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BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for May 2011

New beginnings

Richard Black | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

Thanks for having read my blog over the last few years. As of today, it is moving to a new home with a new look - as are the BBC's other blogs. The new page will carry all my posts, as well as other bits of analysis from around the site. It'll carry tweets as soon as I'm up and running on that platform, and will also carry my news stories when BBC technology allows.

Megafires - a vicious climate circle?

Richard Black | 16:50 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The term "megafire" sounds a bit serious... and so it is.

Even more serious is the idea - raised in a report compiled for a UN meeting this week - that megafires are becoming more frequent.

Still more alarming is the notion that these magafires are somehow quantitatively different from their smaller and more common cousins:

"Megafires exceed all efforts at control until firefighters get a favourable change in weather or a break in fuels.

"Even in countries with modern tools and techniques to combat severe wildfires, firefighters are generally forced onto the defensive; taking action where they can on the fire's terms."

The grand-daddy of the fires we're talking about here is the sequence in Kalimantan on Borneo in 1997/8, where forests smouldered for many months, sparked by extremely dry El Nino conditions.

Haze in Malaysia

Haze from the 1997/8 Kalimantan fires caused chaos in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur

The episode smoked out much of East Asia, with people in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and The Philippines suffering respiratory diseases, and economic damage put in the billions of dollars.

Since then, Brazil in 1998, the US in 2003, Greece in 2007, Botswana in 2008, Australia in 2009, and both Israel and Russia in 2010 have all seen conflagrations that the report's authors believe merit the description "megafire".

The paper's been written by a team of 10 experts from across the world, at the behest of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and has been released at the Wildfire 2011 conference in South Africa.

The list of eight fires listed above isn't exhaustive, and Kalimantan wasn't the first megafire.

But being the most recent, this group have been better studied than most, especially given the modern availability of satellite monitoring; so it with this group that the FAO panel concerns itself.

Is there a pattern across these fires? And if so, what factors, environmental and other, does it relate to?

The answer to the first question appears to be a cautious "yes - probably".

Virtually all had a human cause - mostly intentional - ranging from lighting camp fires in Europe to clearing forests for farmland in Indonesia.

Extreme weather, especially drought, was another common factor. And in virtually all, the forest had been "altered" as a result of intensive logging, land clearance, and development for human settlement.

And what of the climate?

The El Nino conditions of 1997/8 were extraordinary for the modern era. But given that climate models predict declining rainfall in some areas that are already rather dry (parts of Australia perhaps being the exemplar here), what does that imply for the future?

Here, the FAO does not draw firm conclusions - and given the uncertainties in climate modelling and the fact that there is a limited dataset of past fires on which to draw, their caution is easily understood.

Nevertheless, a cautionary note is raised:

"With the onset of more pervasive, world-wide drought, there is no longer the assurance that some places, only because they have not had severe wildfires in the past, will be safe from conflagrations in the future."

But there is also a fillip:

"Mega-fires are not occurring where land management practices are consistent with the fire ecologies and disturbance dynamics that define the ecosystem.

"Mega-fire risk is likewise much reduced in those areas where wildfire protection programs are more balanced between prevention, mitigation, and suppression elements."

Firefighting in Greece

The one thing governments and their people must not do, the report cautions, is to treat megafires as something that can be combated with greater numbers of firefighters or more sophisticated means of aerial assault.

Instead, they need to be understood as a natural phenomenon, but as living entities, subject to the whims of weather, and capable of being coaxed into relative quiescence.

And addressing them is best done with forest management - although the report notes that here there is a question of skills declining around the world.

In terms of what climate change means here, you can draw something of a parallel with coral reefs.

A healthy reef may be able to bat away the impact of exploitative fishing or excessive pollution from land.

But coral impacted by rising temperatures and progressively less alkaline oceans may not be able to.

So too, the FAO suggest, with fire.

Controls that worked in a cooler, wetter environment may not work at all as the world warms - the addition of climate change to other factors driving fires may be what's already causing the rise in incidence that the report suggests.

A final note on the climate front. The 1997 Kalimantan fires released about as much carbon dioxide as Europe's industry - plus the fact that those trees were not there any more to absorb CO2.

