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Coping With Climate Change: Which Societies Will Do Best?

Gaia Vince, yale environment 360
Following the disastrous tsunami of December 2004, the government of Bangladesh embraced upgraded storm-alert systems that warn communities in a coordinated way and improved social support networks, resulting in a drastic reduction in typhoon deaths. In neighboring Myanmar, by contrast, deaths from natural disasters have risen in recent years. Indeed, the deaths that occurred there last year in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis cannot be separated from the fact that Myanmar has an authoritarian regime that prevents international assistance from reaching those in need, rendering its citizens unable to cope with extreme weather disasters – events that are expected to become more frequent with climate change.

The stark contrast between Bangladesh and Myanmar, both likely facing serious threats from rising sea levels and more intense typhoons as the world warms, is a striking example of a key measure of how different parts of the world are going to cope with climate change in the coming century: whether societies are “climate-fit” or “climate-weak.” In fact, how different societies fare as temperatures rise will have as much to do with political, social, technological, and economic factors as with a changing climate.

That global warming will exact a human toll is undisputed, but the extent of its predicted impacts is uncertain. So how can we best identify those most at risk? Applying Darwinian principles, climate change, like any other assault on our species, is about survival of the fittest. We need to recognize what makes a community “climate-fit,” and how to improve fitness in “climate-weak” populations.

Geography is important, of course — climate-fit people live in areas less vulnerable to sea level rise, for example. But it is only one factor, and theIf people feel they have control over their situation, they begin to work out solutions.” strength of a society – its resilience, ingenuity, and flexibility, as well as its governance — will have a great deal to do with how it fares in the face of climate change. People who live in countries that are well-governed, and who belong to communities that are more self-reliant and exist within the sustainable limits of the available resources, are plainly going to be better able to weather the impacts of climate change…
(2 Nov 2009)

GM’s Money Trees

Mark Schapiro, Mother Jones
I am standing in the shadow of General Motors’ $1 tree. It’s a native guaricica, with pale white bark and a spreading crown that looms about 40 feet above my head. Hanging from its trunk is a small plaque that identifies it as tree No. 129. I’ve come here, to the verdant chaos of Brazil’s Atlantic forest, to understand the far-reaching and politically explosive controversies taking shape in diplomatic corridors thousands of miles away over the fate of trees like this one.

No. 129 stands in the heart of the Cachoeira reserve in the state of Paraná—one of the last slivers of a forest that once blanketed much of the country’s southeastern coast. Just 7 percent of the Atlantic forest remains, but it is still one of the Earth’s richest centers of biodiversity, home to a wealth of plants and creatures comparable to the Amazon’s. On the way here, our group—led by Ricardo Miranda de Britez and his team of forestry experts from the Brazilian conservation group Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education (SPVS)—walked past clusters of yellow-and-white orchids, stepped over the footprints of an ocelot, kept an eye out for the endangered golden lion tamarin, and were bitten by, it seems, every one of the thousands of species of insects native to the area.

But our journey is not focused on the rare creatures in the forest. It’s about the forest itself—the trees that are our partners in respiration, inhaling carbon dioxide, exhaling oxygen, and storing the carbon in their trunks and leaves. That simple process makes them one of Earth’s most potent bulwarks against climate change (a.k.a. a “carbon sink”); but when they are cut and burned, all that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Already, some 32 million acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed each year, an amount of land equivalent to the state of Mississippi’s; deforestation, according to the United Nations, is responsible for roughly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

What will it cost to keep those trees standing? And who’s going to pay for it? The challenge of assigning precise values to an increasingly rare commodity—wild trees—and indeed the question of whether they are a commodity at all, is one of the most hotly contested in the climate world…
(X Sept 2009)

The Carnivore’s Dilemma

Nicolette Hahn Niman, The New York Times
IS eating a hamburger the global warming equivalent of driving a Hummer? This week an article in The Times of London carried a headline that blared: “Give Up Meat to Save the Planet.” Former Vice President Al Gore, who has made climate change his signature issue, has even been assailed for omnivorous eating by animal rights activists.

It’s true that food production is an important contributor to climate change. And the claim that meat (especially beef) is closely linked to global warming has received some credible backing, including by the United Nations and University of Chicago. Both institutions have issued reports that have been widely summarized as condemning meat-eating.

But that’s an overly simplistic conclusion to draw from the research. To a rancher like me, who raises cattle, goats and turkeys the traditional way (on grass), the studies show only that the prevailing methods of producing meat — that is, crowding animals together in factory farms, storing their waste in giant lagoons and cutting down forests to grow crops to feed them — cause substantial greenhouse gases. It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.

