Jet stream shift could prompt harsher winters: scientists
Sunday Feb 16, 2014
JEAN-LOUIS SANTINI for Agence France Presse
A warmer Arctic could permanently affect the pattern of the high-altitude polar jet stream, resulting in longer and colder winters over North America and northern Europe, US scientists say.
The jet stream, a ribbon of high altitude, high-speed wind in northern latitudes that blows from west to east, is formed when the cold Arctic air clashes with warmer air from further south.
The greater the difference in temperature, the faster the jet stream moves.
According to Jennifer Francis, a climate expert at Rutgers University, the Arctic air has warmed in recent years as a result of melting polar ice caps, meaning there is now less of a difference in temperatures when it hits air from lower latitudes.
"The jet stream is a very fast moving river of air over our head," she said Saturday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"But over the past two decades the jet stream has weakened. This is something we can measure," she said.
As a result, instead of circling the earth in the far north, the jet stream has begun to meander, like a river heading off course.
This has brought chilly Arctic weather further south than normal, and warmer temperatures up north. Perhaps most disturbingly, it remains in place for longer periods of time.
The United States is currently enduring an especially bitter winter, with the midwestern and southern US states experiencing unusually low temperatures.
In contrast, far northern regions like Alaska are going through an unusually warm winter this year.
This suggests "that weather patterns are changing," Francis said. "We can expect more of the same and we can expect it to happen more frequently."
Temperatures in the Arctic have been rising "two to three times faster than the rest of the planet," said James Overland, a weather expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Francis says it is premature to blame humans for these changes.
"Our data to look at this effect is very short and so it is hard to get very clear signal," she said.
"But as we have more data I do think we will start to see the influence of climate change," she said.
- Dire impact on agriculture -
The meandering jet steam phenomenon, sometimes called "Santa's Revenge", remains a controversial idea.
"There is evidence for and against it," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snowland Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
But he said rising Arctic temperatures are directly linked to melting ice caps.
"The sea ice cover acts as a lid which separates the ocean from a colder atmosphere," Serreze told the conference.
But if the lid is removed, then warmth contained in the water rises into the atmosphere.
This warming trend and the shifting jet stream will have a dire impact on agriculture, especially in the farm-rich middle-latitudes in the United States.
"We are going to see changes in patterns of precipitation, of temperatures that might be linked to what is going on in the far north," said Serreze.
Jerry Hatfield, head of the National Laboratory for Agriculture and Environment in the midwestern state of Iowa, warned that this is not a phenomenon that affects only the United States.
"Look around the world -- we produce the bulk of our crops around this mid-latitude area," he said.
The main impact on agriculture and livestock will not come from small temperature changes, but rather from temperature extremes and the weather patterns that hold them in place for longer periods of time.
Droughts and freezes are already having "a major impact on animal productivity, it influences meat production, milk and eggs production," he said.
Copyright (2014) AFP. All rights reserved.
Climate change threatens Indonesians’ way of life: John Kerry
Sunday, February 16, 2014 9:31 EST
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Indonesians on Sunday that climate change could threaten their “entire way of life” as he called for all nations to do more to stop global warming.
Speaking to students, Kerry derided skeptics of the view that human activity causes global warming as “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” and he said big companies and special interests should not be allowed to “hijack” the climate debate.
Aides said the U.S. secretary of state had chosen Indonesia for the first of what is to be a series of speeches on the topic this year partly because as an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands it is particularly at risk from rising sea levels.
“Because of climate change, it’s no secret that today Indonesia is…one of the most vulnerable countries on Earth,” Kerry said in speech at a high-tech U.S.-funded cultural center at a Jakarta mall.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire way of life that you live and love is at risk,” he added.
Kerry’s public push takes place against the backdrop of a negotiation among nearly 200 nations about a possible new global treaty on climate change that is scheduled to be agreed next year and to address greenhouse gas emissions from 2020.
In Beijing on Friday, Kerry announced that China and the United States, the world’s largest emitters of such gases, had agreed to intensify information-sharing and policy discussions on their plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.
U.S. officials made clear they hope that the example of the two countries, historically on different sides of the debate, working together might inspire other nations to do more to combat climate change.
Despite evidence that human activities that emit carbon dioxide contribute to climate change, some skeptics believe a rise in global temperatures is due to natural variability or other non-human factors. Others question whether temperatures are in fact rising.
The fact that temperatures have risen more slowly in the past 15 years despite rising greenhouse gas emissions has emboldened skeptics who challenge the evidence for man-made climate change and who question the need for urgent action.
Kerry, who faces a politically tricky decision at home on whether to allow Canada’s TransCanada Corp to build the Keystone XL pipeline despite the opposition of environmental groups, had little patience for such skeptics in his speech.
“We just don’t have time to let a few loud interest groups hijack the climate conversation,” he said. “I’m talking about big companies that like it the way it is, that don’t want to change, and spend a lot of money to keep you and me and everybody from doing what we know we need to do.
“We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists…and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact,” he said. “The science is unequivocal and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand.”
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Matt Driskill)
Maddow: Toxic spill exposes NC Tea Party governor’s corrupt energy company ties
By David Ferguson
Saturday, February 15, 2014 12:12 EST
Rachel Maddow said on her show Friday night that the toxic coal ash spill in North Carolina exposes Gov. Pat McCrory (R)’s corrupt ties to Duke Energy, the company responsible for sending tens of thousands of tons of coal ash spilling into the Dan River.
On Friday, she said, the Tea Party governor did a press conference thinking that he was going to be answering questions about the winter storm that walloped the region this week. Instead, McCrory found himself on the pointed end of questions about his ties to Duke Energy, the statewide energy company that caused the spill.
Environmental groups in the state have sued Duke Energy over the spill, which has fouled miles of river ecosystems and will take years to clean up. McCrory is accused of working with Duke to quash those suits. He is also known to own a considerable amount of stock in the energy company, but refuses to disclose that amount.
Reporters wanted to know on Friday about the appearance of a conflict of interest.
McCrory stonewalled, saying that he hasn’t had any conversations with Duke energy and that the purpose of the press conference was to tout the administration’s successes with the winter storm.
When reporters persisted, McCrory told them this was “no time to be disrespectful.”
The federal government has launched a grand jury probe into the spill and has subpoenaed both Duke Energy and Gov. McCrory’s administration as part of that investigation.
McCrory is a former Duke Energy executive, but insists that his ties to the company had nothing to do with the lax set safety standards that led to the spill. Nonetheless, the grand jury would like to speak to him on March 18 at 9:00 a.m.
Obama to meet with Canadian PM Harper as pressure mounts around Keystone XL
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 17, 2014 18:10 EST
When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Mexico this week for a summit of North American leaders, one of his key objectives will be to push for US approval of a controversial oil pipeline.
The Keystone XL project — first proposed back in 2008 — would bring crude from Canada’s oil sands in Alberta across the US Midwest to Texas, via a pipeline stretching 1,179 miles (1,897 kilometers).
The project has pitted environmental groups against the oil industry, which has argued that it will bring much-needed jobs to the United States and help fulfill the US goal of energy self-sufficiency.
It also has caused strains in relations between Ottawa and Washington. The United States has to approve some 875 miles of the new route.
Harper’s meeting with US President Barack Obama on Wednesday in the Mexican city of Toluca will be their first face-to-face talks since September, at a summit in Russia.
The Canadian prime minister — who will be accompanied by his trade, natural resources and public safety ministers — has said the Keystone XL pipeline is crucial for his country’s economic prosperity.
And he has expressed deep frustration that six years after it was first proposed, oil giant TransCanada’s US$5.3 billion project remains in limbo.
“Of course, Harper will be tempted to pressure Obama,” Pierre-Oliver Pineau, a professor in energy sector management at HEC Montreal business school, told AFP.
But he is unlikely to quickly sway the US leader, who faces opposition from environmentalists within his Democratic party. The United States has also increased its own oil production, making supplies from Canada less vital.
- Pipe dreams -
When Obama, Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto meet in Toluca, energy and the environment will be on the shared agenda, but the future of the Keystone project is paramount for Canada, America’s neighbor and largest trading partner.
Last month, the US State Department issued a long-awaited review of the project, saying it would have little impact on climate change or the environment. But the report stopped short of making a recommendation.
Canada — which currently ships nearly all of its oil to the United States — sees US hesitation on Keystone as abandoning a longstanding energy relationship that has given Ottawa preferred market access.
Harper took a shot across the bow in January 2012, vowing to seek out new markets for Canadian oil, and stressed this new “key priority” during a visit to Beijing the following month.
Harper has signalled he is willing to give Obama some political cover by matching regulations to curb climate change, but he said Canada will not move unilaterally to cut carbon emissions.
Harper’s Conservative government, meanwhile, has been openly working with US Republicans in Congress to up the pressure on Obama.
