The willful idiocy of alleged ‘global temperature decline’ is based on a mirage
By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
Friday, September 27, 2013 12:09 EDT
The landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is crystal clear: human action is warming the planet and we’re heading for big trouble if carbon emissions are not slashed. As Prof Tim Palmer, at the University of Oxford put it: “The report is further reinforcement that there is an unequivocal risk of dangerous climate change.”
Yet before the ink is even dry critics are trying to obscure this stark message behind a mirage: the supposed halt in global warming over the last 15 years. This willful idiocy is based on the fact that air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have more or less plateaued since the record hot year in 1998.
What critics choose to ignore is that of all the extra heat being trapped by our greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to four Hiroshima nuclear bombs every second – just 1% ends up warming the air. By choosing to focus on air temperatures critics are ignoring 99% of the problem.
Are scientists certain that global warming has continued unabated over the last 15 years? Yes. “The best satellite data we have shows that there is still more energy going into the climate system than is going out, because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Ed Hawkins, at the University of Reading. Another Reading scientist, William Collins, said: “The climate has warmed over the last 10 years, the models are not wrong on the total heat being added.”
So where is all the heat going? About 93% goes into the oceans, much of which were largely unmonitored until the 2000s, 3% into land and 3% into melting ice.
Undue focus on the air temperature plateau is cretinous for several more reasons. First, unlike weather, climate is a long term phenomenon and can only truly be assessed over at least 30 years. While the long term warming trend is clear, scientists have long known that air temperatures do not rise smoothly year-on-year in the complex and chaotic climate system and that decade-long ups and downs are part of natural variability.
“The very first climate models built in the 1990s showed this kind of variability, so we have known about this for a long time,” said Hawkins. John Shepherd, at the UK National Oceanography Centre, said: “We should prepare for a bumpy ride, as that is what we have had in the past and that is what we will have in the future.”
Second, if air temperatures have not risen quickly in the last 15 years, other clear indicators of climate change have worsened more quickly than expected, including the rapid loss of Arctic ice and sea level rise. Critics cannot cherry pick their indicators and remain credible.
Thirdly, many scientists anticipated the so-called “pause”: it is not some shock undermining the whole edifice of climate science. A natural and periodic ocean current phenomenon called El Niño peaked in 1998, pumping heat into the air, but has been increasingly in abeyance since. Furthermore, the solar cycle peaked in 2002 and the reached its minimum in 2009, meaning a little less heat beaming down to Earth, and a number of volcanic eruptions have blocked out some sunlight in that time.
So the pause in air temperatures can be well explained and, while work remains to be done determining the exact relative importance of ocean heating, El Niño, solar cycles and volcanoes, we are still only talking about 1% of global warming. Prof David Mackay, the UK’s government’s chief energy and climate change adviser, is clear: “It is not a terrible mystery.”
Another mirage being conjured up is the debate about climate “sensitivity”, i.e. how much air temperatures rise for a given rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Some scientists have suggested the climate is less sensitive than thought and there is a genuine debate about this. But the differences being discussed are essentially irrelevant. Thomas Stocker, one to the two scientists who oversaw the IPCC report, gave this criticism short shrift: The slightly lower sensitivity being discussed would give humanity only a “few years” longer to tackle climate change, he said: “It is not really a relevant point when it comes to the relevant reductions in CO2 emissions needed to keep temperature rise under 2C.”
The estimates of climate sensitivity come out of the complex computers models used to project warming into the future. The IPCC states that the models, built on the basic laws of physics, now accurately represent a great many of the important climate phenomena. “If you are saying the models are flawed, you are saying the laws of physics are flawed,” said Tim Palmer, at the University of Oxford.
Be in no doubt, climate change is real and dangerous. In fact, the new IPCC report, written in consensus by the world’s climate experts and signed off in unison by the world’s governments, may well be too timid. That is because it is a scientific document in which the confidence in climate knowledge and predictions are assessed. It is not a risk assessment.
“If there is a 10% chance of an aircraft crashing, you would not board it, but the IPCC classes that as very unlikely,” said Ted Shepherd, at the University of Reading. The IPPC concludes there is a 50-50 chance that global temperatures will exceed 4C this century if carbon emissions are not curbed. Such a rise would have catastrophic consequences. So if you are still feeling confused about all this complex science, it all boils down to this: how lucky do you feel?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
IPCC: 30 years to climate calamity if we carry on blowing the carbon budget
Global 2C warming threshold will be breached within 30 years, leading scientists report, with humans unequivocally to blame
Fiona Harvey in Stockholm
The Guardian, Friday 27 September 2013 19.36 BST
The world's leading climate scientists have set out in detail for the first time how much more carbon dioxide humans can pour into the atmosphere without triggering dangerous levels of climate change – and concluded that more than half of that global allowance has been used up.
If people continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates, the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere could mean that within as little as two to three decades the world will face nearly inevitable warming of more than 2C, resulting in rising sea levels, heatwaves, droughts and more extreme weather.
This calculation of the world's "carbon budget" was one of the most striking findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the expert panel of global scientists who on Friday produced the most comprehensive assessment yet of our knowledge of climate change at the end of their four-day meeting in Stockholm.
The 2,000-plus page report, written by 209 lead authors, also found it was "unequivocal" that global warming was happening as a result of human actions, and that without "substantial and sustained" reductions in greenhouse gas emissions we will breach the symbolic threshold of 2C of warming, which governments around the world have pledged not to do.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, urged world leaders to pay heed to the "world's authority on climate change" and forge a new global deal on cutting emissions. "The heat is on. Now we must act," he said.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said in a statement: "This is yet another wakeup call: those who deny the science or choose excuses over action are playing with fire."
"Once again, the science grows clearer, the case grows more compelling, and the costs of inaction grow beyond anything that anyone with conscience or commonsense should be willing to even contemplate," he added.
The IPCC also rebuffed the argument made by climate sceptics that a "pause" for the last 10-15 years in the upward climb of global temperatures was evidence of flaws in their computer models. In the summary for policymakers, published on Friday morning after days of deliberations in the Swedish capital, the scientists said: "Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the northern hemisphere, 1983-2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years."
Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the report working group, said measuring recent years in comparison to 1998, an exceptionally hot year, was misleading and that temperature trends could only be observed over longer periods, of about 30 years.
Natural variability was cited as one of the reasons for warming being less pronounced in the last 15 years, and the role of the oceans in absorbing heat, which is still poorly understood.
"There are not sufficient observations of the uptake of heat, particularly into the deep ocean, that will be one of the possible mechanisms that would explain this warming hiatus," said Stocker.
But the most controversial finding of the report was its "carbon budget". Participants told the Guardian this was the last part of the summary to be decided, and the subject of hours of heated discussions in the early hours of Friday morning. Some countries were concerned that including the numbers would have political repercussions.
The scientists found that to hold warming to 2C, total emissions cannot exceed 1,000 gigatons of carbon. Yet by 2011, more than half of that total "allowance" – 531 gigatons – had already been emitted.
To ensure the budget is not exceeded, governments and businesses may have to leave valuable fossil fuel reserves unexploited. "There's a finite amount of carbon you can burn if you don't want to go over 2C," Stocker told the Guardian. "That implies if there is more than that [in fossil fuel reserves], that you leave some of that carbon in the ground."
This raises key questions of how to allocate the remaining "carbon budget" fairly among countries, an issue that some climate negotiators fear could wreck the UN climate talks, which are supposed to culminate in a global agreement on emissions in 2015.
Their other key findings in the report – the first such assessment since 2007 and only the fifth since 1988 – included:
• Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are now at levels "unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years".
• Global temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3C to 4.8C by the end of the century depending on how much governments control carbon emissions.
• Sea levels are expected to rise a further 26-82cm (10-32in) by 2100. The wide variation in part reflects the difficulty scientists still have in predicting sea level rises.
• The oceans have acidified, having absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted.
The Christian Science Monitor
Cleanest air in 50 years! How did New York do it?
By Harry Bruinius, Staff writer / September 27, 2013 at 4:45 pm EDT
Those living in American cities may not be able to go out for a nonmetaphorical “breath of fresh air” quite yet, but there are signs of a remarkable rise in the quality of the nation’s air – even though pollution remains a threat to people’s health and contributes to global warming, experts say.
The air quality in New York is the best it has been in 50 years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday.
And in Washington, D.C., the air surrounding the nation’s capital has shown “major improvement” the past few years, according to Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a nonprofit association of area leaders. The region didn’t have a single “code red” alert for dangerous air quality this summer – only the second time this has happened in 16 years, and the first since 2009.
Even Los Angeles, still the smog capital of the US, reported one-third fewer unhealthy ozone days this year compared with over a decade ago, according to the 2013 “State of the Air” analysis by the American Lung Association. And 15 of the 27 cities with the most ozone pollution improved their air quality, with 13 of the country’s most smog-polluted cities experiencing their best year yet – even though most continue to remain at dangerous levels.
