BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for September 2010

The Great Bear and the big snap

Richard Black | 08:37 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010




Can a bunch of green snappers save the Great Bear?

The International League of Conservation Photographers hopes so.

For a few weeks now, its snappers have been deploying themselves across Canada's Great Bear Rainforest, documenting its wild nature and the people who live in, and sometimes off, the forest.

I had the privilege of visiting the Great Bear, on the coast of British Columbia, about four years ago, for a radio series on sustainable forestry.

It is vast, still, full of understated life; simply, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. "Privilege"? Absolutely.

The League's members clearly feel the same way; but they have a purpose in saying so.

They're documenting it because they think that doing so may lead to it being protected from a project with the potential to shatter the great still wilderness.


Forest and sea

The coast here is a succession of islands and intricate inlets


The project is the Northern Gateway pipeline that would bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta to a proposed tanker terminal at the coast - an initiative supported by China, which could end up the main beneficiary of the oil.

Alberta is developing its tar sands as an alternative source of oil, as output from the world's wells shows signs of peaking. But getting it out of Alberta isn't straightforward given the geography; and the most obvious route to the burgeoning economies of Asia lies westward, through the Great Bear.

The Northern Gateway Pipeline would be built by the company Enbridge, which already operates a number of oil and gas pipelines and stores across North America.

But this would clearly be one of its biggest projects. It holds that:

"The people who make up Northern Gateway have a deep concern for the natural environment, a commitment to safety, and a passion for minimizing any potential negative impact that pipeline construction and operation might bring.

"They’re also excited about the economic and employment benefits the pipeline will bring to northern communities."

As they point out, the issue isn't only ecological.


There are fears that an oil spill would damage the productive fisheries

Huge swathes of the forest come under the jurisdiction of indigenous peoples - First Nations, in Canadian terminology - who can have right of veto over development.

On my forestry trip, I was told by a local environmentalist that the First Nations were strictly opposed to logging.

But when I tackled a councillor for the Heiltsuk Nation on the question, he said a bit of logging was ok - desirable, in fact - so long as it brought money and employment to his community.

So the interests of local people and environmental activists are not always aligned.

But in the case of the pipeline, they appear to be.

"The bountiful and globally significant coastline cannot bear an oil spill... we declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters."

So declared the Coastal First Nations back in March.

Enter the snappers.

To bolster the case against the pipeline - or more particular the terminal that would bring supertankers into the pristine coastal lands - the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) has embarked on what it calls a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, or RAVE.

It hopes that the powerful imagery captured - and can there be any image of wild nature more totemic than a bear plucking a salmon from a mountain stream? - will help the First Nations, and other opponents, make their case.

It's emotive, for sure. But why not? When you ask "why do we value nature?", one of the answers is surely because it moves us. This is even recognised formally by the UN, which lists "cultural, intellectual and spiritual inspiration" among the "services" that natural ecosystems provide to humankind.

Whether the iLCP and its fellows will succeed is another matter. There are powerful arguments and powerful interests in favour of the pipeline; yet the First Nations are politically empowered in British Columbia.

What the snappers have definitely succeeded in doing is capturing some of the essence of the Great Bear Rainforest - its wildlife, its vastness, and its people. Worth a look, for that alone.

Wolves in river



'Warmist' attack smacks of 'sceptical' intolerance

Richard Black | 16:42 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


It seems that something new, and not altogether welcome, may be happening in the politicking over climate change.

Arctic Ocean


I have written before of the orchestrated villification that comes the way of climate scientists from some people and organisations who are unconvinced of the case for human-induced climate change - "sceptics", "deniers", as you wish.

Journalists, including your humble correspondent, receive our fair share too.

This week, for the first time, I am seeing the same pattern from their opponents.

Joe Romm, the physicist-cum-government-advisor-cum-polemicist, posted a blog entry highly critical of the Arctic ice article I wrote last week.

Headlined "Dreadful climate story by BBC's Richard Black", it takes me to task, essentially, for not mentioning human-induced climate change explicitly.

At least, that is the surface complaint; what my omission hides, he hints heavily, is an agenda aimed at downplaying the impacts of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions.

He then gives my email address and invites his readers to send in complaints. Many have, perhaps swayed by judgemental terms in his post such as "spin", "inexcusable", and "mis-reporting", with several citing his interpretation as gospel truth.

