sustained by a cyclone or by a tsunami," he said.

Cancún: From Mangrove Paradise to Polluted Megasprawl

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 6:44 PM EST

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

Just over three weeks ago five Canadians died and 20 other tourists were injured when their Cancún hotel exploded. Investigations are not complete, but it is likely that it followed a build-up of gases from the rotting mangrove forest buried below the hotel. If so, most of the booming holiday city where the climate talks are taking place is in danger, having been built on hastily cleared mangrove forest and sand dunes.

But the biggest explosion in Cancún has been the city itself. New figures from the Mexican government show that the fastest-growing major resort in the world now gets more than 7 million visitors a year and has possibly 1 million permanent inhabitants. Yet in 1974 when the World Bank kick-started, Cancún it was a collection of huts and a small fishing village. It now has 80,000 hotel beds and more than 500 major hotels and resorts, including the Moon Palace hotel and the Cancúnmesse, where UN talks to agree action on climate change are under way.

"It was either forest or small communities [you would have seen if you visited before its development]. Everything exploded in the mid-1980s", says Barbara Bramble, adviser to the National Wildlife Federation in Washington DC, who used to visit at that time.

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Dolphins Give Birth Off South Africa Coast

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 2:25 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Christmas has come to mean many things to many people, but the holiday started as a celebration of new life. So we thought we’d celebrate new life in nature.

Around this time of year common dolphins of the coast of South Africa make an early new start, with a large number of calves being born. Although they give birth all year round, the female dolphins that don’t give birth in the summer sardine run use the huge food supply to build up reserves and calve in December. So to celebrate this abundance of new life, we’ve decided to share some of our favourite common dolphin videos and images with you.

The coast of South Africa hosts a massive number of common dolphins, around 20,000. They follow shoals of sardines, on which the newborns will be weaned in six months. These dolphins are sociable animals. Travelling in groups of around anywhere between ten and 50 individuals, they gather into huge schools that can number as large as 2,000.

When they do get together, they love to play, breaching, chin-slapping, tail-slapping and porpoising (constantly submerging and resurfacing).

They also love a form of ‘surfing’, known as bow-riding, where they swim or ride the crests of waves. Dolphin-watchers will know this behaviour, as it’s what dolphins do when they follow boats. One theory suggests it started when dolphins started following whales.

"We Don't Have to Wait for Everybody Else to Do This"

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 6:00 AM EST

In October, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed installed solar panels on the roof of his home. The president himself, decked out in a hard hat, participated in the solar panel installation as part of the day of action organized by the group 350.org. It was more than a token gesture—in 2009, the country committed to going carbon neutral by 2020, which it says will be the world's most ambitious climate change mitigation target for a single nation.

Discussion of mitigation is usually focused on the big players, like US and China, while it's assumed that all that small island nations like the Maldives can do is adapt to the warming world. But the Maldives wants to turn that notion on its head—they're not delaying action while the rest of the world waits.

"I don’t think we should wait for the big emitters," said Maldivian Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam. "We are the front line, we can start dealing with it ourselves."

It's an ambitious pledge from a country with much at stake when it comes to global warming. The nation in the Indian Ocean is made up of 26 atolls, totaling 300 square kilometers. If the islands were stretched into a single strip of land, that would be 400 miles of coast, just over half a mile wide and only seven feet above sea level. "So it's essentially a shoreline," says Aslam. And it's a shoreline that scientists predict could be underwater if sea levels continue to rise in a warming planet. (In 2009, the president held an underwater press conference to call attention to the country's plight.)

Aslam notes that adopting renewable energy is in the Malidives' favor economically and environmentally; right now the country relies heavily on diesel fuel for much of its energy needs. The government has already conducted an audit of their emissions, much of which comes from the shipping sector, a fact of life in island nations. But Aslam envisions solar, wind, tidal power, and renewable transportation fuels driving the nation in the near future—even if islanders don't have all the solutions now. "The available options and possibilities will be far greater two, three years down the line," he said. "We believe this is the only path we can choose to save ourselves and the entire global community."

The plan, the country hopes, will also draw investors looking to start renewable projects on the islands. "What we are looking at is to become a laboratory for cutting edge technology," said Mark Lynas, climate change advisor to the president.

All that water surrrounding the islands also means that there's an enormous potential to harvest power from the sea. On Wednesday, Aslam and Scottish Minister of Energy Jim Mather signed an agreement at the Cancun talks to work together on a tidal energy assessment off the coast of the Maldives. The Scottish government agreed to fund a $75,800 scoping study of both the potential for tidal development and the electricity infrastructure need. It's not a huge dollar figure, but the Scottish government has been paving the way on tidal energy. Earlier this year, the country announced plans for the first commercial scale wave and tidal project off the northern coast of the mainland. The country hosts the European Marine Energy Center, and is positioning itself to lead the world in new technologies for harvesting tidal power. Mather laid claim on Wednesday that they are the "Saudi Arabia of tidal power."