Indeed, the overall quality of the nation’s air is much improved from a decade ago, according to the American Lung Association (ALA) analysis. Although some of this improvement can be attributed to a drop in energy use and travel habits since the Great Recession, it is part of larger decades-long trend since 1970, when Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the major provisions of the Clean Air Act.
Since then, air quality has steadily improved – even as energy-hungry industries and a population with a voracious appetite for carbon-based fuels have continued to expand. At the same time, however, the emissions that spew out the six most widespread air pollutants have dropped, the ALA reported.
Despite the improvements, these pollutants remain a concern for those diagnosed with asthma, diabetes, and other lung-related illnesses. And the ongoing release of carbon-based emissions continues to contribute to global warming -- which is likely to get significantly worse if efforts to limit these are not accelerated soon, according to climate scientists meeting in Stockholm, who released their report Friday.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has been outspoken during his last two terms about the need to address climate change, attributed the dramatic improvement of air quality in New York to the city’s “Clean Heat” program, which phased out the use of the most heavily polluting heating oils.
“The continued health benefits of this conversion to cleaner heating fuels will make it the single biggest step to save lives since we began our comprehensive smoking control program,” said Bloomberg, who led the ban of smoking in most public spaces in the city, even outdoors. “City government’s No. 1 responsibility, I’ve always thought, is protecting the health and safety of our people.”
The cleaner air prevented 800 deaths and led to 2,000 fewer emergency room visits and hospitalizations from lung problems, compared with 2008, the city said.
These improvements came as the city's program targeted 10,000 mostly older buildings, each with furnaces burning the highly polluting heating oils. Since 2011, 2,700 were converted to burn cleaner fuels, with another 2,500 now in the process of converting.
"The substantial reductions in air pollution we're seeing translate into healthier New Yorkers who are breathing cleaner air," said Michael Seilback, vice president for public policy and communications at the American Lung Association of the Northeast, in a statement. "As more buildings convert to cleaner-burning fuels, we will see even greater health benefits.”
Along with other state requirements for cleaner-burning fuels, these efforts have already resulted in a 69 percent drop of sulfur dioxide in the city's air since 2008. Soot pollution, too, has dropped 23 percent since 2007. And according to the city, the biggest improvements of air quality came precisely in those neighborhoods where buildings had converted their boilers to cleaner-burning fuels.
Other cities, however, have seen a decline in air quality. In August last year, San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city, fell into the EPA’s “monitored non-attainment” status, which kicks in when a region fails to meet federal ozone standards. The city also failed to meet its own air-quality goals, attributing it to a 16 percent rise in its population and an increase in local oil production.
Seven other cities saw their year-round levels of particle pollution increase, including Fresno, Calif., Allentown, Pa., and Atlanta.
"The importance of cleaner air cannot be overstated," said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. "Clean air protects public health, makes it easier for children and seniors to enjoy the outdoors, and saves taxpayer money by cutting down on hospitalizations triggered by air pollution."
Experts hailed the New York program as a model for other cities to follow.
"Everybody knows what we have to do,” Bloomberg said at Thursday’s news conference. “There's no new science here. Stop putting the stuff in the air and you will clean up the air.”
September 29th, 2013 at 4:27 PM ETOysters Reclaim Ancient Reefs in the Chesapeake
By: Rebecca Jacobson
An Oyster Recovery Partnership boat scatters oyster shells covered in oyster larvae into the tributaries of the Chesapeake. Photo by the Paynter Lab/University of Maryland.
For centuries, the oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay were so massive they rose above the surface at low tide. Maryland oystermen in 1898 collected 15 million bushels, or 5.3 billion oysters. They drew in such a profit that the creatures became known as "Chesapeake Gold." Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken waxed poetic on the shellfish, calling them "the veritable bivalve of the Chesapeake.. as large as your open hand."
New England fishermen sailed south to Maryland to poach oysters from the bay, sparking the so-called "oyster wars" of the late 19th century. Oystermen killed each other over prime harvesting grounds, and a State Oyster Police was formed to keep the peace. In the dead of night, "oyster pirates" snuck into the beds with dredges to scoop up the animals by the pound.
But a century of over-harvesting, disease and pollution took its toll on oyster habitat in the bay, and the population plunged to less than 1 percent of historic numbers.
This spelled trouble for oyster lovers, but also for the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Oyster reefs provide valuable habitat for fish, crabs and mollusks, which the fishermen rely on, said Walt Boynton, professor at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
Oysters also act as filters, providing a valuable clean up service. Nitrous phosphate runoff from wastewater, agriculture and storm runoff has broadened the bay's "dead zone" dramatically, Boynton said, killing marine life. In a process called denitrification, the mollusks gulp down nitrogen, algae and sediment and spew out cleaner, clearer water. An acre of oysters can filter 140 million gallons of water an hour and remove 3,000 pounds of nitrogen a year, said Kennedy Paynter, director of the marine environmental science program at the University of Maryland.
"That's the highest denitrification rate reported in scientific literature that we're aware of," he added.
In 1993, the Oyster Recovery Partnership -- a coalition of scientists, environmentalists, government groups and hundreds of volunteers -- mobilized to bring the oysters back to the Chesapeake. Their goal is to restore 20 historic oyster beds by 2025. But it's been Sisyphean task -- an uphill fight against limited resources and commercial fishing demands, according to Bill Goldsborough, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's oyster restoration program.
This Chesapeake Bay Program video describes the Harris Creek restoration project.
In 2010, Maryland passed the Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan, which cordoned off 24 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's viable oyster habitat for restoration.
There, scientists raise oyster larvae by the billions in hatcheries. About 100 million larvae, each no bigger than a grain of sand, can fit in a paper towel in your hand, Goldsborough said.
Outside a weather-worn lab in Shady Side, Md., scientists distribute the larvae into three enormous round tanks, each holding 3,000 gallons of brackish water and hundreds of empty oyster shells. Over the course of two to three weeks, the larvae attach to the shells and grow into black spots known as "spat."
Then the tanks are drained, and a crane dumps the shells by the ton into boats where they are lugged to the restored reef areas. Gates on the boat's stern open, and a conveyor belt sprays tons of the spat-covered shells over the waves, where they will settle and grow in clumps.
Before and after shot of a restored oyster bed. Photo by the Paynter Lab/University of Maryland.
Results have been promising, Goldsborough said. The Harris Creek restoration site has seen 52 million new oysters and 110 acres of oyster bed in 2012.
But not everyone welcomes the development. The oystermen, for example, would like to harvest the new oyster beds, but can't, said Jim Mullin, director of the Maryland Oystermen Association.
"If you're a farmer and I came to your farm and I said, 'We're going to turn this into a corn sanctuary,' you've taken those good fields out of production," he said. "We're stuck."
And what few oyster bars are open to commercial harvesting are overworked, said Tiffany Granberg, an educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
For example, when Granberg and boat captain Foster Nost drop a 40-pound dredge over the commercial oyster bed off the shores of Annapolis and drag it over the shells, they find only 12 live oysters in their haul. A natural, healthy bar averages 200 to 300 oysters per square meter, Granberg said.
The recovery projects also face obstacles. The larvae won't grow on the muddy estuary floor, so restoring the oyster beds requires thousands of shells for larvae to grow on, Goldsborough said. But shells are in short supply. So scientists have placed chunks of concrete from demolished bridges and concrete igloos called "reef balls" as substitute ancient reefs.
That isn't cheap -- the Oyster Recovery Partnership website states that at a cost of $5,000 to plant 500,000 oysters, lack of funding is holding back further oyster restoration. Meanwhile, the budding oyster reefs are still vulnerable to poachers, Paynter said:
"It's like leaving a bank vault open and expecting no one to take the money."
For Nost, bringing back the oysters is about more than just ecology or business. It's about restoring the state's cultural heritage, he said.
"This is our habitat. This is our reef," he shouted over the roar of the boat's motor, gesturing to the miles of open water around him. "It didn't get any better than oystering in Maryland."
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8TNeusghYs
Ocean acidification due to carbon emissions is at highest for 300 million years
By Fiona Harvey, The Guardian
Thursday, October 3, 2013 7:08 EDT
Overfishing and pollution are part of the problem, scientists say, warning that mass extinction of species may be inevitable
The oceans are more acidic now than they have been for at least 300m years, due to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and a mass extinction of key species may already be almost inevitable as a result, leading marine scientists warned on Thursday.
An international audit of the health of the oceans has found that overfishing and pollution are also contributing to the crisis, in a deadly combination of destructive forces that are imperilling marine life, on which billions of people depend for their nutrition and livelihood.
In the starkest warning yet of the threat to ocean health, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) said: “This [acidification] is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun.” It published its findings in the State of the Oceans report, collated every two years from global monitoring and other research studies.
Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University, said: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”
Coral is particularly at risk. Increased acidity dissolves the calcium carbonate skeletons that form the structure of reefs, and increasing temperatures lead to bleaching where the corals lose symbiotic algae they rely on. The report says that world governments’ current pledges to curb carbon emissions would not go far enough or fast enough to save many of the world’s reefs. There is a time lag of several decades between the carbon being emitted and the effects on seas, meaning that further acidification and further warming of the oceans are inevitable, even if we drastically reduce emissions very quickly. There is as yet little sign of that, with global greenhouse gas output still rising.
Corals are vital to the health of fisheries, because they act as nurseries to young fish and smaller species that provide food for bigger ones.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the seas – at least a third of the carbon that humans have released has been dissolved in this way, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and makes them more acidic. But IPSO found the situation was even more dire than that laid out by the world’s top climate scientists in their landmark report last week.
In absorbing carbon and heat from the atmosphere, the world’s oceans have shielded humans from the worst effects of global warming, the marine scientists said. This has slowed the rate of climate change on land, but its profound effects on marine life are only now being understood.
Acidification harms marine creatures that rely on calcium carbonate to build coral reefs and shells, as well as plankton, and the fish that rely on them. Jane Lubchenco, former director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a marine biologist, said the effects were already being felt in some oyster fisheries, where young larvae were failing to develop properly in areas where the acid rates are higher, such as on the west coast of the US. “You can actually see this happening,” she said. “It’s not something a long way into the future. It is a very big problem.”
But the chemical changes in the ocean go further, said Rogers. Marine animals use chemical signals to perceive their environment and locate prey and predators, and there is evidence that their ability to do so is being impaired in some species.
Trevor Manuel, a South African government minister and co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, called the report “a deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans”.
“Unless we restore the ocean’s health, we will experience the consequences on prosperity, wellbeing and development. Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important,” he said.
Current rates of carbon release into the oceans are 10 times faster than those before the last major species extinction, which was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum extinction, about 55m years ago. The IPSO scientists can tell that the current ocean acidification is the highest for 300m years from geological records.
They called for strong action by governments to limit carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to no more than 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. That would require urgent and deep reductions in fossil fuel use.
No country in the world is properly tackling overfishing, the report found, and almost two thirds are failing badly. At least 70 per cent of the world’s fish populations are over-exploited. Giving local communities more control over their fisheries, and favouring small-scale operators over large commercial vessels would help this, the report found. Subsidies that drive overcapacity in fishing fleets should also be eliminated, marine conservation zones set up and destructive fishing equipment should be banned. There should also be better governance of the areas of ocean beyond countries’ national limits.
The IPSO report also found the oceans were being “deoxygenated” – their average oxygen content is likely to fall by as much as 7 per cent by 2100, partly because of the run-off of fertilisers and sewage into the seas, and also as a side-effect of global warming. The reduction of oxygen is a concern as areas of severe depletion become effectively dead.
Rogers said: “People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems. Phytoplankton produce 40 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90 per cent of all life is in the oceans. Because the oceans are so vast, there are still areas we have never really seen. We have a very poor grasp of some of the biochemical processes in the world’s biggest ecosystem.”
The five chapters of which the State of the Oceans report is a summary have been published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, a peer-reviewed journal.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Drilling in the Arctic - what is the environmental impact?
Greenpeace activists have been charged with piracy for their protest on a Gazprom oil rig. But what are they protesting about and what is the justification for their claims? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.
theguardian.com, Wednesday 2 October 2013 18.48 BST
What are the risks of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic? What are the risks of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic?
Greenpeace's assertion that the drilling industry is unprepared, in fact unable, to clean up a major Arctic oil spill is resoundingly seconded by scientists. We do not have the technology, nor the infrastructure, to deal with the specific challenges of a disaster in this region.
But Arctic oil extraction is in no way a new thing. Statoil has been operating in ice-free areas of the Arctic circle for 20 years. This means the industry has developed certain technologies which help it to avert accidents. It also means that there are places in the Arctic that are safer to drill than others.
Oil exploration in the north is driven by the demands of the market. But the market is sending mixed messages. On one hand are high costs, questions over technology, competition from other energy resources and geopolitical uncertainty. On the other hand is the world's insatiable hunger for energy. These combine to make Arctic oil a mercurial economic proposal. Although countries like Russia have more to gain in the region than others.
A key point is that controlling the Arctic future and ensuring good practice will require transparency on the part of drillers. A questionable prospect with companies such as Gazprom and Rosneft. The adversarial actions of Greenpeace could have two opposing effects. They may force accountability on oil companies, but they may also serve to drive them further into the dark.
On a slightly different note, many of the comments today have focussed on the piracy charges against the Greenpeace protesters rather than the question of the audit. This raises a question about whether the civil liberties case of the activists has obscured the environmental message.
Today's resounding (and scary) scientific consensus is that an oil spill in the Arctic is inevitable if drilling progresses. If this is so, shouldn't we support research into safer practices? Or should we simply be pulling out of the region altogether.
How we clean up an oil spill is a very different issue to how we supply the energy demands of the future. But in the Arctic these two questions collide. Climate change, contributed to by fossil fuel emissions, opens up new regions for the extraction of more fossil fuels. It's a catch-22 that can only be solved by a halt to drilling. Greenpeace have obviously become an effective thorn in the side of big Arctic oil. But realpolitik and the market may well decide the future of the north, rather than a protest movement.
Updated at 7.32am BST
For the record
I approached Shell, BP and Cairn Energy about their past operations and future plans in the Arctic. All of them declined to comment saying they were not currently drilling in the region.
From the environmental audit committee
Parliamentary green watchdog, the environmental audit committee, produced a report last year on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and the safety of oil and gas drilling in the region.
The committee said:
It [the report] concluded that the lack of proven oil spill response techniques makes exploring for new reserves in the extreme Arctic environment needlessly risky. The MPs also pointed out that the world already has more proven oil and gas reserves than can be burnt without exceeding a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees – widely regarded as a dangerous threshold.
The report called for a moratorium on Arctic oil and gas drilling, and challenged the UK government – which supports drilling by UK companies like Shell in the Arctic - to set out how future Arctic oil and gas extraction could be reconciled with its commitment to limit global temperature increases to below 2C.
Joan Walley, chair of the committee, said:
“Protecting the Arctic should automatically be high on the political agenda. It should not be left to peaceful protesters to insist that risks from oil exploitation in this fragile environment be urgently addressed.
“There should be informed international dialogue and action and I hope our report and follow up to it can be part of the process for tackling the threats that the Greenpeace protesters have so graphically exposed.”
“The government has sadly not been very receptive to our recommendations, but did at least acknowledge the need for an Arctic strategy cutting across the remits of all relevant government departments. We will be scrutinising that policy framework carefully when it is produced.”
Updated at 5.49pm BST
More scientific reaction
Professor Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway's department of geography, says:
"... drilling in the Arctic varies so very greatly depending on where you are talking about e.g. Northern Norway is very different to say Alaska. Offshore drilling is less well developed compared to onshore. And places like the Hibernia development is arguably more challenging in the sub-Arctic than parts of the so-called blue Arctic north of Scandinavia ... so geography matters.
"My own view is that the environmental impact needs to be juxtaposed with social-cultural impact as well as possible benefits. In Greenland, opinion is divided and one thing to be clear on is that northern communities are not always opposed to resource extraction. The issue is sharing and consultation as well as regulation."
Dr Simon Boxall from the University of Southampton says that, at present, Arctic drilling does not have the technology to clean up a spill.
"Companies will say that it won't happen, we've got so many fail-safes these days that it's a perfectly safe operation. But there's no such thing as a fail-safe. If there was a a fail-safe, we wouldn't have planes crashing... Human error and humans cutting corners means that accidents happen. And there will be a spill in the Arctic. And as with the Gulf of Mexico it'll probably be fumbling in the dark a bit, dealing with it as it happens."
But Boxall says that the Arctic climate means an oil spill in the far north could be much harder to clean up than the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The environment in the tropics and certainly in the Gulf of Mexico is such that nature kicks in and it deals with oil that gets spilt in the tropics very efficiently. Even in fairly temperate climates, bacteria take over and they clean up what we leave behind. Now in the Arctic things are very different. In the Arctic it's much much colder first of all, which means that the whole process takes much longer. So we have a problem, the fact that we are putting our oil in the fridge and that keeps it in its natural state.
"Problem number two is the spill, when it happens, whether it's from a tanker, whether it's from a drill operation if it's close to the ice edge, will go under the ice and we have no research and no experience with a spill that goes under ice.
"Problem number three is that we are working in a remote part of the world. In the Gulf of Mexico we are close to big international airports, we can get big heavy equipment in. There are ships sitting there, there's big industry there. There are small ships ready to deal with clean up and that sort of thing. That infrastructure doesn't exist in the Arctic."