He is as entitled to his views as anyone else

 But this is, at least in my experience, the first time that "warmers" - those who, like Dr Romm, believe climate change is taking us to hell in a handcart and who lobby for more urgent action on the issue - have resorted to the internet equivalent of taking banners onto the street in an attempt  to influence reporting of the issue.

It may be something that other journalists have seen before - I can only report that I have not. Always, in my experience, it has come from the side of "the debate" that Dr Romm abhors.

I am wondering, therefore, whether it does presage the start of something - whether it is now going to be routine for those of us who attempt to report on climate change objectively to be on the receiving end of barrages of critical mail, stimulated by bloggers with a definable agenda, whenever we write something that does not tally with their agenda.

What about scientists? If researchers publish papers on climate change that do not include cataclysmic warnings of where the world is heading, will they receive the same treatment?

Anyone who shares Dr Romm's views should, I suggest, be hoping this is not the case. As I have asked before in relation to pressure from the "sceptical" camp, what makes anyone think that organised abuse is an effective lobbying tactic?

Rather, it takes us further down the spiral of confrontation, where no-one listens to anyone with an opposing point of view, where every word has to be weighed for ideological purity rather than accuracy, and where free and effective discourse becomes impossible.

Condom hole in the Papal vision?

Richard Black | 18:05 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010


From a British perspective, there's a certain irony in the fact that a clarion call for better access to family planning is published in a leading scientific journal on the same day that the Pope hits the streets of London.

man swimming with condom inflated on his head


The letter published in Science doesn't reference Roman Catholic opposition to condoms, nor is its appearance linked to the Papal trip.

Rather it's a nod to discussions about to start at United Nations headquarters in New York, as world leaders and their representatives gather to discuss first the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and then global biodiversity, before getting down to the main tranche of the General Assembly.

The letter's authors - mainly from the public health field and led by Willard Cates of FHI - argue that in straitened economic times, our global society needs to deploy all the cost-effective interventions it has in support of the MDGs, with only five years left until most of the targets are supposed to be met.

They argue that use of condoms enables women to delay childbirth until they are out of adolescence and space their babies, contributing to better maternal and child health.

They reduce the burden of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.

Girls can stay in school longer, leaving with more education under their belts and a correspondingly better chance of well-remunerated employment. And from the environmental point of view, the authors say:

"Family planning is a cost-effective way to preserve environmental resources. Yet women in regions facing challenges to environmental sustainability have limited access to family planning resources.
"Poor families in these areas must often resort to unsustainable agricultural practices to survive, which can increase the spread of infectious zoonoses and threaten vulnerable habitats."

In fact, they make a case that family planning can help achieve six of the eight MDGs, and do so very cost-effectively:

"Each dollar spent on family planning can save up to $31 in health-care, water, education, housing, and other costs."

As soon as the MDG summit is over, the UN's special day on biodiversity begins  - commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, following the similar day he had on climate change last year.

And with habitat loss being the number one reason why biodiversity is in increasing trouble around the world, and population growth clearly linked to habitat loss, the same arguments could be made in respect of this issue - although I'm not sure if the economic calculation has been done.

The Roman Catholic church is often accused of undermining development through its strictures against condom use.

The Pope


Certainly it has put pressure on people in developing countries not to use them, as the BBC's Panorama programme documented in 2003, finding that at least one senior Vatican official was claiming condoms did not obstruct the spread of HIV.

The programme found that in parts of Africa, people believed these inaccurate statements - and acted upon them.

So yes, Roman Catholic dogma may be an obstruction to the wider use of family planning policies, but it is far from the only one.

The Bush administration banned its agencies from funding health projects overseas that promoted condoms; for reasons connected with Christianity, but not Catholicism.

Within the UN system, the greater bloc of developing countries is resistant to discussing curbs on population growth, which is viewed as a Western plot to lay the troubles of the world on the shoulders of the poor.

Yet the MDGs do specifically mention contraceptive use and condoms - not as goals, but as indicators of whether those goals are being met.

Part of Goal Five is "to achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health". The prevalence of contraceptive use is cited as an indicator of progress, and "unmet need for family planning" as an indicator of lack of progress.

One element of Goal Six is to "have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS" - and once again, the rate of condom use is cited as an indicator of progress.

The MDGs are being met in a patchy way. Overall, Asia (especially East Asia) is doing well on most and Africa not so well - unsurprising, you might argue, given the rapid economic growth in many Asian countries - but that hides many regional nuances.

But the fact that condoms and the wider notion of family planning feature so prominently in the MDGs is surely an indicator that opposition to their promotion is, gradually, being overcome.

