Climate Change and the Burden of Proof

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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.

 

A Luta Continua

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The State “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” – Max Weber

If you want to see an environmental justice movement in action, there is probably no better place than our northern neighbour – Canada!  Over the past week, First Nations, including the Elsipogtog and Mi’kmaq nations blocked Highway 11 between Rexton and Sainte-Anne-de-Kent to protest shale gas development and fracking on tribally held lands.  This development was planned by American shale gas company SWN Resources.

Based on the history between the Canadian federal government and the First Nations, various indigenous groups have been at least leery of the kind of massive industrial development promised by gas exploration – even if some groups are in favor of development the economic boom from resource exploitation may not be equitably distributed.  And for all, the environmental impact of massive development and extraction is likely to be borne primarily by the First Nations, who will find their lands ruined and unusable.

In a depressingly foreseeable turn, the protest has since turned violent.  The RCMP moved in to take down the Mi’kmaq Elsipogtog barriers, arresting Chief Arren Sock and at least 40 others.  The demonstration of force initiated by the state was met with resistance by the protestors, who threw rocks, and the conflict escalated to the point that tear gas and rubber bullets were fired, six police cars immolated, and reports of a shot being fired by someone “other than an officer.”  The First Nations involved still remain committed to resistance, however, demonstrating that the struggle for environmental justice is not always just an academic enterprise.

It’s a little alarming that this has not made regular news here in the USA.  For regular updates, follow Clayton Thomas-Muller on Twitter @CreeClayton

Not This Again: The Return of Geoengineering

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A Model of likely geoengineering solutions

NPR has recently reported on a story that raises old alarms: a group of native people called the Haida in Canada partnered with a businessman to dump iron dust in the ocean to 1) encourage fish populations who thrived on algae, and 2) absorb atmospheric carbon.  It’s difficult to blame the Haida, really, since their local livelihood depends so strongly on fish populations.

But geoengineering is a potentially dangerous idea.  While some social scientists, like David Victor and John Steinbruner argue that geoengineering is a potential necessity, given the fact of global warming, there are a variety of concerns that are likely to emerge: the first is that the science on the impacts of geoengineering, and likely models of future behavior is not there yet.  It is entirely possible that anthropogenic ‘solutions’ may exacerbate environmental degradation in unpredicted ways, if we start changing how ecosystems function.

The second is that, if states and business people adopt geoengineering as a plausible strategy, there is a danger that some actors may adopt unilateral geoengineering solutions which raises major political questions.  How are these kinds of activities to be coordinated?  What happens when (not if) states have different ideas about whether they would be served by geoengineering solutions?  Certainly, the ability of these technological ‘remedies’ to be controlled by the most globally powerful is a cause for alarm among the politically and economically marginalized, for whom this is not an option.

Occasionally, Things Go Right

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Green Consumerism, Morality and the Environment, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

Donghra Villager

One of the challenges I’ve found in talking about environmental justice occurs when justice claims seem to oppose economic ‘development.’  In short, marginalized people around the world too often find their claims about appropriate land use policies and practices ignored or outright dismissed if these claims contradict large-scale industrial development.  For example, in the video below, the Dongria Kondh tribe in India tried to block the onset of open-pit bauxite mining sponsored by the transnational company Vedanta.  The Indian federal government and Vedanta made fairly similar arguments – opposition was ‘irrational,’ particularly since the arguments made by the Dongria Kondh seemed to rest so much on emotional, religious and cultural appeals.  Surely, these should matter little to the possibility of GDP growth, modernization, and capitalist development.  This is something we’ve seen before, including in this country.

However, the Dongria Kondh remained unconvinced: refusing to compromise on their vision of the sacred nature of the mountain, the tribe remained steadfast in their opposition to mining.  As described in this article by the Telegraph, one of the major villages, Lakhapadar, voted to ban mining in a move that was recognized as legitimate by the Indian Supreme Court.

While the Indian villagers are not convinced that this ban is permanent, it still represents a hope that even the marginalized, if supported by legal institutions, can have a positive impact on environmental practices as linked to social justice.

