Dont burn trees to fight climate change — let them grow

Bill McKibben writes:

Of all the solutions to climate change, ones that involve trees make people the happiest. Earlier this year, when a Swiss study announced that planting 1.2 trillion trees might cancel out a decade’s worth of carbon emissions, people swooned (at least on Twitter). And last month, when Ethiopian officials announced that twenty-three million of their citizens had planted three hundred and fifty million trees in a single day, the swooning intensified. Someone tweeted, “This should be like the ice bucket challenge thing.”

So it may surprise you to learn that, at the moment, the main way in which the world employs trees to fight climate change is by cutting them down and burning them. Across much of Europe, countries and utilities are meeting their carbon-reduction targets by importing wood pellets from the southeastern United States and burning them in place of coal: giant ships keep up a steady flow of wood across the Atlantic. “Biomass makes up fifty per cent of the renewables mix in the E.U.,” Rita Frost, a campaigner for the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, North Carolina, told me. And the practice could be on the rise in the United States, where new renewable-energy targets proposed by some Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as by the E.P.A., treat “biomass”—fuels derived from plants—as “carbon-neutral,” much to the pleasure of the forestry industry. “Big logging groups are up on Capitol Hill working hard,” Alexandra Wisner, the associate director of the Rachel Carson Council, told me, when I spoke with her recently.

The story of how this happened begins with good intentions. As concern about climate change rose during the nineteen-nineties, back when solar power, for instance, cost ten times what it does now, people casting about for alternatives to fossil fuels looked to trees. Trees, of course, are carbon—when you burn them you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the logic went like this: if you cut down a tree, another will grow in its place. And, as that tree grows, it will suck up carbon from the atmosphere—so, in carbon terms, it should be a wash. In 2009, Middlebury College, where I teach, was lauded for replacing its oil-fired boilers with a small biomass plant; I remember how proud the students who first presented the idea to the board of trustees were. [Continue reading…]

Hollywood is undermining climate action

Cara Buckley writes:

Humans ruined everything. They bred too much and choked the life out of the land, air and sea.

And so they must be vaporized by half, or attacked by towering monsters, or vanquished by irate dwellers from the oceans’ polluted depths. Barring that, they face hardscrabble, desperate lives on a once verdant Earth now consumed by ice or drought.

That is how many recent superhero and sci-fi movies — among them the latest Avengers and Godzilla pictures as well as “Aquaman,” “Snowpiercer,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Interstellar” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” — have invoked the climate crisis. They imagine postapocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the driving force of villains.

But these takes are defeatist, critics say, and a growing chorus of voices is urging the entertainment industry to tell more stories that show humans adapting and reforming to ward off the worst climate threats.

“More than ever, they’re missing the mark, often in the same way,” said Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and author at the multimedia site Yale Climate Connections. “Almost none of these films depict a successful transformation of society.” [Continue reading…]

Hollywood trades in simplistic narratives and there will no doubt be producers who argue (disingenuously) that the best way of challenging climate-change deniers is to amplify the calls of alarm. Postapocalyptic visions could be characterized as a kind of wake-up call — this is where we’re headed unless we act now.

Still, even if that’s partially the intent, the primary objective in big budget action movie-making is always the same: commercial success. Entertainment of this variety has little if anything to do with trying to make the audience think.

That said, there is a much wider issue at play here.

The longer the climate crisis alarm bells keep ringing elsewhere across the media, the more likely it becomes that individuals lose faith in the possibility of collective action. Prophets of doom can promote despair.

This in turn may feed a nihilistic narcissism that turns attention away from the seemingly hopeless fate of humanity and life on Earth, and focuses instead on seizing the day.

We will each then increasingly inhabit our own small worlds at the dire expense of the world from which we’ve turned away.

The invigoration of faith in collective action requires leadership and no one has a role with greater potential than that of the U.S. president. In this regard, Donald Trump’s actions have been nothing less than a crime against humanity.

Trump’s replacement won’t simply need to swiftly undo the multitude of acts of sabotage carried out by this president. She will need to meet this issue with a level of seriousness, courage, and commitment that so far no other American leader has ever demonstrated.

This American leader will need to become a world leader of a stature never before seen.

Extreme climate change has arrived in America

The Washington Post reports:

Before climate change thawed the winters of New Jersey, this lake hosted boisterous wintertime carnivals. As many as 15,000 skaters took part, and automobile owners would drive onto the thick ice. Thousands watched as local hockey clubs battled one another and the Skate Sailing Association of America held competitions, including one in 1926 that featured 21 iceboats on blades that sailed over a three-mile course.

