Greenland: The wealth that lies beneath
6 February 2013
De Standaard Brussels
For a long time, prawns were all that Greenland was famous for. However, the melting ice caps mean that natural resources are there for the taking. This development is both a curse and a blessing and one that puts the Danes in a difficult situation.
Annelien De Greef
The latest joke among Greenland's inhabitants is that the name of their capital, Nuuk, sounds extremely similar to the English word "nuke", meaning nuclear warhead. After all it would appear that Greenland, and therefore Denmark as well, will soon become one of the most important players in the world of uranium.
This is an idea that is giving a lot of people in the north the creeps. People have known for years that Greenland has rich uranium deposits. Not only did it seem almost impossible to access them, they were also regarded as the forbidden fruit.
Denmark has pursued a zero tolerance nuclear policy for a quarter of a century. Now Copenhagen is making a political U-turn. The Danish head of Greenpeace, Flarup Christensen, referred to the development as "the ultimate hypocrisy", reminding them: "We forced Sweden to close a nuclear power plant because it was too close to Danish soil."
Temptation of independence
What has happened? "A crucial element is that, in 2009, Greenland acquired greater autonomy to manage its natural resources itself", explains Cindy Vestergaard of the Danish Institute for International Studies during a telephone call from Copenhagen. Greater autonomy also means an end to the millions that flow annually from Copenhagen to Nuuk. It is difficult to live from prawns alone. That is why uranium has become so interesting.
Nevertheless, Greenland cannot decide on the issue unilaterally. Denmark continues to be responsible for foreign and defence policy. What is more, the island, which has fewer than 60,000 inhabitants, is unable to organise the mining and export on its own.
According to Vestergaard, "Everything will change if the plans are given the green light. That would make Denmark a nuclear player." At the moment Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan are the largest export countries. Given the enormous stocks, Denmark and Greenland would also become key players.
However, organising everything in the proper way would be a major achievement. "The trade in uranium is one of the most shady in the world. How can you be sure it does not end up in a nuclear weapon? The Australians claim it is possible, but evidently there is no guarantee." The plans could therefore burden the green, peace-loving Danes with a serious image problem.
Fisherman becomes miner?
Greenland has even more to lose. Global warming is improving the accessibility not just of uranium, but of other natural resources as well. It is even the case that, should uranium mining continue to be banned, Greenland would miss out on the economic benefits of large stocks of iron ore, copper, gold and rare earth metals in the vicinity. This while international mining giants, and countries such as South Korea and China, are just getting interested. On top of all this, Greenland could break the monopoly of China in the field of rare earth metals, which are very important for use in smart phones and cars.
As reported in The Copenhagen Post, the wealth of raw materials is both a curse and a blessing. The melting ice caps is also causing the disappearance of the shrimping villages. The crustaceans are seeking colder waters further north, leaving unemployment, an exodus of inhabitants and even suicide in their wake. The question is whether you can turn a fisherman into a miner.
Indeed, that is not the only challenge. Last year, pressure from international companies led Greenland to approve a law which makes it possible to pay foreign workers less than Greenlanders themselves. For example, the American aluminium giant, Alcoa, wants to establish a factory in a village which has 3,000 residents. The plan was to bring in an equal number of Polish and Chinese workers. How would this affect a local community and how would the fewer than 60,000 island residents cope with having an industrial heavyweight in their midst?
The US has long been aware of Greenland's strategic importance. After World War II the Americans offered Denmark $100m for the island. Nuuk would now appear more and more to be going its own way. "Up to now, fishing was the only thing they had," Vestergaard explains. "However, it is clear that the mining of the raw materials – and they really have the lot – is now regarded as a way of eventually making the country independent." Elections are to be held in Greenland soon. There are no prizes for guessing what the most important theme is going to be.
View from Denmark: Greenland is too poor to refuse
Whatever the Greenlanders chose to do, their future will be shaped by “Murphy's Law”, which states that: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” writes Politiken.
According to the Danish newspaper, exploiting the country's petroleum and mineral resources will inevitably lead to more nepotism in a country already plagued by corruption, and where there are few experienced people who can navigate between politics and business. For the newspaper –
Pollution and environmental destruction will once again trail in the slipstream of the “the frivolous atmosphere of the Klondike” and the social polarisation between the cities near the mines and the isolated villages is going to increase.
At the same time, the Greenlanders have no choice, writes Politiken.
Revenues from fishing are falling, and so are grants from Denmark, which is forcing the Greenlanders to experiment. Few who do not know Greenland can grasp the extent of the poverty there.
Kvanefjeld, thought to be home to the world's second-largest deposit of rare earth oxides and the sixth-largest deposit of uranium.
Extended family tree reveals human’s small, four-legged, insect-eating relative
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 7, 2013 16:00 EST
Humans may have descended from apes, but long before that there was a small, four-legged insect-eating critter, according to new research out Thursday in the US journal “Science.”
The international six-year study used a massive trove of data, including genetic and physical traits from both modern and prehistoric species, to reconstruct the extended family tree of mammals.
The researchers focused on the “placental mammals” a branch of species that includes humans, horses, whales and many others.
The project has helped scientists better understand how and when modern placental mammals evolved, and, importantly, has traced the starting point to after dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.
The researchers say the new information will help them study a vital question facing the world today: how mammals may have survived past instances of climate change and how that might help us face the warming now underway.
“Species like rodents and primates did not share the Earth with non-avian dinosaurs but arose from a common ancestor — a small, insect-eating, scampering animal — shortly after the dinosaurs’ demise,” said lead author Maureen O’Leary of New York’s Stony Brook University.
The new conclusion overturns an earlier, commonly-held hypothesis that there was a diverse crew of placental mammals before the event that led to the disappearance of dinosaurs and 70 percent of the planet’s species.
That theory had been based exclusively on genetic data. But scientists said combining the genetic evidence with anatomical and fossil evidence helped create a clearer picture of the history.
“Discovering the tree of life is like piecing together a crime scene — it is a story that happened in the past that you can’t repeat,” Leary said.
“Just like with a crime scene, the new tools of DNA add important information, but so do other physical clues like a body or, in the scientific realm, fossils and anatomy. Combining all the evidence produces the most informed reconstruction of a past event.”
According to the new theory, some 200,000 to 400,000 years after dinosaurs went extinct, the little placental mammal started evolving along a number of different paths, giving rise to the incredible diversity of species we’ve seen in the eons since — including more than 5,100 living today.
The study also helped illuminate the evolutionary history that led from this common ancestor through to modern-day animals, and showed, for instance, that one group of African animals, including elephants and aardvarks, first developed in the Americas.
“Determining how these animals first made it to Africa is now an important research question along with many others that can be addressed using MorphoBank and the phylophenomic tree produced in this study,” said author Fernando Perini, of Brazil’s Minas Gerais Federal University.
Mary Silcox, of the University of Toronto Scarborough, added “this project is not exhaustive, but exposes a way forward to collect data on other phenomic systems and other species.”
Giant asteroid killed off dinosaurs 66,038,000 million years ago: study
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 7, 2013 18:08 EST
Scientists said Thursday they are a step closer to proving the death blow for dinosaurs 66 million years ago was a gigantic comet or asteroid that struck near Mexico.
Although a catastrophic impact has long been thought to be involved earlier work left doubts about just when the object, estimated at some six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, struck in relation to when dinosaurs disappeared.