Ghosts of the Green Revolution

Categories: Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism, International Relations, Toxics and Chemicals

I’m not hating on Norman Borlaug.  His innovations in improving the yield of agricultural crops through genetic modification and cross-breeding have undoubtedly contributed to curbing hunger and malnutrition in under-consuming countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Totally not hating! Look at that smile

But the Green Revolution he inspired has left behind a toxic legacy.  In order to support the new breeds of plants produced, the agricultural industry produced hundreds of thousands of tons of pesticides a year through the 1950s, 60s, and onward.  Unfortunately, it turned out that many of these pesticides contained/contain toxins and persistent organic pollutants.  Things like lindane, aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, and DDT – carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, bioaccumulators.

While, to the international society’s credit, we did manage to ban the production and use of many of these chemicals through instruments like the Stockholm Convention, we are left with tens of thousands of tons of these compounds, idling in sometimes poorly stored containers worldwide.  Africa alone has 50,000 tons of these now obsolete pesticides, which have occasionally been unintentionally released into communities by leaks and poor disposal practices.

Fortunately, through the help of funds by the World Bank, and with the support of the Stockholm Convention, the international society is starting to get rid of these pesticides in a reasonably safe manner, but this should introduce a note of caution in the rapid industrial production of poorly tested compounds.

Science and Climate Change Policy – Is There Really A Connection?

Categories: Climate Change, International Relations

News from the IPCC

The IPCC, lead advising body to the UN Framework on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, has finally started releasing its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).  On one hand, I suppose this is a triumph of science.  It’s full of carefully researched and synthesized data on the level of anthropogenic GHG emissions since the late 19th century, the level of sea rise, and the decline in Arctic ice.  The IPCC concludes that global warming is “unequivocal.”

On the other hand, it’s not clear that this is going to make any difference whatsoever to the foreign policy of the laggard developed states – the US, Canada, and Japan.  AR5 does not seem to add any more certainty than that present in AR4, which came out in 2007 (although, since AR4 was criticized for some methodological problems, I might be wrong there).  This may be, as the Guardian indicates, a “landmark report,” but I really don’t see this influencing the 19th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP-19), currently scheduled for this November in Warsaw.

We’ll see, but it might be a cold day* in Hell before any of the laggard states change their tune due to science.

 

*Ironically, due to climate change, possibility of cold days in Hell projected to increase over the next 50 years.

People, the Environment, and Garrett Hardin’s Eugenics

Categories: Conservation, Environmental Rights and Justice, Morality and the Environment, Nature Preservation, Sustainable Development

The Population of Asia

 

I find this to be an interesting map, because there are a few different ways to interpret the data (which seem pretty accurate), that reflect how you think about people and the environment.  The first is that the population of East and Southeast Asia is massive, and still growing.  Since our environmental impact is a product of our population, affluence (or rate of consumption), and use of technology – or I = PAT for short – we could say that the population of East and Southeast Asia is alarming.

This is a logical connection to make.  As multiple sites show, our 7 billion people on earth are consuming a lot of resources.  Water, oil, and other natural resources are being used at rates that may seem Malthusian.  Therefore, there is a solution that also seems pretty logical: we should curb (or reverse) population growth to slow the rate at which we are depleting the Earth’s resources.  As this handy-dandy video indicates, our population’s exponential growth over the past 200 years is something unheralded.

The problem with this line of thinking (i.e. focusing on population as the source of environmental woes), is that it shifts the blame for the state of the world’s current condition to people who have not historically benefited from its overexploitation.  While it is true that changing lifestyles in China mean that it (and other Asian countries) are consuming more and more, historically and presently, each North American and Western European consumes much more than each Asian.

Garrett Hardin – Secret Eugenicist

Further, this line of thinking may lead to very troubling conclusions.  If we focus on population as the source of our problems, then our solutions should likewise focus on population.  One prominent environmentalist, Garrett Hardin (read in almost every single class on environmental policy and politics) took this logic to its natural, eugenicist conclusion.  In a paper titled “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin, noting the problem of a growing world population, argued for cutting off foreign aid to poor people living in Asia.  He observed, as clinically as possible, that “every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain, and for subsequent generations.”

