Category Archives: Greenlash

Planning for climate catastrophe

Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of the Ingenuity Gap and other books on the social response to environmental change and now a professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, argues in a recent New York Times op-ed Near the North Pole, Looking at a Disaster, that societies won’t make significant changes to address climate change until there is a crisis, but that people should prepare for such a moment for security reasons (an idea that fits well with the policy analysis related to the adaptive cycle).  He writes:

… Scientists aren’t sure what will happen when a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean changes from white, sunlight-reflecting ice to dark, sunlight-absorbing open water. But most aren’t sanguine.

These experts are especially concerned that new patterns of air movement in the Arctic could disrupt the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams — which are apparently weakening and moving northward. This could alter storm tracks, rainfall patterns and food production far to the south.

The limited slack in the world’s food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions. Remember that two years ago, when higher oil prices encouraged farmers to shift enormous tracts of cropland from grain to biofuel production, grain prices quickly doubled or tripled. Violence erupted in dozens of countries. Should climate change cause crop failures in major food-producing regions of Europe, North America and East Asia, the consequences would likely be far more severe.

Policy makers need to accept that societies won’t make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks — what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.

Some work of this kind is under way at intelligence agencies and research institutions in the United States and Europe. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has produced one of the best studies, “Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes.” But for the most part these initiatives are preliminary and uncoordinated.

We need a much more deliberate Plan Z, with detailed scenarios of plausible climate shocks; close analyses of options for emergency response by governments, corporations and nongovernmental groups; and clear specifics about what resources — financial, technological and organizational — we will need to cope with different types of crises.

In the most likely scenarios, climate change would cause some kind of regional or continental disruption, like a major crop failure; this disruption would cascade through the world’s tightly connected economic and political systems to produce a global effect. …

If so, a Plan Z for this particular scenario would help us make the most of the opportunity. It would provide guidelines for regional and local leaders on how to respond to the crisis. We would decide in advance where supplies of water would be found and who would get priority allocations; local law enforcement and emergency responders would already have worked out lines of authority with federal agencies and the military.

Then there are the broader steps to mitigate climate change in general. Here, Plan Z would address many critical questions: How fast could carbon emissions from automobiles and energy production be ramped down, and what would be the economic, political and social consequences of different rates of reduction? Where would we find the vast amounts of money needed to overhaul existing energy systems? How quickly could different economic sectors and social groups adapt to different kinds of climate impacts? And if geoengineering to alter earth’s climate — for example, injecting sulfates into the high atmosphere — is to be an option, who would make the decision and undertake the operation?

Looking over the endless, empty horizon of the Arctic, I find it hard to imagine this spot being of any importance to global affairs. But it is just one of many places now considered marginal that could be the starting point for a climate shock that plays a central role in the evolution of human civilization. We need to be ready.

See previous RS posts on Homer-Dixon’s work here.

GMO crops and shifting agricultural food webs

A recent paper by Yanhui Lu and others in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1187881) shows how ecological impacts of Bt cotton at the landscape level have lead to a surge in pests. In northern China, the cotton crop is 95% Bt cotton.  The paper shows that Mirid bugs have increased both within cotton fields, but also in other crops grown in regions with large amounts of Bt cotton.

While the farmers who planted GMO cotton have benefited from it, the increase regional pest load has imposed a burden on other farmers who do not grow Bt cotton – a negative externality. This regional impact on other crops is shown in Figure 4 from their paper.

Association between mirid bug infestation levels in either cotton or key fruit crops, and Bt cotton planting proportion. The measure of mirid bug infestation was assigned a score ranging from 1 (no infestation) to 5 (extreme infestation).

While this is the first paper, which I’m aware of, to demonstrate such landscape level impacts of GMOs on insect pests, this type of consequence of Bt GMO crops has been predicted for a long time.  For example, ten years ago I argued in Conservation Ecology that risk assessment of GMO crops should include not only direct impacts, but indirect ecological impacts, as part of an adaptive risk assessment processes for GMO crops. Below is Figure 1 from that paper.

The direct and indirect effects of genetically modified crops interact with the scale at which they are grown to determine the difficulty of predicting, testing, and monitoring their potential impacts.

The Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog comments on the paper, and reports Bt cotton linked with surge in crop pest:

Their fifteen-year study surveyed a region of northern China where ten million small-scale farmers grow nearly three million hectares of Bt cotton, and 26 million hectares of other crops. It revealed widespread infestation with mirid bug (Heteroptera Miridae), which is destroying fruit, vegetable, cotton and cereal crops. And the rise of this pest correlated directly with Bt cotton planting.