US House Speaker John Boehner, who claims Keystone would create some 100,000 American jobs, said allowing the decision to languish was “economic malpractice.”
- Decision expected soon -
Obama is expected to announce a decision on Keystone in the coming months.
Harper has said a nod for the pipeline is inevitable, and recently told a US audience he “won’t take no for an answer.”
But Jim Prentice, a former Canadian industry and environmental minister seen as a potential successor to Harper, said approval might have to wait until after Obama leaves office.
He added that Canada must have secured access to new markets with the construction of a separate pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast by then.
That project, as well as a pan-Canadian pipeline to the Atlantic Coast, were proposed after the initial Keystone delays, and are awaiting government approval.
“We need to be a forceful partner with alternative (markets), so that we’re not dependent and supplicant to a US marketplace that is over-supplied,” Prentice recently told the Economic Club of Canada.
Waiting for the next administration, however, may not yield any better results for Canada.
“The next administration may not be any more supportive as the internal political dynamics are unlikely to change. If Hillary Clinton becomes the next US president, the situation (for Canada) won’t improve,” Pineau said.
Going forward, much more fundamental changes are shaping the bilateral energy relationship.
The United States is tapping energy in the ground and offshore thanks to new fracking and drilling technologies, and this is fueling significant production that could put it in competition with Canada for overseas customers.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Denmark on pace to surpass E.U. rules on cutting greenhouse gas emissions
Monday, February 17, 2014 19:23 EST
Agreement in Denmark’s parliament this week cleared the way for passage of climate targets that would outstrip the recent goals set by the European Union.
An outdoor park in Copenhagen, Denmark. Kapa1966 / Shutterstock.com
The bill would establish a legally binding requirement that Denmark cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990′s levels by 2020, and that the government return to the question every five years to set new 10-year targets. The legislation would also establish a Climate Council — modelled on a similar body in Britain — to advise the government on the best ways to continue reducing Denmark’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The bill is backed by the Social Democrats, the Conservative People’s Party, the Socialist People’s Party, and the Red-Green Alliance.
Denmark’s present and former governments have already committed the country to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy generation by 2050, and the new bill is seen as a concrete step to achieving that goal.
“This is a law to make Denmark low carbon society by 2050,” Mattias Soderberg, a senior climate advisor at DanChurchAid, a humanitarian organization in Denmark, told Responding to Climate Change. “With this law Denmark is starting to outline how this process will be done.”
A 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 is on par with carbon emission cuts the National Research Council advised America to take on in 2010. It’s also noticeably more ambitious than the target the European Parliament recently passed — to cut emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 — for the European Union as a whole.
The broader EU target remains non-binding until it’s approved by the governments of the individual countries that make up the group. And debate remains on exactly how the target should be divvied up amongst the member states. So Denmark moving forward with more ambitious cuts at the individual level would put it ahead of the curve set by most of its peers on the Continent.
Denmark is also part of the Emissions Trading System (ETS), Europe’s cap-and-trade system for cutting carbon emissions, which will likely serve as the main driver of both Denmark’s reductions and the EU’s as a whole. Unfortunately, the unexpected drop in economic activity from to the 2008 recession, along with some inherent design flaws, drove the price of carbon permits under the ETS to remarkable lows. That removed the incentive for firms in Europe to cut their carbon emissions, leaving the entire system stalled in limbo.
The ETS’ problems have served as a learning experience for other, newer cap-and-trade systems like California’s. And reforms are in the works in the EU to get the ETS back on its feet.
Meanwhile, Denmark has already been making substantial progress on the climate front. According to numbers that Responding to Climate Change pulled from the Danish Energy Agency, renewable energy accounted for 43.1 percent of Denmark’s domestic electricity supply in 2012, and for 25.8 percent of all energy consumption in the country that year. The year before that, renewables provided 23.1 percent of Denmark’s electricity consumption.
Financier Plans Big Ad Campaign on Climate Change
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
FEB. 17, 2014
A billionaire retired investor is forging plans to spend as much as $100 million during the 2014 election, seeking to pressure federal and state officials to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers.
The donor, Tom Steyer, a Democrat who founded one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, burst onto the national political scene during last year’s elections, when he spent $11 million to help elect Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia and millions more intervening in a Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts. Now he is rallying other deep-pocketed donors, seeking to build a war chest that would make his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, among the largest outside groups in the country, similar in scale to the conservative political network overseen by Charles and David Koch.
In early February, Mr. Steyer gathered two dozen of the country’s leading liberal donors and environmental philanthropists to his 1,800-acre ranch in Pescadero, Calif. — which raises prime grass-fed beef — to ask them to join his efforts. People involved in the discussions say Mr. Steyer is seeking to raise $50 million from other donors to match $50 million of his own.
The money would move through Mr. Steyer’s fast-growing, San Francisco-based political apparatus into select 2014 races. Targets include the governor’s race in Florida, where the incumbent, Rick Scott, a first-term Republican, has said he does not believe that science has established that climate change is man-made. Mr. Steyer’s group is also looking at the Senate race in Iowa, in the hope that a win for the Democratic candidate, Representative Bruce Braley, an outspoken proponent of measures to limit climate change, could help shape the 2016 presidential nominating contests.
Mr. Steyer also prospected for potential donors on a recent trip to New York City, where he met with aides to former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has made championing climate change a focus of his post-mayoral political life, but whose own “super PAC” has focused chiefly on gun control.
“Our feeling on 2014 is, we want to do things that are both substantively important and will have legs after that,” Mr. Steyer said in an interview. “We don’t want to go someplace, win and move on.”
Mr. Steyer, 56, accumulated more than $1.5 billion during his days at the hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, before he retired in 2012. Today, he is among the most visible of a new breed of wealthy donors on the left who call themselves “donor-doers,” taking a page from the Kochs, Mr. Bloomberg and others to build and run their own political organizations — outside the two parties and sometimes in tension with them.
But the newest wave of single-issue super PACs — including groups seeking greater regulation of guns and of campaign fund-raising — has drawn criticism even from those who share those priorities.
“A small number of the richest individuals in America are attempting to use their enormous wealth to purchase government decisions to advance their own personal interests,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that favors tighter limits on money in politics. “This is about as far away as we can get from ‘representative government.' ”
Mr. Steyer poured tens of millions of dollars into a successful 2012 ballot initiative in California that eliminated a loophole in the state’s corporate income tax and dedicated some of the resulting revenue to clean-energy projects. He also has helped finance opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, appearing in a series of self-funded 90-second ads seeking to stop the project.
Those efforts cemented his partnership with Chris Lehane, a California-based Democratic strategist, and heralded the emergence of NextGen Climate, now a 20-person operation encompassing a super PAC, a research organization and a political advocacy nonprofit. The group employs polling, research and social media to find climate-sensitive voters and spends millions of dollars in television advertising to try to persuade them.
It already is among the biggest environmental pressure groups in the country: For example, the League of Conservation Voters, considered the most election-oriented of such groups, reported spending about $15 million on campaign ads in 2012. And while Mr. Steyer has been critical of Democrats who waver on climate issues, he has aimed most of his firepower so far at Republicans.
The new fund-raising push seeks to tap into the booming fortunes of Silicon Valley, where many donors rank climate change as their top political issue. It also signals a shift within the environmental movement, as donors — frustrated that neither Democratic nor Republican officials are willing to prioritize climate change measures — shift their money from philanthropy and education into campaign vehicles designed to win elections.
“There are some people I like and am friends with in the Senate, and if not for Tom’s effort I would probably write a check to support them,” said Wendy Abrams, a Chicago-based philanthropist and donor who raised money for President Obama’s re-election campaign. “But the party is afraid to fight the fight, because they’re afraid to lose more conservative Democratic votes.”
This month, NextGen asked supporters to pick one congressional candidate, from five running this year, for the group to target in its next ads. Four of the five candidates were Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. But the fifth was a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who has close ties to the oil and gas industries and has been an outspoken supporter of the Keystone pipeline.
It is unclear how aggressively his group will move against other Senate Democrats: Asked whether Democratic control of the Senate was necessary to advance his climate agenda, Mr. Steyer said, “As long as we have this partisan divide on energy and climate, it’s got to be important.”
But he is also seeking to upend the partisan split that has come to infuse the climate debate. In their advertising and research, Mr. Steyer and his aides have sought to craft appeals that would reach beyond affluent white liberals on the coasts. Ads in California were tailored to Hispanic voters by emphasizing the negative health impacts of power plant emissions. In the Virginia governor’s race, NextGen sought to show that a Democrat could win with a message emphasizing “green” job creation over one emphasizing threats to the state’s coal industry.
David Topper, a New York private equity investor who attended the meeting at Mr. Steyer’s ranch, said: “You need to be agnostic as to party. If I find someone who has the right position on climate change, do I care if he owns six guns? Not at all.”
Unlike some on the left, Mr. Steyer has embraced the political toolbox that was opened to wealthy donors and other interests in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which made it easier for businesses, unions and rich individuals to pour unlimited money into elections.
