We’ve Forgotten How to Use Weeds

Categories: Conservation

Ironically, Mint is a Weed

I was looking at my pretty unorganized garden – weeds growing wild, absolutely no organization – and feeling pretty grateful that I could still harvest some good from it.  Got some beets up in there, corn coming in good, tons of herbs – basil, oregano, cilantro, mint – represent.  Even got a pumpkin or two coming through.  All the spinach died though, so sad.

Then I started thinking about how we, in the modern world, have absolutely no idea about how to use native plants in agriculture.  Think about it.  Modern agriculture is characterized largely by monoculture farming, which depends on replacing acres and acres of native crops with one species, which then becomes highly vulnerable to pests, disease, and so on.  In order to mitigate against that, we use tons of chemical pesticides and herbicides like atrazine, which leaches toxins into our environment.

But what if we remembered how to use native plants in the way that the First Nations did?  What if we didn’t create an agricultural system that depended on erasing natural biodiversity, and imposing artificial and naturally unsustainable systems on top?  To get a picture of what this would look like, read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotkin.

Here’s a sample, where the author and his indigenous friends, Kamainja and Shafee were walking near the border of Brazil, to encounter a Brazilian peasant vegetable garden:

…Kamainja snickered.  “Pananakiri poy-deh-ken!” he said slowly.  “White man dumb!

“What’s so funny?” I asked quietly.

“Look at that garden,” Kamainja whispered.  “I’ve seen better-looking agriculture inside a leafcutter ant’s nest!” …

“Look at the weeds!” Shafee chimed in.

“I don’t see any,” I said.

“Exactly!  In our gardens, we always leave some behind because it binds the soil in the rainy season. That peasant’s garden is probably cleaner than his house!”

“And another thing,” said Kamainja.  “You look at that plantation and you know the man doesn’t understand the forest.  A well-planned garden should look like a hole in the forest opened up when a gian ku-mah-kah tree falls over.  Small opening in the forest are filled in by fast-growing weedy plants that attract game animals.  When you cut down too much forest, the little plants can’t seed in from the surrounding jungle…”

What a pity we’ve managed to lose all this knowledge.

A Biosphere That Works

Categories: Uncategorized

Serenity and Public Use

I mentioned the failed attempt by Vermont and New York to establish a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the really remarkable (and international!) Lake Champlain area.  What makes this failure sting even more (to me, anyway) is the fact that right across the border, Quebec has one of Canada’s first recognized Biosphere Reserves at Mont St Hilaire.

A great place to visit – I took my class there in Fall of 2012 – it offers both academic insight and relaxation.  It’s managed by McGill University, and if you want to take a trip there, the staff has been, in my experience anyway, very helpful and informative.  Go there!  You might learn something.

Admittedly, the stereotype about Canadians is that they’re polite and non-confrontational, so the skeptic might say, “well why wouldn’t they be more likely to adopt a UNESCO Biosphere designation?”  And true, unlike New York and Vermont, Canada did not have to deal with cross-cutting jurisdictions in setting it up.  However, like anywhere else, establishing rules about access and use in the Reserve did create some tensions with surrounding communities and the city of Mont St. Hilaire.  In order to keep the Biosphere designation, the managers at McGill and the City had to agree to ban logging and extractive activities in the core, and limit foot traffic.

However, as this report shows, regulatory limits plus consistent outreach has led to, at the very least, a modus vivendi between the Reserve and the surrounding communities.  One hopes that the efforts of local groups like the Lake Champlain Committee can do as good of a job at convincing actors here of the environmental and cultural importance of our own potential Biosphere Reserve.

In Search of a Socialist Lorax

Categories: Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, Pop Culture

He Speaks for the Trees

I just read The Lorax to my kids again (and did funny voices to boot, which made my wife visibly cringe).  Everytime I do, however, I think about this really stellar and well-written article by Maniates called “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?”

