The Asian Giants Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

NASA finds that Earth is greener than two decades ago thanks mostly to China and India—the world’s two most populous countries, which together make up 36% of humanity.

Despite being considered bad actors in environmental policies and climate change reduction, both nations have significantly ramped up efforts to be more eco-friendly; for example, India has engaged in record tree planting, with 800,000 Indians planting 50 million trees in just 24 hours.

The European Union and Canada have also seen significant improvements in this area. The U.S. ranks seventh in the total growth in vegetation percent by decade.

Although not mentioned in the study, Ethiopia, which is the world’s 12th most populous countries, has entered the fray in reforestation, beating India’s already-astounding record by planting 350 million trees in one day.

Bear in mind that a country that largely kept its forests and vegetation intact would appear to perform worse in re-vegetation than a country that had heavily deforested and thus has more room to grow.

These efforts are far from token: Research suggests that planting trees—lots of them—can significantly help mitigate the effects of climate change, to say nothing of their contributions to human well being.

If these two heavily populated and developing countries can find the will and resources to pull this off—despite the heavy demands to bring economic prosperity to their people—there is some hope, and certainly no excuse.

Source: Forbes

Over 70% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Comes from 100 Companies

While we should all do our part to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study reported in the Guardian finds that such efforts will frankly be worthless so long as a handful of powerful private entities account for the vast majority of climate change-causing pollution.

The Carbon Majors Report (pdf) “pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions,” says Pedro Faria, technical director at environmental non-profit CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute.

Traditionally, large scale greenhouse gas emissions data is collected at a national level but this report focuses on fossil fuel producers. Compiled from a database of publicly available emissions figures, it is intended as the first in a series of publications to highlight the role companies and their investors could play in tackling climate change.

The report found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report.

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, says the report, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.

This puts addressing climate change square in the hands of executives, investors, and shareholders–the narrow class of individuals less likely to be impacted by climate change, best equipped to adapt to it, and most likely to be wrapped up in short-term gains ahead of long-term consequences.

Investors should move out of fossil fuels, says Michael Brune, executive director of US environmental organisation the Sierra Club. “Not only is it morally risky, it’s economically risky. The world is moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy and is doing so at an accelerated pace. Those left holding investments in fossil fuel companies will find their investments becoming more and more risky over time.”

There is a “growing wave of companies that are acting in the opposite manner to the companies in this report,” says Brune. Nearly 100 companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Ikea have committed to 100% renewable power under the RE100 initiativeVolvo recently announced that all its cars would be electric or hybrid from 2019.

And oil and gas companies are also embarking on green investments. Shell set up a renewables arm in 2015 with a $1.7bn investment attached and a spokesperson for Chevron says it’s “committed to managing its [greenhouse gas] emissions” and is investing in two of the world’s largest carbon dioxide injection projects to capture and store carbon. A BP spokesperson says its “determined to be part of the solution” for climate change and is “investing in renewables and low-carbon innovation.” And ExxonMobil, which has faced heavy criticism for its environmental record, has been exploring carbon capture and storage.

But for many the sums involved and pace of change are nowhere near enough. A research paper published last year by Paul Stevens, an academic at think tank Chatham House, said international oil companies were no longer fit for purpose and warned these multinationals that they faced a “nasty, brutish and short” end within the next 10 years if they did not completely change their business models.

It is also worth pointing out that while a large number of the corporate culprits are based in the West, overall they span most of the world: rich and poor, developed and developing, democratic and autocratic:

screenshot-www.theguardian.com-2018.10.23-10-19-00

Most of these companies are not household names, which reflects the low-key nature of the global energy industry: many of us in the developed world take for granted the seemingly endless supply of electricity, gasoline, and other energy supplies. The extraction, production, refinement, and delivery of these fossil fuels occurs unseen, involving a complex network of companies dispersed around the globe.

Thus, as with so many other solutions to climate change, there will need to be a comprehensive, globally coordinated effort by the international community to reign in on pollution and environmental degradation, in cooperation with–or even in opposition to–some of the most powerful corporate interests in the world.

Is there any possibility that the global masses can apply pressure their governments (and to a lesser degree their businesses) to take action? Are these individuals and institutions too wealthy and far removed from the public to be influenced and accountable to either governments or their constituents? What are your thoughts?