Boxall says that the issue is complicated by the need to find new reserves of oil:
"There are lots of unknowns in terms of what happens. So scientifically, I suppose, our role is to say, what are the problems? What are the solutions? The problems are oil won't break down quickly, it will be diffuclt to tackle and we don't have models and detailed methodology for dealing with oil in that kind of climate. What are the positives? There's lots of oil up there. So it's a balance between are we ready to go oil free yet as a society? And the answer is no. Personally, I'm not a great fan of exploring the Arctic but I can see that there is an imperative almost that if we don't start exploring less suitable places then we are going to run out of oil."
Updated at 5.34pm BST
"I have read nothing that makes me feel this issue is properly understood"
Reaction is coming in quickly now so stay tuned for further updates.
The Guardian's energy editor, Terry Macalister, has written extensively on this topic, including an e-book called Polar Opposites, Opportunities and Threats in the Arctic, published last year.
Today he writes of the need for transparency from exploration companies:
The oil industry is looking down a telescope from the wrong end. To them the Arctic area is just another geological prospect to be looked at like any other. Big Oil has been spurred on by US Geological Surveyors who claim a quarter of the recoverable hydrocarbon reserves may lie there.
But the far north is a special area - one of the world’s last pieces of wilderness - and should be recognised as such: a priceless environmental gem, like Antarctica which is guarded by international treaty.
Much of the Arctic is untouched by human footprint and there is an array of unique animal species which live there and are already in danger. The fact that it is one of the places in the world that is most exposed to climate change makes it ironic, if nothing else, that the oil industry is determined to extract more fossil fuels there.
Drilling for oil is a messy business at the best of times. Look at pictures of the early days of Baku to see what impact it can have on the environment, or more recently of course the beaches off the Gulf of Mexico.
BP was able to call upon dozens of marine craft to help with the Macondo blowout at short notice. Obtaining the same kind of support would have been much harder had there been an oil spill off Greenland when Cairn Energy was drilling there.
There are all sorts of special problems that arise with working in the Arctic, not least the exact impact of a crude spill in ice conditions. I have read nothing that makes me feel this issue is properly understood.
Equally Cairn and the Greenland government both seemed queasy about releasing details in public of oil spill plans. That secrecy gets to the heart of the problems in the far north today.
The littoral states that surround the Arctic Ocean would like the rest of the world to leave them alone to explore for oil, iron ore or just tourist opportunities, none more so than Russia where the government expects to get its own way on most things and does not recognise any right to scrutiny by outside interests, certainly not environmentalists.
But if the Arctic is to be left purely to the control of the surrounding countries then they owe the rest of the world one thing at least: transparency. In the absence of this we need someone to act boldly as our eyes and ears: if not Greenpeace then who?
Updated at 5.19pm BST
Professor Rick Steiner from Oasis Earth Sustainability Consultancy wrote this assessment of what he says are the inherent and unavoidable risks of Arctic exploration. I highly recommend a full read of the document as Steiner goes to the heart of today's Eco Audit question.
"Put simply oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be done safely – there will be chronic degradation, there will be spills. So the policy question is whether we wish to expose the Arctic Ocean and its people to such risk.
"And, perhaps a larger issue is that all of the carbon produced from the Arctic seabed will ultimately be emitted into the global atmosphere and oceans, further compounding climate change that is already devastating the Arctic ecosystem."
Reaction from NGOs
Louise Rouse from NGO ShareAction says there are many examples of the oil industry's unpreparedness to move into the challenging Arctic region:
In the case of Russian Arctic projects, the risks that Shell – one of the most advanced and experienced oil companies in the world – could not successfully navigate are compounded by a lack of relevant experience by the two Russian companies with exclusive rights to drill in the Russian Arctic and with whom international oil companies like Shell are entering into alliances – Rosneft and Gazprom.
Arctic oil and gas exploration presents new and unique challenges to the oil industry. These challenges are compounded in the Russian Arctic by Gazprom and Rosneft’s lack of experience of offshore projects at senior level, poor environmental and health and safety track records, a lack of transparency in company reporting and questionable corporate practices at board level. These unpredictable and risky corporate practices are compounded by a complex political regime that is currently divided over the future of the Russian energy sector. In this context, the rush to gain access to the Russian Arctic seas through JVs with and/or share acquisitions in Russian oil and gas giants, Gazprom and Rosneft, is worthy of investor scrutiny.
To illustrate this lack of experience:
Has never brought an offshore project to extraction stage as operator.
Responsible for 2,727 or 75% of spills in Russia’s largest oil province Yugra in 2011 while extracting only 25% of the total regional output that year.
Still lacks sufficient expertise at appropriate levels despite recent appointments.
The Kolskaya rig sank, killing 53 of its 67 crew after Gazprom’s subsidiary Gazflot continued drilling outside of the approved season and without carrying out all necessary assessments
No member of the board of directors has specific offshore experience or with special responsibility for offshore projects
Has taken no steps to address the lack of offshore drilling expertise or oversight at board level.
Gazprom’s headline Arctic JV with Total and Statoil, which was to operate the massive Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, fell apart in 2012 after years of delays, a cost rise from $20bn to $40bn and lack of clarity over fiscal conditions made extraction economically unfeasible.
A oil rush?
One of the major narratives the green movement has been propagating is that of an oil and gas rush with irresponsible companies storming north trying to beat one another to tap newly available reserves.
But an article by Paul Betts in Oil Magazine suggests otherwise. "After a period of "irrational exuberance," the pace in the Arctic is slowing. In the last year; Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Statoil have stopped drilling, and Gazprom has suspended the Shtokman project," he says.
Betts says the industry may have gotten ahead of itself in its excitement at new opportunities presented by retreating sea ice. He said it was clear that the industry had become "increasingly skeptical about the ability of oil companies - at least for now - to drill, extract and ship the oil and gas safely in the extreme weather and sea conditions of this remote region".
The enormous costs of developing new technologies was a deterrent to investment he said. As well as embarrassing incidents such as the grounding of a Shell rig in January 2013, which highlighted the difficulty of operating in the storm torn seas of the north.
Betts says these costs, when combined with low oil prices and competition from new energy resources like coal-seam gas and LNG, mean that the Arctic region has become less enticing for oil companies.
A report by consultancy firm Ernst and Young said Arctic exploration is "not for the faint of heart, nor for those with less than deep pockets".
Betts says extra pressure is being applied to companies by uncertainty over the geopolitics of the Arctic. Russia is one of the key drivers of Arctic exploration. Oil and gas resources in the region are key to Russia's geopolitical strategy and energy security. "Russia, however, is also fully aware that it cannot do this by itself and that the development of the oil and gas sector, particularly offshore, depends to some extent of the participation and cooperation of Western oil companies," says Betts.
Reaction from drilling industry
Statoil spokesperson Bård Glad Pedersen says the Norwegian oil and gas company is exploring the Arctic through a step-by-step approach that builds on decades of experience in cold water regions.
"Statoil have taken a step-wise approach to the Arctic. A prerequisite to any activity or any drilling is that we are able to do it safely and responsibly. We have 20 years experience from the Norwegian Barents Sea in ice free areas. We have around 90 wells and also made large discoveries. Currently we are drilling in ice free areas or ice free periods of the year.
"I think this step-wise approach where you develop competence. experience and technology to take on new challenges going forward is the right approach to have. We will not move faster into the Arctic than technology allows us to make sure than we are able to do it safely."
He says different Arctic regions offer different challenges to drilling companies:
"It is important to understand that there are different areas within the Arctic that present different challenges. A substantial part of the Arctic is ice-free. But it could be areas which are dark, remote and maybe you could have icing of equipment so you need to take those challenges seriously. I think we are able to do that.
"Where there's no ice you need to have heating equipment and insulation to avoid freezing on the rigs. On the east coast of Canada, where we recently made a large oil discovery, you need to have a system to manage icebergs who occasionally drift by. We have ships in place to tow them on to different routes. In this area there has been oil and gas activity for years and you have these systems developed."
On the activities of other Arctic exploration companies, he said: "I think there is a general understanding of the challenges in the Arctic and the need to develop technology and competence."
The great hope of the energy industry
Oil Magazine, an energy industry quarterly, devoted the whole of its March 2013 issue to Arctic energy exploration. Disappearing Arctic sea ice is seen as a huge opportunity for an energy industry seeking new reserves of fossil fuels. "20% of the world's unexplored gas and oil potential lies in the Arctic," says Oil.
"The new frontier of energy procurement runs along the Arctic Circle," says editor-in-chief, Gianni di Giovanni.
Economist Geminello Alvi writes: "With the melting of the ice, this most inhospitable of areas might one day be green again, and even inhabited, as in the myths about the Hyperboreans."