“We have a democratic system, there are parts we would want to reform or change, and Citizens United is prominent in that,” Mr. Steyer said. “But we’ve accepted the world as it is.”
Mr. Steyer said there was no fixed budget for his group and declined to confirm his fund-raising target.
“Is it going to take $100 million? I have no idea,” he said, before suggesting that might be a lowball number. “I think that would be a really cheap price to answer the generational challenge of the world.”
Ecuador pursued China oil deal while pledging to protect Yasuni, papers show
Negotiations took place while the country sought funds to forgo oil exploitation in pristine forest under the Yasuni-ITT scheme
The Guardian, Wednesday 19 February 2014 15.57 GMT
The Ecuadorian government was negotiating a secret $1bn deal with a Chinese bank to drill for oil under the Yasuni national park in the Amazon while pursuing a high-profile scheme to keep the oil under the ground in return for international donations, according to a government document seen by the Guardian.
The proposed behind-the-scenes deal, which traded drilling access in exchange for Chinese lending for Ecuadorian government projects, will dismay green and human rights groups who had praised Ecuador for its pioneering Yasuni-ITT Initiative to protect the forest. Yasuni is one of the most biodiverse places in the world and home to indigenous peoples – some of whom are living in what Ecuador's constitution calls "voluntary isolation".
The initiative – which was abandoned by Ecuador's government last year – is seen as a way to protect the Amazon, biodiversity and indigenous peoples' territories, as well as combat climate change, break Ecuador's dependency on oil and avoid causing the kind of social and environmental problems already caused by oil operations in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
"This raises serious doubts about whether the government was truly committed to keeping ITT oil in the ground," said Atossa Soltani, from NGO Amazon Watch and a former ambassador for the initiative. "While we were promoting the Yasuni initiative to donors, the government was offering ITT's crude to China."
The document, titled China Development Bank Credit Proposal, bears the name of Ecuador's Ministry of Economic Policy Co-ordination on every page. Under the heading Results of the 1st Negotiating Round: Preliminary agreements, which took place between 13-23 May 2009, it states: "Last minute clause: The Ecuadorian party has said it will do all it can to help PetroChina and Andes Petroleum explore ITT and Block 31."
ITT refers to the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini oil fields – the first two under Yasuni, the last partially – and Block 31 is an oil concession immediately to the ITT's west. PetroChina is a listed company controlled by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), owned by the Chinese state, and Andes Petroleum is a joint venture between CNPC and another state-run Chinese firm.
Equador oil map
The objective of the Chinese negotiators was in part to "guarantee the supply of crude oil for PetroChina in the medium term", while the Ecuadorian government wanted to "obtain access to a favourable line of credit to finance priority projects," the document says.
The proposed deal was that the China Development Bank, would lend "no less than US$1bn in the first phase" to "Ecuador's Ministry of Finance or an entity designated by Ecuador's government".
But while these negotiations were taking place, Ecuador was appealing to potential donors to support the Yasuni-ITT Initiative – a scheme that emerged from civil society and was adopted by president Rafael Correa's government in 2007, with a trust set up in 2008 to collect donations.
The details have changed over time, but the fundamental concept is to forgo exploiting the millions of barrels of oil in the ITT fields – estimated to be 20% of Ecuador's total oil deposits – in return for financial compensation.
In August last year Correa abandoned his government's support for the initiative and announced he wanted oil operations to go ahead – triggering protests and other opposition in Ecuador and abroad, a government backlash, and fervent speculation about why it failed.
Correa laid most of the blame on the lack of donations – just over US$2m in the government trust and just under US$10m in another trust set up in 2010 and administered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), despite an ultimate target of US$3.6bn.
However, others have pointed the finger at pressure from Ecuador's oil sector and the country's relationship with China, which has seen the former increasingly dependent on the latter for financing and Chinese companies' obtaining a near monopoly on Ecuador's oil and being linked to Yasuni in particular.
Correa himself has also been heavily criticised and accused of failing to convince potential donors he was serious about the initiative – especially given his refusal to abandon a "plan B" to exploit ITT and the fact that operations were permitted in Block 31 where deposits are so small that many see it as the first phase of an eventual move into ITT.
"The document shows that in 2009 Ecuador's government negotiated with China to do all it could so Chinese oil companies can explore in ITT and Block 31, contradicting the Yasuni-ITT Initiative that was in effect at the time," says Alexandra Almeida, from Ecuadorian NGO Acción Ecologica.
Last October it was agreed that donors to the UNDP trust could choose between having their donations returned or reinvested in other projects in Ecuador. To date, more than US$2m has been given back.
Ecuadorians who continue to support the Yasuni-ITT Initiative are aiming to force a referendum and must collect 600,000 signatures by 12 April – a move countered by the government, that wants its own referendum in favour of oil operations.
Rafael Correa's office declined to comment.
'We're on the cusp of a new oil boom in the Ecuadorian Amazon'
Since announcing plans to drill for oil under Yasuni, Ecuador has vowed the national park will be left '99.9% intact'. But this promise is not being reflected on the ground
David Robinson in Yasuni
theguardian.com, Wednesday 19 February 2014 16.11 GMT
A four-foot caiman lies belly-up in a still pool of water surrounded by a cluster of tall green cecropia trees. It has been dead for about five days and its white scaly body has become stiff and bloated. Nearby, behind a chainmail fence, a rusty network of pipes pumps cloudy residue into the Shiripuno river. The low rumble of a generator hums in the background.
The plant near Cononaco in the Huaorani reserve is one of a many oil separation and pumping facilities that are scattered across Yasuni national park in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest. Further down the river, amid a thicket of tall yellow grass, a group of workers in blue boiler suits try to hose away a spill from a few months earlier. An oily rainbow sheen floats upon the nearby streams.
Since it controversially scrapped the Yasuni-ITT initiative last August – a plan that sought money from the international community to guarantee that oil beneath the park would remain unexploited – the Ecuadorian government has vowed that Yasuni will be left "99.9% intact" by oil extraction. But this pledge seems to ignore the fact that drilling platforms already litter the Unesco world heritage site.
Now it has emerged that, according to a 2009 government document, the Ecuadorian government was quietly in talks with a Chinese oil company and bank about a scheme to allow drilling in Yasuni even while the government was soliciting donations in return for protecting the forest.
"The way the ITT-initiative was sold to the world was deceptive," explains Diocles Zambrano, a local activist. "It was sold as protecting the whole of Yasuni national park but … the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) block accounts for less than one-sixth of the whole park and many other areas are already being exploited."
The decision to drill in the ITT field adds to widespread industrial oil extraction across the Ecuadorian Amazon that over the last few decades has wreaked environmental havoc. In a bid to calm public opinion, the Ecuadorian government has undertaken a massive PR campaign emphasising that new drilling platforms will have minimal environmental impact.
But it does not like having this view challenged. In December, the government forcibly shut down the Quito office of indigenous rights group the Pachamama Foundation and journalists now wishing to visit Yasuni have to apply for permits that are often refused.
State-owned oil company PetroAmazonas has promised no new roads will be built to reach the new fields. The construction of roads is one of the chief causes of tropical deforestation, bringing uncontrollable secondary socio-envionmental impacts such as colonisation, overhunting, and illegal logging, which invariably lead to significant ecosystem degradation.
However, aerial footage shows 25-metre-wide roads being built deep into the surrounding forest. The government claims these arteries are in fact "ecological trails" but this explanation doesn't pass muster with Alonso Jamarillo, the former director of the park. "They are just roads with a different name," he says. "It is government misinformation."
At the end of last year, Ecuador put 16 oil blocks in the Amazon jungle region to the south of Yasuni up for auction in an effort to drum up new joint-venture partners. "We're on the cusp of a new oil boom in the Ecuadorian Amazon the like of which we have never seen before," says Kevin Koenig, programme co-ordinator, at campaign group Amazon Watch.
This boom is underpinned by a massive multi-billion dollar debt-for-oil deal that the cash-strapped Ecuadorian government signed last year with China. "To meet higher production quotas Ecuador will have to increase oil extraction across the Amazon," Koenig adds. "The whole of Yasuni is at risk."
The ancestral land that belongs to the Sani Isla community, a Kichwa tribe living on the River Napo, snakes into Yasuni national park. The villagers complain that pressure from PetroAmazonas to move them off their land has been ramped up in recent months. "The tactics used have become much more aggressive," says Patricio Jipa, a community leader. "Representatives from the oil company go house-to-house. They are trying to divide the community. They are very skilful. They spread rumours. They have tried to pay people off. They have put brother against brother. It's become very difficult."
These allegations were put to the Ecuadorian government, who did not respond.
Just to the north of Yasuni, lies Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a scientific field research centre deep in the rainforest. "This job can be depressing," says Diego Mosquera, senior resident manager, as he hacks away at the undergrowth to plant a camera trap.