Humanity Has One Decade to Get Climate Change Under Control

According to the latest report of U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate change, we are running out of time to do what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. As The Washington Post reported:

With global emissions showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before, the group found.

There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy, transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

At the same time however, the report is being received with hope in some quarters because it affirms that 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible — if emissions stopped today, for instance, the planet would not reach that temperature. It is also likely to galvanize even stronger climate action by focusing on 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees, as a target that the world cannot afford to miss.

Continue reading

The Case for Optimism on Climate Change

While climate change presents one of humanity’s greatest challenges, many scientists and policy advocates warn that framing the consequences in apocalyptic terms is both scientifically inaccurate and counterproductive. As Allison Schrager over at Quartz writes:

Considering what’s at stake, the extreme measures and playing up the stark predictions are understandable. But exaggerating the likelihood of extreme outcomes not only give deniers ammunition, it undermines convincing—even if not entirely certain—science. Gernot Wagner, the lead senior economist for the Environmental Defense Fund and research association at Harvard Kennedy School, told Quartz: “Even enviros get it wrong, they have a knee jerk reaction against anyone who questions the science.”

Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman co-authored the recent book Climate Shock: the economic consequences of a hotter planet, and they share my view that people can make good decisions when faced with an uncertain future. They use finance theory to argue the presence of risk is precisely why we need to limit carbon emissions sooner rather than later. In finance, risk poses a cost. You can pay to reduce it and often, the sooner you do, the cheaper it is to deal with the risk.

And the fact is, there still exists considerable uncertainty around the consequences of climate change. We know the planet is getting warmer. According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the last 30 years may be the warmest in the last 1,400 years in the Northern hemisphere—the globally averaged temperature increased 0.85°C from 1880 to 2012.

We also know that humans are largely to blame. But our precise share is hard to know. Some of the temperature increase is caused by man and some of it may be naturally occurring because global temperatures naturally vary. The evidence is very compelling that human activity is responsible for a large share of global warming. Since the industrial revolution, humans have burned lots of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fossil fuels have increased the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to unprecedented levels, at least within the last 800,000 years. We’ve known since the 19th century that higher levels of CO2 increases the earth’s temperature. The fact that we put lots of CO2 into the atmosphere and temperatures have since increased makes a compelling case we’re largely at fault.

So there is no denying that humans have impacted the climate, and that the changes will be felt across ecosystems and societies (albeit to varying degrees). But the specific consequences span a continuum of possibilities, particularly into the longer term.  Continue reading

Bangladeshi Farmers Experiment With Salt-Resistant Rice

An interesting report from NPR about one of the many low-cost solutions to adapting to climate change:

Climate change is one reason farmland in Bangladesh is becoming increasingly saline. This is especially the case in the coastal south, which was traditionally the country’s rice basket. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of acres of land lay fallow. Production of rice and other salt-sensitive crops, such as potato and mustard, has decreased.

Since 2011, about 180,000 farmers have received saline-tolerant rice seeds and training on how to grow them. It’s part of a program sponsored by three nonprofits: the International Rice Research Institute, the World Fish Center and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Bangladesh is the world’s sixth-largest rice producer. Rice accounts for 70 percent of calories consumed by its population of 160 million.

Agriculture that can withstand climatic threats is especially important in Bangladesh. The country is a low-lying river delta and thus is vulnerable to floods and violent storms. It is also one of the world’s most densely populated countries: Imagine more than half the U.S. population crammed into an area the size of Iowa.

Scientists at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute created the new varieties by crossbreeding rice varieties that were already naturally resistant to salty soil. So they’re not genetically modified plants.

Obviously, the most ideal route is stopping or mitigating climate change. But in the meantime, this is a vital stop-gap. Hundreds of millions of people cannot wait for the powers that be — mostly in the developed world — to do something about it.

Fighting Climate Change Can Be Cheap and Easy — If We Ever Get To It

Well, it is easy conceptually at least. While advanced “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) like carbon-absorbing towers and light-reflecting clouds are touted as solutions to mitigating climate change, the best approaches may actually be the simplest and most low-tech: planting trees and improving soil quality.

