“The detention of the Arctic Sunrise violates the rights of all people who strive to defend the environment,” said Mario Rodriguez, director of Greenpeace Spain, in a statement. “It’s telling that the Spanish Government would so quickly support the interests of an oil company, Repsol, against a peaceful environmental organisation which stands alongside millions of people who oppose reckless oil exploration.”
An investigation has been launched by the Spanish government against the captain of the Arctic Sunrise, for an alleged “infringement against marine traffic rules”, which is punishable with a fine of up to €300,000. Pending this investigation, Spanish authorities have ordered the ship to be detained until a €50,000 bond is paid. Fortunately, the captain and crew have not been detained.
In a statement, Greenpeace says they find this response “to a peaceful protest against dangerous oil drilling” to be both “unnecessary and disproportionate.”
This incident is sure to bring up bad memories. Just six months ago, the Arctic Sunrise was released by Russian authorities after a nine month long detention for an attempted protest against a Gazprom oil rig. Two freelance journalists and 28 Greenpeace activists were arrested at gunpoint in the Russian Arctic and had to spend three months in jail before being granted amnesty.
The Keystone XL pipeline is an extremely controversial project. If constructed, the pipeline will transport dirty oil from the tar sands in Western Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands is considered to be the world’s most polluting fuel and its production process is highly energy-intensive and causes widespread environmental damage. Besides wrecking the climate, environmentalists also claim that the pipeline would be a danger to local ecosystems and pollute water sources along the way it’s built. NASA climate scientist, James Hansen has said that the pipeline will be “game over for the planet.”
Proponents of the bill has said that the pipeline will generate thousands of jobs and secure U.S. energy independence. But critics say these claims are overstated and that the pipeline would bring no energy independence, no cheap gas and no lasting jobs.
Environmental organisations are now calling for President Obama to reject the Keystone XL project once and for all.
“The bill would have turned Congress into a permitting authority, overriding environmental law, and giving a green light to a pipeline project that would worsen climate change and threaten water quality,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. “The Senate did the right thing to reject the misguided bill, and now the president should do the right thing and reject the pipeline.”
“Since Keystone XL has always been President Obama’s decision, this vote was never anything more than an empty gesture of political theatre,” 350.org Executive Director May Boeve said. “Rather than letting Congress continue to pantomime for Big Oil, President Obama should step up and reject this dirty tar sands pipeline once and for all.“
This vote does not mean the end for the Keystone XL project. Republicans, who will control both chambers of the new Congress from January, has promised to re-examine the project and put it up for a vote once more.
Advocates of the pipeline claim that it will create growth and thousands of jobs while making US more energy independent, while the opposition, such as former NASA scientist James Hansen and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben claims it will be game over for the climate if the pipeline were to be built. Opponents also say that it actually won’t create a lot of jobs, only 35 permanent jobs and Americans would not benefit from it as the oil it is transporting will be shipped to China and other Asian markets from Texas refineries. Below video released by the Sierra Club explains why they insist the pipeline is such a bad idea.
The Senate vote will also show how much Democratic support Obama has for his environmental policies. The Democrats still control the Senate and will do so until January when it will be Republican controlled. If all Democrats vote against the bill, it will be defeated easily but it is expected to be a lot closer meaning some Democrats will support the bill. One such Democrat is Mary Landrieu, who as a Keystone XL supporter, is expected to vote for the bill. Landrieu is currently locked in an election battle as her Louisiana seat was too close to call at the midterms election and will face a runoff election against Republican Bill Cassidy on the 6th December who sponsored the pro Keystone XL bill.
On Monday protesters gathered outside Landrieu’s house in protest against her stance on the pipeline:
While Obama has said he would use his veto power should the Senate approve the bill, it is clearly a risk that environmentalists does not want to take. Furthermore it could showcase cracks in the Democratic party.
We will post the result of the Senate vote here when available.
“At this point, the scientists who run the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must feel like it’s time to trade their satellites, their carefully calibrated thermometers and spectrometers, their finely tuned computer models – all of them for a thesaurus. Surely, somewhere, there must be words that will prompt the world’s leaders to act.
This week, with the release of their new synthesis report, they are trying the words “severe, widespread, and irreversible” to describe the effects of climate change – which for scientists, conservative by nature, falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola. It’s hard to imagine how they will up the language in time for the next big global confab in Paris.”
McKibben warns (and rightfully so) that the IPCC documents “almost certainly underestimates the actual severity of” climate change and the situation we're in.