It is clear from reading Oil that the energy industry sees an exciting future beneath the Arctic seas. But Oil journalist Moisés Naím says: "Critical environmental, technological, political and institutional questions remain unanswered."
Naím says the impacts of climate change have led to inevitable interest from oil and gas companies as the retreating sea ice exposes large, untapped resources: "The trend, then is for climate change to make the region more accessible, bolstering the attraction to the Arctic's wealth of oil, gas, and mineral supplies."
But Naím says the cost implications should mean exploration is cautious and mindful of the delicate Arctic environment: "Limiting the costs and damages associated with industrial development, climate change, pollution, natural resource extraction, and disturbance to the precious ecosystem must be prioritized and monitored with great attention."
Naím identifies two extreme futures for the Arctic. An anarchic, exploitative future where poor governance, activism and pollution are rife and a sustainable, harmonious future in which governments, energy companies and NGOs cooperate to decide on best practice exploration. He admits that the second alternative seems utopian.
Updated at 2.35pm BST
The key arguments put forward by Greenpeace
Greenpeace identifies two distinct threats posed by drilling in the Arctic. One is the immediate threat of an oil spill. Greenpeace claims oil companies do not have appropriate risk mitigation against this kind of accident.
The indirect threat to the Arctic ecosystem posed by climate change and the fossil fuel industry's contribution to carbon emissions is the underpinning motivation for Greenpeace's actions. Diminishing Arctic sea ice poses a direct threat to the Arctic's biodiversity and eventually to the planet, say Greenpeace.
Their website says Arctic oil exploration is being assisted by the melting ice:
The fragile Arctic is under threat from both climate change and oil drilling. As climate change melts the Arctic ice, oil companies are moving in to extract more of the fossil fuels that caused the melt in the first place. But above the Arctic circle, freezing temperatures, a narrow drilling window and a remote location mean that an oil spill would be almost impossible to deal with. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen. Greenpeace is working to halt climate change and to stop this new oil rush at the top of the world.
Shell has been a particular target of Greenpeace. To examine some of Greenpeace's claims against the Dutch and British-owned company you can read a list of their charges against them. Mostly Greenpeace says it is concerned about the company's unpreparedness to contain any accident.
"The Arctic is the air conditioner and the refrigerator of the planet and what happens here affect all of us," says Kumi Naidoo in this interview with Bill Moyers.
Updated at 2.36pm BST
Welcome to the eco audit
Russia today charged Greenpeace activists with piracy for their protest action on a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic Circle. Russia's police action and the potential for draconian punishments (piracy carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in Russia) is "the most serious threat to Greenpeace's peaceful environmental activism" since the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, according to Greenpeace executive director, Kumi Naidoo.
Apart from Greenpeace's right to protest, what is at stake in the Arctic? And why is Greenpeace so concerned about Arctic drilling in particular?
Today I will be talking to experts, industry and scientists about the potential environmental impacts of an Arctic energy rush.
You too can help with the investigation. Please write your thoughts in the comments below, or tweet me, or email me. If you are quoting figures or studies, please provide a link through to the original source. Later I will return with my own verdict.
Ecuador's parliament gives the green light to oil drilling in Yasuni
MPs authorise drilling in Amazon rainforest after failure of Rafael Correa's plan to persuade rich nations to protect it
Reuters in Quito
theguardian.com, Friday 4 October 2013 03.26 BST
Ecuador's parliament has authorised drilling of the nation's largest oilfields in part of the Amazon rainforest after the failure of President Rafael Correa's plan to have rich nations pay to avoid its exploitation.
Correa launched the initiative in 2007 to protect the Yasuni jungle area, which boasts some of the planet's most diverse wildlife, but scrapped it after attracting only a small fraction of the $3.6bn (£2.2bn) sought.
On Thursday the government-dominated National Assembly authorised drilling in two areas, but attached conditions to minimise the impact on the environment and local tribes.
Correa says the estimated $22bn earnings potential will be used to combat poverty, but there have been protests from indigenous groups and green campaigners. About 680,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum.
"We want them to respect our territory," Alicia Cauilla, a representative of the Waorani people who live around the Yasuni area, said in an appeal to the assembly. "Let us live how we want."
Correa has played down the potential impact of drilling in the area, saying it would affect only 0.01% of the Yasuni basin.
Correa has won broad popular support among Ecuador's poor with heavy spending on welfare, health, education and infrastructure projects. He says it is essential for the country to expand its oil reserves to allow more state spending.
Oil output in Opec's smallest member state has stagnated since 2010, when the government asked oil investors to sign less-profitable service contracts or leave the country. Since then, oil companies have not invested in exploration.
The state oil company Petroamazonas will be in charge of extraction in blocks 43 and 31, which are estimated to hold 800m barrels of crude and are projected to eventually yield 225,000 barrels a day. Ecuador currently produces 540,000 bpd.
Fracking produces annual toxic waste water enough to flood Washington DC
Growing concerns over radiation risks as report finds widespread environmental damage on an unimaginable scale in the US
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 4 October 2013 12.01 BST
Fracking in America generated 280bn US gallons of toxic waste water last year – enough to flood all of Washington DC beneath a 22ft deep toxic lagoon, a new report out on Thursday found.
The report from campaign group Environment America said America's transformation into an energy superpower was exacting growing costs on the environment.
"Our analysis shows that damage from fracking is widespread and occurs on a scale unimagined just a few years ago," the report, Fracking by the Numbers, said.
The full extent of the damage posed by fracking to air and water quality had yet to emerge, the report said.
But it concluded: "Even the limited data that are currently available, however, paint an increasingly clear picture of the damage that fracking has done to our environment and health."
A number of recent studies have highlighted the negative consequences of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which have unlocked vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas from rock formations.
There have been instances of contaminated wells and streams, as well as evidence of methane releases along the production chain.
The Environment America report highlights another growing area of concern – the safe disposal of the billions of gallons of waste water that are returned to the surface along with oil and gas when walls are fracked.
The authors said they relied on data from industry and state environmental regulators to compile their report.
More than 80,000 wells have been drilled or permitted in 17 states since 2005.
It can take 2m to 9m gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to frack a single well. The report said the drilling industry had used 250bn gallons of fresh water since 2005. Much of that returns to the surface, however, along with naturally occurring radium and bromides, and concerns are growing about those effects on the environment.
A study published this week by researchers at Duke University found new evidence of radiation risks from drilling waste water. The researchers said sediment samples collected downstream from a treatment plant in western Pennsylvania showed radium concentrations 200 times above normal.
The Environment America study said waste water pits have been known to fail, such as in New Mexico where there were more than 420 instances of contamination, and that treatment plants were not entirely effective.
"Fracking waste-water discharged at treatment plants can cause a different problem for drinking water: when bromide in the wastewater mixes with chlorine (often used at drinking water treatment plants), it produces trihalomethanes, chemicals that cause cancer and increase the risk of reproductive or developmental health problems," the report said.
Other consequences of fracking highlighted in the report included: 450,000 tons of air pollution a year and 100m metric tons of global warming pollution since 2005.
US surpasses Russia as world's top oil and natural gas producer
New drilling techniques extract oil and gas from US shale rock formations, putting the country's output at 25m barrels per day
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 4 October 2013 21.13 BST
The US was on pace to achieve global energy domination on Friday, overtaking Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil and natural gas producer.
New estimates released on Friday by the Energy Information Administration showed America pulling ahead of both countries in oil and natural gas production for 2013.
The rise to the top was fuelled by new drilling techniques, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which have unlocked vast quantities of oil and gas from shale rock formations – especially in North Dakota and Texas.
America was on track to produce just under 25m barrels a day of oil, natural gas and related fuels, the EIA said. Russia was just under 22m barrels a day.
America had already surpassed Russia in natural gas production last year, pulling ahead for the first time since 1982.
But this was the first year the US was on pace to surpass Russia in production of both oil and natural gas.
"Total petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbon production estimates for the United States and Russia for 2011 and 2012 were roughly equivalent — within 1 quadrillion Btu of one another," the EIA said. "In 2013, however, the production estimates widen out, with the United States expected to outproduce Russia by five quadrillion Btu," the agency said.
Most of the new oil was coming from the western states. Oil production in Texas has more than doubled since 2010. In North Dakota, it has tripled, and Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah have also shown steep rises in oil production over the same three years, according to EIA data.
But the EIA said the new natural gas production was coming from across the eastern United States.
Russia is believed to hold one of the world's largest oil-bearing shale formations. But the industry has lagged behind America in its embrace of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to get at the oil and gas.
Meanwhile, energy firms are stepping up production from North Dakota and Texas. Earlier reports from the EIA suggests the trend will continue. The EIA said earlier that US crude oil production rose to an average of 7.6m barrels a day in August, the highest monthly totals since 1989.
It forecast total oil production would average 7.5m barrels a day throughout the year, rising to 8.4m barrels a day in 2014.
