Climate threat as grave a risk as nuclear war

Climate threat as grave a risk as nuclear war

An international scientific report commissioned by the UK government says the risks of climate change are comparable to those posed by nuclear conflict.

LONDON, 18 July, 2015 – The UK government says that climate change poses risks that demand to be treated as seriously as the threat  of nuclear war.

Scientists from the UK, US, India and China say in a report commissioned by the UK that deciding what to do about climate change depends on the value we put on human life, both now and in years to come.

One of the lead authors of the report is Sir David King, formerly the UK government’s chief scientist, who last month co-authored a report on the scale of investment that should be made to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2025. 

In a foreword to the latest report, Baroness Anelay, a minister at the British foreign office, writes that assessing the risks surrounding nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation means understanding inter-dependent elements − including what science says is possible, what other countries may intend, and systemic factors such as regional power dynamics.

“The risk of climate change demands a similarly holistic assessment,” she says.

Value human life

She concludes: “How much do we care about the effects of climate change? How important is it that we act to avoid them? What probability of their occurrence can we tolerate?…The answers to these questions depend in part on how we value human life – both now, and in the future.”

The report is not the first to put climate chaos and nuclear devastation in the same category of risk, but its sponsorship by one of the world’s nuclear powers is eloquent.

It says the most important political decision is how much effort to exert on countering climate change, taking into account what we are doing to the climate, how it may respond, what that could do to us, and what we might then do to each other.

The authors’ best guess, based on current policies and trends, is that greenhouse gas emissions will keep going up for another few decades, and then either level off or slowly decline.

“Uncertainty is not our friend. There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky”

This, they say, is for two reasons: governments are not making maximum use of the technologies already available; and technology is not yet progressing fast enough to give governments the policy options they will need. In the worst case, emissions could keep on rising throughout the century.

They warn that how the climate may change, and what that could do to us, are both highly uncertain. “The important thing to understand is that uncertainty is not our friend,” the report says. “There is much more scope to be unlucky than there is to be lucky.”

High emissions pathway

The report foresees wide ranges of possible global temperature and sea level increase. On a high emissions pathway, it says, where the most likely temperature rise is estimated at 5°C by 2100, anything from 3°C to 7°C may be possible.

On this pathway, the chances of staying below 3°C will become “vanishingly small”, but the chances of exceeding 7°C will increase and could become more likely than not within the next century.

The authors see very little chance that global sea level rise will slow down, and every chance that it will accelerate. The only question is by how much.

“While an increase of somewhere between 40cm and 1m looks likely this century, the delayed response of huge ice-sheets to warming means we may already be committed to more than 10m over the longer term. We just do not know whether that will take centuries or millennia.”

A temperature increase of 4°C or more could pose very large risks to global food security, and to people.

Humans have limited tolerance for combinations of high temperature and humidity. Their upper limits of tolerance are rarely if ever exceeded by climatic conditions alone, but with temperature increase somewhere between 5°C and 7°C, it starts to become likely that hot places will experience conditions that are fatal even for people lying down in the shade.

Population growth alone is also likely to double the number of people living below a threshold of extreme water shortage by mid-century.

Sea level thresholds

Coastal cities, according to the report, probably have thresholds in terms of the rate and extent of sea level rise that they can deal with, but we have very little idea where those thresholds are.

The authors say that even the 0.8°C of climate change experienced so far is now causing us significant problems, and that “it seems likely that high degrees of climate change would pose enormous risks to national and international security” − for example, through extreme water stress and competition for productive land.

In a highly topical passage, they say migration from some regions may become more a necessity than a choice, and could happen on a historically unprecedented scale.

“The capacity of the international community for humanitarian assistance, already at full stretch, could easily be overwhelmed,” the report warns.

The risks of state failure could rise significantly, affecting many countries simultaneously, and even threatening those currently considered developed and stable.

But the report is not relentlessly downbeat. “An honest assessment of risk is no reason for fatalism,” it says. “Just as small changes in climate can have very large effects, the same can be true for changes in government policy, technological capability, and financial regulation… the goal of preserving a safe climate for the future need not be beyond our reach.” – Climate News Network

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Warming planet heightens plight of the bumblebee

Warming planet heightens plight of the bumblebee

Scientists warn that human intervention may be needed to protect bees as climate change overheats their southern habitat range.