So what is the real story of meat’s connection to global warming? Answering the question requires examining the individual greenhouse gases involved: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides…
(30 Oct 2009)

USDA Research: Does No-Till Really Capture More Carbon?

Don Carr, ewg
The Agriculture Research Service (ARS) of the US Department of Agriculture released a surprising bit of climate change-related research on Tuesday, work that suggests that getting big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from simple changes in common farming practices may not be as easy as many hope.

The study was done by scientist Jane Johnson at the ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris, Minn. She’s working on a five-year USDA project called GRACEnet (for Greenhouse Gas Reduction through Agricultural Carbon Enhancement Network) in which researchers at more than 32 sites are looking for ways to shrink agriculture’s climate change footprint. This is what USDA’s press release said about her findings:

In a comprehensive study, she raised corn, soybean, wheat and alfalfa in rotation so that each crop grew in the same year, on plots treated with and without fertilizer. She also used a less-aggressive tillage system known as strip tillage, in which only narrow bands of soil are tilled instead of an entire field. For comparison, she replicated the cropping system adopted by many Minnesota farmers — raising corn and soybeans in a two-year cycle on fertilized plots tilled with a chisel or moldboard plow.

She used a hydraulic soil probe to measure the organic carbon sequestered in the soil and closed-vented chambers to measure emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. She found that when measured over the course of a year, greenhouse gas releases were largely the same under two-year and four-year rotation systems, and that applying nitrogen fertilizer had less overall impact than anticipated on nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide emissions peaked during spring thaws when the sun warmed the soil, regardless of which tillage or rotation system was used.

Chisel and moldboard plowing increased carbon dioxide emissions for a short time. But measured over the course of a year, carbon dioxide emissions were no different from plots with intensive tillage than plots without it (EWG emphasis). She also found no consistent patterns to methane releases.

EWG Midwest vice-president Craig Cox had this reaction after reading the report of Johnson’s initial findings:

This study underscores the need for independent scientific oversight of any agricultural offset program that is part of a cap-and trade-system to slow climate change. Independent scientists need to have the final say about what farming practices should qualify for generating carbon credits.
(5 Nov 2009)

Why growing virgin vegetable oil to burn is crazy

George Monbiot, The Guardian
What makes more sense, burning virgin vegetable oil in car engines, or burning it in power stations? The answer is neither. In both cases you are snatching food from people’s mouths.

But Andrew Mercer, chief executive of Blue-NG, the company which owns the UK’s first power station running on vegetable oil, appears to believe that he is doing the world a favour.

In arguing the case for his grotesque trade, Mercer begins by maligning the Green party. He contends that “The Green party toured the country this summer during the European elections campaign in a bus fuelled by UK-sourced rapeseed biodiesel”. Because this is a less efficient use of virgin rapeseed oil than burning it in power stations, he is greener than the Greens (or so he says). That someone else has allegedly done something even more damaging is hardly a persuasive justification. But is it true?

I spoke to the Green party this morning, and discovered that Mercer had left out a crucial piece of information. The biodiesel used in its bus was made from waste cooking oil, not virgin oil. As I’ve been arguing since I first started attacking the practice of feeding cars rather than people, used cooking oil is currently the only sustainable feedstock for biofuel: once it is unfit for human consumption it can only be dumped or burned. It makes sense to burn it in place of fossil fuels. The Green party has now published a response in the comment thread and is requesting a correction.

Burning virgin vegetable oil is an entirely different matter. In doing so, you are directly commissioning farmers to do one of two things: divert cropland which would otherwise have been used to grow food, or break land which would otherwise have been left fallow. In either case you are harming people or the environment…
(29 Oct 2009)

Pachauri Still Sees a Chance for Success in Copenhagen Talks
Rajendra Pachauri, yale environment 360
Few people have as much stake in the outcome of the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen as Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yet despite growing pessimism that a substantive treaty can be forged in Copenhagen, Pachauri believes a flurry of eleventh-hour negotiations may lead to an agreement, although the United States may not initially be a part of it.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Pachauri expressed disappointment that the U.S. has not yet committed itself to firm greenhouse gas reduction targets, saying “one expected a lot more to have happened in the U.S. by now.” During the eight years of the Bush administration there was a “complete absence of responsibility” in tackling global warming, Pachauri said, and while the Obama administration is moving swiftly to make up lost ground, climate legislation remains bogged down in Congress.