10/04/2013 11:53 AM
Screaming for Quiet: Germans Crank Up Anti-Noise Protests
By Matthias Bartsch
Many Germans are growing fed up with all the noise pollution coming from planes, trains and automobiles. Despite numerous studies warning of associated health risks, politicians are merely giving lip service to the worries.
Her life unfolds between trains, says Sandra Pohl, during breaks in the train schedule. She is standing at the living-room window in her house, gazing down at the Rhine River, where cruise vessels are battling the current against a backdrop of vineyards and medieval castles.
It's a quietly idyllic scene.
But Pohl, 43, knows what's coming next. It starts as a faint whooshing noise and gradually grows louder until it's a deafening roar. Suddenly Pohl sees massive, dark freight cars as they clatter along the rails a few steps from her living-room window, causing the walls of the house to shake. "This is how it goes day after day," says Pohl, "around the clock."
For more than a century, railroad tracks have cut through the town of Lorchhausen, on the border between the two western German states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate. Well over 100 trains, many of them freight trains, rumble through the town every day on their journey through the Rhine Valley, between the cities of Koblenz and Wiesbaden. There are about 60 trains a night -- every night -- between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The Pohl family got used to having the trains practically in their front yard a long time ago. Sandra grew up in the house, and her grandfather was the local stationmaster. But today she can't stand the noise anymore, she says, noting that the number of freight trains traveling along the route is constantly rising.
Transportation experts expect that number to grow even more in about four years, when the Gotthard Base Tunnel in the Alps is scheduled for completion. It will provide a fast rail connection from the Dutch port of Rotterdam to the Mediterranean -- through the Rhine Valley.
This has prompted Pohl to follow the lead of many others in Germany who live near rail lines, airports, highways or heavily trafficked downtown streets: She has joined a citizens' initiative to protest the noise, which she fears will adversely affect her health and that of her two children in the long run.
The victims of railroad noise in the Rhine Valley have teamed up with victims of airport noise in the Frankfurt region, and they are now calling for joint demonstrations in Wiesbaden and Mainz, the respective state capitals of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate. For almost two years now, hundreds of local residents have gathered weekly in the departure hall of Frankfurt Airport, the country's busiest air hub, to protest the noise resulting from the airport's new runway. Citizens are also staging frequent protests against aircraft noise in Berlin, Cologne and Leipzig, as well as along the approach path to the Zurich Airport, in Switzerland.
Residents are no longer willing to accept such noise. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, for example, locals are fighting noise pollution from old tank-car trains on the route between Berlin and an oil refinery in the town of Schwedt. And citizens' initiatives from eastern Holstein in the north are protesting a planned railroad tunnel through the Fehmarn Belt, a strait in the Baltic Sea between Germany and Denmark, because it will spit out large numbers of freight trains that will then rumble through the villages of northern Germany.
Car noise is also triggering protests, for example, along the A1 autobahn in the northern Münsterland region, which is currently being expanded to six lanes, as well as along busy roads in cities across the country. Officials in Hamburg are considering a nighttime speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour (19 mph) on arterial roads.
Their concerns are justified. "Noise is the most heavily underestimated environmental problem in Germany," says Jochen Flasbarth, president of the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA). In a representative survey conducted by the agency in 2010, half of all respondents complained about road noise while one in three objected to aircraft noise. And residents' sensitivity to noise has only increased since then, says René Weinandy, a noise expert at the UBA.
Experts and doctors overwhelmingly agree that long-term exposure to noise can cause serious and even life-threatening illnesses. But they are still at odds over the questions of how much noise is harmful and what the consequences are. Some studies and scenarios make dire predictions. The UBA, for example, estimates that traffic noise triggers some 4,000 heart attacks in Germany each year. And the European Union calculates that the social costs of traffic noise resulting, for example, from additional health care expenditures reach about €40 billion a year.
Lawmakers are reacting with campaign promises. When Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), encountered protesting Rhine Valley residents during a campaign appearance in Koblenz in mid-September, she said vaguely: "We have to do something about this."
Residents plagued by aircraft noise in the Frankfurt region have also heard the state governor, Volker Bouffier (CDU), frequently say that things would have to "quiet down" at the airport. But the steps announced so far haven't accomplished much. On the contrary, a new takeoff flight path in the southwestern part of the airport, which was built partly in response to the problem of noise pollution, was cancelled by the state's highest administrative court.
In their campaign platforms for the recent national election, all parties with seats in the parliament, the Bundestag, called for less noise. But in most cases they merely followed up this demand with non-specific announcements and promises that things would improve at some point in the distant future.
How Noise Affects Health
But the noisy present is easily experienced during a visit to the Rhine Valley. According to official readings, the trains generate noise levels of up to 110 decibels. This corresponds to the amount of noise made by a chainsaw being operated at full power heard from a distance of one meter (3.3 feet). The soundproofing windows Sandra Pohl had installed in her house can do little to offset such high noise levels. "I often don't sleep well, wake up several times every night and then feel exhausted when I go to work," she says.
Living with this much noise isn't just annoying; as numerous scientific studies have shown, it's also very unhealthy. For example, it increases the risk of:
Heart attacks: According to a University of Bern study, for which data from 4.6 million people was analyzed, average noise levels of a little more than 45 decibels are already enough to increase the risk of heart attack, and for longer-term exposure, it even increases by up to 2.2 times;
High blood pressure: According to a study funded by the European Commission and involving close to 5,000 people living near the airports in Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, London, Milan and Stockholm, an increase of 10 decibels at night raises the risk of high blood pressure by about 14 percent. The researchers found similar effects among Berlin residents exposed to street noise;
Cardiovascular illnesses: As part of a study for the UBA, Bremen epidemiologist Eberhard Greiser analyzed data for a million people living near Cologne/Bonn Airport. They found that the risk of cardiovascular illnesses increases noticeably with prolonged exposure to noise levels of only 40 decibels. On average, men and women living near the airport took significantly more medications against high blood pressure, depression and sleep disorders.
Two-and-a-half months ago, a team headed by Mainz cardiologist Thomas Münzel provided a substantiated medical explanation for all of these observations. They had connected 75 volunteers aged 20 to 60 to blood pressure and heart rate monitors for several nights, and had exposed them to the simulated noise of landing aircraft on an MP3 player up to 60 times a night. After waking up, the subjects were also examined with ultrasound diagnostic equipment.
"The results clearly show that aircraft noise, even at relatively low noise levels, causes damage to the blood vessels," says Münzel. The study found that nighttime traffic noise raises blood pressure, causes the release of stress hormones, such as adrenalin, and stiffens blood vessels. In the long term, this can trigger chronic cardiovascular diseases, even to the point of life-threatening heart attacks.
The Mainz researchers were especially alarmed by the fact that they were unable to discern any adaptation effects even after the noise exposure procedure was repeated several times. "Blood pressure rises regardless of whether you wake up from the noise or not," says heart specialist Münzel. He notes that stress on the blood vessels was also observed in those subjects who claim to have gotten used to the noise.
Assaulted by Noise
At present, such conclusions are of little practical value to people living in noisy areas. Erich Zielke, for example, has been living with aircraft noise for decades. His house is in Flörsheim, a town in Hesse just a few kilometers from one of the world's biggest airports.
In the past, the 71-year-old retiree says, planes taking off from Frankfurt Airport flew close to Flörsheim but not directly above it, and that was loud enough already. But since Oct. 21, 2011, when the new runway was opened, Zielke's house has been directly along the approach path -- where the aircraft, with their landing gear extended, roar above roofs at an altitude of about 270 meters (885 feet). "It's murder," says Zielke.
When the wind is coming from the east, Zielke often hears the noise from a landing plane for two or three minutes inside his house. One doesn't have to read the many medical reports and doctors' letters the retiree has collected to notice that the noise isn't good for his health. He speaks quickly as he talks about his tinnitus, hearing problems, hypertension, chest pressure and the feeling that his heart often seems to skip a beat and sometimes even stop for a moment.
Zielke has been taking strong medications since he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder. He seems desperate and hardly knows what to do anymore. In May, he filed a complaint against the CEO of Fraport, the company that operates Frankfurt Airport -- for assault.
But how is Zielke supposed to prove that the noise is responsible for his conditions? After all, people living in very quiet areas also have heart trouble. And besides, say airport officials, they obtained all the necessary permits for the expansion and operation of the runway, received the approval of the highest courts and do not exceed legal noise limits. In other words, they point out, everything is just fine.
Improperly Calculating Exposure
"Oh, the noise limits," groans Rainer Guski, an environmental psychologist at Ruhr University Bochum. "They're political and not medical values, negotiated by interest groups." And the lobby of those responsible for the noise is bigger and more powerful than most others. The transportation sector includes the airline, auto and logistics industries. Together, they provide millions of jobs and billions of euros in tax revenues.