In those days before widespread refrigeration, workers flocked here to harvest ice. They would carve blocks as much as two feet thick, float them to giant ice houses, sprinkle them with sawdust and load them onto rail cars bound for ice boxes in New York City and beyond.

“These winters do not exist anymore,” says Marty Kane, a lawyer and head of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation.

That’s because a century of climbing temperatures has changed the character of the Garden State. The massive ice industry and skate sailing association are but black-and-white photographs at the local museum. And even the hardy souls who still try to take part in ice fishing contests here have had to cancel 11 of the past dozen competitions for fear of straying onto perilously thin ice and tumbling into the frigid water. [Continue reading…]

Restoring soil can help address climate change

No-till farming conserves soil by greatly reducing erosion.
USDA NRCS South Dakota/Eric Barsness, CC BY-SA

By David R. Montgomery, University of Washington

It’s time to take soil seriously. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states with very high confidence in its latest report, land degradation represents “one of the biggest and most urgent challenges” that humanity faces.

The report assesses potential impacts of climate change on food production and concludes that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will reduce crop yields and degrade the nutritional quality of food.

To avert climate catastrophe, the report warns, people need to make changes in agriculture and land use. In other words, it’s no longer enough to wean society off of fossil fuels. Stabilizing the climate will also require removing carbon from the sky. Rethinking humanity’s relationship to the soil can help on both scores.

[Read more…]

Trump administration significantly weakens Endangered Species Act

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, significantly weakening the nation’s bedrock conservation law and making it harder to protect wildlife from the multiple threats posed by climate change.

The new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered. And, for the first time, regulators would be allowed to conduct economic assessments — for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection.

Critically, the changes would also make it more difficult for regulators to factor in the effects of climate change on wildlife when making those decisions because those threats tend to be decades away, not immediate.

Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live. [Continue reading…]

From heat waves to ‘eco-apartheid’: Climate change in Israel-Palestine

Matan Kaminer, Basma Fahoum, and Edo Konrad report:

July 2019 was, according to European climate researchers, the hottest month ever recorded. Coming just one year after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its landmark report warning of an impending climate catastrophe, temperatures soared to unprecedented levels in places like Alaska and Sweden, forests incinerated in Siberia, glaciers melted in Greenland, and entire cities in India went without water.

Faced with rising temperatures, addressing climate breakdown and its effects on humanity has become a key issue for governments, politicians, and movements for social justice around the world. Israel-Palestine, located in one of the hottest regions of the globe, is expected to warm at an even faster pace.

Polling among Israelis shows a great deal of indifference to the coming crisis, which means the Israeli government is facing little popular pressure on the issue. No equivalent research has been done in the occupied Palestinian territories but the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and siege on Gaza at once compound the risk of climate catastrophe for Palestinians, and make it virtually impossible for their government to do anything about it.

Late last year, a group of Israeli researchers published the first detailed forecast of what climate change could mean for Israel-Palestine. The results were frightening: relative to the benchmark period of 1981–2010, the 30-year period beginning in 2041 is expected to see average temperatures rise up to 2.5 degrees Celsius, and a drop in precipitation of up to 40 percent in non-arid parts of the country.

According to one of the researchers, professor Hadas Saaroni of Tel Aviv University, the heat and humidity Israelis and Palestinians living along the coast experience during the summer months will only grow more extreme. We already have almost 24 hours of heat stress in the summertime, she says, but it tends to lessen in the evening and nighttime hours. “That will get worse: the heat stress will be heavy in the daytime and won’t let up at night.” And like nearly everything related to climate change, the heat won’t be equally distributed. Recent research by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality predicts that temperatures in the poorer south of the city will be up to seven degrees Celsius higher than in its affluent north.

While Saaroni is surprisingly sanguine about the effects of climate change on sea level rise (“the sea will rise by about one meter, but only by the end of the century. With technology we have time to adjust.”), she and other Israeli climate scientists are increasingly worried about the creeping desertification of the country. Higher temperatures and less rainfall mean that the desert, which already covers most of the country, will creep steadily north, says ecologist professor Marcelo Sternberg, also of Tel Aviv University.

Yet without further research it is difficult to say just how far desertification will proceed. “Some research, including my own, shows that our territory is resilient to changes in rainfall within the natural range of variation,” says Sternberg. “But climate change means temperatures outside that range — and we just don’t know what that will mean.” What seems certain is that wildfires, which have increasingly afflicted the country in recent years, will continue to ravage the country during the summers.

