BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for July 2010

An equal partnership with the land?

Richard Black | 17:14 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010


The journal Nature this week debates one of the most important questions of our age: how can we feed the Earth's growing population such that no-one goes hungry and nature is left with some land and water of its own?

Farming_in_KenyaBeing a science journal, you'll not be surprised to hear that one of the things it considers necessary in this whole arena is, er, science - in particular information about land use and the potential of land for different uses.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York and an advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and a key mover in the Millennium Development Goals initiative, argues that in fact this is the only way to make sensible decisions.

Actually, to say "he argues" is to downplay authorship of the article that bears his byline, as it's co-authored by 24 people either running or closely allied to land-use research projects such as Conservation International's Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network.

They write:

"Making the transition to healthy, equitable and sustainable agriculture is a daunting challenge. To succeed, we will need to track and understand the diverse and changing impact of farming practices."

What they're suggesting is, in essence, a global network of research centres that can provide data that governments and farmers can use to make sensible decisions about land use.

Do this, they argue, and society will have the best opportunities to get more for less; to grow more crops, raise more cattle, whatever's needed, without spilling agriculture over into yet more millions of hectares, with all the consequences for biodiversity that would imply.

What might sound rather like a thought experiment is given tangible form by another article in Nature's set, looking at land use analysis in Brazil and the benefits it has brought.

As reporter Jeff Tollefson outlines:

"Despite rising production and persistently high commodity prices since the height of the global food crisis in 2007-08, Amazon deforestation plunged to a historic low last year, nearly 75% below its 2004 peak, and some expect more good news this year.
"This trend fuels hopes that Brazil is establishing a sustainable agricultural system that will help to feed a growing world in the decades to come."

In other words, Brazilian farmers really are learning how to get more for less.

The once-destructive soya bean industry is working - at least in some regions - alongside its arch critic Greenpeace. Using satellite images, they are working out which areas are ripe for more intensive growing, taking into account issues such as the volume of water available and what else needs it.

Cattle ranching is another hugely destructive business - not least in some of the places I visited in Acre state back in 2006, where fields ran alongside every road, and white cows stood on land that used to bear virgin forest.

Brazil_deforestation_for_cattleWith a bit of scientific input, it may be possible to double the density of cattle even in these relatively infertile fields.

Whether this sort of approach is scaleable to the entire planet, as the Sachs article argues, is something of a moot point - not least because, as he also points out, every region of the world is different - varying in temperature, rainfall, soil type, and myriad other things too - and that's without chucking in the social contexts.

There's another aspect to this that isn't tackled here: the requirements of nature itself, assuming that it is considered desirable to conserve nature as best we can.

In a nutshell, what do you do - what decisions do you make - when valuable agricultural land is also important ecologically?

More fundamentally, how do you know it is important ecologically? And given that ecology can be vital for effective farming, especially in developing countries, how do you make sure you manage the farming and the ecology together for maximal benefit to people, both through agriculture and through intact nature?

That complex kind of tapestry is being explored now in Tanzania, in the Valuing the Arc project. Here, local and Western specialists are mapping the Eastern Arc mountains for their "ecosystem value" - for what they bring through their ecological services to human residents.

It's home to three million people, and provides them with water, fuel and timber. But the three million are expanding, which potentially means more take-up of the land for farming; yet that could rebound on the services that everyone needs, farmers included.

Throughout the millennia of history, humanity has spread its footprint organically - building settlements on rivers, clearing forest for crops, moving into new areas as we expanded.

The vision presented in these papers and these projects is of a step-change in our relationship with the land - the beginning of an era where we zone our global development just as some cities zone themselves into industrial or residential areas and so on.

It should, in theory, be a more rational way of doing things. If we want to leave some reasonable portions intact for nature and ensure that nature continues providing services we need, it may be the only way of doing things.

But someone has to pay for the science that Jeffrey Sachs and others are proposing; in a recessionary world, who's that going to be?

Climate campaigns down the pan

Richard Black | 17:01 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010


Apologies issued by two campaign groups, WWF and Oxfam, may or may not bring to a close one of the more bizarre yet telling episodes that have materialised within the UN climate convention.

Red Sea region from spaceAt the convention's annual two-week session in June in Bonn, activists removed the nameplate of the Saudi Arabian delegation from the conference hall, broke it, put it inside a toilet bowl and took a bunch of souvenir photographs.

The nameplate is what sits in front of delegations in the conference hall and what identifies them to the chair and everyone else; in symbolic terms, you can also view it as a totem of the country and its sovereignty.

The episode started with a proposal put forward to the conference by some small developing countries.

They were requesting that a technical analysis be prepared of options that the global community would have to consider taking should it be decided that the rise in average global temperatures since pre-industrial times should be limited to 1.5C.

The existence of such a document could influence wording put into draft treaties that might be drawn up in future.

And this was something that Saudi Arabia - supported by Kuwait, Qatar and Venezuela - did not want to permit, even in the teeth of some unusually frank criticism from their habitual allies in the developing country bloc.

The Saudis, in particular, have regularly been accused down the years of trying to stymie progress within the climate convention and other forums in an attempt to protect their oil industries.

Put this history together with their opposition to the 1.5C proposal, and you have the reason why the activists did what they did.

Oil tanker

From a reporters' point of view, it led to a surreal morning in the corridors outside the meeting rooms.

Representatives of campaign groups who are usually only too happy to give journalists information or pictures suddenly clammed up.