LONDON, 10 July, 2015 − The humble bumblebee is feeling the squeeze from climate change. Research shows that its southern range is being reduced as the planet warms − and yet it seems to show no sign of migrating northwards to safety.

This unwillingness to head for cooler climes could prove disastrous, and has prompted some scientists to suggest that humans may need to intervene by creating refuges for the bees away from the heat.

Jeremy Kerr, a biologist at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and colleagues report in the journal Science that they generated a database of 423,000 local observations of 36 European and 31 North American species of the genus Bombus and mapped the patterns of change.

They found that in recent, increasingly warmer decades, bumblebees tended to disappear from the southernmost and hottest parts of their range, but did not shift north. In some cases, the insects’ range had shrunk by as much as 300 kilometres.

Dramatic losses

“Global warming has trapped bumblebee species in a kind of climate vice,” Professor Kerr says. “The result is dramatic losses of bumblebee species from the hottest areas across two continents.

“For species that evolved under cool conditions, like bumblebees, global warming might be the kind of threat that causes many of them to disappear for good.

“Unlike so many other species, bumblebees generally haven’t expanded into more northern areas. We may need to help these species establish new colonies to the north, and at continental scales.”

The finding is a clear indication that some naturally mobile species may not be able to adapt to climate change.

In recent decades, biologists have used animal and even plant migration to monitor climate change. Alpine species in Switzerland have been observed moving uphill, and in the UK, the butterfly range has tended to shift northwards.

In the latest study, the scientists looked at a range of factors that might limit bumblebee migration − things such as changes in land use, and pesticide prevalence, create problems for all wild species. But these factors seemed to play no significant part in limiting the creature’s range.

“Bumblebees are at risk, and the services
they provide are increasingly threatened
by human-caused climate change”

There is evidence that, where they can do, some species are moving uphill by as much as 300 metres, while still staying in the same latitude. But researchers do know that bumblebees don’t thrive in the extremes of heat that have been an increasing feature of recent decades.

“We don’t know for sure what is causing a stagnation at the northern end of things,” says Paul Galpern, a landscape ecologist at the University of Calgary, and a co-author of the report.

“Bees should be able to start new colonies in places they did not historically occupy. But we don’t know why this is happening so slowly that it looks like the ranges are not moving at all

“This all points to the fact that bumblebees are at risk, and the services that they provide are increasingly threatened by human-caused climate change.”

Important role

Such creatures play an important role in temperate zone ecosystems. “Bumblebees pollinate many plants that provide food for humans and wildlife,” says Leif Richardson, a biologist at the University of Vermont, and also a co-author of the report.

“If we don’t stop the decline in the abundance of bumblebees, we may well face higher food prices, diminished varieties, and other troubles.”

Professor Kerr reinforces the message. “Pollinators are vital for food security and our economy, and widespread losses of pollinators due to climate change will diminish both,” he says.

“We need to figure out how we can improve the outlook for pollinators at continental scales, but the most important thing we can do is begin to take serious action to reduce the rate of climate change.” – Climate News Network

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Climate change may knock seafood off the menu

Climate change may knock seafood off the menu

Researchers warn of a serious threat to fish, mussels and other marine species as carbon dioxide acidifies the world’s waters and increases temperatures.

LONDON, 7 July, 2015 – Pink salmon – the smallest and most abundant of the Pacific salmon species, and a supper table mainstay in many parts of the world – may be swimming towards trouble.

And they are not the only dish likely to disappear from the menu. Mussels, oysters, clam and scallop could all become scarcer and more expensive as the seas become more acid. And as the world’s waters warm, fish will start to migrate away from their normal grounds at an ever-increasing rate.

New research shows that as the world’s waters acidify because of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) could become smaller and less likely to survive.

Potentially problematic

Previous studies have repeatedly and consistently explored potentially problematic consequences of change in the pH value of the world’s oceans. The higher the carbon dioxide concentrations in the air as a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels, the greater the change in oceanic acidity levels.

But researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and colleagues looked at the special problems of freshwater fish.

Only about 0.8% of the world’s water is fresh – that is, found in lakes and rivers – but freshwater species represent 40% of all fishes. Salmon spawn and the young are reared in fresh water, before taking to the seas to mature, then returning to repeat the cycle.