Bt cotton is a genetically engineered strain, produced by the biotechnology company Monsanto. It makes its own insecticide which kills bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), a common cotton pest that eats the crop’s product — the bolls. …

They watched the farms gradually become a source of mirid bug infestations, in parallel with the rise of Bt cotton. The bugs, initially regarded as occasional or minor pests, spread out to surrounding areas, “acquiring pest status” and infesting Chinese date, grape, apple peach and pear crops.

Before Bt cotton, the pesticides used to kill bollworm also controlled mirid bugs. Now, farmers are using more sprays to fight mirid bugs, said the scientists.

“Our work shows that a drop in insecticide use in Bt cotton fields leads to a reversal of the ecological role of cotton; from being a sink for mirid bugs in conventional systems to an actual source for these pests in Bt cotton growing systems,” …

Nature news reports:

The rise of mirids has driven Chinese farmers back to pesticides — they are currently using about two-thirds as much as they did before Bt cotton was introduced. As mirids develop resistance to the pesticides, Wu expects that farmers will soon spray as much as they ever did.

Two years ago, a study led by David Just, an economist at Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, concluded that the economic benefits of Bt cotton in China have eroded. The team attributed this to increased pesticide use to deal with secondary pests.

The conclusion was controversial, with critics of the study focusing on the relatively small sample size and use of economic modelling. Wu’s findings back up the earlier study, says David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota in St Paul.

“The finding reminds us yet again that genetic modified crops are not a magic bullet for pest control,” says Andow. “They have to be part of an integrated pest-management system to retain long-term benefits.”

Whenever a primary pest is targeted, other species are likely to rise in its place. For example, the boll weevil was once the main worldwide threat to cotton. As farmers sprayed pesticides against the weevils, bollworms developed resistance and rose to become the primary pest. Similarly, stink bugs have replaced bollworms as the primary pest in southeastern United States since Bt cotton was introduced.

Wu stresses, however, that pest control must keep sight of the whole ecosystem. “The impact of genetically modified crops must be assessed on the landscape level, taking into account the ecological input of different organisms,” he says. “This is the only way to ensure the sustainability of their application.”

Climate change refugees and urbanization

bangladeshJoanna Kakissis writes about Banglasdeshi environmental refugees in Environmental Refugees Unable to Return Home:

Natural calamities have plagued humanity for generations. But with the prospect of worsening climate conditions over the next few decades, experts on migration say tens of millions more people in the developing world could be on the move because of disasters.

Rather than seeking a new life elsewhere in a mass international “climate migration,” as some analysts had once predicted, many of these migrants are now expected to move to nearby megacities in their own countries.

Continue reading

Methane in the Arctic

Charles Hanley writes about current methane research in the Arctic for associated press in Climate trouble may be bubbling up in far north

Pure methane, gas bubbling up from underwater vents, escaping into northern skies, adds to the global-warming gases accumulating in the atmosphere. And pure methane escaping in the massive amounts known to be locked in the Arctic permafrost and seabed would spell a climate catastrophe.

Is such an unlocking under way?

Researchers say air temperatures here in northwest Canada, in Siberia and elsewhere in the Arctic have risen more than 2.5 C (4.5 F) since 1970 — much faster than the global average. The summer thaw is reaching deeper into frozen soil, at a rate of 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) a year, and a further 7 C (13 F) temperature rise is possible this century, says the authoritative, U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In 2007, air monitors detected a rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, apparently from far northern sources. Russian researchers in Siberia expressed alarm, warning of a potential surge in the powerful greenhouse gas, additional warming of several degrees, and unpredictable consequences for Earth’s climate.

Others say massive seeps of methane might take centuries. But the Russian scenario is disturbing enough to have led six U.S. national laboratories last year to launch a joint investigation of rapid methane release. And IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri in July asked his scientific network to focus on “abrupt, irreversible climate change” from thawing permafrost.

Global change and missing institutions

In  Science Policy Forum, Brian Walker and others have a policy forum in Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions, in which they argue that the the global order of nation-state’s has improved the well-being of many people at the cost of global resilience, and that building global resilience requires more interaction among existing global institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.  They write:

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects. The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to take a free ride on the cooperation of others. The nation-state achieves cooperation by the exercise of sovereign power within its boundaries. The difficulty to date is that transnational institutions provide, at best, only partial solutions, and implementation of even these solutions can be undermined by international competition and recalcitrance.

