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Making the Case for Climate as a Migration Driver

Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times
A new report on human migration and climate change, released as delegates from 182 countries gathered in Bonn over the past two weeks to continue hammering out some preliminary language for a new global climate treaty, made its case plainly:

“The impacts of climate change are already causing migration and displacement,” the document began, adding that by midcentury, “the prospects for the scope and scale could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before.”

The study, titled “In Search of Shelter” and written by a large cast from several nongovernmental organizations, including the United Nations, CARE International and Columbia University, combined climatological and demographic data with field interviews of migrants already on the move.

… Large populations in Asia, for example, rely on shrinking Himalayan glaciers — “the Water Tower of Asia” — to feed rivers and provide water. Should the shrinking continue, millions of downriver residents might be forced to move.

Drought and natural disasters, too, could put populations on the move in Mexico and Central America, the report suggested.
(14 June 2009)

Climate change’s challenge to India

Mira Kamder, openDemocracy
… As every major report on climate change has alarmingly pointed out, the impact of global warming will be most felt by developing countries. In a final injustice of geography and imperial history, the world’s developing countries are by and large also the world’s warmest and most densely populated. Of all the emerging economies whose fortunes are rising, India is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

A weapon of mass destruction

India has one of the world’s longest coastlines. Rising sea levels are already swallowing up the Sunderbans at the mouth of West Bengal’s mighty Hooghly River. Next door in Bangladesh, 15 percent of whose land mass will be under water if sea levels rise as predicted, things are even worse. Little wonder India is building a fence along its border with Bangladesh in anticipation of a wave of climate-change refugees. At 4,000 kilometers in length, the Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier will rival the Great Wall of China. One can only imagine what rising sea levels will do to the millions crammed onto reclaimed land in Mumbai or in India’s new auto manufacturing hub of Chennai, around which one trusts the government of India has no plans to build fences.

Climate change is also already causing the glaciers of the Himalayas to melt at an alarming rate, the rivers they feed are receding. Some scientists are predicting that the sacred Ganga, whose waters have nourished the great grain-producing Gangetic plains as well as the souls of untold millions of Hindu faithful through millennia, is in danger of simply drying up. Three billion people – half the world’s current population – depend on the Himalayas for water. The impact of that water dwindling away is terrifying.

If temperatures rise in India by even a couple of degrees Celsius, which they are already well on track to do, the very viability of food plants will be threatened. Yields will plummet in plants simply not evolved to thrive in higher temperatures. More immediately, climate change causes predictable weather patterns to become unpredictable. This is not good news for a country where the vast majority of agricultural production depends on the regular arrival, duration, and bounty of the monsoon rains. No wonder William Cline, in his meticulously researched book Global Warming and Agriculture: Impact Estimates by Country (Center for Global Development 2007) projects that agricultural production in India will decline by as much as 38 percent over current levels by 2080 as a direct result of climate change alone. By that year, India will have added 450 million more people to its population.

Shifting priorities

Climate change is a weapon of mass destruction. Mitigating global warming by whatever means necessary should be the new Indian government’s priority number one.

The government should make a major push to develop low-cost alternative energy technologies that don’t require finite, toxic fuel sources (which means both fossil and fissile energy sources).

It should help India’s small-scale farmers return to the cultivation of traditional hardy (and higher in protein) food plants such as millet and buckwheat, and install low-cost, highly effective micro-irrigation systems to get the biggest plant-growing benefit for every drop of precious water.
(12 June 2009)

Big Ag Goes Green

Tom Laskawy, Civil Eats
Sadly, the green I’m referring to is the color of money. As Tom Philpott reports, Big Ag is trying to get an agricultural technique known as “chemical no-till” established as a legitimate carbon offset in the Waxman/Markey legislation. There’s only one problem, all the research out there says that chemical no-till doesn’t actually sequester carbon:

In no-till systems, farmers plant directly into fields without plowing. One of the main reasons farmers plow is to control weeds. In a practice that has become known among critics as “chemical no-till,” farmers idle the the plow and rely on chemical herbicides for weed control.