The pictures clearly existed - but mysteriously, no-one seemed to know who had taken them or where they might be. Organisations that usually complain bitterly about lack of openness and transparency in the UN process became markedly less open and transparent themselves.

The Saudis were incensed by the act, seeing it as an insult to their nation, and their protests were backed by other national delegations, keen to preserve good order in the diplomatic ranks. The secretariat of the UN climate convention was asked to mount an investigation.

It was a dicey situation for the campaign groups involved - and at that stage, we didn't know who they were - because such an event could mean they would lose the right to attend UN climate talks, and in principle, other UN bodies as well.

Well, now WWF and Oxfam have 'fessed up.

"The incident was gravely offensive to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and to the meeting as a whole,"

... said WWF, whose delegate appears to have actually taken the plate and put it in the toilet bowl. (There are stories that both male and female toilets were involved, but these waters are far from clear.)

"The act itself was offensive, inexcusable and inappropriate. It broke UN rules that govern NGO behaviour,"

... said Oxfam International's executive director Jeremy Hobbs.

Oxfam's delegate was in the room when the decision to remove the nameplate was taken, but didn't actually carry it to the can.

The WWF person involved doesn't work for them anymore; the Oxfam employee has been suspended. Both have been barred from future UN climate meetings; and WWF is drawing up a code of conduct for its campaigners.

Clearly, part of both organisations' strategies in issuing such fulsome public apologies is to ensure that the damage stops there, and that the groups' influence in the climate arena doesn't disappear down the pan.

Christiana FigueresThey're planning to apologise again to the full meeting of the climate convention when negotiations re-open next week.

Whether this will be the end of the affair isn't certain, but it looks likely.

I haven't yet received a reply to an e-mail I sent asking whether Saudi Arabia considers the matter closed; but even if it doesn't, there's unlikely to be wider support for stronger measures such as the suspension of either organisation.

Both have done and continue to do a lot of research and analysis on climate change, sometimes working with governments, and often valued by them.

Many governments in the rich and poor worlds alike are likely to have more sympathy for these groups in private than for the Saudis.

Within the wider community of environmental groups and other organisations campaigning on the issue, there's a general recognition that the toilet incident was unwise at the very least and damnably stupid at the worst.

As well as risking the banning of the groups involved, the wider community sees its credibility diminished in some peoples' eyes; and the arguments that some countries make for keeping civil society organisations out of intergovernmental processes receive new ammunition.

But some are asking a different question: who is the real villain here?

Is putting a nameplate under water, albeit in the unpleasant context of a toilet bowl, more or less serious than blocking a proposal that could help prevent some small island states and heavily-populated coastal zones from disappearing under the sea?

After all, Saudi Arabia signed up to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, so logically the government accepts its projections as at least credible.

At the end of the June meeting, the diplomatic noise over the toilet episode obscured this wider concern; and that's another reason why activists generally appear to think it was a stupid thing to do.

But that one incident doesn't turn everything the NGOs are saying into a busted flush; and once the waters subside, the bigger concerns will still be there.

Common climate in Canberra and Washington

Richard Black | 17:57 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010


Turn the clock back four years, and you could not have slipped a cigarette paper between the climate policies of the administrations in Washington DC and Canberra.

With the election of Kevin Rudd in December 2007, paths diverged.

Against the backdrop of opinion polls showing climate change as a major concern for Australians, Mr Rudd's Labor government ratified the Kyoto Protocol, unveiled new targets for cutting carbon emissions and announced that a new emissions trading scheme (ETS) would be the principal vehicle for reaching those targets.

A year later, Barack Obama entered the Washington White House, talking a positive game on the issue but making clear his desire or even his need for legislation to proceed through both Houses of Congress, and maintaining his opposition to re-entering the Kyoto fold.

Now, there's a case for arguing that the old days are back, and that Canberra and Washington are once again in step.

Julia GillardMr Rudd no longer holds the reins of power, having been deposed as Labor leader and prime minister in a bloodless coup by his former deputy Julia Gillard - at least, until the forthcoming election.

There were many reasons for Mr Rudd's fall, but one was that voters were dismayed by his plans to weaken and delay advent of the ETS.

Ms Gillard was expected to - indeed, had hinted that she would - restore the fully-fledged measures that Mr Rudd had watered down.

Now, she too is being accused of dilution. In a televised pre-election debate that my colleague Nick Bryant has written up, she shrank from restoring the full ETS scheme and instead proposed setting up a "citizens' assembly" on climate change.

There's an argument that, like committees everywhere, it would simply kick the issue into the long grass. And that's exactly how it's being perceived by swathes of the Australian electorate, according to some analyses.

Meanwhile in the US, there's been a deal more cogitating over the causes and effects of the Senate Democrats' decision not to push for a full climate bill during this session, as mentioned at this blog last week.

Ross Douthat in the New York Times argues that for all the finger-pointing that's going on, there's one analysis that makes sense:

"If their bill is dead, it was the American conservative movement that ultimately killed it."

In his book, there's a strong case for saying the conservative movement was correct to do so and that inaction is actually the wise course.

That's not the message, however, coming from the latest look at the US electorate.

"Our surveys reveal a small decline in the proportion of people who believe global warming has been happening, from 84% in 2007 to 74% today..."

...says Jon Krosnick of the latest in a series of polls conducted from Stanford University.