The article itself – very accessible, especially for an academic piece – gives a great description of an underlying problem in an otherwise sweet little book.  (And I specifically set up storytime with this book to encourage the kids to take care of the earth).  The short version (read the whole thing!) is that Seuss’ fable presents the solution to environmental crises as occurring through the aggregate of individual action.  In other words, if committed people can motivate themselves to plant trees, take care of them, and make the right purchases, the world will get better.  Noticeably absent from Seuss’ tale, however, are things like polluter pays laws, and regulations that would have stopped the Once-ler from destroying the Truffula forest in the first place – or at least held him legally and financially responsible after he did.

Not picking on Seuss, though.  It’s a nice book.  But we should be aware that individual action, especially in a market economy, will only have very limited effect on systematic environmental and political problems.  In the meantime, enjoy the video:

Lake Champlain – Almost a Biosphere Reserve

Categories: Uncategorized

Sailing on Lake Champlain

 

I was sailing on Lake Champlain thanks to lessons from Burlington’s own Community Sailing Center, and ruminating on the Lake Champlain Biosphere Reserve.  Although virtually nobody living near the lake realizes this, the Champlain basin is supposed to be a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – in fact, it is listed as one from time to time.

Normally, listing something as a biosphere reserve requires fairly modest changes – in order to keep an area listed, governments have to take certain steps, like regulating pollution, human access, and providing ongoing research on biological processes in the area.  This would have kept the Lake Champlain region – which is an international basin – linked to international, federal, and local politics.

However, a lack of attention to the concerns of local stakeholders scuttled the project in the early 2000s.  Based on interviews I had with people intimately connected to the initial attempts to get the Biosphere registered, suspicion – particularly among the New Yorkers in the Champlain Basin – about signing over sovereign territory to the UN reigned supreme.  With language invoking UN Black Helicopters, the states of Vermont and New York failed to get traction towards finalizing the effort.  Too bad.  It might have been one way to get faster early attention to ongoing water pollution issues in the Lake.

 

Ivory and Environmental Justice

Categories: Uncategorized

Elephants, Ivory, and Justice

Guest Poster: Katie Theiss, Middlebury Class of 2014

Poaching and the illegal ivory trade hit record numbers in 2011, with around 25,000 African elephants killed, and levels of trade may be even higher this year, according to GreenWire. Driven by poverty and corruption in the supplying countries, the illegal ivory trade network has been met with increasing demand in Asia.

Poaching is an issue of environmental justice. Often times, communities that have been forcefully removed from their homes by conservation groups in order to make way for protected areas resort to poaching as, first, a reaction against the injustice of being removed from their land, and, second, a reaction against seeing a valuable food resource go to waste. Impoverished communities that lie on the outskirts of protected areas, known as “conservation refugees,” often poach in order to survive.

This, however, is not to excuse the damage done to wildlife by poachers. Animal rights groups estimate that poachers in Africa kill between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants annually, meaning 104 elephants die a day. And, of the 157 poaching-related cases detected in Kenya in the past three years, less than five percent have been prosecuted and only three of those convicted were sentenced to jail. The illegal poaching trade is an international network that brings in 17 billion dollars a year. Because of this, experts warn that Africa could lose 20 percent of its elephant population within a decade.

In the first-ever meeting focusing on the dynamics of the entire ivory value chain, which took place in Botswana on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013, 30 countries agreed, and 6 countries signed a pact, to take “urgent measures to halt the illegal trade and secure elephant populations across Africa.” All of the major countries involved with the ivory trade agreed to the provisions, including the elephant range states, which are Gabon, Kenya, Niger, and Zambia; the ivory transit states, which are Vietnam, Phillipines, and Malaysia; and the ivory destination states, which are China and Thailand.

An especially key signature on the treaty is China, which buys 70% of the world’s ivory. In fact, a spokesman for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which organized the summit with the Government of Botswana, revealed that it was China who made the suggestion that the illegal trade should be eliminated and that supply and demand should be reduced.