And this is important to know. The IPCC operates on consensus among the member nations of the United Nations, which means that the words chosen in documents and reports from the IPCC will undoubtedly reflect political compromises. Another problem is that the IPCC’s reports are based on science that is already several years old. David Spratt, an Australia-based climate blogger, pointed out just this for Al Jazeera. “The cutoff date is three to four years before it’s published, meaning this report is the extent of climate science in 2010 — and a number of things have happened since then,” Spratt said. McKibben writes that “it’s a particular problem with sea level rise, since the current IPCC document does not even include the finding in May that the great Antarctic ice sheets have begun to melt. (The studies were published after the IPCC’s cutoff date.)” As such, the IPCC reports should be viewed as conservative estimates and statements of climate change.
Despite this, McKibben says that we should continue to fight for climate action and that a lot of progress have been made – although we need to do much more.
“Breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry won’t be easy, especially since it has to happen fast. It has to happen, in fact, before the carbon we’ve unleashed into the atmosphere breaks the planet. I’m not certain we’ll win this fight – but, thanks to the IPCC, no one will ever be able to say they weren’t warned.”
The reason for this ominous failure, she shows, is that the present capitalist profit system itself is incompatible with climate and environmental stability. Our only hope is the rise of mass movements with the combined goals of saving the environment and achieving social justice.
This Changes Everything is a rich resource of fact and argument: it’s a book that every climate justice activist should read, use and share.
‘The Right is right’
Klein begins with a 2011 conference of prominent and well-financed U.S. climate deniers, whose main objection, she discovered, was not to the science of global warming but to the radical implications of actions to rein it in. Such measures require “heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives…. Everything, in short, that these think tanks … have been busily attacking for decades.” For many conservatives, she adds, quoting Australian scholar Robert Manne, climate science is “an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over nature.”
These hard-core rightist ideologues, Klein concludes, understand the significance of climate change better than most of those in the political center, “who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless.”
The free market trumps climate
Mainstream political leaders like Barack Obama and (grudgingly) Stephen Harper, acknowledge the climate crisis and tell us they are responding to it. For 35 years they have claimed to be working to reduce carbon emissions. Klein leads off her extended analysis of their record – and that of their allies among pro-establishment environmental NGOs – by describing the devastating impact of the trade treaties that now bind the governments of all major states.
“Green energy programs – the strong ones that are needed to lower global emissions fast – [are] increasingly being challenged under international trade agreements,” Klein says. Major powers are launching lawsuits against each other’s wind and solar energy programs citing the provisions in these plans encouraging local sourcing of green energy equipment.
The U.S. has launched such suits against India, challenging its ambitious solar energy program, and against China, over wind power. And yet, with brazen hypocrisy, Washington denounces China and India at the United Nations for not doing enough to cut emissions, claiming this as an excuse for U.S. inaction.
The people of Ontario fell victim to such an attack, Klein notes. The province’s climate action plan, the Green Energy Act, created 31,000 jobs in the local solar and wind power industry between 2009 and 2014, but when it was challenged by the European Union and Japan as a violation of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, “the province wasted little time in nixing the local content rules.”
The renewable energy programs in question represent the governments’ attempts, inadequate to be sure, to carry out promises made during world climate negotiations. Yet they are being snuffed out by these same governments on the basis of trade treaties.
“The trade and climate negotiations closely paralleled one another, each winning landmark agreements within a couple of years.” World Trade Organization negotiations concluded in 1994; the Kyoto protocol on reducing carbon emissions was adopted three years later. The treaties are two solitudes — each seemed to “actively pretend that the other did not exist.”
Yet it was clear from the start which treaty would prevail in case of conflict. The Kyoto protocol “effectively functioned on the honour system,” while the WTO agreement was “enforced by a dispute settlement system with real teeth,” often enforcing harsh penalties.
Thus asymmetry was built in from the start: trade deals were the foundation of the new “globalized” world order, while climate agreements have been little more than public relations exercises.
Globalization’s dirty underside
The trade system has other less obvious but more damaging climate impacts. Food production, for example, accounts for between 19% and 29% of world carbon emissions but the treaties have “helped to entrench and expand the energy-intensive, higher-emissions model of industrial agriculture around the world.”
Similarly, the massive shift of manufacturing to low-wage less-developed countries, with inefficient energy industries, has led to an increase in emissions. Swedish researcher Andreas Malm points to “a causal link between the quest for cheap and disciplined labor power and rising CO2 emissions.”