So in principle, megafires could be another positive feedback loop for CO2-driven warming, especially if they are increasing as the FAO suggests:

"Because CO2 emissions contribute to global warming and mega-fires are the result of drought, mega-fires (and carbon releases) may represent a dangerous feed-back loop that becomes self-perpetuating in the absence of stronger wildfire emissions monitoring and control.

Little is known of this possible iterative relationship and its long-term ramifications."

Generation game warms legal climate

Richard Black | 16:56 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

There are times when writing articles about climate change brings a distinct feeling of deja vu.

There was a time five or six years ago when litigation over climate impacts featured regularly on this website.

Scientists were working up methods of attribution - methods that would allow you to say, for example, "60% of the risk of that particular impact happening was due to climate change" - and allow plaintiffs to sue on that basis.

Inuit on the ice


So we saw an Inuit group filing a legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on the basis that US emissions were melting away their way of life.

We saw legal cases brought against Shell over gas-flaring in Nigeria - thought to be Africa's biggest point source of greenhouse gases, and a waste of valuable fuel that could be used to improve lives locally.

We saw legal petitions go into the World Heritage Committee on the basis that climate change was melting Himalayan glaciers, putting lives at risk through increasing the chances of glacial lake outburst floods - and curbing emissions was the only way to protect these sites, as government are legally obliged to do.

US organisations argued that protecting some endangered species, such as corals, must mean curbing climate change, and lodged actions accordingly under the Endangered Species Act.

More directly, actions were brought against power companies and the state authorities that license them, notably in the US and Australia.

There was even talk of nation suing nation, with The Maldives at one point leading the charge of small island developing states to wring compensation from the high-emitting West.

In Europe, there was talk in legal circles about a suit based on additional deaths caused by the heatwave of 2003, although nothing came to court.

And so it's been intriguing this week to see the idea raising its head in a somewhat novel way, with a group of young people lodging a number of legal cases across the US, possibly amounting eventually to one in every state.

Among the leading lights is Alec Loorz, the 16-year-old founder of Kids vs Global Warming, who says he is suing the US...

"...for handing over our future to unjust fossil fuel industries, and ignoring the right of our children to inherit the planet that has sustained all of civilization.

"Even though scientists overwhelmingly agree that CO2 emissions are totally messing up the balance of our atmosphere, our leaders continue to turn their backs on this crisis.

"The time has come for the youngest generation to hold our leaders accountable for their actions."

The concept of "inter-generational equity" is something that campaigners have urged for some years without necessarily managing to turn into a major support winner.

Alec Loorz


It's not just a climate issue, they say.

Every barrel of oil used unnecessarily now is one barrel fewer remaining for the next generation.

As far as I'm aware, the Kids vs Global Warming lawsuit [pdf link] is the first to stem from the idea.

So how will they get on?

In a strictly legal sense, the portents are not good.

The majority of the cases mentioned above (and there are others) did not result in sanctions that materially altered emissions, or that paid compensation.

Peter Roderick, a London-based adviser to the Climate Justice Programme who was involved in several of these cases, said:

"I think if as a lawyer people came to you saying 'I've suffered this loss, can we sue?', most lawyers would be very reluctant to take that on because no court has ruled on whether compensation can be given, and it would probably take years.

"But I can see how it could be done.

"So most of the actions so far aren't arguing for that, for compensation - they're trying to get curbs on emissions, and to get public bodies to act."

Even that, though, has proven hard.

Building water channels in the Himalayas


Is the science of attribution up to it?

Even if it is, how do you assign degrees of responsibility to different countries, especially bearing in mind the international acceptance that developing countries have a right to increase emissions in order to promote development?

And how do you put a monetary value on a melting glacier?

On the other hand, some of the actions have been brought against states for apparently ignoring, in this special case of climate change, pledges they have made.

One that hasn't yet been tested, as far as I'm aware, is the EU commitment to the precautionary principle in environmental matters.

If there's a reasonable chance that rising temperatures will impact biodiversity or fish stocks, for example, doesn't that suggest the EU is obliged to take every action it can to reduce emissions?

Some clarity may emerge next month, when the US Supreme Court is due to rule on a set of cases known as the AEP cases that's been rumbling on since 2004.

A group of US states is asking power companies that they describe as "the five largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the United States" to cut back on those emissions.

It's said to be an important case in the sense of setting a legal precedent for others - at least, in the US.

Meanwhile, Mr Loorz and his group will presumably press on with their actions.