For the most part, the laws are written from the standpoint of those who produce the noise. When Deutsche Bahn plans a new route, as it is currently doing in Frankfurt's southern Niederrad district, it has to ensure that it remains within the limits stipulated for the project. The fact that local residents already suffer from noise coming from one of the two main approach paths to Frankfurt Airport as well as a busy takeoff route, and that the A5 autobahn, now expanded to eight lanes, isn't far away, doesn't play a role in the approval process.
"They don't take the overall burden on local residents into account. Instead, they address each individual noise source on its own," Guski complains. "This is a huge problem for those people exposed to the combined noise from many sources."
Many experts also believe that standardized noise calculation methods are not well suited to measuring the burden on residents. The decibel levels used, known as "continuous sound levels," don't reflect real peak levels, but instead are average values obtained through complicated calculations. Arithmetically, a continuous whooshing noise from a faraway autobahn can generate the same sound level as everyday life in the central Rhine Valley, with its high peak values and intermittent pauses.
But it is precisely these peak values, such as when a train passes by, that wake up local residents and, according to the Mainz study results, are responsible for dangerous stress on the cardiovascular system.
Experts complain that the official decibel values reveal very little about the nature of the noise. In other words, not all noise is the same. The threatening, high-pitched roar of approaching aircraft, for example, triggers flight instincts and generally causes a higher increase in blood pressure than comparably loud noises from cars, Guski says. "The subconscious evaluation of the noise as a potential threat certainly plays a role, as well," he adds.
All things considered, the current laws and regulations on noise mitigation are "incapable of effectively protecting the population," the German Medical Association concluded in a 2012 resolution. The World Health Organization also believes that the German threshold values are much too high. As long ago as 1999, the WHO recommended that traffic in residential areas not be allowed to produce noise at levels higher than 45 decibels, and that no more than 30 decibels should penetrate into houses and apartments.
But even the UBA believes that such strict values are unrealistic, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the agency wants to achieve a reduction in noise levels with such measures as extending bans on nighttime flying, speed restrictions, nighttime transit bans for trucks, better noise mitigation equipment on rails and roads, and investment in quieter freight cars.
Residents living near railroad tracks, like Sandra Pohl, as well as aircraft noise opponents from the Frankfurt area see it as a positive sign that even Federal Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), occasionally criticizes high noise-pollution levels and says that they are intolerable for local residents.
Still, Ramsauer isn't exactly viewed as a likely champion of stricter limits and other measures that could impede transportation. In the case of the airport in the Austrian city of Salzburg, however, Ramsauer personally campaigned to "noticeably" reduce noise pollution for the nearby German population -- even though Salzburg Airport isn't nearly as busy as airports in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and Berlin.
The critical difference, of course, is that one of the approach paths into Salzburg passes right over Ramsauer's electoral district.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
British oil company endangering Africa’s most biodiverse area: WWF
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 7, 2013 13:10 EDT
Environmental campaigners WWF filed a complaint on Monday against a British oil company accused of intimidating the local population and endangering wildlife in the oldest nature reserve in Africa.
The wildlife charity claims that Soco International’s oil exploration activities in and around Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo put “people, animals and habitats at risk” and violate international guidelines issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in a complaint to that organisation.
“The only way for Soco to come into compliance with the OECD guidelines is for the company to end all exploration in Virunga for good,” said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of conservation at WWF International.
“We urge the company to stop its activities immediately,” he said.
Organisations can refer to OECD guidelines on ethical corporate behaviour as a way of piling pressure on companies or even governments.
Soco dismissed the claims as “baseless” on its website, adding it had not yet begun any operational activity and would not do so until impact studies had been completed.
Virunga is one of the world’s oldest UN World Heritage sites and is the most environmentally diverse area on the African continent, home to thousands of rhinos and 200 endangered mountain gorillas.
Soco’s own assessment of its exploration of the park warns of potential pollution and damage to the fragile animal habitats in Virunga.
The WWF alleges that Soco has used state security to intimidate opponents to its business and says the organisation failed to disclose the true impact of development during consultations with local villagers.
Soco’s contract with the Congolese government effectively exempts it from further regulation, the WWF says, calling on the company to also consider the health and livelihoods of 50,000 local residents.
The UK is a founding member of the OECD and the organisation’s guidelines have previously been used to put political pressure on the British government.
Anthony Field, a campaigner at WWF-UK, told AFP: “OECD guidelines are the most well-respected standards of good practice for businesses, and are internationally recognised by 45 countries including the UK.”
OECD complaints could be “incredibly effective”, Field said, giving the example of a 2009 case when mining firm Vedanta Resources was condemned by London for failing to respect the rights of an indigenous group when planning a bauxite mine in the Indian state of Orissa.
Soco said its first environmental impact studies were conducted in “close collaboration” with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, which manages the park.
WATCH: Farmers and ranchers build sustainable energy barn in path of Keystone XL
Monday, October 7, 2013 10:42 EDT
A number of citizen farmers and ranchers pushing against the Keystone XL have actually gone and built a “sustainable energy barn” right in the path of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, in order to show their disdain for and opposition to the Keystone XL while also showing their respect for life and clean energy at the same time. Watch the video:
I especially love the dirty “windmills, not oil spills” t-shirt on the little farm boy (around the middle of the video). We should all get those shirts!
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQfQezean9k
The citizen activists in Nebraska who built this barn and created this video certainly aren’t mincing words or trying to sugarcoat their opposition to the TransCanada pipeline. This was a standout line from the video expressing their challenge:
“If TransCanada gets what they want, they’re going to have to tear up sustainable energy to keep their dirty, dangerous tactics.”
Followed by a supportive challenge to Obama: “And there is no way President Obama would let that happen.”
Driving the point home that these are not political lobbyists or climate policy wonks pushing to block this pipeline, the speaker says, “We don’t care too much for politics,” followed unequivocally by the matter at hand for them: “but this is our land and our water.”
These are not hippies. These are ranchers and farmers, a portion of our population that has increasingly gotten behind opposition to the Keystone XL. It makes you wonder, who in the US really does support such a pipeline?
Clean Energy Is The Future!
Of course, we love the great views of the solar panels on the barn at the end, the small wind turbine being erected by the local community, the solar panels being installed on the barn, and the kids painting the sustainable energy barn sign. Very inspiring. Very moving.
Quite a clever act and a great video. Check it out if you haven’t already, and share it with friends!
Tackling climate change: Copenhagen's sustainable city design
Global warming poses a real threat to cities but planners in the Danish capital are taking visionary steps to ensure its resilience – and success – as far ahead as 2100
Guardian Professional, Tuesday 8 October 2013 12.40 BST
Visualise the world in 2050: convex streets that collect water from superstorms and pocket parks that absorb heat and can be turned into reservoirs. Welcome to Copenhagen, where planners are preparing the city for the effects of climate change several generations from now.
"We've looked at how climate change will affect Copenhagen in the long-term future", says Lykke Leonardsen. "For Copenhagen, the most serious effect of climate change will be increased precipitation, so we've developed a plan that addresses how to catch all the rainwater in the city." Leonardsen, a city planner, belongs to the 10-person team working solely on long-term climate change adaptation, planning ahead to the year 2100.
Like any city located by the sea, Copenhagen will face particular danger as sea levels rise and superstorms hit coastal areas with greater frequency. "In adapting to climate change, cities can choose either grey or green infrastructure," says professor Stuart Gaffin, a research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, who also advises the New York City government on climate change adaptation. "Grey infrastructure means building walls and barriers. In New York's case, we'd lose Long Island if we went for the grey option. The green option, which has growing support, includes green roofs, green streets that will capture storm water, and pavements that allow water to percolate through."
That's the option Copenhagen has chosen. Leonardsen's team envisions lowering the level of a local lake, thereby freeing space around its shores. This space will then be turned into a park, with playgrounds and running paths. When a superstorm hits, the lake and its surrounding park will be used for water storage.
And those convex streets? They are main thoroughfares designed by Copenhagen's city planners to capture water from storms and flooding and direct it to the harbour. Copenhagen in 2050 will also feature smaller streets with plenty of trees, which will slow anticipated flooding "so not everything comes bursting into the cloudburst boulevards at the same time", Leonardsen explains. Pocket parks will absorb heat and can be turned into water storage during weather emergencies. In addition to storms, flooding and rising sea levels, heatwaves are the most dramatic scenario facing cities as climate change worsens.
If all goes according to plan, Copenhagen's sustainable climate change adaptation plan – which recently won the Index Design Award – will be completed by 2033. To be sure, Danish city planners operate in an enviable setup, where politicians and local residents alike support sustainable climate change adaptation and are willing to commit the funds required.
Brian Vad Mathiesen, an associate professor of development and planning at Aalborg University, says: "The difference between Copenhagen and other major cities is that they're very concrete in the short term and also look at what they need to do for the very, very long-term future.