The fact that it is we, living in the industrialized world, that are the primary consumers does not seem to have impressed him at all.  Of course, population is a concern.  And of course Asians (like everybody else, I should add) are consuming more than they did a generation ago.  But let us not lose site of who is responsible for the ‘Non-Negotiable Lifestyle’ that started all this.

The Trouble With “Expert” Advice

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Kill it With Roundup!

 

So, the following is absolutely true.  This summer, I decided I was going to start a vegetable garden in my yard, despite having a dubious gardening ethic, no idea what I was doing, and little to no actual tools.  Naturally, I turned to a local expert; a guy who works in agriculture here in Middlebury.  (I can’t say his name, or where he works, because it could be embarrassing – suffice it to say, he should really have known better.  Let’s call him Zeb).

ME: Yeah, so I was thinking of starting a garden.  Maybe a raised bed?  How do I do that?

ZEB: Right, so the first thing you need to do, is clear the ground of grass and weeds where you’re planning to put the bed.  Mark off the area with some string and stakes, then just soak it with RoundUp.

ME: [stares]  Did… did you say RoundUp?

ZEB: Yep!  Just soak it all down.  Spray it right in there, and it’ll clear all those weeds and grass out for ya.  Then, you can put your soil on top of that once they’re all dead, and use that for your vegetable garden.  Easy!

Well, I didn’t particularly want my garden to start off with a chemical assault (it was supposed to be organic!), so I, with no great skill or capability, dug up a small plot, put newspaper over what remained,and went  from there.  But of course, the question remained – what would have happened if I’d used RoundUp in my precious garden?

It turns out (no surprise), that as a herbicide, RoundUp is tremendously tooxic.  One of the main issues is that the studies on the safety of glyphosate, RoundUp’s main ingredient, do not take into consideration the effect of combining glyphosate with the other ingredients, and the resulting chemical cocktail.  For instance, some studies indicate that the “inert” ingredients magnify glyphosate’s potency such that it can affect natal development and hormone production.  Moreover, the term “inert” used to describe ingredients in RoundUp refers only to the fact that they are not usable as herbicides, and is not a pronouncement on ttheir biological impact.  Thus, while glyphosate appears to degrade in the soil relatively quickly, the effect of multiple, potentially toxic chemicals creates a higher risk of poisoning “…not with the active ingredient alone,, but with complex and variable mixtures.”  Personally, I’d rather nottake the chance.  But many people do: RoundUp is the world’s best selling weedkiller, and as long as it remains profitable, it will continue to be produuced for commercial and domestic use.

Water, Water, Everywhere/Nor Any Drop to Drink (Because it has chemicals in it)

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Rachel Carson and Her Masterpiece

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s popular book pointing out the ubiquity and danger of common chemicals used then, and still used now, in pesticides, herbicides, household cleaners, and fungicides.  While Carson did not argue “…that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she did question the wisdom in their indiscriminate use in commonly used products, particularly since much of the chemicals – DDT, lindane, chlordane, dieldrin – are either endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic, or both.

I thought about this book a lot, particularly after a recent Stanford study that is purported to show that organic produce – produce grown without the use of chemical pesticides and the like – is actually not healthier for you than conventional* produce.  Stanford’s own press release on their School of Medicine website proclaims “Little evidence of health benefits from organic food,” a perspective seemingly adopted also by the NYTimes, NPR, and the Baltimore Sun.  The study seems at first glance to be an excellent tool to criticize the organic food movement.  And, to be sure, there is a lot to critique: organic food is usually more expensive than conventional food, and thus out of the budgetary reach of much of the US population.  Further, some of the proponents can verge on faddism and elitism.  Take this tone-deaf article, for example, which states with a straight face that if “…we can find money for movies, ski trips, and recreational cruises, surely we can find the money to purchase integrity food.”