…As a source of carbon sequestration, chemical no-till is a highly questionable practice. In a 2006 peer-reviewed paper [PDF] called “Tillage and soil carbon sequestration” what do we really know?,” a group of soil scientists led by John M. Baker of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service took a hard look at conventional no-till. They report: “Long-term, continuous gas exchange measurements have also been unable to detect C gain due to reduced tillage.” Translation: No-till doesn’t seem to sequester carbon. Their conclusion: “Though there are other good reasons to use conservation tillage, evidence that it promotes C sequestration is not compelling.” The report compelled climate expert and frequent Grist contributor Joe Romm to declare that no-till farming “does not save carbon and is not a carbon offset.”

So the USDA itself thinks the practice’s emissions impact is bogus. In fact, there’s even evidence that chemical no-till leads to increased carbon emissions through nitrous oxide outgassing from the synthetically fertilized fields. And who’s taking the lead in all this?
(11 June 2009)
Also at Common Dreams.

The Story of the Trillion Tons of Carbon

Howard Silverman, People and Place

Here is an axiom that bears repeating: Measure what matters. The classic case of faulty measurement remains Gross Domestic Product, whose counterproductive calculations were pilloried in a 1968 speech by Robert Kennedy and detailed in a 1996 essay, “If GDP is up, why is America down?

Yet even solid measures may offer narrow views. And so, a corollary: What matters may have multiple measures. Take the example of the three targets for action on human-induced climate change. Two may be familiar: 2ºC and 350 (or 450) parts per million. An additional figure, a trillion tons (metric tons), appeared only this spring. Each is distinct, and each has a story to tell.

Three Measures, Three Stories

Most intuitive and visceral among the measures is temperature change. We know what a 2ºC difference feels like. At lease we think we do. In reality, projected and potential effects of a 2ºC warming on precipitation patterns, crop viability and human health are often greater than one might imagine. Seeking to keep these impacts to a minimum, many scientists have urged efforts to restrict temperatures rises to within 2ºC of pre-industrial levels, and the European Union has taken 2ºC as its warming target.

Human-caused temperature changes are the result of rising concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is often said that limiting temperature increases to 2ºC requires stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm), but some studies suggest a lower figure. Climate scientist James Hansen and others have recommended 350 as the best target for minimizing planetary feedback like ocean acidification and ice sheet melting. Atmospheric targets can inform the design of emission caps in any cap-and-trade system, as Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column.

A fresh perspective is offered by the measure of total carbon emissions, tallied from the beginning of the industrial era and into the future. The authors of a recent paper published in Nature find that roughly a trillion tonnes (i.e. metric tons, each roughly equivalent to 1.1 tons) represents the total human carbon emissions budget, the amount that can be released with a fair probability of holding to the 2ºC margin of relative climate stability. And they find that we are about halfway there. A little more than half a trillion tons have been released since the beginning of the industrial era. (More on the Nature paper here.)

Progress by the Ton

Let’s continue the budget metaphor. Say that all of humanity – past, present and foreseeable future – has a dollar to spend on carbon-fueled economic growth. Those of us that have reaped the industrial world’s benefits doled out two bits or so from 1750 to 2008, and some of those investments paid off handsomely. Standards of health, education and material living rose. And the global digital network emerged.
(11 June 2009)

Reindeer & Caribou Populations Plunge

Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience
Reindeer and caribou numbers worldwide have plunged nearly 60 percent in the last three decades due to climate change and habitat disturbance caused by humans, a new study finds.

Global warming and industrial development are driving the dramatic decline, said Liv Vors, a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta who did the study with university biologist Mark Boyce.

“Their future is dubious if climate change and habitat disturbance continue at their current pace,” Vors told LiveScience. “We do not know how quickly they can adapt to this changing world.”
(11 June 2009)