But in a study out Thursday in the US journal “Science,” researchers used updated techniques to get a more precise date for the impact — 66,038,000 million years ago — which they said was accurate within 11,000 years.
“When I got started in the field, the error bars on these events were plus or minus a million years,” said paleontologist William Clemens, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who was not directly involved in the study.
The researchers also updated their estimate for the time the mass dinosaur extinction, and found that the date was within the same margin of error — in other words, at around the same time as the asteroid impact.
“We have shown that these events are synchronous to within a gnat’s eyebrow,” said Paul Renne, of the Berkeley Geochronology Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The impact was clearly the final straw that pushed Earth past the tipping point,” he said.
But there were other factors as well, he said, including dramatic climate variation over the previous million years, which probably brought many species to the brink of extinction.
“These precursory phenomena made the global ecosystem much more sensitive to even relatively small triggers, so that what otherwise might have been a fairly minor effect shifted the ecosystem into a new state,” he said.
“The impact was the coup de grace.”
The dinosaur extinction — which wiped out the large land-based behemoths as well as many ocean creatures — was first linked to an asteroid or comet strike in 1980, by UC Berkeley professor Luis Alvarez and his son Walter.
The impact created a crater, now called Chicxulub, some 110 miles (177 kilometers) wide in the Caribbean, off the coast of Mexico.
02/08/2013 07:38 PM
A Mere Breeze: Era of Fast Growth Ends for Wind Energy in Europe
By Joel Stonington in Vienna
The debt crisis is finally catching up with wind energy, once a fast-growing sector in Europe. After more than a decade of double-digit growth, austerity, rapidly changing energy policies and skittish investors are putting a damper on the industry.
It is often the elephant in the room at any conference on renewable energy. Sometimes, it's mentioned simply as the "s" word and other times it's not mentioned at all. But subsidies remain crucial, with wind energy still struggling to achieve price parity with coal and natural gas. This week in Vienna, at the European Wind Energy Association's annual conference, subsidies came up right away.
This time, it was the source of the comments that was unexpected. During the opening keynote, Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency, proclaimed fossil fuel subsidies to be the "Public Enemy No. 1" of sustainable energy developments. This, from a man who just eight short years ago was urging "substantial" increases in new oil and gas drilling investments.
His argument was simple. Renewable energies right now are suffering from a dual problem: Governments around the world are slashing aid for clean energy, and massive subsidies propping up the fossil fuel industry are making it impossible to compete with the cheaper energy.
The current global total in fossil fuel subsidies for 2011, according to Birol, was $523 billion. The result was an incentive equivalent to $110 per ton of carbon emitted. In comparison, global subsidies for renewables amounted to what seems like a paltry $88 billion in the same year.
"If we had an ideal world -- with no subsidies for nuclear, gas or coal -- in that world, onshore wind would do extremely well," Christian Kjaer, CEO of the European Wind Energy Association, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But that's a utopia."
Wind Power Still Growing, But for How Long?
Even in an uneven playing field, the wind industry has been growing rapidly in recent years. There are now 22 countries with at least a gigawatt of wind power installed (enough to provide electricity to 200,000 homes). In the European Union, countries installed 11.6 gigawatts of new energy capacity last year, up from 9.4 gigawatts put in place in 2011, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). Wind has long since become a mainstream player in the global energy market.
The problem is that the gains Europe made this year came mostly from orders placed before the debt crisis that has gripped Europe since 2010, Kjaer said.
And if national policies aren't adjusted to reflect a changing reality, the growth rate is expected to drop to 6 percent by 2020 and 4 percent by 2030, according to a report released in November by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council.
Germany has fared well in the crisis itself, but it has had its own share of problems with renewables, with electricity prices for consumers surging as a result of the government's Energiewende, a policy of phasing out nuclear energy and increasing reliance on green energy approved by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in response to the Fukushima catastrophe.
Last month in Berlin, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier announced he would seek to stop the swift rise in electricity costs by capping subsidies on renewable energies -- a move that, while possibly helping consumers, could also adversely impact further growth in the wind power market. Political observers called it a bald political ploy to gain votes in the upcoming national election. Despite his announcement, however, most observers felt it was unlikely Germany would change its course. And support within Merkel's coalition government for his proposal is also limited. Nevertheless, the announcement is precisely the kind of thing that spooks investors.
"Who here believes regulatory uncertainty is the main hazard to growth of wind going forward?" asked Thomas Pütter, chairman of Ancora Finance Group, while onstage at the EWEA annual conference. Nearly every hand in the room went up.
In tough economic times, politicians are looking at every little thing to cut. And high energy prices have made renewables a target for politicians looking to score points.
Germany's current laws allow renewable energy producers to feed electricity into the grid at a fixed, above-market price, called a feed-in tariff. The goal of the law was to encourage investment and help bring the cost of energy from technologies like solar panels and wind farms into fair market competitiveness with coal, nuclear or gas. Renewables in Germany and other countries with feed-in tariffs have boomed, with a corresponding cost to consumers for the subsidies. Across Europe, the battles are loud and bitter on policy issues surrounding energy.
"At times of distress, every form of subsidy comes under pressure," David Jones, the head of renewable energy for Allianz Capital Partners, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The group has 42 investments in wind worth €1.3 billion. Jones said that the key for investors such as Allianz is stability in the investments moving forward. He noted that the difference in risk between European countries has grown, with the possibility of making more money in riskier countries and also a higher possibility of losing it.
With wind, the initial capital investment is especially important. And the political uncertainty surrounding subsidies can have a negative knock-on effect. With increased investment risk, the uncertainty can make borrowing money for projects considerably more expensive. This double threat appears likely to push the wind power growth into the doldrums in 2013.
And although Altmaier's proposal may have the potential to create difficulty on the financing side, it is still nothing compared to the loss in confidence created when countries retroactively change feed-in tariffs. The German environment minister's own plan would not change the guaranteed price for energy produced on wind farms that have already been built. But that's not the case in a number of countries around Europe that have announced retroactive changes since the downturn.
At the EWEA conference, those retroactive changes were spoken of with the kind of spite and anger usually reserved for criminals. The most commonly quoted worst-practices example was Spain. The country has spent the last few years consistently making decisions that instill a sense of horror among investors.
The country introduced a retroactive feed-in tariff cut in 2008 and a 7 percent energy tax last month. And new rules governing the feed-in tariff that became law on Feb. 2 caused major drops in valuation for Spain's wind farm owners. The most recent example was Acciona SA, which recently saw a four-day drop in valuation of roughly €850 million.
Trouble in Paris
In recent months, nearly every country in Europe that subsidizes renewable energy has been tinkering with changes or rewriting regulation in a haphazard way. The French government set up a successful feed-in-tariff to provide demand for energy from wind but later loaded it down with stifling bureaucracy. Wind energy projects must now slog through a process that can take five or six years before they get approved.
Further, France's feed-in-tariff has been bogged down by an anti-wind advocacy group called Vent de Colere, or Wind of Anger. The group calls the tariffs a form of state aid and has pursued a legal case all the way to the European Union's Court of Justice. With the uncertainty surrounding the court case, and a decision not expected until November, investment has slowed to a trickle.
The result has been that, in 2012, France installed roughly half of the government-set goal for new wind energy capacity. The French Wind Association, which represents 250 companies in the industry, expects 1,000 jobs to lost by the end of the year. The association's president, Nicolas Wolff, as if giving a eulogy, said: "The French market was a promising one."