The Vancouver scientists report in Nature Climate Change that they tested very young embryos in water at acidity levels expected at the end of this century, and observed them for 10 weeks.

They found that these laboratory-reared salmon were smaller, and their ability to smell was reduced, which could mean problems in returning to their spawning grounds or for scenting danger and responding to it.

“It is not too late for society to benefit greatly from immediate reductions in CO2 emissions”

At the age of seaward migration, they were less able to use oxygen in their muscles, which promised problems finding food, evading predators or making long journeys.

“The increase in carbon dioxide in water is actually quite small from a chemistry perspective, so we didn’t expect to see so many effects,” said Michelle Ou, lead author of the study. “The growth, physiology and behaviour of these developing pink salmon are very much influenced by these small changes.”

Salmon aren’t the only freshwater fish at risk from climate change. Research published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry reveals that a rise in water temperatures of 5°C could make common pesticides and industrial contaminants ever more toxic.

Ronald Patra, an environmental scientist at the Department of Planning and Environment in New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues tested rainbow trout, silver perch, rainbowfish and western carp gudgeon at temperatures higher than optimum for the species and in the presence of endosulfan, chlorpyrifos and phenol − all of which wash into waterways from the land.

Results varied according to pollutant, species and temperature, but, overall, all three chemicals became increasingly toxic as water temperatures rose.

Future toxicity

On the coast of Mangalore in southwest India, where mussel farming has become a growing industry, researchers decided to test future toxicity conditions for the green mussel.

The Society of Experimental Biology meeting in Prague learned that the bivalves were raised in high temperature and low salt conditions and exposed to toxic algae and bacteria of the kind that might be expected in a changing climate, which in turn affected the timing of the monsoon in ways that could lower seawater salinity.

“This is likely to increase the chance of outbreaks of toxic plankton blooms and make farming bivalves such as mussels increasingly challenging,” the meeting was told.

But changes to water chemistry – once again, the shift in pH values as yet more carbonic acid builds up in the seas – create problems enough for the commercial shellfisheries.

Wiley Evans, research associate at the Ocean Acidification Research Centre of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and colleagues report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One that shellfish farmers off the Alaska coast might, at extra expense, have to start modifying the sea water in their hatcheries because, the researchers reported, they expect “significant effects” from acidification by 2040.

The scientists monitored for 10 months the effects of water chemistry changes on oyster, clam, scallop and other shellfish larvae.

Alaska – with a limited growing season, melting glaciers that affect salinity, and with colder waters that more readily dissolve carbon dioxide – is a special case.

But in general, as researchers have repeatedly found, increasingly corrosive waters would make it more difficult for shellfish to exploit the calcium carbonate minerals needed to make shells.

Shellfish spend their maturity in one spot, whereas fish can and do shift their grounds when the conditions become uncomfortable − with consequences for established commercial catches such as sardines and sea bass.

Likely to migrate

But a 5°C average warming in global atmospheric temperatures – and climate scientists have repeatedly warned that this is possible before 2100 – means that fish are likely to migrate away from their existing habitats considerably faster than they are doing now.

Jean-Pierre Gattuso, of the Oceanological Observatory in Villefranche, France, and colleagues looked at the evidence on a global scale and report in Science journal that, without attempts to mitigate global warming, the oceans and the creatures in them will be seriously affected by temperature changes and acidification.

This is very bad news for the millions of people in the communities that depend on the seas for a living.

“On a positive note, we still have options to substantially reduce these impacts now, but the longer we wait the fewer and fewer options we have,” warns co-author William Cheung, of the fisheries centre at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

Commenting on the research, Jason Hall-Spencer, a professor of marine biology at Plymouth University in the UK, said: “This review screams at me that the evidence is in, and it is not too late for society to benefit greatly from immediate reductions in CO2 emissions.” – Climate News Network

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Stress on water resources threatens lives and livelihoods

Stress on water resources threatens lives and livelihoods

Satellite data raises red-flag warning about the draining of underground aquifers to meet the demands of expanding populations.

LONDON, 29 June, 2015 – The planet’s great subterranean stores of water are running out – and nobody can be sure how much remains to supply billions of people in the future.

Satellite instruments used to measure the flow from 37 underground aquifers between 2003 and 2013 have revealed that at least one-third of them were seriously stressed – with little or almost no natural replenishment.