Protest against oil in DCWhatever the reason for the decline - and Mr Krosnick cites figures showing cold weather in heavily-populated parts of the US was behind it - 74% still represents a pretty sizeable majority.

Against this background, you might expect that activists in favour of climate legislation would be mightily miffed by last week's abandonment.

Not a bit of it, according to an analysis in The Hill, the Washington political website. Activists were so disappointed by what they saw as the limited scope of the Kerry-Lieberman bill, the latest version of the draft legislation, that some at least are saying "good riddance".

"Given that the energy bill was already a big capitulation to polluters, the failure to move it will not exacerbate the enthusiasm gap that was already there due to its underlying lameness..."

...says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

The problem facing Mr Green and his counterparts in Australia is this: given that their regimes are both failing to deliver what the public apparently wants, despite all the groundwork they had put in and despite all the rhetoric that has been spouted, what can they do to make sure regimes do deliver anything more than words once they eventually get into office?

In both societies, some might argue that the tipping point is easy to identify: that it will come when climate change is a big enough electoral issue that leaders are prepared to take on powerful business lobbying once they actually attain office.

But that's to ignore a simple reality. Both nations have bipartisan politics, which tends to drag parties and leaders towards the middle ground.

Once again, then, not a cigarette paper between the two nations. Once they stood together to destroy the Kyoto Protocol; now their leaders are talking a greener game, but still failing to deliver what their electorates say they want.

And in both countries, proponents of climate action are scratching their heads and wondering what to do about it.

UN climate talks in the mire?

Richard Black | 17:22 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010


It's not being touted as such, but the latest document from the United Nations climate convention (UNFCCC) is the clearest admission we've yet had that UN talks are in the mire.

Indonesian_floodingAdd it to the latest word from the US Senate, and "mire" hardly seems strong enough.

Let's take the global document first.

At the last round of UNFCCC negotiations in Bonn, the convention's secretariat was asked to prepare a "what if?" document.

In this case, the question is "what do we do if the Kyoto Protocol discussions don't agree a set of carbon cutting targets and other outstanding issues that can come into effect in 2012 when the current set of targets expires?"

The secretariat's role in this isn't political, but legal. Its mandate was to set out options that governments could elect to pursue; what to do is their choice.

The reason for the discussion of Plan B options is this: if there are no agreed industrialised country targets agreed by the time the current ones expire, how are governments supposed to set regulatory frameworks on carbon emissions, and what would induce companies to make low-carbon investments when the financial carrots and sticks might vanish in less than two years' time?

The document throws up a range of options.

One would see governments agreeing to continue the existing arrangements until 2014 rather than 2012. A second would see the adoption of some kind of "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" rule; another would see measures adopted by a majority of countries rather than by consensus, as of now.

Stepping back from the minutiae of what's being proposed to the wider issues thrown up here, there are two to pull out.

One is the sheer complexity under which the UN negotiations are currently labouring.

Try this for size:

"The acquisition and transfer of emission reduction units (ERUs), certified emission reductions (CERs), assigned amount units (AAUs) and removal units (RMUs)27 under Articles 6, 12 and 17 of the Protocol for the purpose of fulfilling commitments under Article 3, paragraph 1, of the Kyoto Protocol relating to the first commitment period until one hundred days after the date set by the CMP for the completion of the expert review process under Article 8 of the Kyoto Protocol, otherwise known as the true-up period..."

2012_beach_protestAs Star Trek's Mr Spock might comment: "It's English, Jim, but not as we know it."

Or maybe the UNFCCC has been infiltrated by the spirit of James Joyce bent on penning a sequel to Finnegans Wake.

The more complex things get, the more scope there is for governments to pick holes in any text and prolong negotiations, whether for genuine or for tactical reasons.

The other issue is what's signified by the document's mere existence: essentially, that the UN process is in trouble.

Yes, the rounds of talks go on and yes, a wide range of governments have pledged action, through the Copenhagen Accord, than ever before.

But the carbon curbs so far generated are a pale shadow of what is needed if you accept the 2007 conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which virtually every government says it does - and the process doesn't look like generating anything stronger any time soon.

The year 2012 is an obvious deadline because of the expiry of the Kyoto targets.

If that's missed, then effectively there is no target date for a new set - extension to 2014 can easily become 2016, then 2020, and before you know it governments will still be talking about what to do by the time CO2 concentrations top the 450 parts per million figure that some profess to regard as an unbreachable upper limit.

The single biggest factor missing from the negotiations is, as it has been for a decade, the lack of a strong and equitable US commitment.

The emergence of such a thing looks even less likely following the admission that the Senate will not be able to pass domestic cap-and-trade legislation during this session.

Harry_ReidWith mid-term elections due in November, the mathematics of the Senate next term are likely to be worst for those backing legislation.

And already, less than two years after green fanfare surrounding Barack Obama's election, some observers are giving the bill its last rites.

If President Obama couldn't deliver climate legislation, who can? There are reasons to argue that a Republican president would be better placed than any Democrat - but only, of course, if he or she backs such legislation in the first place.

As I've mentioned before, the mood and tone within the UN process has shifted a vast distance since the run-up to December's Copenhagen summit.

You could say it's now much more in tune with the political realities than the ebullient trumpeting of seismic global optimism that characterised the arrival of delegates into the snowy Danish capital.

There are something like 700 international environmental agreements in operation across the world now; about most of them, we hear nothing. Meetings happen, progress is made or not, delegates come and go, and the years pass by.