Choosing Organic Food

But the reasoning of the article raises some unanswered questions.  The study bases its conclusion on these findings: 1) organic food does not have more nutrients than conventional food; 2) organic food has only a 30 percent “risk difference” from conventional food in terms of pesticide chemicals present (although the study itself found that children consuming organic food had significantly lower levels of pesticides in urine); 3) in any case, the pesticide traces of each chemical in conventional food are below levels deemed safe by the EPA.

The first argument seems to me like a strawman.  The purpose of organic food, as far as I knew, wasn’t to provide more nutrients per kilo – it was to avoid the use of toxic chemicals as much as possible, particularly on goods that we consume.  Second, as explained in this article by Mother Jones, Stanford’s calculation of risk from pesticides in conventional food is methodologically suspect.  The finding that conventional food is only 30% more likely to have chemicals than organic food does not make a distinction in levels of chemicals present; in other words, an organic apple with trace amounts of pesticides is counted as equivalent to a conventional apple with multiple, and high-risk pesticides.  Moreover, although the Stanford study argues that the trace amounts of each chemical is at levels deemed safe by the EPA, it does not take into consideration the potentially harmful effect of combining multiple chemicals at once.

The Pesticide-Water Cycle

Third, even if we accept the findings that the chemical levels on the food we consume are safe, agricultural runoff and evaporation means the chemicals used can still enter the water cycle.  In a study by the US Geological Survey, more than half the watersheds and sources near agricultural facilities had levels of pesticides “...greater than water-quality benchmarks for aquatic life and (or) fish-eating wildlife.”

So, the use of the Stanford study to argue against organic food is plausible, only if you’re willing to disregard all of the above.  Personally, since chemicals are everywhere, I’d rather not contribute to the further accumulation of toxic compounds in our ecosystem, and our bodies.

*How hilarious is it that food produced with failing antibiotics, toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides is considered “conventional,” while food produced in the same way that we’ve done for thousands of years is given a special denominator?

Whither Republican Leadership on the Environment?

Categories: Climate Change, International Relations

Climate change is back on the radar of the presidential election, but this time as a punchline.  As is probably well known at this point, Romney gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in which he and the delegates vocally ridiculed the idea that climate change is a problem.  The video is available below:

This may seem like yet another example of the GOP, as an institution, rejecting well-established climate science.  For example, the only GOP presidential candidate last year to admit that anthropogenic climate change existed was Jon Huntsman, who never rose about the double digits in support.  And then, of course, even he went ‘squishy’ in his position in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he invoked the East Anglia Climate-gate controversy, calling for more thumb-twiddling until climate scientists could get “a better description” of the problem.

Of course, recalcitrance in the face of climate change management is not a partisan issue.  Famously, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution which handcuffs the US Executive branch from committing to any international treaty that does not bind developing nations (and preventing US ratification of Kyoto) is a bipartisan agreement.  But climate change denialism seems to be largely a Republican practice – and this in the face of ever mounting evidence from the IPCC that, yes, anthropogenic climate change exists, and is a threat to global security.

But it wasn’t always so.  One of the most vexing issues in the American political system, is that environmentalism has, in the past, had Republican support.  Some of the lead agencies responsible for managing environmental issues, the EPA, and the Council on Environmental Quality (as well as milestone acts, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts) were created either under President Nixon, not known as one sympathetic to the Democratic Party, or with Republican support.  This local environmentalism was but one part of a growing international environmental movement, as only a few years later, the UN held the Stockholm Convention on the Human Environment in 1972.

Sadly, of course, this changed dramatically in the anti-regulatory climate of the Reagan administration, with the appointment of Anne Gorsuch to head the EPA.  While Gorsuch’s tenure was mercifully brief, and despite later environmental triumphs, such as the ratification of the Montreal Protocol (under Reagan!), the damage had already been done.  Anti-environmentalism and anti-regulation had become such a central plank to the GOP platform, that we are left with the fact that what should be a straightforward debate about cause-and-effect has become highly polarized and prone to gridlock.

It is clear at this point, that a GOP presidency will likely mean a 4-year hiatus on any environmental regulatory progress, if not an outright reversal of what gains have been made to date.  The problem, of course, is that while environmental policymaking is partisan, environmental degradation is not.