Interactive Link on Ivory Trade

14 measures will be put in place in order, including the classification of the trafficking of ivory as a “serious crime.” This treaty paves the way for international cooperation on this issue, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, and extradition.

This treaty is an encouraging example of governance on an issue that requires a multidimensional and international response. While criminalizing the ivory trade may decrease elephant poaching, it does not necessarily solve one of the root causes behind poaching, which is the extreme poverty and environmental injustices caused to communities on the outskirts of protected areas. It is, however, a start.

The Filibuster and the Environment

Categories: Environmental Law and Policy

Guest Blogger: Dan Hellman, Middlebury College Class of 2014

If you have been awake for any part of the past few years (or longer), you may have noticed there is dysfunction in Washington. This dysfunction reached new bounds this past week as the senate changed its rules in what was deemed the “nuclear option” to prevent filibustering of lower-level presidential appointments. Now, we are clearly in an age where no amount of government dysfunction should surprise us (SEE: government shutdown), and the blame falls to both political parties for their repeated use of brinksmanship and stonewalling negotiations. The symbolic impacts of this change to the senate rules are an important story that has been covered by any number of biased news publications you may wish to read, but left out of much of the analysis is the policy impact. For environmentalists, the decision to circumvent senate filibusters represents a short-term victory.

Obstructionism and failure to compromise led to the "nuclear option" changing the senate rules

Obstructionism and failure to compromise led to the “nuclear option” changing the senate rules

The DC court of appeals plays an important role in the environmental policymaking process. There is a special provision in the Clean Air Act stipulating that challenges to rulemaking skip lower courts and go directly to the DC court for appeals. This makes it extremely important for people interested in new regulations against greenhouse gas emissions or crackdowns on coal-fired power plants. Any rule will inevitably be challenged as too strict by industry representatives, so filling the empty seats with liberal judges would give Obama a major advantage. This court has recently ruled against Obama on issues like their delaying a decision on issuing a permit for Yucca Mountain to become a nuclear waste repository.

 

As of now, the political makeup of the court is balanced. Democratic presidents appointed four judges and republicans appointed the other four, but this does not tell the entire story. When the caseload is full for the regular judges, the overflow goes to the senior (part-time) judges. Of the six senior judges, five are republicans.  There are three empty seats on the main court waiting to be filled. Obviously, this presents an important opportunity for the Democrats to gain control of an influential court.

1937 political cartoon when FDR was accused of court packing

1937 political cartoon when FDR was accused of court packing

 

Now, some people have said that by nominating justices to fill these seats, Obama is guilt of court packing.  I am looking at you Ted Cruz.  Though to be fair to the senator from Texas, I should mention that most of the republican establishment is saying the same thing.). They argue that the size of the court should be shrunk down to the current eight members. I am not often one to let facts come in the way of good political theatre, but this is not what court packing is. Just because they want the court to remain ideologically in their favor does not make his nominations invalid. When a Supreme Court justice retires, filling that vacancy is not court packing. It is simply fulfilling a constitutional requirement. If Obama were to expand the size of the Supreme Court to fifteen judges, that would be court packing. This is simply just filling open seats. As a quick aside, if court packing is increasing the number of judges so that the court becomes ideologically balanced in your favor, does that mean that withholding qualified nominations indefinitely to prevent the court from swinging ideologically towards the other side is court unpacking?

Political squabbles aside, the impact of this change to the senate rules is significant. This could eventually be seen as an important moment with regards to Obama’s climate legacy, as any rules he passes will inevitably pass through this court. Looking at the long term we should not expect this change to have any profound advantage to one party or another because each can benefit form the new format when they are in power. But for the moment, we can chalk this one up as a victory for environmentalists.