Back in December, it would have seemed unthinkable to raise the possibility that the UNFCCC, charged with tackling what many held to be the planet's most pressing problem, could join their ranks.

Based on facts on the ground since, it doesn't seem half so incredible now.

Scientist leaves behind a climate of abuse

Richard Black | 15:43 UK time, Tuesday, 20 July 2010


Stephen SchneiderI didn't know Stephen Schneider, the Stanford University climatologist who has just died from an apparent heart attack, well enough to pen a comprehensive account of his life and works.

RealClimate has an appreciation by his close colleague Ben Santer; and the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have obituaries, among others.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has an In Memoriam note [46.60KB PDF] that describes Dr Schneider as...

"...a major contributor to the IPCC and one of its fiercest supporters... a warrior for honesty and a dedicated campaigner for giving people the complete story.
"Steve's scholarly approach, combining world-class research with deep commitment to broad communication, set a remarkable standard of excellence."

As a journalist covering climate change through the Kyoto conference of 1997, the Bush administration's decision to absent itself from that arena, the seminal IPCC report of 2007 and last December's UN summit in Copenhagen, Stephen Schneider was someone whose influence you could hardly miss, from his pioneering work on developing numerical models of climate to the interviews and conversations and speeches through which he sought to convey the implications of all that science to the public.

Of course, that didn't necessarily make him a popular man.

I last spoke to him about three months ago. The context was abuse: the vitriolic, sustained, personalised and sometimes apparently organised abuse that has been levelled against scientists in the climate field, including him.

Installation at Copenhagen summitIt materialises in blogs and newspaper articles that appear to start from the standpoint that everyone in the field is corrupt, incompetent and crooked. It streams into scientists' e-mail inboxes.

Some of those receiving it see it as a deliberate, malicious and politically-motivated campaign of harassment.

Australian journalist Clive Hamilton has documented the threats and abuse levelled against scientists in his country in a series of online articles commencing with "Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial".

He cites cases of scientists being compared in emails to Pol Pot, and being told that unless they stopped what they were doing, they would "end up collateral damage in the war".

From my own enquiries, such harassment does not appear routine in the UK, though it does happen. Prominent climate scientists I spoke to have encountered abusive e-mails, some registering a crescendo in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference, and others noting that it emerged whenever they published a paper or spoke in the media.

It has reached its apogee, however, in North America - not least in the threatening e-mails and indeed events that have followed Stephen Schneider, Ben Santer and several of their colleagues in recent years - events that the former detailed to some extent in his book Science as a Contact Sport.

In one of his recent e-mails to me, he said that title was probably "too wimpy an analogy" given how far things had gone.

We're not only talking here about messages accusing scientists of being communist traitors whose raison d'etre is world government - though there are enough of those - but threats to life and limb.

We're talking about a threat perceived to be serious enough that a prominent climate researcher had to be escorted to last December's American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting by security guards.

China droughtWe're talking about a dead rat left on a doorstep around midnight, the perpetrator driving off hurling abuse in - perhaps inevitably - a huge 4x4.

Some of the scientists have been most concerned by a posting on the website of the white supremacist organisation Stormfront.

It shows photos of eight prominent people working in climate change, either as scientists or on the policy side - including Stephen Schneider - and labels them all as "Jews".

Further down, a comment on the thread contends that the "global warming scam has always borne the stench of the same old Jewish liars, thieves, swindlers and murderers".

Dr Schneider regularly engaged with scientists and politicians sceptical of climate science, through peer-reviewed publications, books, advice to a succession of US administrations, and the IPCC.

But how is anyone supposed to engage with Stormfront?

Here is perhaps an issue that ought to concern people sceptical of human-induced climate change.

It is a broad spectrum. But how does propagation of the "Jewish liars" or "world government" arguments affect perceptions of those who challenge the mainstream picture along scientific lines?

Doesn't the climate of abuse overshadow the real issues that sceptics are flagging up, and reduce the chances of "sceptical" science being taken seriously?

And what is the abuse supposed to change? Does anyone really expect committed scientists to stop doing science just because they are labelled "scum" or "paid liars"?

It's an approach to winning hearts and minds that must have a limited chance of success.

Stephen Schneider didn't feel inclined to pull back. In a recent e-mail to me and others, he decried the attempt by Senator James Inhofe [639.15KB PDF] and others to seek legal redress against 17 climate scientists, including Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, as "a smokescreen of denial and deceit".

He recounted that he was working an extra four hours every evening trying to put the record straight, as he saw it, on issues such as "ClimateGate" and alleged mistakes in IPCC assessments - "No time to stop now..."

A violent snapshot of frog destruction

Richard Black | 20:00 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010


Hylomantis_lemurThe fungal disease chytridiomycosis has sometimes been compared to a forest fire, sweeping through the world's amphibians and consuming them in its remorseless flame.

It's not a perfect analogy, not least because many species survive the passing conflagration; but it's not bad.

Just as you can see a forest fire coming (particularly now that "seeing" involves the use of hi-tech gadgets such as satellites), in principle you can see chytrid coming too.

Heading southwards through Central America, it's extending the boundary of its range by about 30km per year - apparently unaffected by what kind of terrain it's passing through.

Karen Lips, one of the world's foremost authorities on the disease, realised some years ago that in principle you could pick a site in Central America that was in the path of the blaze, do an amphibian census, and then wait for chytrid to arrive.