The research was conducted by scientists from California and the US space agency NASA, who report in the journal Water Resources Research that they used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to calculate what is happening to aquifers.

The two satellites measure variations in the gravitational pull of the planet’s surface, and have already revealed changes in the mass of ice sheets on the planetary surface. But buried water, too, has mass, and changes in the mass of bedrock in known aquifer regions would therefore offer a guide to depletion.

Driest regions

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that those regions that are already driest were drawing most heavily on the groundwater below the surface.

The Arabian aquifer system, − the principal water source for 60 million people − is the worst stressed, followed by the Indus Basin of north-west India and Pakistan, and then the Murzuk-Djado basin in northern Africa.

The scientists warn that climate change – a consequence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions from the human combustion of fossil fuels – and population growth will make things worse.

“What happens when a highly-stressed aquifer is located in a region with socioeconomic or political tensions that can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough?” asks Alexandra Richey, who conducted the research as a University of California Irvine doctoral student. “We’re trying to raise red flags now to pinpoint where active management today could protect future lives and livelihoods.”

“We can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater
is disappearing so rapidly”

Her colleague, hydrologist James Famiglietti, identified his own home state of California as a cause for concern because it is in the grip of an extended drought that threatens agriculture.

“As we’re seeing in California right now, we rely much more heavily on groundwater during drought,” he says. “When examining the sustainability of a region’s water resources, we absolutely must account for that dependence.”

Groundwater accumulates slowly in the underlying bedrock over millennia. There is no problem if it is withdrawn slowly, but human population has exploded threefold in one human lifetime, and water use has risen even faster.

Supply problem

Research like this is a demonstration of ways to address a supply problem − but there is more work to be done.

In a second study in Water Resources Research, the same team examined the challenge of trying to calculate the rates at which aquifers are being emptied, and the uncertainties as to how much might remain in them.

In the Northwest Sahara, for instance, estimates of the projected “time to depletion” varied from 10 years to 21,000 years. “In a water-scarce society,” Richey says, “we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly.”

Professor Famiglietti concludes: “I believe we need to explore the world’s aquifers as if they had the same value as oil reserves. We need to drill for water in the same way that we drill for other resources.” – Climate News Network

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Scientists detect mysterious warming in US coastal waters

Scientists detect mysterious warming in US coastal waters

Unprecedented ocean temperature rises off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the US may be linked to sea level rise or the recent pattern of “weird” weather.

LONDON, 28 June, 2015 − Oceanographers are puzzled by an accelerated burst of warming sea that threatens the fisheries of the American Atlantic coast.

Meanwhile, off the US West coast, scientists report that they have been baffled by a mysterious “blob” of water up to 4°C warmer than the surrounding Pacific, linked to weird weather across the entire country.

Jacob Forsyth and research colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts report in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans that the ocean off the US north-east continental shelf has been warming at unprecedented levels for 13 years.

Their findings came after analysis of data from sensors − called bathythermographs − dropped 14 times a year from the container ship Oleander, which for 37 years has travelled between New Jersey and Bermuda. Each detector takes the temperature of the water column as it sinks up to 700 metres.

Startling discovery

What they were startled to discover was an unexplained, and unprecedented, rise in the water temperatures that may be linked with an equally mysterious sea level anomaly: sea levels are going up, but they are going up faster off the north-east coast of the US than almost anywhere else.

“The warming rate since 2002 is 15 times faster than from the previous 100 years,” says Glen Gawarkiewicz, a WHOI senior scientist and one of the authors of the report.

“There’s just been this incredible acceleration to the warming, and we don’t know if it’s decadal variability or if this trend will continue.”

“It’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming”

To make sure of their perspective, the authors compared their analysis with surface data from the Nantucket lightship and other such installations along the coast, from 1880 to 2004. The new study shows that the warming is not just confined to surface waters.

Although there must be some link with the steady rise in atmospheric temperatures because of global warming as a result of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, the oceanographers suspect there may also be another explanation, so far undiscovered.

Off the Pacific coast, meteorologists have been scratching their heads over the appearance in 2014 of a “remarkably” warm patch −  1,500 kilometres across in every direction and 100 metres deep − that could be linked to “weird” weather across the continental US that has seen heat and drought in the west and blizzards and chills in the East.