"Everything has declined, especially big mammals, there used to be harpy eagles flying in the sky, sloths hanging from trees, but oil exploration is killing the rainforest. My goal is to keep accumulating scientific data so we know what we have in Yasuni, before we lose it."
Why Ecuador's president is misleading the world on Yasuni-ITT
Rafael Correa has moved to abolish an historic Amazon oil plan, but don't be fooled by what he claims
Tuesday 15 October 2013 12.27 BST theguardian.com
The decision by Ecuador's president Rafael Correa to abandon a plan to permanently forgo exploiting hundreds of millions of barrels of oil in return for at least US$3.6bn in compensation – the "Yasuni-ITT Initiative" – has sparked severe non-state media criticism in Ecuador, calls for a referendum, protests in numerous cities and embassies around the world, and an international outcry.
Here are just four ways in which Correa's attempt to explain his decision are misleading:
1. In the TV speech on 15 August when he announced his decision Correa said that the oil exploitation he is now promoting will affect less than 1% of the Yasuni national park, a 1,030,070 hectare area, according to him, in Ecuador's Amazon.
'The choice was: Yasuni 100% intact and have no money to fight poverty or 99% of Yasuni intact – at least 99% – and have about US$18 billion,' he said, emphasizing that the decree liquidating the Yasuni-ITT Initiative prohibits more than 1% of the park being affected and then later that day tweeting he had made an 'error' and only 0.1% of the park would be affected.
What were these figures based on? Possibly an 'impact study' of a plan to drill 32 wells in the Tiputini and Tambococha fields which was written by PetroAmazonas, part of state oil company PetroEcuador, and estimates that 16.8 hectares and therefore only '0.0017%' of the park will be directly impacted, or Ministry of Non-Renewable Natural Resources (MNRNR) data arguing that exploitation of all three Tiputini, Tambococha and Ishpingo fields will directly impact 'about 200 hectares' – '0.02%.'
Whatever the case, Correa ignored the fact that this '0.0017%' estimate appears to exclude planned 3D seismic tests in the Tambococha field, and that 'Block ITT' or 'Block 43', as the concession is called, extends for over 100,000 hectares of Yasuni and therefore operations could expand much, much deeper into the park.
Most significantly of all, Correa ignored the much wider context. Although he made passing reference to 'four existing oil exploitation projects' in Yasuni, he didn't mention that, according to the Ministry of Environment, six oil concessions in addition to Block ITT include parts of Yasuni and therefore over 350,000 hectares of the park is already overlapped.
2. In the same TV speech Correa said that exploitation in Yasuni will be done with 'cutting-edge techniques', a claim that appears to be supported by PetroAmazonas´s 'impact study' which states that Tiputini and Tambococha 'will be developed using best practices.'
Indeed, PetroAmazonas specifically states that no roads will be built to exploit those two fields. Some experts on oil industry best practices consider roads in fragile environments like the Amazon a strict no-no, and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers called them years ago the 'greatest single cause of environmental impact' in the rainforest.
But is the ban on roads for real?
In neighbouring Block 31 – which overlaps 173,857 hectares of Yasuni – a Petrobras 'Environmental Management Plan' from 2006 stated that 'no new access roads will be built', only a 5.1 km 'sendero' ('path', 'track', 'trail') made of 'geoblocks' linking two drilling platforms.
However, in 2009 PetroAmazonas took over Block 31 and in 2012 built a 19km road right into the heart of it. This is one of the four projects briefly mentioned by Correa in his 15 August TV speech, all of which he described as 'examples of environmentally friendly exploitation.'
Says Matt Finer, a scientist at the Center for International Environmental Law and co-author of a ground-breaking article published earlier this year on oil industry best practices in the Amazon:
The available evidence indicates that Ecuador indeed plans to build new access roads deep into the core of the park to reach a number of extremely isolated oil fields. In testimony before a Congressional commission last month the Minister for Non-Renewable Natural Resources said they won't build 'access roads' deeper in Blocks 43 and 31, but both he and the head of PetroAmazonas said they will build 'ecological trails.' Now that might sound good, but in an earlier document submitted to Congress, the Ministry describes the access route recently built in Block 31 as an 'ecological trail' as well. However, thanks to a National Geographic article published in January, we know that that's really just an access road with a greener name.
3. During his 15 August TV speech Correa emphasized how many poor Ecuadorians should benefit from ITT exploitation, but made absolutely no mention of those who might be seriously harmed by it.
Top of the list are the indigenous people living in 'isolation' (IPI) in Yasuni, who ultimately stand to lose parts of their territory and could be decimated by any form of contact with oil company workers because of their lack of immunological defences.
The assumption in that speech was that no such people exist – an assumption suddenly, and absurdly, turned into Correa administration policy. A Ministry of Justice report sent to the National Assembly in September states there are no IPI in this region, and includes a map with three ovals marking the presence of such people to the west, south-west and south of Block 43, but not overlapping Block 43 itself.
'No records exist regarding the presence of indigenous peoples in isolation in Blocks 31 and 43,' it claims.
However, what that report and map ignores is the many people and institutions who have acknowledged the presence of IPI: anthropologists, NGOs, and, as their own professed past support for the Yasuni-ITT initiative makes explicit, even Correa himself, his government and the UN, which administered one of two trust funds collecting donations.
'Two and a half months ago what was Correa saying? That one of the main two reasons to keep up with this initiative was to protect the non-contacted tribes in the park,' says Ecuadorian journalist and filmmaker Carlos Andres Vera.
Indeed, the government has made this sudden u-turn despite the existence of a supposedly 'intangible zone' for the IPI which includes the southern quarter of Block ITT and had its boundaries defined by an Executive Decree published on Correa's very first full day in office. Moreover, that 'intangible zone' was described as a form of 'minimum' protection for the IPI – because it wasn't clear how far their territories extended – by a 'National Policy on Peoples in Voluntary Isolation' adopted by Correa just three months later.
In addition, the government u-turn and Ministry of Justice map fly in the face of a map sent by the Ministry of Environment to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in April this year that was marked with four ovals – one overlapping the southern part of Block 43. As one Ecuadorian website asked sarcastically:
What extraordinary events happened in just four months, between 22 April and 21 August, for the location of the uncontacted groups to have changed so radically and for [the Justice] Minister, with his new map, to make them mysteriously disappear from all the oil concessions? The only extraordinary thing is president Rafael Correa's Decree no.74, signed on 15 August which buried the Yasuni-ITT initiative and permitted oil exploitation in Blocks 31 and 43 in the Yasuni National Park.
4. Why does the Yasuni-ITT Initiative appear to have failed, for now at least? Correa, on 15 August, admitted he had made mistakes, but also claimed 'we did what we could' and laid most of the blame elsewhere.
'The world failed us,' he said.
No doubt, the fact that only US$13.3 million, according to Correa, was donated to the two trust funds constitutes a pathetic and in some ways scandalous international response. Add to that the global economic crisis and Ecuador's default on sovereign debt in 2008-2009 which discouraged lenders and made it increasingly dependent for finance on China, which will partly be paid back in oil and whose companies have been directly linked to ITT exploitation.
But what about Correa's own handling of the initiative, and how serious was he or could he be - running a comparatively poor country dependent on oil - about not drilling?
Critics say he discouraged potential financial contributors by confused aims and strategies, publicly attacking the UN and his own negotiating team, and refusing to abandon a 'Plan B' to exploit ITT and making increasingly frequent references to it.
In addition, activities in adjacent concessions always aroused suspicion. In 2011 Block 14, operated by PetroOriental, part owned by Chinese state company SINOPEC, was mysteriously extended east to Block ITT, creating an 'oil corridor', according to NGO Accion Ecologica, and meaning that PetroOriental was now 'just one step from Tiputini.'
The following year the so-called 'ecological trail' was built into Block 31 where the deposits are so small in comparison to ITT that critics say the 'real reason', according to the National Geographic in January, is to 'lay the infrastructure for an eventual move into the ITT Block next door.'
No wonder many potential donors were never convinced.
Native Americans Prepare a “Last Stand” Against Keystone XL
February 18, 2014
Faith Spotted Eagle, a Yankton Sioux, speaks in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, with Carl Hudson, Chief of the Southern Cherokee, right, awaits his turn to speak, during the U.S. State Department's sole public hearing in Grand Island, Neb., Thursday, April 18, 2013, to allow citizens to make their views known on the $7.6 billion Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Faith Spotted Eagle, a Yankton Sioux, speaks in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, with Carl Hudson, Chief of the Southern Cherokee, right, awaits his turn to speak, during the U.S. State Department's sole public hearing in Grand Island, Neb., Thursday, April 18, 2013, to allow citizens to make their views known on the $7.6 billion Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
The only reason the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline wasn’t approved years ago is that activists, deeming it a vital proxy in the larger battle to keep the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground, have applied relentless pressure on the Obama administration. But in the Great Plains, Native Americans have little confidence that the project can be stopped by traditional political activism.