Unusually, you'd get a before-and-after snapshot of a real-life, local and unpreventable extinction event.

So it happened that about a decade ago, Dr Lips and colleagues came to begin pre-chytrid surveys at El Cope in Panama.

Gastrotheca_cornutaAnd in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, you can read what they found and what happened in 2004/5 when the fungus arrived.

Before the fungus, 63 confirmed amphibian species were in residence at the site.

Now, 25 of them are absent; and a further nine have declined by 85-99%.

In other words, more than half of the species were wiped out or taken to the brink of disappearance from the area in just two years.

For some, that may mean extinction globally, as El Cope is the only place where they have been identified.

Andrew Crawford, the lead author on this paper, said the extent of the damage had surprised the team, even though the initial estimate of when chytrid would arrive in El Cope turned out to be pretty accurate.

Since the post-chytrid surveys, the fungus has continued its spread and has now crossed over the Panama Canal. How it made that crossing is, said Dr Crawford, still something of a mystery - though transport by people, possibly as spores on the soles of shoes inside cars, has to be a strong contender.

Among all the forces that are driving plants and animals towards extinction, chytrid is unusually violent, predictable and intractable; which is why the picture.painted by these before-and-after snapshots is painted in such stark colours.

Years ago, a coral reef scientist in Australia told me of his suspicion that one of the reasons people weren't more concerned about reef declines was because you'd need to observe for a human lifespan in order to experience them as something spectacular and widespread.

That may change, if ocean warming and acidification continue. But the point is well-made; which is perhaps why the UN Environment Programme (Unep) several years ago brought out its Atlas of our Changing Environment, which uses before-and-after satellite images to make changes taking place over decades visual and immediate.

Thanks to the work of Andrew Crawford and Karen Lips, we have a snapshot of what chytrid can do in an instant.

But loss of habitat, including deforestation, continues to be the bigger cause of decline, even among amphibians, as we've discussed before on this blog.

Unep's images show us the disappearing forests; but the changes in the life they support is still hidden from view.

A week spent joining the dots

Richard Black | 17:07 UK time, Friday, 16 July 2010


It's an unusually well-structured week that begins with cause and ends with effect.

But that is one way of looking at what we've just had.

Babies in hospitalOn Monday, the UK's Royal Society announced a study into the science of human population growth.

What they mean by "the science" is pretty broad, and the panel they've convened includes experts on law and theology; so clearly we're well into the social sciences at one end of the spectrum.

Many of you have suggested in comments on these pages and our Green Room articles that unless population growth is addressed, all the other problems I burden you with here are not going to be solved; and it's a view that garners a lot of sympathy in sustainability circles.

This is where the Royal Society comes in.

How scientifically valid is the view? How many people can the Earth sustain, and at what level of development? What would be the societal, economic and technological shifts that might bring the human footprint down to the size of a single Earth without trading away hard-won prosperity?

Answers to some of the questions might come only as value judgements; but where there is something more substantial, the society hopes to find it and distil it so that policymakers can decide whether they should attempt to do something about it.

That, of course, is the hard part. People want to have children - of course, it's the most wonderful thing on the planet and most would say how we get to make them isn't too bad either.

In principle, money set aside for general environmental "good things" could be spent on family planning projects, which in the eyes of some of the aid agencies running them are win-win-win-win options.

Power lines and stop signThey'll tell you that when women in poorer societies are given the power to take their own decisions regarding fertility, they choose to space out their babies.

That leads to healthier mothers, better-fed children, more prosperous families and - on a societal level - fewer people on the planet.

But should Western governments spend money this way? Is it morally right?

The Royal Society won't be able to answer that one - but it might be able to say whether addressing population size in this way would be more or less effective in environmental and human terms than other options for aid.

At the other end of the week comes the latest attempt to analyse the impacts that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases may have in the future.

The National Research Council of the US National Academies has pulled together what's in the scientific literature and tried to relate impacts to degrees of warming, and then back to "stabilisation levels" for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


In some ways, it covers the same ground as the impacts part of the 2007 assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But conceptually, the report - Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia - differs a bit.

The IPCC's top-line projections focus on time - how much sea level rise this century, and such like - whereas the National Academies have less to say about when impacts might arise, and more to say about the temperature levels at which they might arise.

To make the analysis, chair Susan Solomon told me, the team had at times to go back into the raw model outcomes to get the projections in the form they needed.

Part of the rationale, she said, is that:

"The range of model projections is broad when you plot them as a function of time; but they're much more robust as a function of warming."


Being a US publication, it also has more to say about specifically US impacts: 5-10% less streamflow per degree Celsius in some southern river basins, 5-15% less yield per degree Celsius from corn, and so on.

In the longer-term:

"The report concludes that the world is entering a new geologic epoch, sometimes called the Anthropocene, in which human activities will largely control the evolution of Earth's environment.
"Carbon emissions during this century will essentially determine the magnitude of eventual impacts and whether the Anthropocene is a short-term, relatively minor change from the current climate or an extreme deviation that lasts thousands of years."

The idea of an "Anthropogene epoch" isn't limited to climate change, but to the notion that most of the big changes taking place on Earth now can be laid at the hand of humanity.

Whether that really counts as geological change is another matter.

Whatever the merits of the concept, and whatever the scale of the changes, it's a matter of simple mathematics to suppose they'd be considerably smaller if the human population was not growing so rapidly...which is roughly where we came in.