Blogging Warsaw: Nov 19 – Energy and Development

Categories: Warsaw COP-19

Warsaw COP-19

Energy Industry and Climate Change

World Energy Council Prof. Karl Rose spoke about the recent report from the WEC on Global Scenarios 2050.  Like the recent Emissions Gap report from UNEP (under Executive Director Achim Steiner), the report shows that, due to rising energy demand (likely to double by 2050), our current model is still likely to take us well above the increase in global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius.  As Rose says, “We see what we would call a very inconvenient truth, to paraphrase somebody else.  We are not getting there.”  (For some reason, the WEC has described its projected scenarios of GHG emissions as either Jazz or Symphony, which is horribly twee.  I mean, come on).

Screen shot 2013-11-19 at 10.16.37 AM

Click Here for Interactive Map on Copenhagen Climate Commitments

Anyway, Rose is skeptical about a neoliberal approach to addressing carbon production in the fossil fuel industry.  “The market has no incentive to actually optimize on anything other than an optimum cost picture.”  In other words, market driven actors are all about the cash, yo.  Don’t even act like corporate actors care about anything but that dolla.

The EU: The Environmental Conscience of the North?

Valentinas Mauronis of the EU reiterated that the EU is completely committed to creating a binding agreement by 2015.  Moreover, the EU is trying to get something underway now, by creating the framework to come up with a globally binding treaty in the next two years: “We need to leave Warsaw with new decisions in relation to mobilizing long-term climate finance and addressing adaptation, and loss, and damage.”  In discussing the so far hypothetical (because it hasn’t yet come into force) post-2012 era, Mauronis said: “Let me make clear that the EU is working hard to prepare our ratification of the second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol.”

Connie Hedegaard of the European Commission went on, clarifying the EU’s determination to address the issue of climate change head on, even re-thinking the role of development and environmental problems: Noting that the traditional way of separating environmental costs from economic ones, she pointed out that “one of the things we need is to change our whole economic paradigm.  The way we structure our budget, the way we think about economic growth, and progress.”  To this end, Hedegaard spoke about unilateral EU commitment to reducing GHG emissions:

“20% of the whole EU-level budget for the next 7 years will go to support our climate change policies.  It is 3 times what you have in the present budget.”

Moreover, Hedegaard is concerned that the commitment of US and China to think about phasing out one category of major GHGs, namely HFCs, is insufficient.  She pointed out that at recent discussions at the Montreal Protocol, those same states were interested only in minor reductions of their production and consumption.

Finally, Hedegaard called for immediate action to meaningfully reach the 2015 deadline for creating a globally binding agreement:

“2015 is not a tentative deadline. It is a deadline that the whole world must take very seriously…  Some will say, ‘Yes, maybe we are not ready, with the work we have to do.’  Let me make clear: Paris 2015 is six years after Copenhagen…  There is no excuse.”

Blogging Warsaw: Nov 18

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, Haiyan/Yolanda, International Relations, Warsaw COP-19

Progress on Post-2012?

Bangladesh has signed the Doha Amendment (PDF) to the Kyoto Protocol, which establishes a new commitment period for some Parties after 2012, when the Protocol was initially slated to expire.  Four ratifications down, 144 to go!

The poorest countries are doing what they can, which is mostly focusing on trying to figure out what they can do to avoid impending climate catastrophe.  To this end, the 48 poorest of the poor have now submitted their National Adaptation Plans to address how, for example, subsistence agriculture will be made more resilient to deal with droughts, floods, and the like.

Notably, however, the Doha Amendment expires at 2020 (when the new current commitment period ends), and it is also not clear what is going to take place after that.

The US and the Post-2020 Climate

When asked about what the US would do in regards to attempts to create a new regime, the rep referenced Obama’s recent positive changes, including raising the CAFE Standards for automobiles, and support to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.  He also referenced the Climate Change Working Group, established with China, which is a voluntary, bilateral program to reduce emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and increase overall energy efficiency.  One of the important things they’re doing as well, is phasing out the tremendously warming HFCs (which initially, were inadvertently encouraged under the Montreal Protocol  to avoid depleting the ozone layer).  Given projections of a massive increase of HFCs in the future, and their huge Global Warming Potential, this is a big deal.