On Sunday, Rob Hotakainen reported for McClatchy that some tribal leaders are preparing to mount a “last stand” against the pipeline if the White House approves its construction.
Faith Spotted Eagle figures that building a crude oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast would bring little to Indian Country besides more crime and dirty water, but she doubts that Native Americans will ever get the U.S. government to block the $7 billion project.
“There is no way for Native people to say no – there never has been,” said Spotted Eagle, 65, a Yankton Sioux tribal elder from Lake Andes, S.D. “Our history has caused us not to be optimistic. . . . When you have capitalism, you have to have an underclass – and we’re the underclass.”
Opponents may be down after a State Department study found that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would not contribute to global warming. But they haven’t abandoned their goal of killing what some call “the black snake.”
In South Dakota, home to some of the nation’s poorest American Indians, tribes are busy preparing for nonviolent battle with “resistance training” aimed at TransCanada, the company that wants to develop the 1,700-mile pipeline.
While organizers said they want to keep their strategy a secret, they’re considering everything from vigils to civil disobedience to blockades to thwart the moving of construction equipment and the delivery of materials.
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can,” said Greg Grey Cloud of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who attended a two-day conference and training session in Rapid City last week sponsored by the Oglala Sioux Tribe called “Help Save Mother Earth from the Keystone Pipeline.” He said tribes are considering setting up encampments to follow the construction, but he stressed that any actions would be peaceful. “We’re not going to damage anything or riot or anything like that,” he said.
In some of the poorest communities in the country, others are looking at the project as a source of vital economic development. Read the whole story at McClatchyDC.com.
El Niño return threatens global food production
Friday, February 21, 2014 4:40 EST
The El Nino weather pattern that can trigger drought in some parts of the world while causing flooding in others is increasingly likely to return this year, hitting production of key foods such as rice, wheat and sugar.
El Nino – the Spanish word for boy – is a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific that occurs every four to 12 years. The worst on record in the late 1990s killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
A strong El Nino can wither crops in Australia, Southeast Asia, India and Africa when other parts of the globe such as the U.S. Midwest and Brazil are drenched in rains.
While scientists are still debating the intensity of a potential El Nino, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the U.S. Climate Prediction Center have warned of increased chances one will strike this year.
Last month, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said there was an “enhanced possibility” of a weak El Nino by the middle of 2014.
“The world is bracing for El Nino, which if confirmed, could wreak havoc on supply and cause prices of some commodities to shoot up,” said Vanessa Tan, investment analyst at Phillip Futures in Singapore.
Any disruption to supply would come as many crops have already been hit by adverse weather, with the northern hemisphere in the grip of a savage winter.
The specter of El Nino has driven global cocoa prices to 2-1/2 year peaks this month on fears that dry weather in the key growing regions of Africa and Asia would stoke a global deficit. Other agricultural commodities could follow that lead higher if El Nino conditions are confirmed.
“Production estimates for several crops which are already under stress will have to be revised downwards,” said Phillip Futures’ Tan.
“Wheat in Australia may be affected by El Nino and also sugar in India.”
In India, the world’s No.2 producer of sugar, rice and wheat, a strong El Nino could reduce the monsoon rains that are key to its agriculture, curbing production.
“If a strong El Nino occurs during the second half of the monsoon season, then it could adversely impact the production size of summer crops,” said Sudhir Panwar, president of farmers’ lobby group Kishan Jagriti Manch.
El Nino in 2009 turned India’s monsoon patchy, leading to the worst drought in nearly four decades and helping push global sugar prices to their highest in nearly 30 years.
Elsewhere in Asia, which grows more than 90 percent of the world’s rice and is its main producer of coffee and corn, a drought-inducing El Nino could hit crops in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.
And it could deal another blow to wheat production in Australia, the world’s second-largest exporter of the grain, which has already been grappling with drought in the last few months.
El Nino could also crimp supply of minerals such as gold, nickel, tin, copper and coal if mines flood or logistics are disrupted.
In North America, crops in the U.S. Pacific Northwest could suffer as El Nino tends to cause rain to the area, with the major white wheat region already abnormally dry.
But El Nino doesn’t spell bad news for all farmers. It could bring rain to drought-hit California’s dairy farms and vineyards.
“El Nino has a bad connotation, undeservedly so in the U.S.,” said Harry Hillaker, state climatologist in Iowa.
“Given the water supply issues they are having in California, more rain would be helpful.”
And in Central America, while dryness associated with El Nino would curb coffee production, it would also help drive back the leaf rust that has blighted crops in the region.
(Additional reporting by Yayat Supriatna in Jakarta, Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok, Ho Binh Minh in Hanoi, Erik Dela Cruz in Manila, Dominique Patton and Niu Shuping in Beijing, Ratnajyoti Dutta in Delhi, Colin Packham in Sydney, Chris Prentice and Marcy Nicholson in New York, Peter Murphy in Bogota and Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Simon Webb and Joseph Radford)
First ‘orange’ pollution alert as massive smog rolls into Beijing
Friday, February 21, 2014 4:38 EST
China’s capital Beijing, under fire to take effective measures against air pollution, raised its four-tiered alert system to “orange” for the first time on Friday, as heavy smog was forecast to roll into the city over the next three days.
The orange level, the second highest, advises schools and kindergartens to cancel outside sports classes, but falls short of ordering school to close and keeping government vehicles off the road, provisions which come into force with the “red” level.
The alert was raised after the Beijing government faced criticism from state media and on the Internet for failing to act against high pollution levels last weekend.
The capital was already shrouded in smoky, white smog by Friday afternoon. Data from the U.S. embassy put levels of PM2.5 particles, those measuring less than 2.5 micrometers across and the most noxious form of air pollution, at 378.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers levels above 300 to be hazardous. Last weekend, the index topped 500.
Forecasters said the smog would persist for three days and authorities urged residents to leave cars at home.
Some residents welcomed the announcement. Others asked why more was not being done.
“Excuse me, but do the PM2.5 measurements have to explode off the charts before we see a red alert?” said a user of weibo, China’s twitter-like microblogging service.
The stability-obsessed government is keen to be seen as tough on pollution as affluent city dwellers grow weary of a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has tainted much of China’s air, water and soil.
Authorities have issued innumerable orders and policies to try and clean up the environment, investing in projects to fight pollution and empowering courts to mete out stiff penalties, including the death penalty in serious cases.
But enforcement has been patchy at the local level, where authorities often rely on taxes paid by polluting industries.
The Beijing government introduced the tiered system last October. But despite several periods of thick smog since then, the plan’s stronger measures have never before been introduced.
Public discontent about Beijing’s dirty air was highlighted on Friday when a Chinese military expert became the object of scorn online after suggesting smog in the city could be a useful defense against a U.S. military laser attack.
(Reporting By Natalie Thomas, editing by Guiqing Koh and Ron Popeski)
Abused Subtropical Rainforest Thrives Again
Friday, February 21, 2014 5:46 EST
Sadly, we hear too much about the logging, clearing, and obliteration of earth’s rainforests, and about the global repercussions, including climate change. Here’s a story about rainforest rejuvenation, albeit on a small scale. From Germaine Greer, the Australian author of White Beech: The Rainforest Years:
“This is the story of an extraordinary stroke of luck. You could call it ‘life-changing,’ if only every woman’s life were not an inexorable series of changes to which she has to adapt as well as she can. What happened at Cave Creek, Queensland, in December 2001 is that life grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. I went there as a lamb to the slaughter, without the faintest inkling that my life was about to be taken over by a forest.”
Yvonne Roberts of The Guardian describes Greer, now 74, as “the towering polemicist, Shakespearean academic, ex-pornographer, and author of The Female Eunuch.” This onetime feminist and academic has put aside work on her earlier causes to devote her 60s and early 70s to freeing a natural environment from anthropogenic destruction.
Greer began her quest to regenerate precious natural areas by spending two years visiting trashed landscapes across eastern and central Australia. “For years I had wandered Australia with an aching heart. Everywhere I had ever travelled across its vast expanse I had seen devastation, denuded hills, eroded slopes, weeds from all over the world, feral animals, open-cut mines as big as cities, salt rivers, salt earth, abandoned townships, whole beaches made of beer cans. Give me just a chance to clean something up, sort something out, make it right, I thought, and I will take it.”
She found several promising but unobtainable locations and finally settled on a disused dairy ranch that had been logged, farmed with non-native species, and intensively dominated by banana crops for over a century: Cave Creek. The land lay just beyond the sixth most populous city in the country, Gold Coast, where tourists enjoy nightlife and residents, high-rise living. In the daytime Gold Coast shows off a sunny subtropical climate, surfing, boating, and yes, even theme parks.