EU climate chief asks for leadership

Richard Black | 08:18 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010


To Storey's Gate in central London, for lunch with the EU's climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

She is as well-informed about current global climate politics as anyone, having played a leading role in the run-up to last year's Copenhagen summit in her role as Danish climate minister, and now leading EU diplomacy on the issue.

Connie_HedegaardProspects for a binding climate treaty at the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico this year?

It's clear that the EU isn't planning for it. The idea, said Ms Hedegaard, is to show "delivery" on issues of substance this time round, to break down the logjam of distrust, with the aim of putting the political pieces in play that could produce a binding treaty at the South African-hosted UN climate summit of 2011.

This will disappoint some developing countries and also some campaigners who want something sooner; but given events elsewhere in the world, it's hard to argue Ms Hedegaard isn't bang on the money when it comes to prospects for the Cancun summit.

"Have you seen anything new from the US or China in the last six months? Because I haven't," she asked rhetorically.

On China, she later clarified: lots is being done in the country itself.

The next five-year plan is currently being finalised; and indications are that the nexus of climate mitigation, energy security and green growth are going to dominate once it's published.

Sometimes on climate-oriented Earth Watch threads there comes a comment such as "Oh, so it's peak oil now", or "So it's really about exporting wind turbines".

With some governments, it's about everything; and one suspects that's exactly what's going on in China now.

The fact that three of the top 10 wind turbine manufacturers are now Chinese (after giving the Danes and Germans a decade's start) is undoubtedly positive for exports and economic growth.

If populating the Chinese landscape with wind farms helps mitigate the climate impacts that we know Chinese leaders are concerned about - well, all the better for that particular policy. The word is "synergy".

Wind _turbineBut I digress.

Internationally, China has not put anything new on the table - that's clear, though it was always going to be the case while the five-year plan was being written.

And neither has the US - in fact, as I've described before, if anything it's retrenching from its Copenhagen commitment.

The latest version of Senate legislation - even if passed - looks likely to have a markedly lower impact on US emissions than the original Waxman-Markey bill.

Analysts are also becoming concerned about the Japanese political situation.

The previous prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, pledged almost the most ambitious carbon cuts in Copenhagen, and opened the national coffers for "fast-start finance" wider than any other country.

He's now out of office; and his successor, Naoto Kan, has just lost his Democratic Party of Japan majority in the upper house of parliament. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party is traditionally more resistant to carbon cuts.

Ms Hedegaard is insistent that the EU should reclaim the gowns of leadership that were ripped from its shoulders in Copenhagen's final hours.

I'm sure she's sincere in her aim. But whether EU countries, particularly the new entrants, want to take up the reins with her isn't entirely clear - as unclear, you might say, as the bloc's definition of "new and additional finance", the element of the Copenhagen Accord that in theory ought to be realised first.

And whether others are prepared to be led is an even bigger question.

After lunch, my bus ride home took me via Copenhagen Street.

There were roadworks.

UPDATE:Ministers leading on climate from France, Germany and the UK have just published a joint letter in the Financial Times, Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung arguing that the EU should move to its higher target of 30%.

Chris Huhne, Jean-Louis Borloo and Dr Norbert Rottgen argue that the 20% target and the consequently low carbon price are not enough to drive serious investment in low-carbon technology.

"If we stick to a 20% cut, Europe is likely to lose the race to compete in the low-carbon world to countries such as China, Japan or the US - all of whom are looking to create a more attractive investment environment by introducing low carbon policy frameworks and channelling their stimulus packages into low-carbon investment."

As Connie Hedegaard pointed out, moving to 30% would be important politically. It's not, she said, something to be announced lightly; timing and context are everything.

Food for thought on 'Fish Debt Day'

Richard Black | 12:02 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010


If you live in the European Union and you like fish, then there's some bad news for you: as of the time I started writing this (1000BST Friday 09 July), you're in debt to the rest of the world.

CodThat's a fairly oblique thought, without a bit of explanation.

A group of environmentally-minded economists - the New Economics Foundation (Nef) - have got together with some marine conservationists (including the Pew Environment Group) to calculate how much fish EU waters can sustainably produce each year and compare that with the amount of fish we actually eat in the EU.

The bloc collectively consumes roughly twice as much as home waters can generate, according to these calculations.

So if we ate nothing but this home-grown stock from the beginning of the year, by 8 July we would have consumed it all; thereafter, we would be in "fish debt".

And "fish debt day" is occurring earlier and earlier in the year.

Conceptually, this is a miniaturisation of the much broader notion of ecological debt, which has been much discussed over the last few years in sustainability circles and which Nef has sought to highlight through the idea of "Interdependence Day".

They've broken the fish idea down into nations as well. Unsurprisingly, Austria and Slovakia - nations without sea borders - goes into fish debt very early in the year, while a handful - Estonia, Latvia, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden - remain in "profit", being self-sufficient.

Fish_debt_calendarLike all such analyses, this one's figures are open to challenge but it is a neat way of encapsulating the idea that as a high fish-consuming bloc, with many of its own fisheries depleted and aquaculture unable yet to fill the gap, Europeans who like fish are now having to find it elsewhere in the world.

You might argue that in a globalised economy, that's fine - and indeed the Austrian and Slovakian examples illustrate the point perfectly that if you have little chance to fish yourself, what are you supposed to do other than import it?