As for the Maldives, Aslam is hoping that his country's efforts help break the impasse in international negotiations. "We don't have to wait for everybody else to do this," said Aslam. "Once things start happening in the Maldives, others will see that is the path to choose.

On Not Letting BP Investigators Do Their Job

| Wed Dec. 8, 2010 1:41 PM EST

In a perfectly enlightened, technologically advanced world, computer software could be used to analyze existing data and determine what happened on the Deepwater Horizon just before it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. In that world, all relevant parties with access to such data would be ready and willing to offer it up.

We're not there yet. Today, Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to National Oilwell Varco (NOV)—the company that provided the data display systems used by the drilling crew to monitor the well—demanding that the company hand over key information to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, the independent commission formed by President Obama to investigate the disaster. The information locked away in NOV's vaults could help the commission recreate the computer displays that engineers on the Deepwater Horizon were looking at just seconds before the rig exploded.

Unfortunately, NOV is declining. In their letter to the company, Markey and Capps cite their difficulties with NOV as a big reason why the commission needs the authority to issue subpoenas—a privilege it doesn’t currently enjoy. The House passed a bill co-sponsored by Markey and Capps (by a vote of 420-1) giving it that power earlier this year. But Senate Republicans stymied any further progress.

"Your refusal to provide extremely relevant information is yet another example of why the National Commission should be given that power," Markey and Capps write to NOV. "If Congress is not able to enact such legislation, it will be up to those who do have subpoena authority, including the Congress, to make sure the true facts of the BP spill are placed into the public domain." In a press release, Capps says that "[i]t’s clear that National Oilwell Varco shares the same goal as Senate Republicans, protecting BP from full scrutiny of the independent commission." And granting subpoena power to independent panels is nothing new, she says, citing the fact that the privilege was awarded to both the Warren and Three Mile Island Commissions.

Without subpeona power, the spill commission is toothless. Markey and Capps are using NOV's heinous stubbornness to hammer that point home, and are lucky to have gotten their bill out the door in a Democrat-controlled House. But it's not going anywhere in the Senate. Realistically, though, it doesn't seem as though Democrats would have the legislative capital to burn on empowering the commission anyway. That's too bad.

The Real "Glaciergate"

| Wed Dec. 8, 2010 1:35 PM EST

Sometimes I wonder how the public can still be so confused about global warming. But reading the news sometimes, it's really fairly obvious. Take, for example, today's top candidate for most misleading headline of the year, from the Telegraph: "Cancun climate change summit: glaciers increasing despite climate change."

Holy counterintuitive, Batman! But wait—that's not actually what the article, or the report it refers to, really says. Good thing you only have to read to the second paragraph to get the real story:

However, overall ice and snow on mountains has been retreating since the industrial age, according to scientists from around the world.
In some regions, it is very likely that glaciers will largely disappear by the end of this century, whereas in others ice cover will persist but in a reduced form for many centuries to come.

The report, released yesterday at the Cancun climate talks by the United Nations Environment Program, finds that glaciers in Patagonia, Alaska, the northwest United States, southwest Canada, the Hindu Kush region of the Himalayas, the Arctic and the Andes are all rapidly losing mass. Europe's glaciers were gaining mass from the mid-1970s until 2000, when the trend started reversing. Some may disappear by the end of the century—the consequence of rising temperatures.

Indeed, the report does note that there are some glaciers that have grown—though the trend overall is still decline. Why? Higher levels of precipitation in some areas has caused the growth in places like western Norway, New Zealand, and part of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America. Other mountain ranges are experiencing some contradictory effects—parts of Asia's Karakoram range, for instance, have seen glaciers making a comeback after 50 years.

To say the headline is disingenuous would, of course, be an understatement. It's particularly problematic given all the attention to the glaciers issue this year. Skeptics latched on to a minor error in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that gave an incorrect estimate of the rate of decline for Himalayan glaciers. The error has since been acknowledged and corrected, but has nevertheless been used to undermine the entirety of the IPCC's work. This regardless of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the earth's glaciers are receding—just maybe not quite as fast.

The press has really blown it on coverage of this and other issues of science on global warming in the past year. The Sunday Times had to publish a retraction for a horrible story that dramatically distorted the IPCC's findings on impacts in the Amazon. They did retract it, but these things do have consequences—that story was repeated 20,000 times on the web before the correction.