Just going by the numbers, last year was an exceptional one for the wind industry in Europe. More than a quarter of the new energy capacity built on the Continent was wind-based, according to EWEA, and 7 percent of Europe's energy demand is now fed with wind.
However, the times of huge, double-digit gains may be over for the industry. In Europe, the failure of the Continent-wide carbon emissions trading system, which is intended to penalize CO2-heavy companies by requiring them to purchase certificates for their emissions and is thus intended to spur investment in green energies, is contributing to the growth problem. The floor has fallen out on the market for emissions certificates. Meanwhile, the US hasn't even established its own carbon trading system yet. Add to this the fact that fracking has given the country access to cheap and cleaner natural gas. Instead of burning coal, the US is now exporting it abroad and driving global market prices down.
With no real price on carbon and mass fossil fuel subsidies to the tune of $500 billion, wind power will likely stagnate. Until recently, China, with its turbo growth in wind power, could be relied upon as a major driver of global growth in the sector, but even there the market is stalling. And the Global Wind Energy Council's "Wind Energy Outlook" suggests that developing markets like Brazil and India are unlikely to fill the gap.
For those in the wind industry, it's the financing that matters the most. And for those with the money, volatility very simply means greater risk. Even high-level comments that serve as a political foil can mean lead to millions of euros in additional costs for a single new project. "If you want to attract investments," Kjaer commented. "You can't send mixed signals."
02/08/2013 07:45 PM
Gas Bonanza for Germany?: Berlin Wants to Fast-Track Fracking
Germany's governing coalition wants to quickly put an end to a virtual moratorium on the controversial shale gas extraction method of fracking in the country, SPIEGEL has learned. Officials want to have plans finished before the federal election this autumn.
The German government is planning to accelerate an end to a virtual moratorium on the controversial natural gas extraction method called fracking, SPIEGEL has learned.
Parliamentarians from Angela Merkel's governing center-right coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) want to jumpstart the extraction of shale gas deposits in the country. As such, they have agreed on key measures for tapping virgin deposits ahead of this year's federal election in the fall.
Such measures would effectively end what has widely been seen as a hold on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- the controversial extraction method in which pressurized fluid is forced into rock layers to release natural gas and other valuable substances -- due to safety worries and public concern.
"We can't afford an ideological ban, because fracking can be part of supplying energy," Michael Kauch, environmental spokesperson for the FDP in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, told SPIEGEL.
To dispel fears about the extraction method, coalition members have called for tests on environmental compatibility to rule out the return flow of poisonous chemicals used in the technique into the groundwater supply.
"It is clear," they write, "that in water protection areas the exploration and extraction of natural gas from shale gas via fracking is precluded."
The two ministries responsible for the measures, the Environemtn Ministry and the Economics Ministry, have been tasked with presenting their proposals for regulation by next week.
"We want to be finished within this legislative period that way," Kauch said.
David Miliband to head global fight to prevent eco-disaster in oceans
As leader of a campaign being unveiled this week, the ex-foreign secretary says exploitation of the seas has led us to a crisis point
The Observer, Saturday 9 February 2013 22.30 GMT
An environmental catastrophe with greater economic impact than the global financial crash is occurring on the high seas, according to David Miliband. The former foreign secretary is to lead a new, high-level international effort to end the lawlessness of the oceans, which will be unveiled this week.
The high seas, which lie beyond any national jurisdiction, cover almost half the Earth's surface and decades of over-exploitation have caused trillions of dollars' worth of fish catches to be lost. Pirate fishing, often using slave labour and linked to cocaine and weapons smuggling, is rife and the damage caused to life in the oceans is harming the habitability of the whole planet. Future risks include sea-floor mining and rogue geoengineering.
"The worst of the current system is plunder and pillage on a massive scale," Miliband told the Observer. "It is the ecological equivalent of the financial crisis. The long-term costs of the mismanagement of our oceans are at least as great as long-term costs of the mismanagement of the financial system. We are living as if there are three or four planets instead of one, and you can't get away with that."
Miliband, in an unpaid role, will lead the new Global Ocean Commission, along with Nelson Mandela's former finance minister, Trevor Manuel, and the former president of Costa Rica, José María Figueres. The launch in London on Tuesday will introduce further commissioners, including more former heads of state and senior ministers from leading G20 nations.
"We are coming to a crunch time: 2014 needs to be the year when we reverse the degradation of the high seas," said Miliband, referring to the deadline set at the UN's Earth Summit in 2012 for the first ever laws to protect biodiversity in the open oceans.
Miliband knows from personal experience the difficulty of the task. In 2009, as foreign secretary, he established the world's biggest marine reserve in which no fishing is allowed: more than 640,000 square kilometres around the Chagos archipelago in the Indian ocean. However, last month a bitterly fought legal challenge from Mauritius was allowed to proceed at the international court of arbitration in The Hague.
Professor Callum Roberts, a marine biologist at the University of York, said protection for the open oceans was desperately needed: "The high seas are the last and most neglected of all natural spaces. They are home to some extraordinary species, for example, the leatherback turtle. It comes from a lineage 100m years old, but has declined by 95% in the last 20-30 years due to our depredations. Dolphins and sharks are in freefall.
"The oceans make up 95% of the living space on the planet and what happens there is extremely important for the habitability of our planet, from oxygen production to dealing with carbon dioxide and other pollution. Our impact means the oceans will do that less well, with serious consequences for humanity."
Miliband said: He said the seniority of the people leading the new commission was "really impressive" and pointed to the achievements of an analogous commission in the United States that successfully worked with the federal government to improve protection in American waters.
"We are going to try to fashion practical solutions that are an environmental win and an economic win, and with a commission which is avowedly across north-south, east-west, rich-poor divides."
He noted that the destruction of fisheries by over-exploitation costs $50bn (£32bn) a year in lost catches, according to the World Bank, totalling $1.5tn over the past three decades. This damages the livelihoods of the 200 million people supported by fishing, of whom 90% live in poor, developing countries.
A billion people already rely on fish as their key source of food, but catches are falling. With the global population expected to swell by three billion in coming decades, stocks must be allowed to recover to allow even greater catches to be sustainably harvested in future. Three-quarters of global fish stocks are already overfished or on the brink of being so, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation; not just well-publicised species such as tuna, but also many of the top 10 biggest fisheries, including Pacific anchovy, Alaskan pollock and Atlantic herring.
Pirate fishing is also a major issue, estimated to account for one-fifth of the global total market, worth $10bn-$23bn a year. The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime found that international fishing operators exploited corrupt systems even in nationally controlled waters. It also found that international gangs, often smuggling cocaine and weapons, had plundered valuable fish and often committed human rights abuses. The slave labour they use, sometimes children, are held as de facto prisoners of the sea, and deaths and severe physical and sexual abuse have been reported.
The governance of international waters – via the UN's 30-year-old laws of the seas, drafted to encourage exploitation – is dismissed as a "tragedy" by Miliband: "The current enforcement on the high seas is inadequate at best and worthless at worst." Roberts dubs the laws as "useless" and said that, when they were written in the 1970s, "people thought the resources of the oceans were limitless". Even so, the US has never ratified the treaty, deeply undermining its authority, while territorial disputes over the Arctic and Southern oceans rage on.