Projected HFC consumption

Still, while the US is thinking about a post-2020 commitment, they are unwilling to state anything concrete at this time.  They also expressed sympathy for Japan, having unilaterally dropped their commitment from cutting emissions by 25% due to their recent crises with Fukushima, and their shift away from nuclear energy.  When asked by a member of the press on the US’s negotiating position, or approach to dealing with international efforts to create a post-2020 treaty, he said, “I’m certainly not here to negotiate that with you, heh heh heh heh heh.”

Business and Energy

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC had some words for the coal industry today.  Stating that the fifth report from the IPCC – AR5 – “is not science fiction, [but] is science fact,” Figueres called on the global industry to make dramatic changes.  Interestingly enough, Figueres makes in part a financial argument.  Observing that international development banks are increasingly unwilling to finance coal, and that cities “choked by air pollution are limiting the burning of coal,” she pointed out that continuing coal extraction may create a “business continuation risk.”

Coal Mining in India

However, she also underlines that there is a major environmental need to change as well.  Since it is clear that business as usual will lead to us overshooting the two degree Celsius limit, she calls for pretty serious steps, such as leaving “…most existing reserves in the ground.”

In talking about coal use and consumption, the US representative said “that’s not gonna change overnight.  But at the same time, if we’re going to get a grip on climate change, the balance of energy is going to have to tilt much more toward non-fossil sources.”  Still, this seems slightly more accepting of current and projected coal use, since he noted that the proper way to deal with coal in the current climate (ha ha) is to adopt carbon capture and storage.  Why change your energy habits, if you can just hide them, after all?

Blogging Warsaw: End of Week 1 of COP-19

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, Haiyan/Yolanda, International Relations, Warsaw COP-19

Haiyan/Yolanda, Developing Countries, and Climate Change

Aw yeah!  Blogging time!  Since I didn’t learn anything from COP-17 in Durban, it’s time to cover some of the goings-on, claims, positions, and new developments sure to come over the next week at Warsaw, where the Parties to the UNFCCC hold their 19th COP.  This is a pretty interesting time for the climate change regime, particularly since it’s the first year of the (post-Kyoto?  Second commitment period?  Ambling zombie-fied regime?) post-2012 era.  To recap: the Parties have so far agreed that it was impossible then (2010, 11, 12) to get a binding agreement before Kyoto expired, but committed to commit in the future to a globally binding Protocol, with Obligations and Requirements for All.

Finance and Development

As expected, one of the major issues has to do with the economic and environmental vulnerability of developing nations to climate change.  As academics like Roberts and Parks noted in the book A Climate of Injustice published by MIT Press, developing countries have argued persuasively that the problem of climate change is in part a problem of inequity.  In short, the accumulation of GHGs and the warming climate came because of industrialization and growth in the developed world; now the ones facing the major impact of the predicted increasing strength and frequency of storms like Hayian/Yolanda, are the poorer countries in the developing world, who are also now expected to curb development to solve a problem they had little hand in creating.

Yolanda’s Devastation in the Philippines

At the very least, academics and activists from the developing world have argued that they will take action to curb emissions, but this action must be heavily subsidized by mitigation and adaptation finance provided by the richer nations: 1) they can afford it; 2) they are responsible largely for the crisis. The events of Typhoon Haiyan provided the backdrop for all this, as representatives from the Philippines and the developing world were very clear that they saw the Storm as a result of the global society’s inaction on climate change.