High pressure ridge

Nicholas Bond,  a research meteorologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that what they have called “the blob” was linked to a persistent high pressure ridge, linked in turn to a calmer ocean during the last two northern hemisphere winters.

The blob plays a sure role in the West Coast weather. Air sweeping across it picks up heat, and this results in warmer temperatures and lower snowpack in coastal mountains − which certainly stoke up the conditions for drought.

A second study in Geophysical Research Letters links the warm Pacific puzzle to the big freeze in the eastern states in 2013 and 2014.

Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection with climate change, but it raises the spectre of changes to come.

“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Dr Bond says. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.” − Climate News Network

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Combating climate dangers is seen as medical emergency

Combating climate dangers is seen as medical emergency

International experts say the last 50 years of health advances worldwide will be jeopardised unless urgent steps are taken to confront climate change.

LONDON, 23 June, 2015 – The threat that climate change poses to human health is so great that it could undermine the last half-century of gains in development and global health, says an international commission of medical experts.

One author, fiercely critical of international efforts to confront the problem, says it is a medical emergency that demands an emergency response.

More hopefully, though, the group’s report says that international efforts to tackle climate change – “the defining challenge of our generation” – represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve health worldwide this century.

The report, published in The Lancet medical journal, is the work of the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change.

Unparalleled chance

It says many responses to climate change have direct and indirect health benefits – from reducing air pollution to improving diet – and so efforts to reduce the threat offer an unparalleled chance for far-reaching gains in health.

But the commission is under no illusions about what is at stake. The authors say the potentially catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change has been underestimated

They add – in a familiar refrain – that while the technologies and finance required to address the problem do exist, the global political will to implement them is lacking.

Professor Hugh Montgomery, one of the commission’s co-chairs and director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Human Health and Performance, UK, says: “Climate change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now.

“Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.”

“Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to the human and environmental health of our generation

Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change

Image: The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change

Professor Anthony Costello, another of the commission’s co-chairs and director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, says: “Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades – not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability.”

The report says the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms. Indirect impacts result from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.

It says there are many ways in which action on climate change brings immediate health gains. For example, burning fewer fossil fuels reduces respiratory diseases, and what doctors call “active transport” (walking and cycling) cuts pollution and traffic accidents, and reduces rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke. There are also health benefits from changes to diet, such as eating less red meat.

Entrenched interests

The commission is an extensive collaboration between experts from Europe and China. Its other co-chair, Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, says: “The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past.

“It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to the human and environmental health of our generation.”

The report provides a set of recommendations for policy-makers, and the authors propose the formation of a new global independent body on climate change and health − to be called Countdown to 2030: Climate Change and Health Action − to monitor and report every two years on the health impacts of climate change. – Climate News Network

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Rise in CO2 could restrict growing days for crops

Rise in CO2 could restrict growing days for crops

While plants in temperate zones may benefit from higher temperatures, global warming’s impact in the tropics threatens catastrophe for food security.

LONDON, 20 June, 2015 − The positive consequences of climate change may not be so positive. Although plants in the colder regions are expected to thrive as average global temperatures rise, even this benefit could be limited.

Some tropical regions could lose up to 200 growing days a year, and more than two billion rural people could see their hopes wither on the vine or in the field. Even in  temperate zones, there will be limits to extra growth.

Plants quicken, blossom and ripen as a response to moisture, warmth and the length of daylight. Global warming will clearly change the temperatures and influence the patterns of precipitation, but it won’t make any difference to the available hours of sunlight at any point on the globe.

Scientists at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Biology that they looked at the big picture of complex change. Higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas from car exhausts, forest fires and factory chimneys – are expected overall to aid crop and forest growth.

Extended season

Average global warming of less than 1°C in the last 30 years has extended the northern hemisphere growing season by up to 11 days, but plants are still limited by radiation.

“Those that think climate change will benefit plants need to see the light, literally and figuratively,” says Camilo Mora, lead author of the report and assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Hawaii.

“A narrow focus on the factors that influence plant growth has led to major underestimations of the potential impacts of climate change on plants, not only at higher latitudes but more severely in the tropics, exposing the world to dire consequences.”

