Will global warming create any winners?

Kurt Cobb, Resource Insights
A thoughtful reader of my previous post, Lobster Boil: The Curious Response to Global Warming’s Arrival, emailed a minor objection that some places such as Minnesota (which I mentioned in the piece) are likely to benefit from global warming. He claimed the state will have milder weather and by extension a longer, warmer growing season. Farmers might have to plant different crops, but maybe not.

For Minnesota, alas, not all modellers predict this benign outcome. One model suggests that Minnesota and indeed most of the continental United States will experience increasingly frequent and prolonged droughts. The modelling was the work of David Rind of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Rind concluded that climate change models underestimate the intensification of drought because they do not have detailed enough models of land surfaces. His rather troubling conclusions were discussed recently in The New Yorker magazine’s “Climate of Man” series.

While global warming is now an accepted fact and human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, are almost certainly the most prominent driver, the future course of that warming remains highly uncertain. Global warming models are exquisitely sensitive to assumptions about future emissions of greenhouse gasses which are, in turn, linked to population growth, economic activity, the use of renewable energy sources, and advances in technology that might mitigate such emissions.
(12 February 2006)

Grist series on poverty and the environment

Grist Magazine
Introducing a seven-week series on the intersection of economic and ecological survival
Consider this central paradox of U.S. environmentalism: In much of popular and political culture, the movement is dismissed as the pet cause of white, well-off Americans — people who can afford to buy organic arugula, vacation in Lake Tahoe, and worry about the fate of the Pacific pocket mouse. And yet, the population most affected by environmental problems is the poor.

This is a reality most of us recognize in the developing world, and it’s true that the confluence of economic and environmental injustice can be particularly extensive and devastating in poor nations. But it is also true — and far less remarked-upon — that poverty and environmental degradation go hand and hand in the United States as well. The lower your income in this country, the higher the likelihood that you will be exposed to toxics at home and on the job. The greater the risk that you will suffer from diseases — ranging from asthma to cancer — caused or exacerbated by environmental factors. The harder it will be for you to find and afford healthy food to put on your table. The less likely you are to live in a community that provides safe outdoor spaces for you and your family to enjoy. And, as recent history tragically exposed, the more vulnerable you are to environmental catastrophes, whether they are natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or human-made tragedies like the Exxon Valdez.

In short, the worst consequences of environmental degradation are visited on the homes, workplaces, families, and bodies of the poor.
(13 February 2006)
What a great idea for a series. And why isn’t the mainstream media covering this? The articles are also accessible from the Grist main page -BA

The Greenhouse Mafia

Four Corners, ABC (Australia)
JANINE COHEN: The latest extreme climate change forecasts for Australia are alarming – more droughts, more bushfires, more cyclones, more heatwaves, more disease.

DR BARRIE PITTOCK, CLIMATE CHANGE EXPERT: I think the government just hasn’t yet understood that it’s urgent and that there are uncertainties which might be at the high end and which might be disastrous.

JANINE COHEN: But has the Federal Government misunderstood, or is there something else driving the agenda? This man thinks so. A Liberal Party insider, he claims a powerful group of industry lobbyists have hijacked greenhouse policy. Their influence, he says, leads all the way into Cabinet.

DR GUY PEARSE, SPEECHWRITER, ENVIRONMENT MINISTER, 1997-2000: Having found out what I’ve now found out, I find it impossible to continue with a clear conscience without speaking out.

JANINE COHEN: And speaking out on what needs to be done to combat climate change isn’t always a good career move. Eminent scientists claim they’ve been gagged from the public debate when it reflects badly on government policy.
(13 Feb 2006)
Some excellent investigative journalism into ties between the self-described coal industry ‘mafia’ and goverment policy in Australia -AF

Climate ‘makes oil profit vanish’

Richard Black, BBC
The huge profits reported by oil and gas companies would turn into losses if the social costs of their greenhouse gas emissions were taken into account. — That is the conclusion of research by the New Economics Foundation (Nef).