Whether they succeed or not in a legal sense, they have found a way of getting the issue of inter-generational equity on the news agenda.

In his words:

"If we continue to hide in denial and avoid taking action, my generation will be forced to grow up in a world where hurricanes as big as Katrina are normal, people die every year because of heat waves, droughts, and floods, and entire species of animals we've come to know disappear right before our eyes.

"This is not the future I want."

Money in trees: The poor end of forest protection

Richard Black | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Some of the world's most important forests may emerge from this week in a more secure state than they were before.

Children by Brazilian river


Others may end it worse off.

The latest stage in the European Union's plans to help developing countries clean up illegal logging is the signing of a potentially important agreement with Indonesia.

Essentially, from early 2013, wood and products made from it can only be imported into the EU if they've been produced in accordance with Indonesian environmental laws.

There are questions, for sure, over how it'll be implemented, with the spectre of corruption not fully banished, especially in a country where distant provinces carry a fair amount of independence from Jakarta.

Another big question is whether current environmental laws guarantee sustainable logging - because "legal" doesn't automatically equal "environmentally sound".

But this is an area where steps forward are incremental, so these are caveats campaigners are prepared to live with for the moment.

However, on the other side of the tropics, in Brazil, a different forestry issue has raised its head.

Brazil is a timber producer; but the destruction of its forests has largely been driven by other concerns.

Trees have been felled to produce farmland for growing soya beans, and for raising cattle.

The drivers have partly been economic, although historically there has also been a desire to settle people into remote regions as a guard on sovereignty.

As in Indonesia, state governors have a lot of power.

But in this area, they're supposed to work under the national framework of the Forest Code, a set of principles aimed initially at issues such as soil and water conservation, and later at sustainable exploitation, that date back to 1965.

The code contains some pretty powerful measures. Notably, private landowners must conserve a certain proportion of forest on their property - 80% in the ecologically sensitive Amazon - and in principle, they can be forced to replant if they don't comply.

Before the National Congress this week is a proposal to reform the code so as to water down some of its protective clauses.

The proposal comes not from big landowners or beef barons, but from the Communist Party of Brazil (PCDoB), and in particular its charismatic leader Aldo Rebelo - and it's not the first time that he, or like-minded politicians, has entered this arena.

He argues that some of the current regulations are simply unfair, preventing owners of small tracts of land from developing agriculture far enough to drag them out of poverty.

Chico Mendes' house


He also says that with the Brazilian population expanding, the country needs to produce more and more food - and expanding land use is the obvious thing to do.

Among the revisions he's proposing are reducing the amount of forest that must be left intact along the banks of rivers and streams, and giving an amnesty to landowners below a certain scale who cleared forests before 2009.

The details are currently the subject of intense horse-trading between managers of the myriad political parties that make up the Congress.

What may emerge, and whether the proposal will go to a vote, are as yet unclear.

In a way, the issue illustrates the familiar dichotomy of whether it's better to use natural resources fast and stash the proceeds, or to use them sustainably and continue to draw on "nature's bank", as you might call it, for a much longer time.

But what's intriguing is that this time, the division is not primarily concerned with rich and powerful industries - although they are supporting the changes that would suit them best.

Instead, it divides two sets of politicians who both speak - or claim to speak - for the poor.

In one corner sit the philosophical descendents of rubber-tapper Chico Mendes, murdered just over 20 years ago by ranchers because of his belief that maintaining nature was the best way to ensure a long-term income for the rural poor.

Mr Rebelo and his followers, by contrast, see loosening the ties on exploitation as the socially just thing to do.

More and more organisations in areas as diverse as forestry and fisheries are talking about chain of supply certification as the route to sustainability; and as the signing of the EU-Indonesia agreement shows, it can work.

But as the Brazilian debate makes equally clear, it can't guarantee environmental protection when livelihoods are at stake.

Personal tales: a climate-changer?

Richard Black | 00:01 UK time, Sunday, 1 May 2011

Even before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made its much-discussed error in glacier melting dates, the question of how climate change impacts were being felt across the Himalayas was something of a hot topic.

Adi tribesman in the Himalayas


One of the problems back then, which remains a problem now, is simply lack of data.

Getting into some of the regions is time-consuming and arduous. Satellites give an incomplete picture - and only since the early 1980s, at that.