Professor Mora has made a career of thinking about global consequences. He and colleagues recently tried to calculate the possible dates at which local climates could shift inexorably in different parts of the world, and tried also to build a picture of how ocean warming and acidification would affect incomes everywhere.

“Many plants will not be able to take advantage of those warmer temperatures because there will not be enough sunlight to sustain their growth”

His team is not the first to try to calculate the potential impact of catastrophic global warming on global food supply. Cereals are vulnerable to extremes of heat, and climate change may already be affecting yields in Europe.

But the Hawaiian scientists tried a simple theoretical approach, by first identifying the ranges of temperature, soil moisture and light that drive 95% of the world’s plant growth today.

They then tried to calculate the number of days in a year in which these growth conditions could be expected at various latitudes in the future, as carbon dioxide levels – and average temperatures – climb.

They found that, nearer the poles, the number of days above freezing would increase by 7%.

“But many plants will not be able to take advantage of those warmer temperatures because there will not be enough sunlight to sustain their growth,” says Iain Caldwell, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

The same warming at the lowest latitudes could be devastating: in some tropical regions, conditions could become too hot and dry for any growth.

Overall, the planet could see an 11% reduction in the number of days suited to growth, and some places in the tropics could lose 200 growing days a year.

Although some regions in China, Russia and Canada will see an improvement, around 2.1 billion people who rely on forests and agriculture for food and revenue could lose 30% of the days they now bank on for plant growth.

But rising levels of carbon dioxide could also affect the quality of plant growth, according to a new study in Global Change Biology.

Zhaozhong Feng, of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and colleagues looked at the results of eight experiments in four continents on crops, grasslands and forests, and found that as carbon dioxide levels go up, the nitrogen content of the crop is lowered. In the case of wheat and rice, this would also mean lower protein levels.

Negative effect

“Furthermore, we can see that this negative effect exists regardless of whether or not the plants’ growth increases, and even if fertiliser is added,” says Johan Uddling, a plant physiologist at Gothenburg, and a co-author of the report. “This is unexpected and new.”

In the same week, a team of scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks produced evidence that climate change has already begun to alter the forests of the far north.

They report in the journal Forest Ecology and Management that in the interior of Alaska, already at the optimum temperature range for white spruce, tree growth slowed as summer temperatures rose.

In Western Alaska, once at the low end of the ideal temperature range for the same species, trees are now growing more rapidly.

“For the first time across a major forest region, we have real data showing that biome shift has started”, said Glenn Juday, professor of forest ecology at the university’s School of Natural Resources.

“This is not a scenario model, or a might, or a maybe. The boreal forest in Interior Alaska is very near dying from unsuitably warm temperatures. The area in Western Alaska where the forest transitions to tundra is now the productive heart of the boreal forest.” − Climate News Network

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India blames heatwave deaths on climate change 

India blames heatwave deaths on climate change 

Fierce temperatures in India doubled the heat-related deaths normally recorded in May − and the government insists natural causes are not to blame.

CHENNAI, 19 June, 2015 − India, one of the key players in the efforts to reach an international agreement on global warming, has no doubt of its malign effects. It was, says a government minister, the warming climate that caused last month’s devastating heatwave.

From mid-April till the end of May, nearly 2,200 people were killed by the heat − 1,636 of them in Andhra Pradesh, the worst-affected state. The normal May figure for the whole of India is about 1,000 heat-related deaths.

Dr Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, has blamed the heat deaths squarely on climate change.

Improve understanding

Launching a supercomputer at the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting to improve understanding of climatic changes, he said: “It’s not just another unusually hot summer − it is climate change.

“Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heatwave and the certainty of another failed monsoon.”

Dr Vardhan said that May’s heatwave, followed by the delay to the start of the monsoon, on which nearly half of India’s farmlands depend, was a definite manifestation of climate change.

Jejabba, a 63-year-old farmer in Andhra Pradesh state, was one of those who lost their lives because of this year’s scorching heat.

He took his cows out to graze in a mango grove near his house around 11am, but was tired and dehydrated when he returned home four hours later. After he began vomiting, and then fainted, he was rushed to the small government hospital 5km from his village, but died on the way.