But fish aren't just another natural resource. The supply isn't by definition finite, as is oil; but it also isn't necessarily infinite, like (to all intents and purposes) sunlight.

It's renewable; but only if you manage it properly.

The reality is - and this isn't news - many fisheries aren't managed effectively, and EU nations have been as complicit as any in prioritising the continuing supply of fish into their markets without adequate attention to ecological sustainability or to the problems it causes communities in developing countries.

One comment sent in by reader Nathaniel Calhoun from Liberia in response to a recent Green Room article on fisheries caught my eye:

"Illegal trawlers can be seen 24 hours a day within 1 kilometer of Liberia's shores. They fish so close to shore that individual Liberians in dugout canoes are sometimes further out to sea.
"By all accounts they are decimating fishing stocks and causing locals to risk longer and further voyages in search of their livelihoods. A few coast guard vessels would go a long way towards a solution."

This illustrates perfectly a pattern seen too often - sometimes in EU waters as well - where big industrial concerns can mop up a fishery that local people have been in the habit of using sustainably.

Octopus_in_fish_marketThe EU has recently put in place measures designed to combat illegal fishing, with skippers facing enhanced sanctions and with distant-water fleets in principle having to operate to the same standards as in EU seas.

It's a start. And it follows on from attempts to make sure that agreements legally made between EU states and developing countries, particularly in Africa, take local needs into account and feed some of the profits back to communities.

How effective these rule changes will prove to be is another matter, though, with some reports suggesting there are still major issues.

Within EU waters, not everything is dire, with signs of recoveries in some stocks, and some countries (such as Denmark and the UK) finding new ways to restrict catches and reduce discards.

But according to the latest scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (Ices), there are clearly areas where the recovery plans are not working:

On North Sea cod, for example:

"Despite the objective to reduce fishing mortality..., estimated total catches have been much higher than intended. Fishing mortality has been reduced but has remained well above the implied targets.
"Under the present implementation and enforcement approach... the recovery of the stock [is] unlikely."

We're clearly enjoying our fish in Europe - the great taste, and the health benefits it brings.

But how many of us are asking where it comes from, and who else might not be eating fish because we are?

And in the meantime - how about Nef, Pew and the rest taking on the same analysis for East Asia?

Climate data: what's hidden?

Richard Black | 19:21 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010


I started Monday's post with the words "it's beginning to look like a pattern"... and already, by Wednesday, the pattern is in evidence once more.

Another inquiry into allegations made against climate science has reported - and again, the conclusions are broadly along the lines that there have been issues with how the science has been practiced, but nothing that undermines the fundamental outline laid down by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Sir_Muir_RussellCertainly there have been differences between the various inquiries carried out so far - notably (as Fred Singer correctly reminded me during the week) that they've examined different areas of climate science.

So while the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency's report on Monday looked at the science of ascribing impacts from climatic trends, the Muir Russell inquiry released on Wednesday deals with the more fundamental issue of determing the trends themselves.

The focus on alleged errors with climate impacts is really a recent arrival, beginning in earnest at the end of last year, when questions began to be raised about the IPCC's projections for Himalayan glacier melt.

Bloggers jumped on "HimalayaGate" and soon many other alleged "-gates" were opened on climate impact projections, including the ones I wrote about on Monday.

The "sceptical" blogosphere had in fact been excercised for much longer by temperature records - the much-discussed hockey stick controversy, allegations that data and methods were being kept secret, the use of temperature proxies such as tree-rings, and so on.

The e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia - "ClimateGate" - takes us back into this territory; and this is one of the things that makes it the most interesting of the various reviews thus far.

It's also more detailed than most. Submissions to it are openly available on its website, and the ones I've read (not exhaustive) have all contained passages of interest.

It's taken the longest of the inquiries, and would appear to be the most thorough, although there are areas in which you could reasonably argue it could have been more thorough - indeed the team admitted as much, but pointed out that it actually had to finish and reach a conclusion sometime.

Protestor_suggesting_oil_money_funded_the_hackPerhaps most interesting, though, is that implicitly it investigates the accusers as well as the accused.

And while the accused come out of it generally rather well - honesty and rigour not in doubt, nothing to undermine the IPCC analyses - it's perhaps harsher on those firing the darts.

If I had a dollar for every e-mail and blog comment I've received down the years saying that CRU teams (and others) were hiding temperature station data away behind their firewalls and manipulating it to produce the temperature record they wanted, I would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

The Muir Russell team investigated this by just about the simplest method you could think of. They downloaded the data themselves from public databases, and wrote a computer program that would combine the datapoints into a temperature record for the instrumental period.

The entire process took less than two days. All the data they needed was freely available, writing the code was a cinch, and it produced a curve similar to the ones produced by CRU and its counterparts in the US and Japan.

Anyone competent in the field could do the same, the inquiry team elaborated. You can take out data points you don't like, you can apply whatever correction factors you want (such as the one that Nasa's GISTEMP series uses to compensate for the dearth of measuring stations across the Arctic), and you can therefore end up with a temperature curve that might look a little different: but don't say it can't be done, because it can.

And while the university should have responded much better to Freedom of Information requests - which the university admits - many of the FoI requests came, the Muir Russell panel said, from competent people who should have known that the data is freely available and can easily be processed.

The Muir Russell report won't satisfy everyone that everything is rosy in the bed of climate science - and of course, it hasn't investigated whether the overall IPCC picture of climate science is sound, because to do that you'd need a very different sort of panel.