Nevertheless, it's a hugely important issue given the vast number of people who depend on Himalayan glaciers to store their drinking water and release it in a steady, controlled fashion during the year.

The journal Biology Letters this week reports a novel yet kind of obvious way to tackle the data dearth; simply asking Himalayan villagers about their experiences.

To be fair, the phrase "simply asking" does the researchers a disservice, because what they emphasise throughout their paper is the need to gather local knowledge "rapidly and efficiently... using systematic tools".

It has to be structured, internally consistent and rigorous; that's the message.

This particular project involved villages in the Darjeeling Hills in the north-east of India and in Ilam District just across the border in Nepal.

Researchers went to 28 villages in total, and did 250 face-to-face interviews as well as a number of focus group exercises.

Their top line conclusions are that villagers are noticing signals suggestive of climate change.

Warmer weather, drying water sources, the advance of summer and the monsoon, new insect pests, earlier flowering of plants... all consistent with the basic idea of a warming world.

The sample size was big enough that researchers - Pashupati Chaudhary and Kamal Bawa from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, US - could note different perceptions at different altitudes.

Dr Bawa is also president of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, based in Bangalore, India - and the trust is keen to see more of this type of research.

Satellite image of the Himalayas

Glaciers play a key role in regulating water supply in the Himalayas and for people outside the immediate region

The conclusions themselves are less intriguing, I think, than the idea that this kind of research could play a much larger role than it has done up to now in building a picture of how climate is changing - and not just in the Himalayas.

Report after report bemoans the lack of instrumental data across Africa - but more than any other continent, African lives are lived close to the land, which is exactly the situation in which you'd expect people to build up the most detailed and accurate internal pictures.

I had a quick chat with Martin Parry, who co-chaired the working group on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability for the 2007 IPCC assessment.

Now a visiting professor at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change Research in London, he told me there definitely is a role for evidence gathered through word-of-mouth.

"We need to expand the information we can collect on the evidence of climate change occurring now, which the last IPCC report kicked off and the next one is no doubt going to grow greatly - because it's ground-truthing, it's not model-based future stuff.

"But also the gaps in the knowledge are so big, and filling them in by going out and asking people is going to be increasingly the way to go.

"It's about less formal ways of collecting data. It takes time to set up monitoring stations and get 10 years of data, but if we can get into peoples' memories... I guess the one concern is the drift that occurs in peoples' memories, and how do you account for that?"

This is indeed going to be an issue - you can almost hear the objection forming in the minds of researchers around the world who are more used to dealing with the hard numbers churned out by thermometers, mass spectrometers and satellite-based radar.

How can you trust people's recollections?

And even if it gives you some qualitative indication of how things are changing, can this kind of research ever be quantitative, as instruments are?

Woman with cow outside Djenne mosque, Mali

This could be a good way of gathering data in Africa too

The Himalayan work threw up questions as well as answers.

For example, in some villages about half of the people questioned reported that summer was now starting earlier than 10 years ago; which raises the question of why the other half did not.

In villages where life is based almost totally on farming, you might expect a more consistent view.

In one sense, that is like putting two thermometers in the same place and finding that one registered a temperature rise while the other did not.

If that happened in practice, you would need to have experts in thermometers on hand to interpret the divergent readings - and perhaps there's a parallel need for expertise in interpreting the apparently conflicting recollections of different villagers.

As Professor Parry pointed out, help may come from other disciplines. Social anthropologists (and indeed other social scientists) depend on people data for much of their work, and may already have protocols that can be adapted for climate-based questionnaires.

Medicine, too, has its share of structured questionnaires. For example, heart failure can be assessed through people's evaluation of their own symptoms - to what degree are they out of breath when climbing stairs, for example - and there are myriad indices for pain and quality of life.

One of the recommendations coming out of recent inquiries into climate science (as pertaining to the IPCC and the University of East Anglia) is that researchers could and should make more use of specialist statisticians.

And perhaps the increasing use of orally-gathered evidence will require the systematic and rigorous involvement of social scientists in order to ensure best practice is followed.

But there surely is going to be more data of this kind used in climate circles in future.

It's cheap, is available in many regions with poor instrumental coverage, it can span large timeframes, and data can be gathered simultaneously on what communities are experiencing and how they're coping.

What's not to like, provided the cautions are heeded?

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