“In my 17 years of service, I have not
come across such an alarming number
of deaths due to a heatwave”

“Summer is severe, and many people have been affected by the heatwave in our village,” says Jejabba’s distant cousin, Pindigi Ramamurthi, who runs a grain store in the village. “Just the previous day, we took our two children to hospital after they began vomiting. The doctor admitted them for a few hours to administer fluids, and luckily that revived them.”

Local officials recorded Jejabba as “the latest of the summer deaths”. But when his widow asked for compensation − the state government pays 100,000 rupees (US$1,570) to the family of a victim − the local panchayat (civic) official, who has to recommend the payment, told her she must get a certificate from the hospital doctor.

“The doctor told the family he could not give the certificate because Jejabba did not die in his hospital,” Ramamurthi recalls. “Why couldn’t the poor fellow have stayed alive just an hour or so longer till we reached the hospital? Now the widow must suffer this red tape.”

In parts of southern India, daytime temperatures reached between 45° and 47°C during this year’s heatwave − up to 7°C above normal.

Alarming number

Dr Srihari Rao, resident medical officer at the government general hospital in Tirupati, about 45km from Jejabba’s home, says: “In my 17 years of service, I have not come across such an alarming number of deaths due to a heatwave.

“Almost every day in May there was a death in the district from sunstroke. The majority of the dead were in the 65 to 80 age group, but there was also a case of a 19-year-old girl dying from dehydration.”

Dr Rao said infants, aged people and farmers had been particularly severely affected.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that there would be significant changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including heatwaves in India. Its report was based on weather records from 1906 to 2005.

Researchers at the India Meteorological Department, after conducting a study of heatwaves over the last 50 years, have called for public information campaigns to be launched on the dangers, and also stressed the importance of using social care networks to reach vulnerable sections of the population. − Climate News Network

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Climate change offers rare respite for African farmers

Climate change offers rare respite for African farmers

A surprise effect of greenhouse gases is that changes in air temperature and wind patterns are increasing rainfall and crop yields in the drought-prone Sahel region.

LONDON, 18 June, 2015 − A wide belt of tropical Africa is enjoying higher rainfall than for decades past, boosting harvests and keeping the threat of drought at bay. And the main factor, according to new research, is climate change.

Drought killed at least 100,000 people in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert over a period of about 15 years from the late 1960s, but scientists in the UK report that summer rainfall was 0.3 mm (0.01 inches) a day higher from 1996-2011 than from 1964 to 1993.

“Amounts of rainfall have recovered substantially, and it was a surprise that the increase in greenhouse gases appears to have been the dominant factor,” Professor Rowan Sutton, director of climate research at the University of Reading’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, UK, told Reuters news agency.

The scientists report in Nature Climate Change that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accounted for three-quarters of the recovery in rainfall, rather than other possible factors such as changes in sea temperature or air pollution from acid rain. Air warmed by GHGs can hold more moisture − which releases more rain − and can also affect wind patterns.

Welcome sign

Not surprisingly, the report comes with qualifications, and no one is hailing it as anything more than a welcome sign that one part of Africa is gaining more than it is losing from global warming − for the moment, at least.

Prof Sutton, co-author of the study, stressed that the change in Sahelian rainfall was only local, and that warming is still affecting many parts of Africa through desertification, floods and rising sea levels.

“It would be naïve to conclude that this is a good thing for Africa,” he said. “And, in future, there are other effects. The rise in temperatures can be detrimental to crops.”

But whatever climate change may bring, the people of the Sahel are working for a better future.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), based in Washington DC, has researched the role that the region’s farmers are playing, and has produced a report containing practical guidance and examples of how to scale up “regreening”.

This is a restoration technique that hundreds of thousands of farmers in three Sahelian countries − Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Niger − and in Malawi are already using to make their land more productive.

“It would be naïve to conclude that this is a good thing for Africa. In future . . . the rise in temperatures can be detrimental to crops”

Regreening uses a range of agroforestry and sustainable land management practices, and the WRI report focuses on one in particular that it says is “particularly promising”: farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR).

In FMNR systems, farmers protect and manage the growth of trees and shrubs that regenerate naturally in their fields from root stock or from seeds dispersed through animal manure. It can be an easy, low-cost way for farmers to increase the number of trees in the fields – and it is producing results in the Sahel.

In Burkina Faso, farmers are using water-harvesting techniques such as building stone lines and improved planting pits, known locally as zai. These help trap rainfall on crop fields, increasing average cereal yields from 400kg to around 900kg (880-1,984 lbs) per hectare.