That is the conclusion of a recent Oxford study reported in The Atlantic:

Both techniques, said the report, are “no regrets.” They’ll help the atmosphere no matter what, they’re comparatively low-cost, and they carry little additional risk. Specifically, the two techniques it recommends are afforestation—planting trees where there were none before—and biochar—improving the soil by burying a layer of dense charcoal.

Between now and 2050, trees and charcoal are the “most promising” technologies out there, it said.

Charcoal refers specifically to the production of biochar,  an ancient practice whereby agricultural waste (such as food scraps, decaying leaves, etc.) is smoldered and then covered by dirt. This not only makes the soil richer, but it helps dispose of a major source of CO2 while also eliminating the need to clear forest for more arable farmland.

As the article notes, these low-cost methods have a long and proven track record:

Forest management is one of the oldest ways that humans have shaped their environment. Before the arrival of Europeans, Native communities in the Americas had been burning forest fires for millenniato support the growth of desirable plants like blueberries and to manage ecosystems. British communities have long practiced coppicing, a tree-cutting technique that keeps forests full of younger trees.

In other words, humanity has been “geoengineering” with trees for a very long time. The authors of the Oxford report add that afforestation will need global support in order to be successful.

“It is clear that attaining negative emissions is in no sense an easier option than reducing current emissions,” it says (emphasis mine). “To remove CO2 on a comparable scale to the rate it is being emitted inevitably requires effort and infrastructure on a comparable scale to global energy or agricultural systems.”

It is interesting that the authors also cautioned against viewing NETs as a”deus ex machina that will ‘save the day,'” viewing them instead as just some of the many ways to avoid the worst of climate change still yet to come. That said, reforestation and soil enrichment alone will not solve the problem either; reducing emissions in the first place, in conjunction with these and other methods, is still our best bet.

This is confirmed by two recent reports by the National Research Council, an arm of the United States National Academies. As National Geographic reports:

An NRC committee of experts from across disciplines was asked by several U.S. government science and intelligence agencies to evaluate geoengineering proposals. The ideas range from anodyne (planting trees to capture CO₂) to potentially alarming (injecting sulfate particles or other aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet).

Committee members were blunt in their first recommendation: The world should focus first and foremost on curbing fossil fuel emissions rather than on any kind of geoengineering.

“I think it’s going to be easier and cheaper to avoid making a mess than it will be to make a mess and then try to clean it up later,” said committee member Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science. “If we end up having to build a fix that’s on the scale of our energy system, why not just retool our energy system?

….

The first, CO₂ removal, the committee characterized as worthy and “almost inevitable.” The second, using aerosols or other means to reflect solar radiation, would be “irrational and irresponsible” if done as anything but a last-ditch effort to prevent a global famine or other emergency.

The Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have similarly put an emphasis on reducing emissions first and foremost, with other strategies being auxiliary or complementary.

We know the solutions, and have ample resources and capital to draw upon — we just need the political and public will to make it all happen. If merely planting trees, enriching soil, and cutting back on carbon usage are enough to largely avert an existential threat to humanity, then the worsening of climate change is a damning condemnation of our species’ foolishness and shortsightedness.

The Countries Most Threatened By Climate Change

It goes without saying that climate change will have a severe impact on humanity. But some areas will be harder hit than others, and the countries most likely to be heavily impacted are also the least equipped to handle the subsequent social, economic, and political consequences.

Indeed, as the following infographics show, nearly all the world’s wealthiest nations will get by relatively unscathed (at least initially), while the greatest burden will fall on those states that are already strained by poverty, underdevelopment, environmental degradation, and political instability — factors that will exacerbate, and be exacerbated by, the effects of climate change.

Bussiness Insider notes some important details to keep in mind:

While the maps provide a great zoomed-out perspective of what’s going to happen globally as the earth warms, there are a few caveats to keep in mind when checking it out:

First, these maps are based on country rankings, not comprehensive evaluations of each country. In other words, the best-ranked countries are only as great as they seem compared to the countries that are performing less well.

Additionally, the ranking looks only at the level of entire countries. All of the state-specific, region-specific, or city-specific data gets somewhat lost in this zoomed out perspective.