Significantly, climate agreements measure emissions in the country where products are manufactured, not where they are consumed. Thus about half of China’s carbon emissions are export-related. By outsourcing, rich countries have in effect exported their emissions.
Betrayed by Big Green
Unfortunately some major environmental groups supported the new trade deals. When the NAFTA treaty was debated in the early 1990s, a strong coalition of unions and environmental groups rallied to lead a massive opposition to the deal, and “for a time it even looked as if they would win.” At that point, proponents of the deal tacked on two “toothless” side agreements, one for labor and one for environmentalists.
“The labor movement knew better than to fall for this ploy,” Klein says, but leaders of many large environmental organizations capitulated. Some groups held firm, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, but U.S. President Bill Clinton was still able to claim that “groups representing 80% of national [environmental] group membership have endorsed NAFTA.”
Klein devotes many pages to a much-needed exposé of Big Green, the conservative environmental groups. Over time, she demonstrates, many NGOs and foundations fell under the domination of the extractive corporations whose power they were set up to contest, and now contribute to greenwashing oil-industry operations. The Nature Conservancy, for example, partners with BP and JP Morgan in fracking development, and has even drilled its own gas well in the middle of one of its Texas nature preserves.
Toward solidarity-based trade
“It is not too late for a new kind of climate movement to take up the fight against so-called free trade,” Klein says, calling for transfer of resources and green technology to developing countries and measures to support, not penalize renewable energy.
She could also have pointed to the success of mass hemisphere-wide opposition in quashing the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), one of the most dangerous of these schemes, a movement in which she played a prominent role. Although she doesn’t mention it, that campaign contributed to the formation of what might be called the anti-FTAA, a trade and cultural alliance based on solidarity – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Klein criticizes the dependence of majority-indigenous Bolivia on exports generated by extractive industries. However, as Klein herself says elsewhere of many indigenous peoples’ deals with extractive industries, they face “a paucity of good choices”; at present extraction may be essential to maintenance of sovereignty. Westerners who want poverty-stricken natives to swear off extraction for the world’s sake must ask, she says, “What are we going to do for them?”
Despite their poverty, some ALBA nations have registered significant climate achievements, such as Nicaragua’s program to produce 70% of its electricity by renewable energy. Indeed, ALBA’s very existence is step forward along the path Klein outlines.
The sense of unreality surrounding world climate negotiations is reinforced by Klein’s observations on oil and gas corporations’ balance sheets. To maintain stable share prices, Klein notes, these companies must demonstrate that they have sufficient untapped reserves to replace current wells when their production declines. “It is this structural imperative that is pushing the industry into the most extreme forms of dirty energy,” she says.
Currently, the total amount of carbon in oil, gas, and coal reserves is valued at about $27 trillion – more than half again as much as the annual GDP of the United States. How much of that can be burned without launching the world into uncontrollable global warming? The best available estimates cited by Klein indicate that 80% of fossil fuel reserves – worth roughly $20 trillion – must be left in the ground if the currently accepted goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius is to be achieved.
Alternative sources of energy are available – that’s not the problem. The “loss” of these fossil fuel resources will make life better, not worse – that’s not the problem either.
The problem, Klein says, is that “we need to keep large, extremely profitable pools of carbon in the ground – resources that the fossil fuel companies are fully intending to extract.” The $20 trillion in unusable fossil fuel reserves is written into corporate balance sheets as “assets” and sustains their share value. Oil company executives defend not the public but their shareholders’ wealth – which means defending their ‘right’ to extract without limit.
To this end, corporations mobilize their immense wealth and social influence to block any move to reduce the burning of their product – fossil fuels. Under their influence, when governments act at all, it is to encourage use of renewable energy rather than to restrain the rise of carbon emissions. The oil industry and its many corporate allies have maintained a blockade against measures to rein in rising emissions for 25 years and are in no mood to change course.
A troubling imperative
Averting climate disaster, Klein tells us, “will mean forcing some of the most profitable companies on the planet to forfeit trillions of dollars of future earnings by leaving the vast majority of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. It will also require coming up with trillions more to pay for zero-carbon, disaster-ready societal transformations.” And these radical measures must be taken “democratically and without a bloodbath.” This means we must oppose unfettered capitalism –the profit-based economic and social system that wages war on our climate.
This requirement poses a question that Klein finds troubling. When has there ever been a transformation that intruded on capitalist property to such an extent – moreover, a change “demanded from below, by regular people, when leaders have wholly abdicated their responsibilities”? In the West, she says, the transformative social movements have been for human rights – for blacks, women, gays, she says. “But the legal and cultural battles were always more successful than the economic ones.”