"But in Denmark, sustainable city planning is not a niche; it's just what we do. And you have to remember that sustainability is not just about the environment. It's also about creating local jobs."
Copenhageners, in other words, have realised that doing the right thing for the environment brings jobs – and higher living standards – to the city. "Both from a financial and a sustainability perspective, it makes sense to do as much as possible as early as possible," says Mathiesen. "If you don't build things like pocket parks, you'll have problems with flooding. We can't live with flooding that brings the city to a halt for several days each time."
Other cities are embarking on similar plans. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York this year presented a record $19.5bn climate change adaptation plan, with 250 specific projects reaching into the 2050s. Toronto, Rotterdam and Boston, too, have advanced plans with solutions from floating pavilions to terraced levees. Some 20% of the world's cities now have climate change adaptation plans in place. "While governments are mired in negotiations, cities are leaping forward," observes Gaffin. "City populations recognise the threats from climate change."
But while pocket parks and cloudburst boulevards sound charming, green infrastructure remains experimental. It's uncertain how effective percolating pavements will be, for example, and the trees in green streets face daily threats from cars. Besides, nobody really knows what the world will look like in 2050, let alone 2100.
But as far as Copenhageners are concerned, sustainable city design is the only answer to climate change. Morten Jastrup, a senior analyst at Sustainia, a Copenhagen-based think tank, says: "These measures will contribute to a higher quality of life in Copenhagen. We have to consider what will constitute a successful city in the future, because we need highly qualified people to come and work here."
Chevron abandons bid to explore for Lithuanian shale gas
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 8, 2013 17:05 EDT
U.S. oil and energy giant Chevron on Tuesday decided to withdraw its bid to explore for shale gas in Lithuania due to new regulations.
“Significant changes to the fiscal, legislative and regulatory climate in Lithuania have substantially impacted the operational and commercial basis of the investment decision,” the company said in a statement.
Chevron Exploration & Production Lietuva — registered in Lithuania ?- was eyeing a field in the west of the country believed to contain deposits of shale gas and shale oil.
The company said it would focus on an existing investment in another field, after it bought 50 percent of shares of a small Lithuanian company in October 2012.
Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said Tuesday he regretted the move, but admitted Lithuania has yet to adopt laws on shale gas extraction.
“We regret the company’s choice but we understand they have the right because parliament is still considering laws affecting fossil fuels in our country,” he said in a statement.
Butkevicius, who has backed the bid, said 25 pieces of legislation on shale gas extraction are still in the works.
Earlier this year, Vilnius tightened environmental rules after protests erupted against hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a controversial technology used to extract gas from shale.
Some lawmakers also want to increase taxes on shale gas.
Entirely dependent on natural gas from Soviet-era master Russia, Lithuania has long been determined to find alternative sources of energy.
Lithuanian officials believe the nation of three million people could have between 30 to 50 billion cubic metres (1,000 to 1,800 billion cubic feet) of extractable shale gas reserves.
Russian energy giant Gazprom pumped 3.3 billion cubic metres of natural gas into the Baltic state last year.
Vilnius is determined to break Gazprom’s politically-charged monopoly — a legacy of Soviet-rule — by building a liquefied natural gas terminal, expected to be up and running by late 2014.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
October 9, 2013
U.S. Officials Say Libya Approved Commando Raids
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — The Libyan government in recent weeks tacitly approved two American commando operations in its country, according to senior American officials, one to capture a senior militant from Al Qaeda and another to seize a militia leader suspected of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
The Qaeda leader, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, was captured by American commandos in Tripoli on Saturday in a raid that the United States had hoped to keep secret, but that leaked out to the news media. The operation has been widely denounced by Libyan officials, who have called it a kidnapping and said they had played no role in it.
While American officials expected that the Libyan government would claim that it had known nothing about the operation, news of the raid has raised concerns that the suspect in the Benghazi attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattala, has now been tipped off that the United States has the ability to conduct an operation in Libya.
It is not clear why American military commanders did not conduct both operations simultaneously to avoid this problem. Some military commanders said conditions in Libya on Saturday may not have been opportune. But the backlash against a second raid could bring down the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, which has teetered on the brink of collapse and has little control over vast parts of the country, particularly in the eastern part near Benghazi.
George Little, the Defense Department spokesman, declined to comment on Tuesday. American officials said that although the Libyans had tacitly approved the Saturday raid, they had not played a role in the actual operation and had not been told in advance when it would happen.
Combined with the Navy SEAL mission in Somalia that also took place on Saturday, and that failed to capture a top leader of the Shabab militant group, the operation in Tripoli signals that the Obama administration is willing to take risky missions to confront a spreading terrorist threat in Africa.
“Africa is one of the places,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference on Tuesday, “that you’re seeing some of these groups gather. And we’re going to have to continue to go after them.”
Mr. Obama’s promise the day after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, and the lack of success so far, has led the Republicans to renew their criticism of the administration for its handling of the episode, as officials have made the case that Congress should authorize a military strike against Syria.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and one of the fiercest critics of the administration’s handling of Benghazi, praised the capture of Mr. Ruqai, also known as, Abu Anas al-Libi. But he declined to speculate on future operations in Libya. “Under certain circumstances, they will go in,” Mr. McCain said in an interview. “The Benghazi thing was such a significant issue with the American people.”
More than half a dozen American diplomatic, military, law enforcement, intelligence and other administration officials were contacted for this article. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the matter and the prospect of future military operations.
The Libyans’ tacit approval is far more limited than the secret agreements the United States has had in recent years with the governments in Pakistan and Yemen. Under those arrangements, the United States has been given broader authority to carry out secret operations to kill militants, although Mr. Obama has since ordered those missions reined in.
The American drone campaign in Pakistan has long been denounced publicly by Pakistani civilian government officials, although American officials claim that Pakistani military and intelligence services allowed it.
At a news conference in Bali on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States regularly consults with the Libyan government “on a range of security and counterterrorism issues,” but that he would not “get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government or in any kind of operation of this kind.”
Mr. Kerry said that the military operation to seize Mr. Ruqai was legal and that he hoped that the world understands that the United States “is going to do everything in its power that is legal and appropriate in order to enforce the law and protect our security.”
After months of lobbying by American officials, the Libyans consented “some time ago” — weeks or perhaps even months — to the United States operations, according to a senior American official. The Libyans, however, were not told beforehand about the raid on Saturday.
The Libyans’ consent marks a significant step forward for the Obama administration, which has been criticized by Congressional Republicans for moving too slowly to apprehend the Benghazi suspects.
In August, it was revealed that the United States had filed murder charges against Mr. Khattala, a prominent militia leader in Benghazi, in connection with the Benghazi attacks. Mr. Obama acknowledged the existence of the indictment, saying the administration was “intent on capturing those who carried out this attack, and we’re going to stay on it until we get them.”
The Pentagon has been preparing contingency plans for months in the event Mr. Obama orders a military operation. An unarmed American military surveillance drone has flown virtually every day over Benghazi gathering information. And the military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command has compiled “target packages” of detailed information about possible suspects, senior military and counterterrorism officials said.
Mr. Khattala has appeared to live his life normally in eastern Libya and has been interviewed by several news outlets. Last year, he said in an interview with The New York Times that he had arrived at the American compound in Benghazi as fighting broke out, but played no role in the attack, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed.
At the end of the siege, he said, he entered the compound to rescue Libyan guards who had been trapped in the firefight. Mr. Khattala said American leaders had used the Benghazi attack to play “with the emotions of the American people” in an effort to “gather votes for their elections.”
If the United States attempts to apprehend Mr. Khattala, it will most likely do so again without much, if any, help from the Libyan government. Military planners consider a raid in eastern Libya, which is dominated by militias, far more dangerous than one in Tripoli.
Libyan lawmakers and local leaders across the political spectrum have vowed for months that their new government would never countenance Western military action on Libyan soil for any reason. Almost all say that they still need evidence before concluding that any suspect in the Benghazi attack should be arrested or charged, and that in any event the case should be handled in a Libyan court — regardless of the feeble state of the country’s legal system.
Islamists, who make up a sizable portion of the militia leaders as well as of Libya’s transitional Parliament, often accuse Mr. Zeidan, who lived in Geneva as part of the exiled opposition to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, of collaborating too closely with the West or even flirting with the idea that the United Nations peacekeepers might prop up his government.
Mr. Zeidan, speaking to reporters in Rabat, Morocco, after meetings there on Tuesday, dismissed fears of any serious breach with the United States. “They helped us with our revolution,” Mr. Zeidan said. “Our relationship will not be affected by this event, which we will settle in the way that we need to.”
David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 9, 2013
An earlier version of the contributor credit with this article misspelled the reporter’s surname. He is David D. Kirkpatrick, not Kilpatrick.