While many in the developed world, particularly the United States, remain unresponsive or slow to act (if not in open denial to the problem), humanity’s most vulnerable people — already suffering enough as it is — will bear the brunt of the consequence of inaction. It is worth pointing out that a large proportion of the world’s population lives in the “global south” where climate change will be worst, meaning the human toll will be of an appalling scale.

Of course, in our heavily globalized world, even the initially best-off countries will be negatively impacted eventually. World food supplies will be disrupted, tens of millions of refugees will flee starvation and social breakdown to wherever they can, and the possibility of international conflict over strained resources (or disfavored migration) will be more likely. So while some places may be relatively better off than others, all of us will be affected in some way or another: there is currently no way to escape our planet and its increasingly erratic climate.

While the precise sociopolitical effects are speculative (to varying degrees of likelihood), climate change itself is not. The evidence is mounting and the impact is already being felt and documented in both ecosystems and the world’s poorest countries (and even in the U.S., which recently endured record drought throughout most of the country). Ultimately, we will all suffer together, and the only way to do anything about it is to develop an appropriately global response. This is both an existential and moral issue.

The IPCC Finds More Evidence of Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a new report that further verifies what climate scientists have long been warning about: the climate change is real, humans are responsible, and the problem is only getting worse — and to some extent, irreversible. You can click the hyperlink above to read an assessment of the report, while the following image pretty much sums up the main points.

Infographic: How the 2013 global warming report compares to 2007's.

Source: LiveScience

The Biggest News Story You Haven’t Heard Yet

Arctic sea ice is at a new record low, evidence not only of a hotter planet, but of a radically changing one – less ice also means the planet absorbs more heat (since white surfaces reflect sun rays), which means our weather will get worse, leading to a cycle of climate changes that will affect ecosystems and crops.

Read more about it here.

Anti-Scientific Attitudes Threaten the World

Many of the most pressing problems our species faces – such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and energy shortages – require scientific solutions. Only through research, experimentation, and innovation can we are way around these looming catastrophes.

Yet science itself faces an even greater challenge than these global crises – a lack of public and political support. That was the prevailing assessment by scientists from across the world who gathered at an annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Participants noted that the global public as a whole “does not understand science,” and that science itself was “under siege” by religious and ideological forces. As one attendee starkly observed, “We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognise that.”

The theme of the five-day meeting, attended by some 8,000 scientists from 50 countries, was “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.”

“It’s about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don’t,” said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.

Experts wrangled with thorny issues such as censorship, opposition from religious groups in the United States to teaching evolution and climate change, and generally poor education standards.

“We have to plan for a future, considering the risk of climate change, with nine to 10 billion people,” said Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert famous for combating scientific ignorance with catchy YouTube videos.

Rosling, pointing to charts showing how human populations changed with technology and how without science the majority of a family’s children die, said it is naive to think that humanity can easily go backward in history.

“I get angry when I hear people say: ‘In the rainforest people live in ecological balance.’ They don’t. They die in ecological balance,” he said.

Indeed, global warming is an indicative example of this issue. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, the majority of Americans remain unconvinced about climate change, and skepticism has only grown more over the past few years. Even those who accept the phenomenon nonetheless erroneously believe that we’ll be able to adapt, which is yet another manifestation of scientific ignorance.

The United States is particularly susceptible to anti-intellectualism, and it runs rather deep in our history (ironic, given that our much deified founders were pretty cerebral themselves). Academics and scholars remain just as distrusted as their scientific peers, and many Americans – egged on by pundits and polemists – often see intelligent people as elitist, aloof, and even insidious (especially if they have Ivy League degrees).

Granted, bias, narrow-mindedness, and immorality bedevil even the most intelligent members of our society, as these are universal human flaws. Furthermore, even smart people can be wrong, and the scientific consensus has sometimes needed tweaking, if not outright abandonment. So some degree of measured analysis and critical thinking must be applied to any and all claims – that’s why self-correcting measures such as peer review and re-experimentation have been institutionalized.

But the general public has reached a point of extreme fallibism, in which nearly all the claims made by “experts” are reflexively doubted because of the very fact that they were made by experts. Personal experience, or even mere intuition, are seen as more legitimate, even though they’re each limited by our own cognitive constraints (e.g. our sense can fool us, our life experiences are limited, etc).