As a precedent, she points to the movement in the nineteenth century to abolish slavery, particularly as it developed in the United States. The weight of slave capital in the U.S. economy then was comparable to the weight of stranded fossil fuel investment today. For many decades the slave-owners maintained full control over the U.S. state. But ultimately a mass movement broke that control and abolished slave property forever. And this was done democratically, although only at the cost of a protracted civil war.
Klein’s analogy has merit. However, it is also worth considering the precedent of socialist revolutions, even if they did not occur “in the West.” One such revolution took place only 90 miles from the U.S., in Cuba. In the 1990s, Cuba carried out the world’s most successful reduction of fossil fuel dependency. Despite a damaging U.S. blockade, the Cuban revolution continues to display creative vigor, most recently in the country’s role as world leader in on-the-ground response to the Ebola virus epidemic.
The experience of twentieth century socialist revolutions, while troubled, is surely relevant to what we must now accomplish in the face of a systemic crisis of capitalism triggered by climate change. It is hard to see how the fossil fuel stranglehold can be broken without popular ownership and control over dominant industries. This case is made in three books on ecology and socialism that I’ve listed below.
Mass social movements
Klein’s book has a single overriding strength: a comprehensive analysis – much broader than can be indicated here – that demonstrates that a movement to overcome the climate challenge must confront the prevailing economic and political system, and for that it must be massive, broad, and militant. A substantial and inspiring part of her book is devoted to first-hand accounts of what she calls “Blockadia” – grassroots movements on every continent that are directly challenging the fossil fuel industry’s destructive projects.
A movement on the climate issue alone cannot win, she says. Climate activism must link up with “the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to Indigenous sovereignty.” “Climate change can be the force – the grand push – that will bring together all of these still living movements.”
Calls for such a fusion are increasingly frequent. The liberation movements Klein mentions – and labor, too – were in evidence at the great People’s Climate March of 400,000 in New York on September 21 and in the surrounding conferences, as well as in parallel actions in Canada and around the globe. Naomi Klein’s book is an inspiring contribution to this movement, which is increasingly becoming identified with the goals of climate justice and system change.
“Only mass social movements can save us now,” Klein concludes. “If that happens, well, it changes everything.”
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein (Alfred A Knopf, 2014), reviewed by John Riddell.
Greenpeace boats violently rammed by Spanish Navy during peaceful protest, one activist hospitalised
It was during one of these collisions that a 23 year old Italian activist was seriously injured when she was knocked overboard and had her leg broken. You can hear her scream in agony in the video. A diver from the Spanish Navy eventually jumps in and save her. The activist was then taken to a hospital in Las Palmas by a navy helicopter, and is reportedly in good condition. A fellow activist received minor injuries and was treated on board the Arctic Sunrise.
"We're thankful that no one else was seriously injured, and outraged at the unjustified use of force," Greenpeace writes in a comment to the incident. "It's another reminder of the lengths governments will go to protect the oil industry from peaceful protesters."
Greenpeace were protesting against controversial drilling plans just outside the waters of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, two of the Canary Islands. The environmental organisation has sided with locals who are worried that oil drilling could cripple the marine environment around the islands, and ultimately the tourism industry. The activist were heading towards a drilling vessel belonging to the oil company Repsol when they were violently stopped by the Spanish Navy.
A spokesman for Spain’s Ministry of Defence blamed the incident on Greenpeace. In a comment to The Spain Report, the spokesman said that Greenpeace "were committing a crime" when they came close to the Repsol ship. “There are government orders on protecting the prospecting ship and they will be followed.”
Juande Fernández, head of protest actions for Greenpeace Spain, said the incident was “an act of violence by the Spanish Navy”. Fernández also promised that, despite this incident, they would continue to protest against oil drilling in the Canary Islands.
In Madrid, the Socialist Party (PSOE) has called the incident "intolerable" and demanded that Defense Minister Pedro Moreno are to "urgently" explain the Spanish Navy's behaviour for the parliament.
This is the strongest and most unequivocal statement of scientific certainty we’ve seen from the IPCC since the first assessment report in 1990, but even so, bear in mind that the IPCC operates on consensus, and the actual wording undoubtedly reflects political compromises, so the report should be viewed as a conservative statement.
Also read: Near zero emissions needed by 2100 to avoid climate catastrophe
The Summary for Policy Makers identifies 18 key conclusions under four headings. The numbering below is by me, but the text is taken directly from the IPCC document.
Observed changes and their causes
- Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.
- Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.
- In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Impacts are due to observed climate change, irrespective of its cause, indicating the sensitivity of natural and human systems to changing climate.
- Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. Some of these changes have been linked to human influences, including a decrease in cold temperature extremes, an increase in warm temperature extremes, an increase in extreme high sea levels and an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events in a number of regions.
- Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.
- Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.
- Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.
- Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases.
- Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change. Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.
- Effective decision making to limit climate change and its effects can be informed by a wide range of analytical approaches for evaluating expected risks and benefits, recognizing the importance of governance, ethical dimensions, equity, value judgments, economic assessments and diverse perceptions and responses to risk and uncertainty.
- Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally. Mitigation involves some level of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side-effects, but these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation efforts.
- Adaptation can reduce the risks of climate change impacts, but there are limits to its effectiveness, especially with greater magnitudes and rates of climate change. Taking a longer-term perspective, in the context of sustainable development, increases the likelihood that more immediate adaptation actions will also enhance future options and preparedness.
- Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales, and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link adaptation and mitigation with other societal objectives.
- Adaptation and mitigation responses are underpinned by common enabling factors. These include effective institutions and governance, innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods, and behavioral and lifestyle choices.
- Adaptation options exist in all sectors, but their context for implementation and potential to reduce climate-related risks differs across sectors and regions. Some adaptation responses involve significant co-benefits, synergies and trade-offs. Increasing climate change will increase challenges for many adaptation options.
- Effective adaptation and mitigation responses will depend on policies and measures across multiple scales: international, regional, national and sub-national. Policies across all scales supporting technology development, diffusion and transfer, as well as finance for responses to climate change, can complement and enhance the effectiveness of policies that directly promote adaptation and mitigation.
- Climate change is a threat to sustainable development. Nonetheless, there are many opportunities to link mitigation, adaptation and the pursuit of other societal objectives through integrated responses. Successful implementation relies on relevant tools, suitable governance structures and enhanced capacity to respond.
In this assessment report, the IPCC warns that climate change will inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” for humans and the natural world unless rapid action is taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The report shows how human activities are unequivocally responsible for global warming and details the severe impacts of climate change across the globe. IPCC notes that climate change is already responsible for an increased risk of extreme weather and severe heatwaves around the world. The report, which is meant to influence politicians and policy makers into action, warns that climate change will result in more and powerful hurricanes, more frequent droughts and floods, rising sea levels, food shortages and violent conflicts across the globe.
It’s a grim picture the report paints. But we could avoid the worst effects of climate change if we act now. Thankfully, as IPCC notes, there are options available for us to both adapt to a changing climate and implement mitigation activities to curb the most severe impacts of global warming.
“We have the means to limit climate change,” said R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC. “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change.”
The goal is to stop the average global temperature to rise beyond 2C – but with the current trend we will badly exceed that target. To make sure we reach this goal the world needs to attain near zero emissions by 2100.
“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within 2C of warming closes,” Pachauri warned. “To keep a good chance of staying below 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100. We have that opportunity, and the choice is in our hands.”
Despite this, many countries remain hesitant to limit their greenhouse gas emissions claiming that climate action will damage their economies. IPCC refutes this and claims that ambitious mitigation programs and policies would only reduce economic growth by about 0.06 percent with the global economy still growing by 1.6 to 3 percent per year. But obviously, the costs will increase if we wait for too long.
“Compared to the imminent risk of irreversible climate change impacts, the risks of mitigation are manageable,” said Youba Sokona, who worked on the report. “The longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost to adapt and mitigate climate change.”
So what now? As we currently have no global framework on how to deal with the climate crisis such a treaty will need to be devised and agreed on. The first step towards such a global agreement will take place in Peru this December. A two-week long climate summit will be held in Lima where negotiators from around the world will try and find common ground on everything from emission targets, carbon credits and the North vs. South divide. Next up is to draft and sign a global agreement on how to tackle climate change. Hopefully this will happen in Paris in 2015. But if previous climate summits have shown one thing it’s that this process won’t be easy, and that it’ll most likely end in a failure or too weak targets.
Hopefully this assessment report will do its work and influence policy makers to realise the dangers of unchecked climate change and the benefits of taking climate action.
Also read: Eighteen key conclusions from the summary report issued this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Back in 2009, Suni was one of eight of its species at the Kenyan Ol Pejeta Conservancy as part of a last-resort effort to save its kind. To date, these rhinos have not fared well in captivity. But after all, experts point out, it's not as though they're exactly doing too well in the wild: according to some conservationists, a free-roaming rhino is killed for its horn every nine hours.