…Of special importance are rules that apply universally, such as the peremptory, or jus cogens, norms proscribing activities like genocide or torture. Failure to stop genocide in Rwanda spurred efforts to establish a new “responsibility to protect” humanitarian norm (12). As threats to sustainability increase, norms for behavior toward the global environment are also likely to become part of the jus cogens set.

The responsibility to protect rests in the first instance with the state having sovereignty over its population. Only in the event that the state is unable or unwilling to protect its people are other states obligated to intervene. The challenge is not just to declare the principle but to ensure its acceptance and enforcement. Acceptance is needed for legitimacy, and enforcement will depend on whether states are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. If the responsibility to protect is to apply to the environment as well, these same challenges will need to be overcome. We use three examples to illustrate how institutional development might proceed.

Climate change. International climate agreements must be designed to align national and global interests and curb free-riding. Borrowing from the WTO architecture, the linkage between trade and the environment could be incorporated within a new climate treaty to enforce emission limits for trade-sensitive sectors. New global standards could establish a climate-friendly framework with supporting payments, e.g., for technology transfer, to encourage developing country participation. In this context, trade restrictions applied to non-participants would be legitimate and credible, because participating parties would not want nonparties to have trade advantages.

Coevolution of institutions offers a pathway to further progress. Recently, the Montreal Protocol strengthened its controls on hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), manufacture of which produces hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as a by-product. HFCs do not affect ozone and are not controlled under the Montreal Protocol. However, they are greenhouse gases (GHGs), controlled under the Kyoto Protocol. The Montreal Protocol should now either be amended to control HFCs directly or else a new agreement, styled after the Montreal Protocol, should be developed under the Framework Convention to control HFCs.

High-seas fisheries. The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which was adopted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1995 was a positive step, but because adherence is voluntary, it has had little effect. Another approach would be to develop a norm, akin to the responsibility to protect (12), requiring all states responsible for managing a fishery to intercede when a state fails to fulfill its obligations. Credible enforcement is a challenge, but efforts by major powers to enforce a U.N. General Assembly ban on large-scale drift-net fishing offers hope that an emerging norm can be enforced (13).

Drug resistance. Addressing drug resistance demands global standards. The International Health Regulations (IHRs) are an international legal instrument that is binding on 194 countries, including all the member states of the World Health Organization. It currently establishes minimum standards for infectious disease surveillance, but could be amended to promote standards for drug use. For example, monotherapy treatments for malaria are cheaper but more prone to encourage resistance in mosquitoes than combination therapy drugs. Their use should be limited in favor of the more expensive combination therapy drugs. One approach to global action would be an amendment to the IHRs that obligated all member countries to collective action to promote combination therapies, supported by global subsidies, and to discourage, or even prohibit, monotherapies (14).

Lovelock, climatic regime shifts, and soft sociology

In Nature, biogeochemist Andrew Watson reviews The Vanishing Face Of Gaia by James Lovelock in Final warning from a sceptical prophet:

In The Vanishing Face Of Gaia, Lovelock argues that model projections of the climate a century ahead are of little use. The models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) extrapolate from a smooth trend of warming, yet the real climate system, complex and fully coupled to the biology of land and ocean, is unlikely to change in this simple way. It is more likely to flip from one state to another, with non-linear tipping points that the IPCC models are too simplistic to capture. Lovelock fears that the climate will shift to a new and considerably hotter regime, and that once underway, this shift will be irreversible.

This view is not officially sanctioned ‘IPCC-speak’, but he is fully within the envelope of scientific consensus when he warns of the possibility of rapid and irreversible change. Other climate scientists — notably Wally Broecker (see Nature 328, 123–126; 1987) — have said much the same for a long time, although Lovelock uses more graphic language and his popular voice will carry further. Palaeoclimate records show that rapid flips have happened before, so this must be a strong possibility for the future if we continue to force up the levels of greenhouse gases at the current rate.

What is controversial is Lovelock’s vision for humanity: rapid climate change will lead to the deaths of most people on the planet, and to mass migrations to those places that are still habitable. He does not spell out exactly how this might happen, but is convinced a hotter Earth will be able to sustain only a few per cent of the current human population. The implication is that Gaia and human society are close to a cliff-edge, and could unravel rapidly and catastrophically.