It might be thought notable, however, that criticism from the most prominent "sceptical" commentators and bloggers has so far concentrated on issues such as openness and dealing with FoI (Global Warming Policy Foundation), whether IPCC rules on data submission were broken (Climate Audit) or the job of an IPCC author (Bishop Hill), rather than hidden data or the lack of an impact on the overall picture of global climate change.

I've been guilty of writing excessively long posts recently, so I'm going to end this one here - this issue won't go away, not least because the InterAcademy Council review of the IPCC is still outstanding - in the meantime, I look forward (as always) to your thoughts on this one.

Dutch courage for climate mainstream

Richard Black | 18:17 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010


It's beginning to look like a pattern.

Himalayan_glacierAn apparent scandal is unveiled that threatens to rock climate science to its very core, a scandal that usually ends in the suffix "-gate".

Himalaya, Amazon, and Climate itself are just three of the stems that have borne the suffix in recent months.

Sections of the blogosphere then erupt with claims of deception, malpractice, political machinations and even fraud.

Later, a more sober analysis by some body of learned men and women tends to turn that view on its head, concluding - in summary - that while there may be lessons to be learned, the science of human-induced climate change is not rotten at its core - in fact, it is in pretty good health.

The latest in this series of sober analyses is the investigation by the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), the findings of which were released on Monday.

The investigation was commissioned by the Netherlands parliament, elements of which were incensed earlier in the year to discover that according to the IPCC, more than half (55%) of their country was at risk of flooding from rising sea levels.

As a pioneering developer of sea defences, this was apparently an issue that stirred Dutch hearts.

In conjunction with the approach of an election in which pro-business and pro-coal agendas gained significant ground through advancement of the Freedom Party and Liberal Party, this produced a potent demand for an inquiry.

Now it's here. And on the issue that perhaps ought have been - but was not, as far as I know - dubbed "Sluicegate", PBL has put the blame firmly on... itself.

The 55% flood risk figure stemmed from a PBL report that had been taken into the IPCC process by a PBL researcher. In fact, 55% is the total figure at risk of flooding; but less than half of this comes from sea level rise, the remainder being due to river overflows. The inquiry concludes:

"We acknowledge that this error was not the fault of the IPCC... the error was made by a contributing author from the PBL, and the (co-ordinating) lead authors (of AR4 chapters) are not to blame for relying on Dutch information provided by a Dutch agency,"

Climate_demonstrationAltogether, PBL flagged up 35 instances in the IPCC's report that it thought merited comment - some it labelled errors.

Some have been accepted, and errata logged on the IPCC website. Others are not accepted by a group of researchers who played leading roles in the organisation's 2007 assessment.

At the microscopic level, you can go through the PBL report line by line.

But in any analysis, it's the macroscopic level that perhaps matters most.

In essence: are the projections of how climate change will progress, and the projections of where and when effects will be felt, changed by all of these gates?

Thus far, comes the answer: not a jot.

The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's review of issues arising from emails hacked from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) said:

"We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus as expressed by Professor (John) Beddington, that 'global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity'."

The Oxburgh inquiry [36Kb PDF] into the same issue said:

"We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it."

And now, from PBL:

"Our findings do not contradict the main conclusions of the IPCC on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability related to climate change... The negative impacts under unmitigated climate change in the future pose substantial risks to most parts of the world, with risks increasing at higher global average temperatures."

All three reviews have flagged up issues, to be sure: lack of openness, a certain disorganisation in the research community, the need for additional quality control in IPCC processes, unjustifiable resistance to freedom-of-information laws, and several more.

Some of these issues have also been raised within the ongoing InterAcademy Council review into the IPCC - the review commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this year.

But none is judged in these reviews to undermine the central tenets of man-made climate change.

DroughtMeanwhile, some of the IPCC's harshest critics within mainstream journalism are having to retrench on some of their most contentious claims.

The Sunday Times recently had to publish an apology for opening "Amazongate" - a claim that IPCC projections on die-back of the Amazon rainforest were unsubstantiated. You may not be able to access the apology on their website as it's now behind a paywall - but you will find it here.

The Telegraph has had to apologise for alleging that Indian corporation Tata "had used the carbon trading scheme to transfer steel production from Redcar to India, pocketing £1.2 billion in carbon credits at the cost of 1700 jobs".

The Canadian National Post and Financial Post newspaper group is being sued for libel by Canadian scientist Andrew Weaver - a particularly interesting action, in that it seeks to make the paper liable for readers' comments appended to articles as well as for the articles themselves.

There's a chance, I gather, that even more explosive libel suits may follow.

Meanwhile, we await the outcomes of the outstanding review into the CRU affair (the Muir Russell review, due for release this week) and the IAC process itself, the most important of the lot.

There's no doubt that the "establishment" was ill-prepared for the various gates that opened onto its workings just before and after the Copenhagen summit.

Without their openings, it's entirely possible there would have been no IAC review and no inquiries, and history may judge the gates to have been positive in the sense that they brought much greater openness and transparency into science overall, never mind just climate science.

But here's something less positive. As this series of reviews unwinds, we see a landscape in which the central claims of mainstream climate science is judged to be untouched: a landscape in which man-made climate change is very likely happening, and its effects are projected to be significant in many regions of the world, particularly in regions populated by the poor.

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