"It's a shame the [northern white rhino] subspecies got to that point," said Matthew Lewis, the World Wildlife Fund's senior program officer for African species conservation. Corralling surviving rhinos in that type of nature reserve represents "the worst-case scenario in trying to bring back a subspecies. Its story is a fantastic lesson on what not to do, and how we need to avoid getting to this point with other rhinos."
So what to do? The answer, most would say, is to continue to support efforts to stop poaching, which is the primary cause of the decline of rhinos, as well as elephants and other animals. "That we've lost the subspecies is a statement of just how bad off animals are across Africa," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at North Carolina's Duke University. "It's a measure of the fact that rhinos are being massively poached and in trouble wherever they are. It also means we're losing this distinctive, important animal within the savanna ecosystem. It's not just another charismatic animal; it's also a species that has a very clear ecological role, and we need to be very worried that we lost that."
Large demonstrations took place Oct. 4 in 136 different cities, with activists calling for an end to rhino and elephant poaching, and seeking to draw greater attention to the issue in the eyes of the public. "There's a lot of talk, but we need to see more action," said Simon Jones, founder of nonprofit group Helping Rhinos. "We need more rangers on the ground and we need more campaigns in countries where ivory and rhino horns are sold."
Among those actions was a march that took place that day in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the organizers, Dex Kotze, remarked, "We have to do this for future generations. The youth today are making a statement globally, in 136 cities, that it's their heritage that is being killed. South Africa, home to the world's largest rhino populations, has seen at least 700 killed so far this year. We are also here protesting against the political leaders of the world, who do not have the guts and political will to make appropriate changes in their laws."
Organizers there debuted a list of objectives, which included the demand for a global ban on the trade in ivory and rhino horns, stricter penalties for poachers who are caught, and better, more coordinated international cooperation in stopping what has arguably developed into a flourishing underground criminal industry.
The good news? The governor plans to sign it. "I probably will sign it, yes," said Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. "In fact, I'll tell you why I'm going to sign it; there are about 50 cities with their own plastic bag ban, and that's causing a lot of confusion," he remarked, referencing the similar plans in place in areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. "This is a compromise. I'm taking into account the needs of the environment, the needs of the economy, and the needs of the grocers."
In agreement was Senator Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles, who stated, "SB 270 is a win-win for the environment and for California workers. In crafting this compromise, it was imperative to me that we achieve the goals of doing away with single-use plastic bags, help change consumer behavior, and importantly, support and expand California jobs."
That last note clashes with the words of Republicans, who have opposed the ban, claiming it will cause job losses for bag manufacturers. But such an assertion suggests a misunderstanding of the legislation, which will not do away with non-plastic bags; compost bags and paper bags will continue to be available, albeit for a ten-cent fee per bag. There is a strategy to that, as well: The goal is to encourage the use of recyclable and biodegradable materials and to give California manufacturing a boost by encouraging the continuous production of such bags. Hardly a jobs killer.
Leslie Tamminen, director of Seventh Generation Advisors, a sustainability and clean energy advocacy group based on Native American philosophy, said, "Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans [in California] has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry's claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities. A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers huge amounts of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment."
It's worth noting that other nations have already moved forward on this issue, with the U.S. current lagging behind; Ireland, Taiwan, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Australia all have heavy taxation or outright bans of plastic bags, according to National Geographic. It is likely the countries have recognized the severe ecological threat presented by plastic bags, which non-profit environmental group Heal the Bay referred to as "urban tumbleweeds."
Charles Tyler, a professor at the University of Exeter School of Biosciences in the UK, added, "Scientists have shown that some of these chemical compounds from plastics," which affect human health, "are getting into the environment and are in some environments at concentrations where they can actually produce biological effects in a range of wildlife species."
David Barnes, a marine scientist with environmental research group the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, said scientists have linked the uptick in plastic bag consumption with a dramatic increase in the deaths of sea life over the years. He remarked, "One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics. Plastic bags have gone from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere."
Today, "even in [some of] the remotest of environments, there is plastic floating on the sea surface. ... And I bet [plastic bags] will be washing up in Antarctica within the decade."
Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said Aug. 5 that the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget for fighting wildfires is rapidly dwindling; in fact, it may run out by the end of the month. The fires, on the other hand, will keep burning. He suggested they were in the midst of a catch-22, as when the Forest Service's funding runs dry, it will need to dip into other projects designed to help prevent future wildfires, in order to put out the ones currently blazing. Specifically, about $400-500 million will be taken away from such projects, putting the future in jeopardy in terms of further disasters.