"The high seas were protected for thousands of years because people simply could not get there," said Miliband. "Exploitation has increased over 30 years, but the governance framework has not kept up." For example, there is no international mechanism at all for protecting biodiversity in the deep oceans.
New laws will also have to anticipate the growth of deep-sea mining for metals and potentially the dumping of tonnes of iron or minerals in the oceans in a bid to halt climate change – so-called geoengineering, Miliband said. In 2012, a 10,000 sq km geoengineering test took place off Canada without any authorisation.
"But enforcement in the modern world is not going to be a great new navy of ships polluting their way around the high seas," said Miliband. Satellite monitoring could be one solution, while another would be to force fishing vessels to carry location beacons at all times, as many merchant vessels already do.
FISH: BUYERS' GUIDE
With the exception of stocks from the north-eastern Arctic, Iceland and the eastern Baltic, cod is overfished and inefficiently managed. Certain fisheries' closures have been recommended until stocks recover to safe levels. Choose line-caught where available.
A resilient species, it is caught using fishing methods that are relatively 'clean' and non-damaging to the seabed. It generally makes for a good sustainable choice. Best choices are from Norwegian, North Sea and Icelandic fisheries.
Stocks are at healthy levels but avoid during the breeding season (Feb-June). line-caught fish.
World catches have doubled in the last decade and all seven fished species of tuna are under pressure. For the most sustainable option, choose skipjack, yellowfin or albacore. Avoid eating bluefin tuna, which is a threatened species.
It can sustain high levels of fishing pressure, but has an important role near the base of the food chain and the impact of its large-scale removal from the marine ecosystem is poorly understood.
The high seas are too precious to be left to plunderers and polluters
Only now with the launch of the Global Ocean Commission are we finally addressing the ravages of the oceans
The Observer, Sunday 10 February 2013
The oceans are changing faster today and in more ways than at any time in human history. We are the cause. Which is why I welcome the launch of the Global Ocean Commission, dedicated to ending the neglect, in international affairs, of the high seas. These seas lie far beyond the horizon – 200 nautical miles offshore to be precise – and begin where sovereign national waters give way to the global commons, owned by none, shared by all.
There was a time when foreign travel gave many people a familiarity with the high seas. Rather than a few hours in a plane, "long haul" often meant days or weeks spent staring at an endless canvas of sea and sky. Today, few of us know much about what happens beyond the horizon and still fewer care. Like all common spaces, the high seas are vulnerable to misuse and abuse. Our indifference is costing the world dear for the high seas are being plundered.
For most of our maritime history, the open oceans have been seen as dangerous places to be traversed as quickly as possible. Remote and enduring, they were home to giant fish and whales; seabirds wandered their featureless expanses and ancient corals grew in the eternal darkness of the abyss.
Whalers were first to spot the high seas' potential as a source of wealth, slaughtering their way through the 19th and 20th centuries until the great whales were a few breaths from extinction. Ocean-going seabirds such as albatross and petrels were also early victims of exploitation due to the vulnerability of coastal nesting sites. But commercial fishing was a relative latecomer.
Fishing began in earnest in the 1950s as long-line and drift-net fleets sought profit in open ocean species such as tuna, swordfish, marlin and shark. By the 1980s, they were everywhere. The huge collateral damage done by these fisheries soon caused alarm. Drift nets spread lethal curtains tens of miles long killing indiscriminately, taking turtles, whales and dolphins alongside the target fish. They were banned by the UN in 1992 but long lines studded with tens of thousands of hooks continue the massacre. Enough long lines are set every night to wrap around the globe 500 times.
In a separate development, from the 1960s, Soviet and European vessels began to probe deeper in response to the decline of their shallow water fish stocks. They found riches on the Atlantic frontier, where continental shelves fall away into the deep, and around the summits of submerged offshore mountains. But these fisheries have proved highly vulnerable to overexploitation. Within the space of a few decades, species such as the roundnose grenadier and orange roughy have become so depleted they are considered threatened with extinction.
Deep sea fisheries carry another high cost in loss of coral forests and sponge groves. Life is glacial in the frigid inkiness of the deep, so these habitats have developed over thousands of years, sustained by table scraps sinking from a narrow surface layer where sunlight fuels plant growth. The bottom trawls that are used to catch fish cut down animals that are hundreds or even thousands of years old.
Without ever making a conscious decision to do it, we are losing unseen habitats whose equals on land would include the giant redwood glades of North America, the baobabs of Madagascar and Amazon rainforest.
Where are the regulators in all of this? Many high seas fisheries have little or no protection. Regional fisheries management organisations, where they exist, have been charged by the United Nations with management of fish stocks such as tuna. The best of them are sleeping on the job; the worst, as with the "management" of the endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna, make decisions in the full knowledge that what they are doing is destroying what they are supposed to protect.
Fishing is not the only problem. Remote as they seem, the high seas are no further than anywhere else from the inescapable influence of climate change, nor are they beyond the reach of pollution. Mercury and industrial emissions from power plants and industry shed their toxic loads far out to sea. Chemicals concentrate in the surface layer that separates air from water and can quickly leapfrog across thousands of miles of ocean in wind-whipped aerosols.
Circulating currents gather the floating refuse of modern society into enormous regions that have been dubbed the "great ocean garbage patches". Over the years, drifting plastics fragment into ever-smaller particles that pick up and concentrate chemical pollutants such as mercury and DDT. Small fish mistake plastics for food and pass chemicals up the food chain until they reach the flesh of animals we eat, like tuna and sharks. What goes around comes around.
If this were all we had to fix, it would be challenge enough. But there is more. Climate change is enlarging the deserts of the sea as surely as it is doing so on land. Surface waters of the open ocean have all the light but few nutrients, which severely limits productivity. Most of the time, upward mixing of nutrients is inhibited by a density barrier between the warm and light surface layer and cold, dense water below. Global warming is heating the surface ocean, making it even harder to cross between these layers. This in turn is starving deeper waters of oxygen that has to mix downwards from the atmosphere and surface plants. The living space in the oceans is shrinking.
There is one final blow to the integrity of the oceans that may yet prove the heaviest of all. Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is building up in the sea as well as the atmosphere. There, it forms carbonic acid (as in fizzy drinks). Acid is the nemesis of carbonate, the basic ingredient of chalk and a fundamental building block of ocean life, including shellfish, corals and plankton. If we do nothing to curtail emissions, ocean acidity will soar by the century's end toward levels not experienced for 55 million years in a period of runaway global warming. It is difficult to predict the exact outcome, but let's just say that last time around, corals and chalky plankton suffered badly.
We carry on today much as we have done for thousands of years, using natural resources as if they were endless. But population growth changes everything. We must get to grips with the consequences of our planetary dominance, otherwise the consequences will master us.
Out of sight and out of mind they may be, but the high seas are vital to everyone. By virtue of their sheer size they play a dominant role in the processes that keep our world habitable. They are too big for us to let them fail. The Global Oceans Commission has urgent work to do.
75-year-old soybean farmer sees Monsanto lawsuit reach U.S. Supreme Court
By Paul Harris, The Guardian
Saturday, February 9, 2013 11:59
Who controls the rights to the seeds planted in the ground? A 75-year-old farmer takes the agricultural giant to court to find out
As David versus Goliath battles go it is hard to imagine a more uneven fight than the one about to play out in front of the US supreme court between Vernon Hugh Bowman and Monsanto.