Important food crops

One farmer in Burkina Faso said he had not needed to plant a single tree since 1979, because they grew naturally. Others said that FMNR had improved their yield from important food crops, such as millet.

In neighbouring Niger, the increased density of trees on cropland has reduced the time women spend collecting firewood from 2.5 hours each day to an average of half an hour.

Robert Winterbottom, a senior fellow with WRI’s forests programme, made a radical suggestion in a recent blog. He said that regreening the Sahel could enable people to stay at home, instead of joining the current tide of migration by refugees risking their lives to cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean to escape to Europe.

“Farmers have already demonstrated their ability to innovate and adopt practices that restore degraded land and provide a means to secure their futures,” he said.

“Perhaps citizens throughout Africa can prosper in their home countries, eliminating the need to take to the sea to pursue a better quality of life.” − Climate News Network

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World leaders urged to kick killer coal habit

World leaders urged to kick killer coal habit

Oxfam report says coal-fired power plants in the G7 group of countries should all be phased out to save lives, money and the planet.

LONDON, 6 June, 2015 – Leaders of G7 countries at this weekend’s summit in Germany are being called on today to show leadership by pledging to end all coal burning for electricity generation in the industrialised world.

“Let Them Eat Coal”, a report by  the international relief charity Oxfam, explains how it can be achieved without financial difficulty, and warns that continuing to burn coal will kill millions because of the food shortages that climate change will cause.

The report is endorsed by a group of scientists, politicians, industrialists, trade unionists and campaigners, who say that only with political leadership from G7 can the prospects of dangerous climate change be averted.

Weapon of destruction

It points out: “Each coal power station can be seen as a weapon of climate destruction – fuelling ruinous weather patterns, devastating harvests, driving food price rises and ultimately leaving more people facing hunger. With these climate impacts falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable and least food-secure people, the burning of coal is further exacerbating inequality.”

It points out that G7 coal plants emit twice as much fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions as the whole of Africa, and that “rich industrialised countries must stop hiding behind countries like China and take the lead in kicking their own coal habit”.

Coal provides 41% of the world’s electrical power but 72% of power-sector emissions. The report details how it is now cheaper to invest in and produce electricity with renewables than in coal plants in G7 countries.

The report details how many ageing coal plants each G7 country still operates, and how the wealthiest countries of the world can switch to alternatives, while creating jobs and without losing money.

“This is not a pipe dream – it is a clear
political opportunity that G7 governments
can and must seize”

Few of the G7 countries have built new coal plants, so closing them down would not lose capital investment. Ironically, Germany, which sees itself as a world leader in renewables and is the G7 host, has opened massive new coal-burning plants and will take longest to phase out coal unless it is prepared to lose money.

The report concludes that, without financial loss, France could phase out coal by 2020, the UK by 2023, and Italy by the mid-2020s. Canada and the US could follow by 2030, Japan by 2035, and Germany by 2040.

Apart from Germany and Japan, which have invested heavily in new coal plants, all G7 countries have an ageing fleet in which the original investment has long been repaid. For example, the average age of coal plants in the US is 45, and in the UK it is 41. Even in Germany and Japan, most coal plants are of the same vintage.

The report warns: “Coal power plants are the biggest obstacle standing between us and the internationally-agreed target to limit warming to 2 degrees [Centigrade].

Clean technologies

“G7 leaders meeting in 2015 can signal the beginning of the end of the coal era. By doing so, they can establish new momentum towards this year’s crucial UN climate talks in Paris and create thousands of new jobs in the clean technologies of the future.

“As the country-specific coal exit plans outlined in this paper make clear, this is not a pipe dream – it is a clear political opportunity that G7 governments can and must seize.”

Among those endorsing the report is Professor Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. He said coal-fired stations “increasingly look like weapons of destruction aimed at those who suffer the impacts of changing rainfall patterns as well as of extreme weather events. Getting rid of our addiction to coal is both possible and necessary.”

Dr Michael Grubb, senior research fellow at the Cambridge University Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, said: “The extraordinary irony is that study after study is showing that coal is bad for G7 economies. The damages associated with extracting and burning coal outweigh any apparent economic value – before even considering its impact on climate change.” – Climate News Network

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