Vilsack, who is lobbying for an extra $615 million for the Forest Service to fight wildfires this year and next, remarked, "When we begin to run out of money, we have to dip into the very programs that will reduce the risk of these wildfires over [a longer period of] time." And those accounts aren't the only ones that suffer; in the past, they have also had to draw from other programs not related to wildfires. Such a transfer occurred in 2012, when the funding for road repairs in Arkansas' Ouachita National Forest was instead used to contend with fires throughout the U.S.
The fire in Idaho, called the Big Cougar Fire, is only 15 percent contained, and 200 more structures in its path risk becoming damaged or destroyed unless firefighters can contain it further. Resources are being used while there's still funding for them, and include four helicopters, four fire engines, and three dozers. Isolated thunderstorms are expected, but those are unpredictable; rain could help quell the flames, but lightning could spark an entirely new blaze.
One of the reasons the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture are so hot and bothered over the depletion of yearly wildfire money is due to the likelihood that there will be many more fires. In the past, a depletion of funding by the end of August might have been manageable, but global warming has changed that. Wildfires are now likely to occur much later in the year than August.
"The really amazing thing is that we don't just see an increase in one or two regions," said Philip Dennison, a geographer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "We're seeing it almost everywhere - in the mountain regions, in the Southwest... That tells us that something bigger is going on, and that thing appears to be climate change."
This increases the risk for firefighters as well - even more reason why sufficient funding is necessary. Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources with the Department of Agriculture, explained, "Fire behavior is more extreme now. We're seeing larger fires. We're seeing fires where we have more houses and people. That makes them more dangerous and more difficult to fight."
The money isn't there because the Republican controlled Congress isn't doing anything to put it there, according to a report by U.S. News. A bill to overhaul the way wildfire fighting is funded was introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho - and then promptly abandoned by him. Simpson gave no explanation why.
Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps families of firefighters killed in the line of duty, said, "Because of these fires, we lose our watersheds, we lose our hunting ranges, we lose our homes. These fire seasons are not going away, and for them to not fund wildfires... I'm just disgusted with them."
Though the current exacerbation of the issue is due to nitrogen and phosphorous pollution - the product of fertilizer runoff and wastewater discharges from treatment plants - the dead zone's creation is largely owed to the spill that poisoned the Gulf four years ago, flooding it with 170 million gallons of oil.
In particular, the Gulf's coral community is suffering, according to a new study by scientists at Penn State University in State College, Pa. Using 3D seismic data from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and identifying 488 habitats within a 25-mile radius of the original spill site, they found that coral life there shows extensive lingering damage from the spill, suggesting that the disaster's footprint is much more severe than initially thought.
"This study very clearly shows that multiple coral communities, up to 13.7 miles from the spill site and at depths over 5,905 feet, were impacted by the spill," said Charles Fisher, co-author of the study and professor of biology at Penn State. "One of the keys to coral's usefulness as an indicator species is that the coral skeleton retains evidence of damage long after the oil that originally caused the damage is gone."
Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist and director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, remarked, "The BP oil spill could have been much worse, but the caution is that we still don't fully know the true extent of the damage. But there were likely acute impacts before the oil disappeared, and in fact, some of the oil that did come ashore continues to be suspended in the environment."
Lead researcher of the Penn State study, Helen White, said most experts had previously linked coral damage to the oil spill, but added, "Now we can say it was definitely connected to the spill." The paper the scientists published elaborated, reading, "Coral colonies are vital oases for marine life in the chilly ocean depths. The injured and dying coral today has bare skeleton, loose tissue, and is covered in heavy mucus and brown fluffy material."
And experts have spotted yet another piece of the spill's aftermath, which is its effect on insects, many of which play a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem. Louisiana State University entomologist Linda Hooper-Bui said the real damage to bugs was likely done when Hurricane Isaac hit in 2012 and stirred up oil that had lain dormant on the ocean floor. This, said Hooper-Bui, affects the insects and spiders living in the marsh grasses nearby, some of which form the base of the area's food chain.
Michael Blum, director of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, said, "During the spill, we were asking how long it would take to recover, and the prevailing notion was that we were looking at relatively short recovery times when focusing on coastal marsh and coastal ecosystems." Essentially, that it would "rebound in one to three years and in five years there'd be no indications of the spill. But four years on, there's still a pretty distinct signature of a response to the oil."
Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia marine biologist, added that it could be a long time before scientists really have a handle on the ripple effect of the spill; the coral degradation, decline in insect population, and continuing growth of the dead zone are merely several aspects of the issue that have recently come to light. She said, "The long-term ecosystem impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are only beginning to be realized. Some areas have recovered well, but others remain significantly impacted. And the problem with this is that the [effects] are so heterogenerously distributed that long-term, system-scale monitoring is required to truly quantify the impacts."
In her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert clearly and passionately describes how human destruction of ecological systems is today causing the sixth great mass extinction of biological species, including possibly the human species itself. In the words of scientist Paul Ehrlich, "In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches."
Over its 4.5 billion years of existence, the Earth has evolved through many geologic periods. We are now in a new one - what is called the Anthropocene, or human caused, era. Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who helped discover ozone depleting compounds, developed the term.
Crutzen observed human activity has so altered Earth that it constitutes a new geologic age. Humans have transformed land surfaces, soil, rivers, oceans, and most importantly, have altered the atmosphere through a combination of greenhouse gas emission and deforestation.
"Because of these (human caused) emissions," Crutzen said, global climate is likely to "depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come."
In popular language, Kolbert recounts how scientists came to understand extinction and discovered five previous mass extinction events. These include the end-Ordovician extinction caused by an ice age; the end-Permian extinction or Great Dying, which emptied the Earth of 96 percent of species; and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction about 65 million years ago that did in the dinosaurs.
A sixth extinction is occurring before our eyes. Species are dying at a rate 1,000 times faster than pre-human habitation. "It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion," writes Kolbert.
Kolbert documents pioneering scientific research of the current disappearance of species. She trudges through jungles in Panama with scientists studying the mass disappearance of amphibians, in particular the Panamanian golden frog. What's crashing frog populations is fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which spread worldwide. Scientists speculate the fungus migrated through international shipping.
Kolbert accompanies scientists to caves in upstate New York and Vermont in search of what are killing millions of bats. Up to 90 percent of brown bats have succumbed to a cold loving fungus accidentally imported from Europe. The fungus is spreading and causing mass die offs of other varieties of bats.
The author then introduces us to scientists researching the effect of climate change on flora and how slight changes in global temperature can make life inhospitable to plant species.
To illustrate global warming's "equally evil twin," or ocean acidification, we visit Castello Aragonese, a tiny island the product of volcanic activity in the Tyrrhenian Sea near Naples. Underwater vents around the island emit 100 percent carbon dioxide gas, which dissolves in the water.
Scientists clearly see the effects of C02. Approaching the vents, life disappears. This mimics macro changes in the world's oceans. Atmospheric greenhouse gases exchange with ocean water that cover 70 percent of the Earth's surface. Historically, about one third of all greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, have been dissolved into the vast oceans raising the acidification level.
Atmospheric C02 concentration levels are higher than at anytime in the last 800,000 years. By the end of the century the oceans are projected to be 150 percent more acidic than at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Acidification levels are reaching a "tipping point" where conditions will become inhospitable to most forms of life. Already coral reefs are disappearing.
Kolbert discusses what's called the "New Pangaea." Pangaea is the original global land expanse, when all the present day continents were connected and a single fauna and flora evolved. Plate tectonics caused the landmasses to separate into the present day continents. Fauna and flora evolved separately into unique species.
"Invasive species" are nothing new. Beginning with modern human migration out of Africa, the continents have been exchanging fauna and flora. Many scientists speculate modern humans drove to extinction other archaic human species that existed simultaneously including the Neanderthals, which apparently we Homo sapiens also mated with. With modern trade and transport, species are being exchanged worldwide at an accelerating rate leading to the "New Pangaea."
Kolbert helps us understand that unless we act now, the human species can also be a victim of the sixth extinction. At the very least humanity will deal with the effects of climate change far into the future and many biological species will disappear. Large parts of the human family, mainly the poorest and those living in the most ecologically fragile and vulnerable regions are facing an existential threat by drought and rising sea levels.
Reading the book, one is struck by the ability of humans to grasp their situation and act to change it. Climate awareness is growing and with it action to halt the discharge of greenhouse gas emissions. Also growing is awareness that the capitalist exploitative system and its drive for profits is incompatible with sustainability.
Humanity faces its biggest collective challenge - its very existence. We must not only deal with the impact of the climate crisis on nature and society today, we must be about winning a sustainable society for the future. We must face it with the "fierce urgency of tomorrow."
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Company, 2014, 336 pp (hardcover).