On the one side is Bowman, a single 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer who is still tending the same acres of land as his father before him in rural south-western Indiana. On the other is a gigantic multibillion dollar agricultural business famed for its zealous protection of its commercial rights.
Not that Bowman sees it that way. “I really don’t consider it as David and Goliath. I don’t think of it in those terms. I think of it in terms of right and wrong,” Bowman told The Guardian in an interview.
Either way, in the next few weeks Bowman and Monsanto’s opposing legal teams will face off in front of America’s most powerful legal body, weighing in on a case that deals with one of the most fundamental questions of modern industrial farming: who controls the rights to the seeds planted in the ground.
The legal saga revolves around Monsanto’s aggressive protection of its soybean known as Roundup Ready, which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to its Roundup herbicide or its generic equivalents. When Bowman – or thousands of other farmers just like him – plant Monsanto’s seeds in the ground they are obliged to only harvest the resulting crop, not keep any of it back for planting the next year. So each season, the farmer has to buy new Monsanto seeds to plant.
However, farmers are able to buy excess soybeans from local grain elevators, many of which are likely to be Roundup Ready due to the huge dominance Monsanto has in the market. Indeed in Indiana it is believed more than 90% of soybeans for sale as “commodity seeds” could be such beans, each containing the genes Monsanto developed.
Bowman, who has farmed the same stretch of land for most of the past four decades and grew up on a farm, ended up on Monsanto’s radar for using such seeds – bought from a local grain elevator, rather than Monsanto – for year after year and replanting part of each crop. He did not do so for his main crop of soybeans, but rather for a smaller “second late season planting” usually planted on a field that had just been harvested for wheat. “We have always had the right to go to an elevator, buy some ‘junk grain’ and use it for seed if you desire,” Bowman said.
To put it mildly, Monsanto disagrees. The firm insists that it maintains patent rights on its genetically modified seeds even if sold by a third party with no restrictions put on its use – even if the seeds are actually only descendants of the original Monsanto seeds. To that end it sued Bowman, eventually winning a legal settlement of some $84,456 (£53,500) against him for infringing the firm’s patent rights. Monsanto says that if it allowed Bowman to keep replanting his seeds it would undermine its business model, endangering the expensive research that it uses to produce advanced agricultural products.
On a website the firm set up to highlight its arguments in the case, Monsanto insists a Bowman victory at the supreme court could “jeopardize some of the most innovative biotechnology research in the country” in industries that range from farming to medicine. It says protecting patent rights fully is vital to preserve a commercial incentive to develop and refine new products.
But Bowman has numerous supporters who believe his case could help reform aspects of commercial farming – that is now dominated by huge corporations rather than small or family-run business – to vital reforms. Bowman’s legal team intends to argue that the case could open the industry to greater anti-trust scrutiny, arguing that large corporation’s vice-like grip on farming and control of seeds needs to be loosened. “It opens up these transactions (buying seeds) to greater anti-trust scrutiny by the Department of Justice. Right now they are sheltered by patent trust protection,” said Bowman’s lawyer Mark Walters.
Campaign groups are also eager to back the case. This coming Tuesday, farming campaign groups the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds will release a joint report examining the modern seeds industry. The organizations are enthusiastic backers of Bowman’s cause. Debbie Barker, a program director for SOS, said a Bowman victory at the supreme court could nudge the industry towards opening up and treating seeds as a common resource, not a fiercely fought-over commercial battleground. “It would help with wider reforms,” Barker said. SOS believes Monsanto and other major firms are less concerned with protecting interests in research than in their lucrative business model. After all, just three firms now control more than 50% of the global seed market.
Yet, despite the vast sums of money involved in modern farming, it is ironically Bowman’s own lack of cash that has seen the case end up at the supreme court. Monsanto has a long record of reaching settlements with commercially pressured farmers it targets for patent infringements. But when the firm sued Bowman, he was already bankrupt after an unrelated land deal went wrong. Thus, he had little to lose. “I made up my mind to fight it until I could not fight it anymore,” he said. “I thought: I am not going to play dead.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Gas company targets protected Manú park in Peruvian Amazon
Leaked documents reveal Pluspetrol is eyeing a region where biodiversity 'exceeds that of any other place on Earth'
David Hill in Lima
guardian.co.uk, Monday 11 February 2013 11.40 GMT
An energy company is eyeing up the gas reserves of a national park in the Peruvian Amazon whose biodiversity Unesco says "exceeds that of any other place on Earth" and is home to indigenous people who have no regular contact with the outside world, leaked documents seen by the Guardian show.
The revelation about Manú national park follows rumours and reports circulating in Peru that the government will create a gas concession bordering or including parts of the park, but which have not been publicly confirmed.
The document, Research Plan for Geological Exploration and Surface Geochemistry in the Manú National Park and its Buffer Zone, was written by Lima-based consultancy Quartz Services for company Pluspetrol, which operates an existing gas concession in the region, Lot 88, known as the Camisea project.
"It's shocking. This is the first time we've seen evidence for plans to expand hydrocarbon activities into Manú," said anthropologist Daniel Rodriguez, who has worked with Peruvian indigenous federation Fenamad for years.
"This proves what conservationists and indigenous rights activists have long suspected, but which petrochemical representatives and Peruvian officials have concealed or outright denied: that there are gas and oil deposits in Manú national park," said anthropologist Glenn Shepard.
Chitonahua tribe member, Manu park in Peruvian Amazon, Peru Chitonahua tribe member. Photograph: Glenn Shepard
Manú is home to 10% of the world's bird species, 5% of all mammals and 15% of all butterflies, as well as rare animals like jaguars and giant armadillos. Unesco has declared the park a World Heritage Site and biosphere reserve, and says it is more biodiverse than any other place on the planet.
"Manú is probably the most biodiverse protected area on the planet," agreed Rob Williams from the Frankfurt Zoological Society. "Madidi in Bolivia is the only likely competitor."
"It's terrifying to think that Pluspetrol has been planning this," said Rebecca Spooner, a researcher at Survival International. "How can any company justify working in such a sensitive region?"
Peruvian law prohibits extractive operations in national parks. According to Quartz's document, dated March 2012, Pluspetrol has applied for and been denied permission from Peru's protected areas authority to enter the region, but Quartz could develop a strategy to obtain such permission in the future.
"Our mission, as an institution providing specialist technical services to Pluspetrol, will be to contribute not only to the continuation of activities in Lot 88, but also to the development of the Manú National Park protected area," reads the document. "Pluspetrol has plans to do geological exploration in the River Maquizapango region and/or its surroundings, an area to the east of the Lot (88) and inside the Manú National Park."
Quartz's manager, Efren Tomaylla, confirmed the document had been prepared at Pluspetrol's request and submitted to it, but said Quartz had not heard back.
One anthropologist told the Guardian under condition of anonymity that Quartz's plans, if put into practice, would seriously endanger people in Manú.
"It says it will do 'a direct study of human cultures', but doesn't say who exactly that would involve," said the anthropologist. "Even settled communities in Manú contacted 50 years ago remain extremely vulnerable to any kind of illness."
Pluspetrol refused to comment.
Environmentalists plan massive rally to spur action on climate change
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 11, 2013 20:52 EST
Activists are stepping up pressure on US President Barack Obama to issue concrete plans to battle climate change, with a major rally planned in Washington following his annual address to Congress.