Among professed Roman Catholics there are indications of the same trend. Almost three-quarters of Brazilians, for example, are Catholic. Yet studies show that a good deal more than 25% use condoms.

Willard Cates and his colleagues present reasons why the humble condom could be among the most effective tools in the economic development box.

Is it under-represented in environment discussions too? Brazil may have developed "rainforest condoms" - one can only presume that very tall female models were used in the promotional material, with straplines about "loving the Amazon" - but is wanting to save the rainforest another reason why its government, and others, should be promoting their use - rubber selling, not rubber tapping? 

Should environment groups be taking to the streets not with placards, but with free condoms? Should environment ministers come to climate conferences flaunt their country's rate of contraceptive use rather than its rate of penetration of solar photovoltaic technology?

A new outing for the Cold War mantra "Protect and Survive"?

Nuclear waste goes the hole way

Richard Black | 17:52 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


First week back from holidays last week, and straight down a big hole in the ground at the BBC's behest.

Onkalo - no ordinary hole...

It's no ordinary hole.

It's where Finland will store all of the high-level waste from its nuclear power programme, if things go according to plan.

I last visited the Onkalo facility four years ago, when the entrance tunnel snaked about a kilometre down into the rock.

Now it's four times that length. It slopes fairly gently downwards because the rock that's being excavated has to come up by truck, so the bottom level is now about 400 metres under the surface - just about the depth at which the canisters of waste would be placed.

The purpose of this visit was recording material for a radio documentary centred on the UK's plans for geological disposal of nuclear waste. (It'll be broadcast next week, and I'll be writing a longer feature then.)

To be honest, the hole in the ground is not quite as interesting at present as the social questions that go alongside it.

And these are questions that are being asked in many countries. 26 have so far opted for geological burial, although no-one is quite as far along as the Finns, who hope to send their first canisters of waste down the Onkalo tunnel in 2020.

Some governments have adopted the approach of deciding where the waste should go and then trying to fight through the legal and political storm that inevitably erupts when people realise what is to go down a hole in their backyard.

It's an approach that doesn't seem to work. A legal judgement derailed the UK's attempts in the 1990s, and in the US it now seems unlikely that the Yucca Mountain repository will store anything more than empty hopes.

In Finland and Sweden, governments took a different tack. They invited communities to come forward and offer to host the long-term disposal facility; when several did, there was a kind of "beauty contest" between rival sites, with the victor in the Finnish process being the Eurajoki district on the west coast, which hosts the Olkiluoto nuclear power station.

Barrels with nuclear waste outside the German parliament

Some countries, such as Germany, are less enthusiastic about nuclear power

Although the volunteering process clearly worked, it does throw up some difficult questions.

Any other such issue that a council might deal with - deciding whether to approve a new supermarket, or waste incinerator - has implications that don't go much beyond the generation making the decision.

But here, the consequences of a bad decision might not materialise for a few thousand generations.

Who knows whether there will be a Eurajoki by then - especially as the already cold tract of Scandinavia could be in the grip of an Ice Age by then?

Can anyone really speak for a locality that far in the future?

Perhaps the current generation of local councillors will be the only one to have to make this decision.

By the time this repository is full, in a century or so, perhaps nuclear technology will have evolved to such a stage that reactors produce virtually no waste - something that US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu floated when discussing the suspension of Yucca Mountain.

Or maybe humanity will have adopted an energy strategy based entirely on renewables. Or maybe someone will have made carbon capture and storage work so well that it becomes the dominant technology.

Who knows?

In an attempt to find communities interested in hosting a repository, both Sweden and Finland offered the possibility of compensation - "sweeteners", if you want to be cynical.

But what could governments realistically offer that would bring benefits to the locality for as long as the store lasts?

These are the kinds of question that make nuclear power qualitatively different from just about every other part of the energy and climate puzzle that many governments are struggling to solve at the moment.

And as Stephen Chu hinted, projecting what solutions improved nuclear technology may bring is even harder than forecasting what may happen to a tube of nuclear waste buried in rock as an icesheet several kilometres thick spreads overhead.

Finland, where people appear to pride themselves on their pragmatism, is happy in the face of these uncertainties to make its choices - "yes" to new nuclear reactors, "yes" to a hole in which to bury the waste.

The electricity keeps flowing, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing that electricity stay low.

Other countries find it harder to take such decisions. Is that just shilly-shallying? Or, given all the unknowns, is that actually the pragmatic approach?

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