Rajendra Pachauri As a result, Pachauri explained, the world community may move ahead with a treaty without the U.S., creating a “small window of opportunity for the U.S. to take a little more time and come back and make its own commitments.” One reason the U.S. Congress may feel compelled to act, Pachauri suggested, is that American business — particularly in the renewable energy sector — may suffer if the U.S. is left out of a global climate treaty.

Speaking with Roger Cohn, editor of Yale Environment 360, Pachauri – who is director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute and the Tata Energy Research Institute in India – laid out the three requirements for success in Copenhagen, and said the world community would be making a “grave mistake” if it fails to act in Copenhagen. Said Pachauri, “I don’t think the world can afford the luxury of not arriving at an agreement.”
(4 Nov 2009)
sent in by EB contributor billhook, who says:
Pachauri’s reference to the IPCC report that some African nations will likely lose 50% of their farm output by 2020 perhaps needs putting in context :
– the great famines in medaeval Europe arose from a mere 10% to 15% cut in yields.

Thus the urgency of founding a treaty at Copenhagen can perhaps best be expressed by two further questions :

— while some African nations are liable to lose 50% of their farm yields by 2020, how many other nations around the world are liable to lose that critical 10% to 15% ?

And where are they by 2030?

The Inferno

Christine Kenneally, The New Yorker
[Note: The full article is behind a paywall.]
ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about the deadliest wildfires in Australian history. Earlier this year, on the day known as Black Saturday, when the deadliest wildfires in modern Australian history incinerated more than a million acres of the state of Victoria and killed a hundred and seventy-three people, Bruce Ackerman left his house in Marysville to meet up with his regular Saturday lunch group. Marysville, a small town northeast of Melbourne, is situated in a valley of the Great Dividing Range. Ackerman, aged fifty, is a plumber and a fourth-generation inhabitant of the town. After lunch, Ackerman rushed back to Marysville to discover a colossal firewall coming from the southwest. Fire plans are a distinctive feature of Australian life. Australians are instructed to pick one of two options: leave early or stay and fight the fire. Though risky, the choice to stay is a popular one. But in the months since Black Saturday almost every aspect of Australian competence at fighting fire has come under question. During an ongoing royal commission, experts have pondered how wildfires should be handled, and also the extent to which the deaths of Black Saturday were the result not just of the Australian landscape but of an Australian mentality. Australia’s worst fires have all occurred in its southeastern states, with Victoria often hit the hardest. In the past ten years, the risk of catastrophic fire has increased, because of a pervasive drought, which is widely thought to be a result of global warming. This year, Victoria experienced the most severe heat wave in its history. Mentions Claire Yeo. The fire hit Marysville so fast that no one had good information about what was happening. Between phone calls to friends and neighbors, Ackerman frantically prepared his home. At around half past six, the fire front hit Ackerman’s house. The front passed in minutes, but to Ackerman it seemed like days. Six days after Black Saturday, the writer met with Geoff McClure, of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, in Alexandria. Hundreds of firefighters were being deployed. The goal, McClure explained, was to stop the fire from coming out of the forest. The energy of all the fires that day, ecologist Kevin Tollhurst told the royal commission, was the equivalent of fifteen hundred Hiroshimas. The town of Marysville had been annihilated in an afternoon. Nine days after Black Saturday, Victoria set up a commission, to investigate the cause of the fires and “all aspects of the government’s bushfire strategy.” The public hearings, streamed live over the Internet, have been avidly followed. Throughout the commission’s hearings, one issue has dominated: the “stay or go” policy. Culturally, this is a sensitive and difficult issue; protecting a home against fire has been an aspect of Australian life in the bush for a hundred and fifty years. But over weeks of testimony it became apparent that many residents treat “stay or go” more like “wait and see.” Leaving at the last minute is the worst possible strategy. With the advance of global warming, many experts predict that fires on the scale of Black Saturday’s will become more and more common. It may be that models for understanding a fire as large as the one that destroyed Marysville don’t yet exist.
(26 Oct 2009)

sent in by EB reader Christine Robins, who says:
…It’s a terrifying look at catastrophic effects of climate change NOW.

On Feb. 7, 2009, Australia suffered the worst wildfire in its hisory. Climate change has created a super-drought there, with temperatures up to 120 degrees. Quote: “The energy of all the fires on Black Saturday was the equivalent of 1500 Hiroshimas.”