More than 100 groups are planning what they hope will be the largest rally in the United States on climate change, with organizers saying that tens of thousands will descend on the National Mall Sunday with buses from 28 states.
The demonstration comes after the United States last year experienced record high temperatures, extensive drought and the devastation of superstorm Sandy which some have linked to changing climate patterns.
Advocacy groups urged Obama to lay out specific proposals Tuesday in his annual State of the Union speech. Obama spoke forcefully, albeit in general terms, on fighting climate change during his inaugural speech last month.
“We can no longer afford to wait to respond to the threat of climate change,” said David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of organized labor and environmental organizations.
“We can no longer wait to fix our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The systems we rely on every day are not prepared to deal with the impacts of these events,” Foster told reporters on a conference call.
The BlueGreen Alliance and like-minded groups called for Obama to focus on measures including reducing carbon pollution from power plants, rebuilding the US water system and investing in alternative forms of transit.
Separately, the Center for Biological Diversity called for more ambitious steps, such as having the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) setting a national cap on pollution of greenhouse gases which are blamed for rising temperatures.
Obama has relied increasingly on executive authority in fighting climate change due to stiff resistance from the rival Republican Party, many of whose members question conclusions of mainstream scientists on greenhouse gases.
A proposal to set up a “cap-and-trade” system that restricts carbon emissions across the United States died in the Senate in 2010.
The Sea Shepherd takes battle with Japanese whalers to the U.S. Supreme Court
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 2:17 EST
The Sea Shepherd conservation group asked the US Supreme Court on Monday to lift an order forcing it to steer clear of Japan’s whalers, who are seeking legal reprisals over harassment at sea.
Since 2002, Sea Shepherd has annually disrupted Japan’s contested hunt in the Southern Ocean but a US court issued an injunction on December 17 for the activists to stay at least 500 yards (meters) away from the whaling vessels.
Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son and namesake of the slain political icon, urged the United States to show support for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its fugitive founder Paul Watson.
“It’s a mission that only they are capable of accomplishing and that is absolutely vital to the enforcement of international agreements on the high seas which otherwise go unenforced,” Kennedy told reporters.
The International Whaling Commission has designated a whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean. Japan kills whales in the area through a loophole in a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows lethal research.
Kennedy called Japan’s government-supported Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the whaling program and sued Sea Shepherd, “a pirate organization masquerading as a scientific research group.”
In a filing to the Supreme Court on Friday, Sea Shepherd and Watson said that the lower court “acted rashly” and voiced concern over the order’s “extraordinarily long reach” to areas outside US jurisdiction.
The document said that the injunction marked “a potentially existential threat” to Sea Shepherd as more than 80 percent of its funding comes from donations, which “may slow to a trickle” without the anti-whaling campaign.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited safety concerns when it issued the injunction, effective until a decision on the case.
The Institute of Cetacean Research hit back and was believed to have asked the judge to find Sea Shepherd in contempt of court — which would potentially lead to punishment.
Sea Shepherd released a letter from a lawyer representing the institute, which complained that MV Brigitte Bardot, a former ocean racer named after the French actress and animal rights activist, violated the 500-yard injunction on January 29.
The letter warned of legal action unless Sea Shepherd ordered the Brigitte Bardot to comply with the injunction or returned it to port.
The Oregon-based group contended that it was observing the injunction, saying that the Brigitte Bardot sails under an Australian flag and is operated by Sea Shepherd’s Australian sister organization.
Japan’s institute is “just like a bully who is finally challenged and runs to his mommy,” said Scott West, the director of intelligence and investigation for US Sea Shepherd.
Sea Shepherd boasted that it has prevented Japan from killing whales this season. Japan, which makes no secret that meat from whaling ends up on dinner plates, accuses Western nations of disrespecting its cultural traditions.
Gavin Carter, a US-based spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, called Sea Shepherd’s Supreme Court filing an “unusual approach.”
Watson, a dual US and Canadian citizen, has kept his whereabouts unknown since July, when he jumped bail in Germany, where he was arrested on charges from Costa Rica related to a confrontation over shark finning.
Europe's ship-breaking proposals may be illegal, lawyers warn
Leaked papers express grave concerns over the shipping industry's bid to overturn a treaty on the disposal of toxic waste
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 February 2013 08.00 GMT
Europe's plan to overturn a ban on contaminated ships being broken up in developing countries may be illegal, according to the European Union's own lawyers.
Leaked European council legal opinion papers seen by the Guardian express grave concerns over the European commission's attempts to exempt ships from the Basel convention, the global treaty that demands that rich countries dispose of their own asbestos and other hazardous waste materials, and do not add to pollution in poorer countries.
In a move that the Shipbreaking Platform – a coalition of human rights and environment groups – says would set a precedent in international law, the commission has proposed to exempt all ships from the convention and its own legislation. If the move succeeds, this would allow shipowners to legally export toxic ships to developing countries.
But the legal service says in a restricted document: "[We] consider that there is a serious risk that the … exclusion of ships from regulation 1013/2006 in the manner being proposed could amount to a breach of the obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of a treaty… "
Human rights and environment groups accused the commission of trying to impose double standards. "The EC's proposal to allow the shipping industry to ignore the Basel convention is scandalous and illegal. It is absurd to imagine that a huge oil company could legally dump their old rusty tanker full of asbestos in Asia when it would be a criminal act for anybody else to likewise export one single barrel of the same asbestos. But that is what the [EC] is proposing," said Jim Puckett of the toxic trade watchdog group, Basel Action Network.
European shipowners sent a record 365 vessels to be broken up on beaches in Bangladesh, China, India and Pakistan last year, a 75% increase on 2011. Greece sent 174 ships, Germany 39, Norway 37 and Britain 32 with the remainder from 14 other countries. One firm from landlocked Switzerland sent 23 vessels for breaking.
Although the Basel convention and the European waste shipment regulations specifically ban the export of toxic waste, shipowners have found it easy to circumvent the law by changing flags and selling their vessels for scrap once they are outside EU waters.
Gangs of workers dismantle the giant vessels by hand, often leading to deaths, injuries, explosions and chemical spillages, as well as contamination of the beaches and waters around the breaking yards and destruction of coastal mangrove forests.
The toxic materials must be taken off the ships and disposed of, but some countries have limited facilities to handle the waste. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh alone is expected to have 79,000 tonnes of asbestos and 240,000 tonnes of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) chemicals "dumped" on it by rich country's ships in the next 20 years.
Partly in response to criticism, the shipowners have worked with the UN's International Maritime Organisation to draw up the weaker Hong Kong convention in 2009. This permits ships to be exported to authorised facilities in rich or poor countries that have ratified it. However, it is unlikely to become legally binding for 10 or more years.
Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of Shipbreaking Platform, said: "The two conventions are complimentary and work well with each other. To scrap Basel obligations, Europe will be throwing away the very principles it has championed on the world stage, it will be undermining European ship recycling job opportunities, while poisoning some of the world's poorest, most desperate workers – its a lose-lose-lose proposition, all simply to line the pockets of shipping moguls."
Shipbreaking in south Asia is regarded by developing countries as a key industry because it supplies a substantial quantity of scrap steel for their iron and steel industries. Nearly every part of the ship is recycled.
But despite protestations that the industry is much better regulated than only a few years ago, accidents continue to happen and little compensation is paid to people injured.