NGO Participation: Terms Subject to Change

Long-term finance was particularly important to the Third World Network (consisting of ENGOs like ActionAid USA and Jubilee South from the Philippines) who were explicit in saying that what was needed to address current and future crises in developing countries was not “ad hoc, charity donations,” but rather actual commitment to help poor nations deal with loss and damage from climate change.  This was a sticking point for this coalition, particularly since, as Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA noted, the Adaptation Fund set up to help developing countries was running out of money.

Wu stated acerbically that the lack of willingness from developed nations to sponsor adaptation & mitigation in poor countries is due primarily to a lack of political will, not capability.  For instance, the unfulfilled pledges for Adaptation for one of the major environmental crises of our time totaled a mere $100 million, or “0.014% of what US spent to bail out banks in 2008.”  In addition, while the international society agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund with full funding by mid-to-late 2014, Wu noted that the text & timeline of the Fund are “not legally binding.”  Wu went on: “There’s no money.  There’s no predictability,” and without those, we have no “…assurance that developed countries have at least some minimal interest in meeting their finance obligations.”

However, on Friday, three members of Friends of the Earth Europe were expelled from the COP, and banned from participating for the next 5 years for expressing solidarity with the Philippines ENGOs’ concern about Yolanda.

Negotiating Positions and Future Treaties?

One other point: after 2012, the Parties to the UNFCCC made unilateral pledges to curb GH emissions.  This week, we saw why unilateral, unbinding pledges are problematic.  Japan decided to reduce their pledge, saying “we used to have a mitigation target of -25% by 2020 from 1990,” but have now decided that their new mitigation target is -3% below 2005 levels, or equivalent to 3.1% over 1990 levels.  To be sure, this target was justified in light of Japan’s own recent environmental crises.  The representative stated that, in light of Fukushima, Japan was planning on building no new nuclear power stations.  “Perhaps we may be able to revisit the mitigation target in the near future…  Some of you may say this is a very easy target for Japan.  It is not.”

Fukushima At A Distance

While the COP isn’t necessarily trying to establish a new agreement now, time is short, and hopefully we will move closer to some kind of consensus by November 22nd.

***Want to donate to help victims of Haiyan/Yolanda?  Check for options here***

Climate Change and the Burden of Proof

Categories: Uncategorized

Typhoon Haiyan. From The Guardian

In the aftermath of global natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and now Typhoon Haiyan, one of the questions that has been brought up several times is: are these disasters “caused” by global climate change?  Technically, Gov. Chris Christie was right when he said earlier this year that “[there hasn't] been any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change.”

For one thing, it’s been so far impossible to prove that a single storm event, like Sandy, Katrina, Irene, or Haiyan is directly caused by warming global temperatures.  While the IPCC reports (PDF) that the average wind speeds in cyclones is likely to increase, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asserts that we are likely to have up to 20 additional hurricanes and tropical storms each year by the end of the century due to global warming, a group of researchers from NOAA, MIT, the Centre for Australian Weather and others have also (PDF) shown that observed changes in cyclone activity may still be within normal variability.  In short, while it is possible – maybe even probable – that humans have changed global storm systems, we cannot definitively show that human activities and anthropogenic warming have had a detectable impact on observed storm activity.  Of course, as the video below shows, Haiyan has been one of the biggest storms ever observed.

So, what does this mean?  If you were uncharitable, I suppose you could continue to claim that, since there is no definitive proof that anthropogenic climate change is causing harm beyond normal variance, that the current global deadlock on fighting global warming is no big deal.  After all, if we can’t prove a causal relationship, we don’t have to justify potentially costly mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Ships washed up in the Philippines

However, the Philippines government has not taken this approach.  On Monday, the head of the Philippine delegation to the UNFCCC, which launches its 19th annual meeting today in Warsaw stated firmly that:  “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness.  The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.”

For the sake of the Philippines and other vulnerable countries, like the Maldives and Bangladesh, I hope he’s right; that the international society can stop this madness.  We’ll see what turns up this year, as we head once more into an attempt to address one of the most important climate, security, and environmental justice issues of our time.