“To give the forest back to itself”
Greer spent her life savings on a piece of the Gondwana rainforests. The most biodiverse nontropical rainforests on earth, the Gondwana were named UNESCO World Heritage sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to humanity in 1986. The steep montane and riparian ecosystem there has an extremely high conservation value. Many of the Gondwana’s species have hardly changed from their fossilized ancestors. More than 200 rare or threatened plant and animal species inhabit the rainforests.
Among others, Cave Creek harbors critically important habitat for the smooth Davidson’s plum and the Glenugie karaka. One of the most majestic subtropical rainforest trees, the white beech (Gmelina leichhardtii), has been logged to near-extinction in the Gondwana, except for use as lonely street trees. Greer found a striking mature white beech on her land, struggling with lovely but foreign lantana so invasive that Australia has introduced 30 insect species at one time or another to control their spread.
Greer and her team of local workers grubbed out the lantana by hand to free the magnificent tree. Her workforce spent years slowly replacing the human-torn land with healthy rainforest, weeding, collecting seed, planting out seedlings, freeing macadamias and black beans from obliteration, and coaxing native animal species to return to a restored habitat.
“Some of Greer’s descriptions, including that of the rainforest canopy as it changes with the seasons, establish her as one of Australia’s great natural-history writers.”
Tim Flannery, chief councillor of the independent nonprofit Australian Climate Council, describes Greer’s work at Cave Creek as “a trend in contemporary Australia that is manifesting across the country. Thousands of Australians donate to not-for-profits such as Bush Heritage and the Australian Wildlife conservancy, which restore habitat on a grand scale.”
The Sunday Times describes Greer’s book about the incredible undertaking as “An eco-love letter about saving and reviving trees on her farm in Australia.”
The Caring for Our Country program of the Australian Government is currently conducting both an assessment of fire impacts on rainforest communities and a regional assessment of climate change impacts, with a goal of developing appropriate actions for threat mitigation.
Online and brick-and-mortar bookstores are now carrying White Beech: The Rainforest Years. You can reach the website about Cave Creek here and other information about the Gondwana (named for part of Pangea’s 200-million year-old southern subcontinent) at the Commonwealth of Australia’s Environment site. Book tours have been scheduled for several cities in England. If in London on March 11, hear Germaine Greer and her editor, Michael Fishwick, discuss the project at The Bloomsbury Institute, 50 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP at 6:00 pm. You can book online.
Volcanic eruptions causing global warming slowdown, study says
17 volcanoes since 2000 account for up to 15% of the difference between predicted and observed warming this century
theguardian.com, Monday 24 February 2014 11.39 GMT
Small volcanic eruptions help explain a hiatus in global warming this century by dimming sunlight and offsetting a rise in emissions of heat-trapping gases to record highs, a study showed on Sunday.
Eruptions of at least 17 volcanoes since 2000, including Nabro in Eritrea, Kasatochi in Alaska and Merapi in Indonesia, ejected sulphur whose sun-blocking effect had been largely ignored until now by climate scientists, it said.
The pace of rising world surface temperatures has slowed since an exceptionally warm 1998, heartening those who doubt that an urgent, trillion-dollar shift to renewable energies from fossil fuels is needed to counter global warming.
Explaining the hiatus could bolster support for a UN climate deal, due to be agreed by almost 200 governments at a summit in Paris in late 2015 to avert ever more floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels.
“This is a complex detective story,” said Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, lead author of the study in the journal Nature Geoscience that gives the most detailed account yet of the cooling impact of volcanoes.
“Volcanoes are part of the answer but there’s no factor that is solely responsible for the hiatus,” he told Reuters of the study by a team of US and Canadian experts.
Volcanoes are a wild card for climate change – they cannot be predicted and big eruptions, most recently of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, can dim global sunshine for years.
Santer said other factors such as a decline in the sun’s output, linked to a natural cycle of sunspots, or rising Chinese emissions of sun-blocking pollution could also help explain the recent slowdown in warming.
The study suggested that volcanoes accounted for up to 15% of the difference between predicted and observed warming this century. All things being equal, temperatures should rise because greenhouse gas emissions have hit repeated highs.
“Volcanoes give us only a temporary respite from the relentless warming pressure of continued increases in carbon dioxide,” said Piers Forster, Professor of Climate Change at the University of Leeds.
A study by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year suggested that natural variations in the climate, such as an extra uptake of heat by the oceans, could help explain the warming slowdown at the planet’s surface.
The IPCC projected a resumption of warming in coming years and said that “substantial and sustained” cuts in greenhouse gas emissions were needed to counter climate change.
It also raised the probability that human activities were the main cause of warming since 1950 to at least 95% from 90% in 2007. Despite the hiatus, temperatures have continued to rise – 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have been this century, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
Deforestation In Real-Time — New Online Tool From Google Lets You See Deforestation As It Occurs
If you want to get a sense of just how rapidly the world is being deforested, and words aren’t enough for you, well, now there’s a new online tool that can help you with that.
The Global Forest Watch — backed by Google and more than 40 other business and conservation groups — is a new global monitoring system capable of providing “near real time” data on deforestation occurring around the world.
The Global Forest Watch works by utilizing the information provided by “hundreds of millions of satellite images” in conjunction with data from the ground. Google’s backing of the project is down to it’s desire to demonstrate “that their products are sustainable,” according to BBC.
Despite the growing level of public awareness of deforestation, and its causes and effects, over the past decade, rates haven’t slowed. The money thrown at the problem hasn’t addressed any of the fundamental causes. According to Google and the University of Maryland the world lost about 230 million hectares of forest between the years of 2000 and 2012.
For some perspective, that’s the “equivalent of 50 football fields of trees being cut down, every minute, of every day, over the past 12 years.”
This new monitoring system is an effort to limit forest loss by locating and determining the exact causes of the clearing. With the great availability of modern satellites, that’s now a possibility. The new system utilizes data from NASA’s Landsat program in conjunction with the cloud computing power of the Google Earth Engine, the Google Maps Engine and new algorithms developed by the University of Maryland.
The WSJ explains:
Advances in technology have also allowed people to almost instantaneously notify others about what’s happening in the forests. That’s important, particularly since many of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests are located in remote places where law enforcement is weak. Indonesia, for example, has laws in place to curb deforestation, but often people don’t know that trees are being felled until it’s too late.
Governments can use the maps on Global Forest Watch to detect illegal forest clearing and better enforce those laws, say researchers, while companies can use the platform to make sure products such as palm oil and timber are not coming from suppliers involved in deforestation.
“Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests,” stated Dr Andrew Steer from WRI.
“Deforestation poses a material risk to businesses that rely on forest-linked crops. Exposure to that risk has the potential to undermine the future of businesses,” stated Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever. “As we strive to increase the visibility of where the ingredients for our products come from, the launch of Global Forest Watch – a fantastic, innovative tool – will provide the information we urgently need to make the right decisions.”
Some of those involved in the project think that it, in addition to being a tool used to hold large corporations accountable for deforestation that they’re associated with, that it could “also promote greater trust between traditionally suspicious groups.”
“Civil society will have a tool to maintain democratic vigilance over their governments,” explained Felipe Calderon, the former President of Mexico. “The partnership we are launching will, I believe, change the current paradigm that in the fight against climate change it is corporate interests versus governments versus activists.”
Hmmm…. What do our readers think about that spin? Certainly an interesting project though.
Image Credit: World Resources Institute/Global Forest Watch/Google
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTG-0brb98I
Half of U.S. Farmland Being Eyed by Private Equity
By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Feb 19 2014 (IPS) - An estimated 400 million acres of farmland in the United States will likely change hands over the coming two decades as older farmers retire, even as new evidence indicates this land is being strongly pursued by private equity investors.
Mirroring a trend being experienced across the globe, this strengthening focus on agriculture-related investment by the private sector is already leading to a spike in U.S. farmland prices. Coupled with relatively weak federal policies, these rising prices are barring many young farmers from continuing or starting up small-scale agricultural operations of their own.
"This is no longer necessarily about food at all, but rather is a way to reap financial profits." -- Anuradha Mittal
In the long term, critics say, this dynamic could speed up the already fast-consolidating U.S. food industry, with broad ramifications for both human and environmental health.
“When non-operators own farms, they tend to source out the oversight to management companies, leading in part to horrific conditions around labour and how we treat the land,” Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. watchdog group focusing on global large-scale land acquisitions, told IPS.
“They also reprioritise what commodities are grown on that land, based on what can yield the highest return. This is no longer necessarily about food at all, but rather is a way to reap financial profits. Unfortunately, that’s far removed from the central role that land ultimately plays in terms of climate change, growing hunger and the stability of the global economy.”
In a new report released Tuesday, the Oakland Institute tracks rising interest from some of the financial industry’s largest players. Citing information from Freedom of Information Act requests, the group says this includes bank subsidiaries (the Swiss UBS Agrivest), pension funds (the U.S. TIAA-CREF) and other private equity interests (such as HAIG, a subsidiary of Canada’s largest insurance group).