The International Labour Organisation has described the work on shipbreaking beaches as among the most dangerous jobs in the world. Most of the workers are migrants from poor rural areas and many have been found to be under 15 years old.
Obama gives Congress climate ultimatum: back me, or I go it alone
President vows to push for new technologies and carbon taxes 'to protect future generations'
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 February 2013 10.44 GMT
President Barack Obama on Tuesday gave Congress an ultimatum on climate change: craft a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the dangers of a warming world, or the White House will go it alone.
"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said in his State of the Union address. "I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
Congress should consider putting a price on climate-warming carbon emissions, Obama said, briefly nodding to his failed, first-term plan to confront climate change. Republican opposition means the president's best chance to confront the issue will mean flexing executive power.
He vowed to push for more and cheaper solar and wind energy, and pledged to cut red tape to encourage more drilling for domestic natural gas, which he said had driven down fuel prices in the United States.
"But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water," the president said.
Obama's State of the Union address - jump to 17 minutes 10 seconds for climate promises
Framing the politically charged issue in terms of recent severe weather, Obama said the nation should use its abundance of fossil fuels to pivot towards a no-emissions energy future.
To help pay for it, Obama proposed using revenue from oil and gas drilled on federal land to wean the nation off those same carbon fuels and promote clean energy.
"I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good," the president said.
About 30% of US oil and gas production and 40% of the nation's coal is managed by the Interior Department. The department collected roughly $12bn in revenue from federal land last year.
The Interior Department, which is the steward of federal lands, has already proposed collecting higher royalties on some oil and gas exploration.
Energy efficiency is also key, Obama said, urging citizens to cut in half the energy wasted in homes and business in the next 20 years. He said the federal government would support states that create jobs and cut power bills by constructing more efficient buildings.
Building on his Inauguration Day pledge to confront climate change despite the skepticism of Republican critics, Obama framed the issue in terms of recent severe weather events in the US, and took aim at those who deny the link between human activity and global warming.
"We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it's too late," he said.
Promoting renewable energy like wind and solar power could make the United States a more globally competitive economy, Obama said.
"Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America," he said. "As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we."
The president's first term saw a doubling of energy from wind and solar power and a measure to increase fuel economy standards to 54.5mpg by 2025. This year is expected to see rules to curb emissions from power plants, which account for about 40% of carbon emissions.
But Obama's first-term ambition to put a price on carbon fell flat, and any similar initiative is likely to fail while Republicans control the House of Representatives.
One of the executive actions Obama could take would be to increase the use of green fuels for the US military, the world's largest petroleum buyer.
The Pentagon has helped finance renewable fuel suppliers, and this spur to the renewable energy market could grow in Obama's second term.
The Interior Department could require companies that drill or mine on federal land to capture more methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Secret funding network pushed climate change denialism, opposed environmental regulations
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Thursday, February 14, 2013 9:04 EST
Anonymous billionaires donated $120m to more than 100 anti-climate groups working to discredit climate change science
Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.
The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.
The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more.
Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust told the Guardian that her organisation assured wealthy donors that their funds would never by diverted to liberal causes.
“We exist to help donors promote liberty which we understand to be limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” she said in an interview.
By definition that means none of the money is going to end up with groups like Greenpeace, she said. “It won’t be going to liberals.”
Ball won’t divulge names, but she said the stable of donors represents a wide range of opinion on the American right. Increasingly over the years, those conservative donors have been pushing funds towards organisations working to discredit climate science or block climate action.
Donors exhibit sharp differences of opinion on many issues, Ball said. They run the spectrum of conservative opinion, from social conservatives to libertarians. But in opposing mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they found common ground.
“Are there both sides of an environmental issue? Probably not,” she went on. “Here is the thing. If you look at libertarians, you tend to have a lot of differences on things like defence, immigration, drugs, the war, things like that compared to conservatives. When it comes to issues like the environment, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced.”
By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118m distributed to 102 thinktanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.
The money flowed to Washington thinktanks embedded in Republican party politics, obscure policy forums in Alaska and Tennessee, contrarian scientists at Harvard and lesser institutions, even to buy up DVDs of a film attacking Al Gore.
The ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama’s environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change.
Those same groups are now mobilising against Obama’s efforts to act on climate change in his second term. A top recipient of the secret funds on Wednesday put out a point-by-point critique of the climate content in the president’s state of the union address.
And it was all done with a guarantee of complete anonymity for the donors who wished to remain hidden.
“The funding of the denial machine is becoming increasingly invisible to public scrutiny. It’s also growing. Budgets for all these different groups are growing,” said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, which compiled the data on funding of the anti-climate groups using tax records.
“These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There is no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them,” Davies said.
The trusts were established for the express purpose of managing donations to a host of conservative causes.
Such vehicles, called donor-advised funds, are not uncommon in America. They offer a number of advantages to wealthy donors. They are convenient, cheaper to run than a private foundation, offer tax breaks and are lawful.
That opposition hardened over the years, especially from the mid-2000s where the Greenpeace record shows a sharp spike in funds to the anti-climate cause.
In effect, the Donors Trust was bankrolling a movement, said Robert Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist who has extensively researched the networks of ultra-conservative donors.
“This is what I call the counter-movement, a large-scale effort that is an organised effort and that is part and parcel of the conservative movement in the United States ” Brulle said. “We don’t know where a lot of the money is coming from, but we do know that Donors Trust is just one example of the dark money flowing into this effort.”
In his view, Brulle said: “Donors Trust is just the tip of a very big iceberg.”
The rise of that movement is evident in the funding stream. In 2002, the two trusts raised less than $900,000 for the anti-climate cause. That was a fraction of what Exxon Mobil or the conservative oil billionaire Koch brothers donated to climate sceptic groups that year.
By 2010, the two Donor Trusts between them were channelling just under $30m to a host of conservative organisations opposing climate action or science. That accounted to 46% of all their grants to conservative causes, according to the Greenpeace analysis.
The funding stream far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the records show. When it came to blocking action on the climate crisis, the obscure charity in the suburbs was outspending the Koch brothers by a factor of six to one.
“There is plenty of money coming from elsewhere,” said John Mashey, a retired computer executive who has researched funding for climate contrarians. “Focusing on the Kochs gets things confused. You can not ignore the Kochs. They have their fingers in too many things, but they are not the only ones.”
It is also possible the Kochs continued to fund their favourite projects using the anonymity offered by Donor Trust.
But the records suggest many other wealthy conservatives opened up their wallets to the anti-climate cause – an impression Ball wishes to stick.
She argued the media had overblown the Kochs support for conservative causes like climate contrarianism over the years. “It’s so funny that on the right we think George Soros funds everything, and on the left you guys think it is the evil Koch brothers who are behind everything. It’s just not true. If the Koch brothers didn’t exist we would still have a very healthy organisation,” Ball said.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
[Image via Shutterstock]
Scientists in Mexico herald agriculture revolution in food security push
An agriculture centre part funded by Carlos Slim and Bill Gates hopes to 'provide food security for generations' but the centre's GM research is not welcomed by everyone
Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 13.19 GMT
Scientists at a major international research centre based in Mexico say recent donations from billionaire philanthropists have taken them significantly closer to providing poor farmers with more productive, nutritional and resistant varieties of wheat and maize at a critical time.