The controversy lies less in the climatology and more in the sociology. How will societies behave in the face of such change? Will we pull together with a wartime spirit, or will we fragment, fight and kill one another over Gaia’s carcass? Lovelock is on softer ground here. His only special qualification for discussing human behaviour is his longevity — having lived through the Second World War, he knows what people sometimes do to one another during evil times.

Lovelock’s vision of sudden and imminent collapse is apocalyptic, but for our long-term future and that of the planet it might be preferable to some of the alternatives. Suppose, for instance, that our profligate ways and expanding population are sustained for the rest of this century, but at a huge cost — the complete loss of all the natural ecosystems of the world. Most of us, living in cities and insulated from the natural environment, would barely notice until it was too late to do anything about it. This is what many politicians, economists and industrialists seem to want — their mantra of unceasing economic growth implies that we should take for ourselves all Gaia’s resources and squeeze from them the maximum short-term gain, leaving nothing for the future.

Following this vision, we will need to transform the entire planet into a factory farm to feed our 10 billion or 15 billion mouths. There will be no room on this giant spherical feedlot for anything but ourselves and our half-dozen species of domestic plants and animals. Gaia, the natural Earth system, will have disappeared. As for the underpinning biogeochemical cycles, the best we can hope is that we can manage them ourselves, taking over the heavy responsibility for keeping Earth habitable, which Gaia once did for us automatically.

The more likely outcome is that we would barely manage them at all. In that case, we would face a sequence of global environmental crises and a steady degradation of the planetary environment that would eventually kill just as many of us as a sudden collapse. Given that, perhaps we had better hope that Lovelock is right, and Gaia does for us — or most of us — before we do for her.

Australian fires

From ABC News

The deadly Australian bushfires appear to have been so deadly because they were unusual.  The fires caught people before they new it was coming, and unlike many fires they were too strong to fight.  What made these fires unusual?  At first look it seems to be a combination of a lack of social memory, fuel accumulation, and climate change – that together reduced community resilience to fire.

From the New Scientist’s Short sharp science blog Time for a new Australian bushfire policy?

Australia has a national fire-preparedness policy, perhaps uniquely, of encouraging people to either “stay and defend or leave early”. But as the tragedy continues to unfurl there will be increasing pressure to reexamine a policy developed for conditions that existed half a century ago.

The rationale behind the policy is that if you have a fire plan in place – that is, you have a water source, a pump that is not dependent on the power supply, you have ember-proofed your house, and so on – it is safer to stay and let the front pass over, than to leave at the last moment. And historically, it is true that most houses lost in bush fires have burnt because of defendable ember-strikes rather than direct contact with the fire, and most deaths have been due last-minute evacuations.

But conditions have changed. Southern Australia’s epic 12-year drought, higher temperatures due to climate change, and less “prescribed” burning to remove the plant life that acts as fuel, all combine to increase the risk of extreme fire. This year already, we’ve had several days in the mid-40s that have burnt leaves off trees, and squeezed the last drops of moisture out of already tinder-dry bush. One survivor described the ground underfoot prior to the fires going through as “like walking on cornflakes”.

Under those conditions, a fire plan may simply not be enough, as Victoria’s premier John Brumby told the Fairfax Radio Network today: “There is no question that there were people there who did everything right, put in place their fire plan and it wouldn’t matter, their house was just incinerated.” Brumby wants the policy rexamined.

People have changed too. Small towns like devastated Marysville – 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Melbourne – as well as the ever-expanding fire-prone city fringes, are as likely to be home to retirees and “treechangers” (city people who move to the country for a life change) as they are to families with generations of bushfire experience.

One of the commonest reasons for people who intend to stay and defend their properties to change their mind and leave at the last moment is that with no direct experience of fire they are not prepared psychologically.

According to Robert Heath, a psychologist at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, they don’t bank on the overwhelming heat, the lack of contact with the outside world, the darkness, or the noise: loud and like a huge blowtorch, apparently. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that many people who lost their lives are thought to have done so while fleeing in their cars.

For more details see:

Thanks to Arijit Guha for pointers.

Steve Carpenter on Black Swans

Ecologist Steve Carpenter follows up on Don Ludwig’s comments on Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s book The Black Swan:

Both of Taleb’s books are highly entertaining. But he over-reaches. There are some odd mistakes. For example, he makes much of a supposed kink in the integral of the Student-t distribution, (where tail probability declines linearly with deviation from the mean) but if you compute the integral using R software there is no kink — so Taleb evidently made a mistake.