“Today, enthusiasm for agriculture borders on speculative mania. Driven by everything from rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the financial sector is taking an interest in farmland as never before,” the report states.
“Driven by the same structural factors and perpetrated by many of the same investors, the corporate consolidation of agriculture is being felt just as strongly in Iowa and California as it is in the Philippines and Mozambique.”
As yet, the amount of U.S. land owned by private investors is thought to be relatively low. The report points to a 2011 industry estimate that large-scale investors at the time owned around one percent of U.S. farmland, worth between three five billion dollars.
Last year, however, another industry analyst put this figure at around 10 billion dollars, suggesting that the institutional share of farmland ownership is rising quickly.
“We’ve been seeing a decimation of the family farmer for a long time, but now these processes are accelerating,” Mittal says. “We need a tightening at the policy level before we’re swamped by these trends.”
In the year after food prices suddenly rose in 2008, global speculation in land rose by some 200 percent. With the international financial meltdown coinciding almost simultaneously with this crisis, investors have increasingly viewed agricultural land as a relatively safe place to put their money amidst rising volatility.
In the United States, investors are particularly eyeing potential future returns from mineral prospecting, water rights and strengthening trends in meat consumption. U.S. farmland is also seen as globally desirable due to a combination of high-tech farming opportunities and lax regulations regarding the use of genetically modified crops.
As a result of this new interest, land prices in the United States have risen by an estimated 213 percent over the past decade. This could now play into two trends at once.
Already, the United States is home to relatively low numbers of farmers, with the country famously home to more prisoners than full-time agriculturalists. But those who do continue to farm are also quickly aging.
While federal agriculture officials are expected to offer updated demographic information within the coming week, the most recent statistics suggest that just 6 percent of farmers are under 35 of age. Further, some 70 percent of U.S. farmland is owned by people 65 years or older.
“The older generation needs to cash out because they have no retirement funds, even as the new generation doesn’t have the capital to get into the kind of debt that [starting a farm] requires,” Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a farmer and co-founder of the Agrarian Trust, a group that helps new farmers access land, told IPS.
“Today there is a huge number of older folks trying to decide what to do with their land, and in many places we don’t have many years to help them make that decision. So in that sense there’s an urgent need, and we don’t have many tools at the federal level to help.”
For the most part, Fleming suggests, U.S. federal agriculture policy today is not aligned to the country’s best interests, instead pointing away from greater agricultural diversity, regional resilience and greater strengthened opportunity for rural economies. Nonetheless, she says that her organisation is encountering a surge of attention from young people that want to start their own farms.
“Over the past seven years, we’ve had an explosion of interest in being trained as a farmer and entering the trade of agriculture, and this is very much related to the crises around the banks and the environment,” she says.
“The problem we’re facing is not one in which nobody wants to farm, but rather the fact that the U.S. economy is structured in such a way that makes it really hard to start a farm in this country.”
Massive Theft of Developing World’s Farmland
By Julio Godoy
BERLIN , Apr 23 2012 (IPS) - The mass acquisition or lease of arable land in developing countries, especially in Africa, by foreign investors – a practice aggravated by the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007 – has reached record highs, according to several new studies.
A study by the Spain-based group Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), released late February, estimates that some 35 million hectares of land have been sold or leased in 416 recent, large-scale land grabbing deals in 66 countries, mostly in Africa.
Another analysis of land grabs, carried out by the International Land Coalition (ILC), released last January, found that between 2000 and 2010 some 203 million hectares were leased or sold in developing countries, mainly in Africa, but also in Latin America, Asia, and even Eastern Europe, to foreign investors.
“This land area is equivalent to over eight times the size of the United Kingdom,” the ILC said in its report ‘Land Rights and the Rush for Land – Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project.’
Most land is used to produce inputs for so called biofuels, ILC pointed out.
In his new book on the subject, award-winning Italian journalist Stefano Liberti says that this massive global land grab is the direct consequence of the privatisation and liberalisation policies imposed for years upon developing countries by international financial institutions such as the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and investment in agricultural policies promoted by United Nations agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
The book, published originally in Italian under the title ‘Land Grabbing: How the market for land is creating a new colonialism’, was released in German on Apr 18, with English and Spanish editions under way.
Liberti told IPS that most governments in developing countries affected by land grabbing are also accomplices in the process.
“In many African countries in particular, land belongs to the state,” Liberti said. “Governments are dealing secretly with investors, to lease or sell enormous areas of the best arable land. Local farmers who don’t own the land they work are informed of these deals at the very last moment, when they are told to leave,” Liberti said.
During the preparation of his book, Liberti travelled across Africa, and attended numerous seminars and sessions of international institutions, such as the FAO and the WB, and participated in workshops organised by small farmers’ organisations around the world.
Liberti said that the most spectacular cases of land grabbing he came across were in Ethiopia. “This country has been suffering from famine for decades, due to armed conflicts and droughts. And yet, it has been leasing or selling its best land to foreign investors for almost nothing at all to produce food or inputs for biofuels to be consumed abroad,” Liberti said.
In his book, Liberti illustrates the case of an Indian company, which leases 300,000 hectares of Ethiopia’s best arable land for one dollar per year per hectare, to produce wheat, palm oil, and sugar for mostly Indian consumption.
“Ethiopians have almost nothing from this deal,” Liberti said. “The company pays extreme low salaries to its Ethiopian workers, almost nothing for the land, enjoys tax breaks for the import of technology, and on top of that uses the country’s water for free.”
Indeed, the Ethiopian Investment Agency, the state office administering foreign direct investment (FDI), praises the country’s labour costs as “relatively low compared to the African average.” According to Liberti, foreign agricultural industries in Ethiopia pay their workers less than a dollar a day.
The Ethiopian case is typical of the land grabbing phenomenon across the developing world.
In a recent case in Algeria, the Abu Dhabi-based Al Qudra Holding obtained concessions for 31,000 hectares of agricultural land, on which it intends to produce potatoes, olives and dairy products, all for export.
The company is also planning similar land leasing investments in Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Vietnam, Sudan and India to increase its land holdings to 400,000 hectares.
Liberti said that holdings such as Al Qudra, and investment funds, including pension funds, are the main actors in the global land grab. “The international financial sector discovered some five years ago that it can earn substantial amounts of money by speculating with food stuffs,” he said.
Holdings and sovereign wealth funds, which manage the currency reserves of many Arab and other strong, emerging economies also invest massively in land grabbing, to guarantee food supply in their home markets.
According to estimations by GRAIN, “Pension funds currently juggle 23 trillion dollars in assets, of which some 100 billion are believed to be invested in commodities.”
Of this money in commodities, five to 15 billion are reportedly going into farmland acquisitions. “By 2015, these commodity and farmland investments are expected to double,” GRAIN estimated last year.
Liberti said that international institutions such as the WB and the FAO are accomplices in the land grab.
“The FAO used to say that agriculture needed massive private investment to improve efficiency. The WB and the (IMF), for their part, promoted privatisation and liberalisation of food markets, and gave impulse to land grabbing.”
“The WB has even lent money and provided insurance to investment funds taking part in land grabbing,” Liberti added.
Yet another driver of the land grab is an explosion in the use of so-called biofuels. As the ILC report points out that of all the many deals resulting in land theft, “Seventy-eight percent are for agricultural production, of which three-quarters are for biofuels.”
Mineral extraction, industry, tourism, and forest conversions are also significant contributors, adding up to the remaining 22 percent.
ILC Director Madiodio Niasse told IPS that governments in developing countries must “understand that there are alternative investment models that do not necessarily involve them giving away their land.”
Niasse, a Senegalese national, has been the director of ILC since 2005. He told IPS that it is essential for African governments to conceive “their own rural development strategies to serve their national priorities and the interests of their people.”
“During my research trips in Africa, I came across posters against the land grab deals,” Liberti told IPS. “One said: ‘Future generations will damn your graves, because you did not leave them any land.’”
To avoid this future, Liberti stressed, “An efficient agricultural model, an alternative to the agro- industrial (framework) in practice now, must be developed for Africa, Latin America, and Asia.”
Foreign investment in agriculture was invited based on the misguided assumption that it would help local communities; now, “the opposite is actually happening.”
“The alternative is to support local farmers by teaching them modern methods of sustainable agriculture, and providing infrastructure for irrigation, storage, transportation, and technical inputs,” Liberti concluded.
In Corrupt Global Food System, Farmland Is the New Gold
By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 13 2011 (IPS) - Famine-hollowed farmers watch trucks loaded with grain grown on their ancestral lands heading for the nearest port, destined to fill richer bellies in foreign lands. This scene has become all too common since the 2008 food crisis.