"We believe that we are witnessing the start of a genuine new agricultural revolution that will provide food security for generations to come," Thomas Lumpkin, director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, said at this week's inauguration of facilities funded by a $25m (£16.1m) donation from Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, the world's richest person.
Lumpkin said the new laboratories and greenhouses would double research capacity at the centre, known by its Spanish abbreviation CIMMYT. The centre, famous for launching the "Green Revolution" in Mexico and south Asia in the 1960s, is located just outside Mexico City.
Lumpkin and Slim were joined at the ceremony by Bill Gates, No 2 on the global rich list, whose contributions reputedly saved the centre from going under a decade ago.
All of them stressed that a perfect storm of rising demand for basic grains, dwindling resources, new pests and the additional pressures expected from climate change could have catastrophic impacts in many parts of the world if small-scale farmers are not given affordable access to new varieties that can better cope with these challenges.
Interviewed after the event, Lumpkin said the biggest potential for doing this comes from applying technology developed in human genetic research to germ plasm. He said CIMMYT is at the vanguard of these efforts because of its massive gene banks storing 28,000 varieties of maize and 120,000 varieties of wheat.
"Before you were dealing with shadows and vague things off in the distance, but now we have a sharp focus and can see much more," Lumpkin said of the difference between the old methods of hybridisation and the new possibilities for precision picking and mixing of desired traits.
CIMMYT plans to make the information from its research easily available and understandable to breeders around the world so that they can use it to develop their own varieties specifically designed to address local problems.
More controversially, CIMMYT's revamped facilities are designed to increase the centre's capacity for transgenic research. While insisting that transgenics will remain a relatively minor part of the Mexico programme, probably reaching about 10% in the next five years, Lumpkin argues it could prove critical where manipulation of natural diversity proves insufficient.
CIMMYT scientists say it is particularly important, for example, to find ways of increasing heat tolerance in wheat varieties used in south Asia, where demand is booming and temperatures are predicted to rise dramatically in the next decade.
Lumpkin claims that when delivered by non-profit organisations such as CIMMYT, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can help tackle rural inequality by spreading technology that is currently largely limited to the developed world.
CIMMYT is already working with experimental GMO maize crops in Kenya and several other African countries using "tried and tested" traits provided for free by multinational companies under special agreements. Lumpkin says companies such as Monsanto are willing to do this when the varieties produced are designed for markets that are not commercially significant.
In Mexico, CIMMYT's GM research is limited to wheat, but the new facilities open the possibility of expanding this to much more controversial research with maize.
Mexico is a centre of origin of the crop and the country is home to a vibrant anti-transgenic movement rooted in concerns about contamination of local varieties, deep distrust of official guarantees of safety, and suspicion of the motives of proponents of these technologies.
Campaigners are trying to prevent the Mexican government authorising big commercial projects on GM maize, following a period of several years of experimental and pilot schemes they say have not been properly monitored.
"They talk about transgenics as the solution to world hunger and inequality but it is a false solution," said Greenpeace Mexico's spokesman on agriculture, Aleira Lara. "Even if it is altruistic there are risks. What we need is for the state to attend to the real problems. We need more state budgets to do things such as invest in improving irrigation systems."
CIMMYT scientists, and their billionaire backers, are careful to express their respect for Mexican sensitivities about maize, but are also committed to the idea that the potential benefits out way the risks.
At the ceremony in Mexico on Wednesday, Gates said there were "legitimate issues, but solvable issues" around GM and lauded CIMMYT's role trying to sidestep concerns about monopolisation of the technology by the multinationals. His foundation dedicates about 8% of its agricultural budget to GM-associated projects.
Land rights activists angered as India's forest act undermined
The government's decision to allow major infrastructure projects to go ahead without obtaining consent for forest clearance paves the way for the violation of village land rights, say rights groups
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 11.07 GMT
Land and tribal rights in India have been dealt a new blow after the government announced last week that major infrastructure projects will be exempt from obtaining consent for forest clearance from tribal communities living in the forest, a decision that undermines the importance of the country's Forest Rights Act.
Tribal and forest rights activists say the decision by India's ministers leaves village councils (gram sabhas) powerless to reject the building of roads, railways, transmission lines, canal systems, pipelines or other projects that potentially violate their land rights.
"This is serious breach of trust and a huge step back in ensuring the dignity and survival of traditional forest-dwelling people across the country. Forests are going to be cleared to make way for a particular kind of economic development; it will adversely impact communities and the environment," said Dr Swati Shresth, from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
The decision was adopted at a meeting convened by prime minister Manmohan Singh and attended by environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan and tribal affairs minister V Kishore Chandra Deo. "The ministry took a decision that, subject to [the] Forest Rights Act, there will not be requirement of consent of each of the gram sabhas through which such linear projects such as roads, canals, pipelines, transmission towers etc pass," said Natarajan.
The 2006 act is a landmark piece of legislation recognising the rights forest-dependent communities have over the landscape they have traditionally inhabited. It mandates that forest dwellers cannot be resettled unless their traditional rights have been recognised. It is seen as the single most important piece of legislation protecting and preserving the country's biodiversity and the rights of tribal groups. By no longer gaining the consent of communities, the government stands accused of effectively overturning key provisions of the act.
"All traditional forest-dependent communities can be impacted including those who might have procured rights under the FRA and those who are still struggling for its implementation in their area," said Shresth.
In 2009, the ministry of forests and environment (MoFE) made the consent of affected forest communities mandatory for all projects that would destroy forests. The move was in response to the attempt by British mining company Vedanta to clear swaths of forest in Orissa state belonging to the Dongria tribe. Last week's announcement effectively revokes the 2009 order.
However, the government rejects claims that it is diluting rights in the name of streamlining big business, saying it will continue to enforce the provisions of the act "where there is significant impact on lives and livelihoods".
"The proposed changes will enable land grabbing and the violation of rights of traditional forest dwellers, and sends a clear message that rights granted under the FRA are not inalienable, but subject to the whims of the government of the day," said Shresth.
Such concerns were expressed to the prime minister's office in a letter signed by a coalition of international forest rights movements. "We believe that it is against the democratic principles to make centralised decisions about the extent of social impact worth considering while diverting forests over which individuals and/or village community may have 'inalienable' forest rights vested through FRA. Overriding of such processes can lead to the danger of assuming that all rights can be monetised and negotiated," it said.
Activists say this move will allow industry to build roads or canal systems for mining projects to transport extracted minerals to the refinery.
"The only objective is mining access. Mining companies need six road highways and optical fibre installations. Tribal communities don't want this, and don't want their precious forests replaced by these. The only beneficiaries of this amendment are the mining companies. This is about GDP, not about the rights of India's tribal communities," said Sanjay Basu Mullick from the All India Forum of Forest Movements.
The order threatens the area's biodiversity, which risks discrediting India's status as the current chair of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and of the Nagoya protocol, and the implementation of these international obligations on sustainable use and protection of biodiversity.
Against a backdrop of sluggish economic growth, government ministries have been lobbying the MoFE to exempt major infrastructure projects from FRA obligations. The country's national highway authority took the MoFE and the ministry of tribal affairs to the supreme court in January, seeking FRA exemption for projects. According to the authority, 101 infrastructure projects had been frozen due to clearance delays.
"The move is part of a larger endeavour to restore investor confidence by a government facing general assembly elections in 2014. Various environmental protection rules have been seen to be responsible for a slump in the growth rate," Shresth added.