Nef found that the £10bn-plus profits just reported by Shell and BP are dwarfed by costs of emissions associated with their products.

Nef also suggests UK Treasury revenues from oil and gas may be a disincentive to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The comments come in an article for The Green Room, the BBC News website’s weekly series of opinion pieces on environmental issues.

Reporting previously undisclosed figures, Nef’s policy director Andrew Simms writes: “Our new calculations from research in progress with WWF, based on Treasury statistics, show that UK government income from the fossil fuel sector – conservatively estimated at £34.9bn ($61bn) – is greater than revenue from council tax, stamp duty, capital gains and inheritance tax combined.

“Policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions could therefore have a major impact on the government coffers; a serious disincentive to action.”

Profits into loss

But, Nef concludes using more government figures, this revenue does not reflect costs associated with climate change resulting from burning oil and gas.

A report prepared for Defra and the Treasury estimates that each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted costs about £20 ($35) in environmental damage.

“Combining the emissions that stem from BP’s direct activities and the sale of its products leads to 1,458m tonnes of CO2-equivalent entering the atmosphere, with a damage bill of £29bn ($51bn),” writes Andrew Simms.

“Subtracting that from the £11bn ($19bn) annual profit it has just reported puts it £18bn ($31bn) in the red; effectively bankrupt.

“The same calculation puts Shell £4.5bn ($8bn) in the red, even as it reports an annual profit of £13bn ($23bn).”
(9 Feb 2006)
Well there we go. The potentially catastrophic destabilisation of the global climate system can be reduced down to some numbers which don’t add up favourably even in the short term. Here’s hoping this might have some impact on those more literate in such numbers than in concepts of survival. -AF

Capturing Pig Power

Marla Dickerson, LA Times
VILLAGRAN, Mexico – Georgina Cano had long resigned herself to the stench from the hog farm just up the road from her rural home.

Stagnant lagoons of waste from thousands of squealing pigs fouled the air for miles in this flat stretch of central Mexico…. Last year, the smell diminished even as the hog production continued. … Cano’s family and neighbors can credit a little known Irish company for helping them to breathe easier these days.

Thanks to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty on climate change, efforts by industrialized countries to fight global warming are popping up in far-flung places like Villagran, a hamlet about 40 miles southwest of the city of Queretero. … Haskell said about 7% of the world’s production of greenhouse gases could be attributed to large animal feeding operations, which produce several harmful byproducts, including methane.

AgCert replaces open waste lagoons with pits that are lined and covered with a plastic that traps gases emitted by decomposing waste. The gases are piped out of the pit and burned off in a combustion unit that looks like a giant torch. The gases also can be used to fuel generators to provide electricity for the farm, similar to the manure-powered city of Bartertown in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” the 1985 film starring Mel Gibson.
(12 Feb 2006)
Given the massive energy inputs to high intensity factory pig farming, it’s likely that this process makes the system (including growing and processing food for pigs) slightly less of an energy sink, rather than an actual energy source. Small scale on-site methane digesters however can be valuable parts of sustainable agricultural systems, for instance see Mae Wan Ho and George Chan’s Dream Farm [PDF] concept. -AF

Eau, no: Clean, healthy and pure? Hardly.
Bottled water is killing the planet

Jon Neale and Jonathan Thompson, Independent (UK)
Bottled water, the designer-look drink that has become a near-universal ac-cessory of modern life, may be refreshing but it certainly isn’t clean. A major new study has concluded that its production is seriously damaging the environment.

It costs 10,000 times more to create the bottled version than it does to produce tap water, say scientists. Huge resources are needed to draw it from the ground, add largely irrelevant minerals, and package and distribute it – sometimes half-way around the world.

The plastic bottles it comes in take 1,000 years to biodegrade, and in industrialised countries, bottled water is no more pure and healthy than what comes out of the tap.
(12 February 2006)