Based on web sites, Taleb made his fortune using a kind of option trade. He purchases only options to buy securities at a certain price during a specified time window in the future. So if the security is trading above Taleb’s price, he buys it and then immediately sells at the market price, thereby making a profit. He says that his life involves long periods of time watching while nothing happens and his options to buy expire. But once in a great while he makes a killing. This is exactly like predators who specialize on very large prey, or fishing for big game fish, or hunting for rare but big game animals.

His writings have done a lot to publicize the importance of huge rare events. I think this is a good thing. But also he over-reaches. In some recent interviews he seems to be gloating over the current economic collapse. And (according to economist colleagues) some economists see his ideas as rather routine. Yet he is a provocative and entertaining writer; if sales measure impact he has made a difference.

To me, the most novel feature of the current ongoing collapse is the coincidence of huge shocks with apparently different triggers. Who would have thought that an epidemic of bad loans in America, steep ramp of energy prices, and biofuels tightening the link of energy to food prices would coincide, against a backdrop of lower economic firewalls between countries and increasingly intense food limitation of the human population, with almost no scope for growth of the food supply. It’s a wonderland for testing resilience ideas and a global tragedy, all at the same time.

For a recent talk I re-analyzed a bunch of information from the Millennium Assessment, to try to figure out if humanity had any chance at all for making it through the next few decades.

If everyone shifts trophic status to roughly herbivore level, and we educate all the world’s women to secondary level, we have a chance.

The difference between 12 billion and 9 billion people in 2050 is one child per woman. If all the world’s women were educated to secondary level, fertility would drop by about 1.7 children per woman. And we can probably feed 9 billion herbivorous people, if we can maintain the crop diversity of the major grain crops high enough to avoid catastrophic disease outbreaks.

Energy needs for agriculture and climate change could make it pretty hard to achieve the rosy scenario; climate heating, more variable precipitation and sea level rise have bad implications for agriculture. So the rosy scenario itself may be way out on the tail of the distribution. And what will happen to relations among people as the going gets rough? Human conflict can wreck agriculture. What are the chances that no one will use nuclear weapons? Even a few nukes would take out huge areas of arable land for millennia. And, as Will Rogers said about land, they ain’t makin’ any more of it. A Taleb-like fat tail breakdown seems not so implausible.

Decline in salmon causes decline in cultural ecosystem services

Agriculture increases the supply of food supplied by an ecosystem, but often decreases its ability to supply other services.  The same appears to be true for salmon aquaculture.  In the Toronto Globe and Mail, Vancouver journalist Mark Hume reports Declining salmon runs blamed for wilderness tourism slump:

All along the B.C. Coast, wilderness tourism operators who run bear-viewing, whale-watching and sport-fishing resorts are reporting tough times because of declining salmon runs.

But the biggest impact may be occurring in the Broughton Archipelago, where Mr. MacKay operates, and where pink salmon runs have all but vanished, sending a shock wave through the region’s ecosystem.

“Some of the northern pods are just not here,” Mr. MacKay said yesterday. “And we’ve had three occasions [this summer] when we did not see any orcas at all. That’s pretty weird.”

He said northern killer whales visit the area during the summer months, collecting in big social gatherings where breeding takes place.

“When they get together like that it’s called Super Pod Day, and we will see over 100 dorsal fins out there at a time,” Mr. MacKay said. “That didn’t happen this year, for the first time since we’ve been collecting data, which is almost 30 years.”

Mr. MacKay said it’s not coincidental that the whales have vanished along with the salmon.

“It’s pretty simple. …What do you think these orcas eat?” he said.

Surveys by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans indicate pink salmon stocks have fallen to extremely low levels in the Broughton Archipelago. In Glendale Creek, a key indicator stream, there have been only 19,000 spawners counted this year, compared with 264,000 last year.

Pink salmon, which usually spawn in prodigious numbers, are a keystone species on the West Coast. Chinook salmon, the mainstay of the orca diet, feed on young pinks, while grizzly and black bears depend on spawning adult pink salmon to bulk up for hibernation.

Brian Gunn, president of the Wilderness Tourism Association, said the collapse of salmon stocks is threatening the survival of ecotourism businesses.

“The bear-viewing businesses, the whale-watching operations, they built up a lot of equity showing people these wild animals. Now the fish aren’t there and they are seeing their equity drain away. …If the salmon go, so does the wildlife, and so does the business.”

Mr. Gunn blamed the fish-farming business, saying a heavy concentration of net pens in the Broughton Archipelago has created sea-lice epidemics which kill young salmon.