More than 100 billion dollars has been invested in buying farmland since 2008, mainly in Africa by foreign companies and state entities. Credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran
More than 100 billion dollars has been invested in buying farmland since 2008, mainly in Africa by foreign companies and state entities. Credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran
Food prices are even higher now in many countries, sparking another cycle of hunger riots in the Middle East and South Asia last weekend. While bad weather gets the blame for rising prices, the instant price hikes of recent times are largely due to market speculation in a corrupt global food system.
The 2008 food crisis awoke much of the world’s investment community to the profitable reality that hungry people will do almost anything, even sell their own children, in order to eat. And with the global financial crisis, food and farmland became the “new gold” for some of the biggest investors, experts agree.
In 2010, wheat futures rose 47 percent, U.S. corn was up more than 50 percent, and soybeans rose 34 percent.
On Wednesday, U.S.-based Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader, announced a tripling of profits. The firm generated 1.49 billion dollars in three months between September and November 2010.
Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury Bills pay a return of less than one percent.
“We have set up a global food system that supports speculation. And with [such] markets, we can’t get speculators out of the food business,” said Lester Brown, an agricultural policy expert and founder of the Washington- based Earth Policy Institute.
“Farmland is better gold than gold for speculators,” Brown told IPS.
Growing concern over access to food is also creating a new geopolitics around food security, with many countries buying up farmland and banning the export of food, he said.
World leaders have utterly failed to address the simple fact that while there is enough food, a billion people, living in every country in the world, simply can’t afford to buy it, said Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based policy think tank on social, economic and environmental issues.
“Why were a billion hungry with a record wheat harvest in 2008?” Mittal told IPS.
And how is it there are one billion people who are overweight, with 300 million of those considered medically obese?
The global food system is designed to generate profits not feed people, and nothing has changed since 2008, she said. “There has been no focus on how to achieve food security or on regulating the food trade,” Mittal noted.
Instead, the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and other multilateral organisations are pushing for more production and more trade liberalisation, she said. That approach is exactly how Africa became unable to feed itself after being previously food secure.
“Africans have become share-croppers, exporting coffee, cotton, flowers and now food while going hungry,” Mittal said.
Under the guise of investing in agriculture, huge amounts of money are being offered to debt-ridden countries in exchange for long-term leases to their foodlands. “Our research shows that the most fertile lands are being secured. There are huge issues around governance and corruption in this land grabbing,” said Mittal.
More than 100 billion dollars has been invested in buying farmland since 2008, mainly in Africa by foreign companies and foreign-state owned industries, according to GRAIN, a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers.
This massive investment hasn’t yet translated into more food availability, says Lester Brown. Often times, buying land is just the first step. Major investments are also needed in farming infrastructure like roads, vehicles, storage capacity, mechanical services for equipment, irrigation and so on.
“I haven’t seen a big increase in grain production anywhere. Right now it looks like a lot of land speculation,” he said.
Brown has long documented the fact that yields of rice, wheat and other grains have not been increasing in many countries while demand has escalated. China, he notes, now imports 70 percent of its soy and is expected to begin to use its plentiful cash reserves to buy large quantities of wheat and corn in the near future.
And with the U.S. converting 30 percent of its corn crop into ethanol to ‘feed’ its cars and trucks, food supplies will be tight for some years, he predicts.
With the decline in traditional equity stocks along with collapse of housing and commercial real estate markets, billions of investment dollars are being mobilised to buy farmland and food commodities. It’s not just Wall Street looking for big returns, it’s also private and public pension funds in Europe and North America as well, said Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN.
Investors from Saudi Arabia have leased large tracts in land in Ethiopia, Senegal, Mali and other African countries amounting to several hundred thousand hectares. “How can African countries hope to have food security by signing long-term leases to foreign interests?” Kuyek told IPS.
When South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics tried to buy 1.3 million hectares, or one-third, of Madagascar’s farmland in 2008, violent protests erupted and the government was toppled. South Korea still has at least a million hectares in long- term leases elsewhere and China 2.1 million ha, mainly in Southeast Asia.
Some of the leases are for 99 years at a one dollar a hectare, but local people “are not eligible for the deals being promoted in countries where millions of people remain dependent on food aid”, said Howard Buffett, a U.S. farmer and philanthropist whose father is Warren Buffett, the well- known billionaire investor.
Howard Buffet reports being offered land deals where African governments promise to provide 70 percent of the financing, all utilities, and a 98-year lease requiring no payments for four years.
The last thing Africa needs are policies that “enable foreign investors to grow and export food for their own people to the detriment of the local population” writes Buffet in the introduction to the 2010 Oakland Institute report, “(Mis)investment in Agriculture”.
Buffet’s foundation has a research farm in South Africa and says investments are needed, but in terms of seeds, inputs, improved extension services, education on conservation techniques and generally assisting local farmers. Investing in land grabs will simply fuel conflict over land and water, he concluded.
Shockingly, about 70 percent of the billion hungry people in the world are farmers, herders and other food producers who could feed themselves if they had access to land, markets and a little bit of credit, said GRAIN’s Kuyek.
“That well-understood reality has been ignored for years,” he said. “These land grabs are just wrong: morally and socially wrong.”
Camels Linked to Spread of MERS Virus in People
By DENISE GRADY
FEB. 25, 2014
A new study suggests that camels are the major source of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, a viral disease that has sickened 182 people and killed 79 of them since it was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
The animals are most likely to infect people through respiratory secretions — from coughing, sneezing, snorting or spitting — that travel through the air or cling to surfaces.
People with chronic illnesses like diabetes, lung disease or kidney failure, or other conditions that weaken their immunity, seem to be most susceptible, and should avoid close contact with camels, researchers say.
Saudi Arabia has had the most cases, other Middle Eastern countries have had a few and a handful of travelers from that region have taken the disease to Europe. There have been no cases in the United States. Although people have infected one another, the disease is not highly transmissible among humans, so researchers say that unless the virus changes to become more contagious in people, the risk of global spread does not seem high.
The new study provides the first evidence that the virus is widespread in dromedary camels (the kind with one hump) in Saudi Arabia, and has been for at least 20 years.
Younger animals are more likely than older ones to be infected and contagious. The virus invades the camels’ nose and respiratory tract, but does not kill them. It is not known whether it even makes them sick.
“It would be very difficult to know if they were ill, since these are creatures that slobber a great deal,” said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, the senior author of the study and a virus expert at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York. The results, by researchers from Saudi Arabia and the United States, were published on Tuesday in mBio, an online journal.
Tests on 203 dromedaries from different parts of Saudi Arabia found evidence of past infection in about 75 percent overall, with higher rates in some regions. About 35 percent of young animals and 15 percent of adults had current infections, with significant variations by region. In addition, measurements of stored blood samples from camels indicate that MERS or a virus closely related to it has been present in the animals since at least 1992.
Genetically, the virus found in camels matches samples from infected humans.
The disease was not detected in people until 2012. It is not known whether the cases in humans are a new phenomenon, or whether they have been occurring but were not recognized. Some people develop mild respiratory infections, but in others the disease turns deadly, with worsening fever, cough and shortness of breath.
In some cases, patients were known to have been around camels, but until recently it was not clear whether the animals might be the source. Other cases have been complete mysteries, with no known exposure to animals or ill humans. Sick people have infected family members, health workers and nearby patients in the hospital, but the virus is not considered highly contagious among humans.
Researchers do not know how camels become infected, but they suspect that the virus may have originally come from bats. MERS belongs to the coronavirus family, like SARS, the deadly and more contagious respiratory infection that began in China and caused a global outbreak in 2003. Bats are a host for SARS and other coronaviruses, and studies have found evidence linking MERS to bats.
But at this point the evidence linking people and camels is stronger.
“This is an issue for Saudi Arabia,” said Peter Daszak, an author of the study and the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a group that studies the links between human and animal health. “Camels are highly valuable livestock, traded internationally. Unfortunately, they have an endemic virus that can cause death in people.”
Camels are sold for meat and milk in the Middle East. There are also racing camels, and prized “beauty camels” that compete in pageants and have fetched prices of $1 million or more.
Dr. Lipkin and Dr. Daszak said it was not immediately obvious how to protect people who come into contact with camels, like farmers, breeders and slaughterhouse workers. But they said animals can be quickly and cheaply tested for the virus, and those with current infections could be quarantined and not sold or transported.
Dr. Lipkin said MERS in camels may be analogous to the many respiratory infections that children catch early in life and then become immune to. In camels, once tests no longer find the active infection, the risk of transmitting the disease is probably greatly reduced or even gone, Dr. Lipkin said.
He also said it may be possible to develop a vaccine to prevent the disease in camels. But he said creating a vaccine for people would not make sense, given that so far, MERS is rare.
Saudi Arabia imports many camels, from other countries in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. Dr. Lipkin said studies should be done in those countries, or in animals being imported, to try to find out where MERS is coming from, in hopes of eliminating it.
Correction: February 25, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for a research report in the online journal mBio. The report was published on Feb. 25, not Feb. 18.