The State of Palestine is signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But due to Israel’s military rule over the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have almost no control over their own natural resources, are unable to fully implement treaties or take on national projects, and cannot make concrete plans to adapt to climate breakdown. [Continue reading…]

To halt warming and ensure food supplies, land-use practices must change

E&E News reports:

What’s good for the planet’s climate is also good for its food systems.

Halting global warming and feeding the world’s rapidly growing population both require major overhauls to the way that humans manage the land they live on, according to a much-anticipated report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The report, released this morning, tackles the broad connections between climate change and land. With contributions from more than 100 scientists who reviewed thousands of research papers, it dives deeply into the ways that climate change affects the planet’s landscapes and how managing those landscapes better can insulate Earth and humans from the risks of rising temperatures.

Climate change and human land-use practices are already contributing to the degradation of landscapes around the world, the authors say. Large swaths of South and East Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, for instance, have already begun to dry out and transform into deserts. These kinds of changes not only alter natural ecosystems but can pose a major threat to agriculture. That in turn affects the amount of food for humans.

At the same time, the report notes that natural landscapes, including forests and wetlands around the world, are important carbon storage sites. And for the time being, the land still seems to be soaking up more carbon dioxide than it releases.

But deforestation, agriculture, the conversion and development of natural landscapes, and other land-use changes release billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. Cutting down on those emissions, while preserving the world’s existing carbon sinks, should be a major priority in the fight against climate change, the report says.

These conclusions reflect the findings of other recent studies, which say that “natural” climate solutions—namely, protecting and restoring natural carbon-storing landscapes—can have a profound effect on global climate mitigation. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s politicization of climate science poses a threat to the future of agriculture

Politico reports:

One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Lewis Ziska, a 62-year-old plant physiologist who’s worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told POLITICO he was alarmed when department officials not only questioned the findings of the study — which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories — but also tried to minimize media coverage of the paper, which was published in the journal Science Advances last year.

“You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views,” Ziska said in a wide-ranging interview. “That’s so sad. I can’t even begin to tell you how sad that is.”

The departure comes soon after several other government officials resigned from their posts over accusations that the administration is censoring climate science — reports that have raised alarm about scientific integrity in the federal government.

Last week, an intelligence analyst at the State Department said he left his post after administration officials blocked his testimony to Congress about the wide-ranging national security implications of climate change. A National Park Service employee also stepped forward, alleging she lost her job after refusing to scrub mentions of human-caused climate change from a peer-reviewed paper that was set to publish.

A POLITICO investigation revealed last month that USDA has routinely buried its own climate-related science and other work on climate change that continues. POLITICO also recently reported USDA suppressed the release of its own plan for studying and responding to climate change. [Continue reading…]

A quarter of humanity faces looming water crises

The New York Times reports:

Countries that are home to one-fourth of Earth’s population face an increasingly urgent risk: The prospect of running out of water.

From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have, according to new World Resources Institute data published Tuesday.

Many are arid countries to begin with; some are squandering what water they have. Several are relying too heavily on groundwater, which instead they should be replenishing and saving for times of drought.

In those countries are several big, thirsty cities that have faced acute shortages recently, including São Paulo, Brazil; Chennai, India; and Cape Town, which in 2018 narrowly beat what it called Day Zero — the day when all its dams would be dry.

“We’re likely to see more of these Day Zeros in the future,” said Betsy Otto, who directs the global water program at the World Resources Institute. “The picture is alarming in many places around the world.”

Climate change heightens the risk. As rainfall becomes more erratic, the water supply becomes less reliable. At the same time, as the days grow hotter, more water evaporates from reservoirs just as demand for water increases.

Water-stressed places are sometimes cursed by two extremes. São Paulo was ravaged by floods a year after its taps nearly ran dry. Chennai suffered fatal floods four years ago, and now its reservoirs are almost empty. [Continue reading…]

Here’s how the hottest month in recorded history unfolded around the globe

The Washington Post reports:

During the hottest month that humans have ever recorded, a local television station in the Netherlands aired nonstop images of wintry landscapes to help viewers momentarily forget the heat wave outside.

Officials in Switzerland and elsewhere painted stretches of rail tracks white, hoping to keep them from buckling in the extreme heat. At the port of Antwerp, two alleged drug dealers called police for help after they got stuck inside a shipping container filled with cocaine and feared they would suffocate in the heat. In Paris, people piled into movie theaters — some of the only air-conditioned places in town.

Wildfires raged across millions of acres in the Arctic. A massive ice melt event in Greenland sent hundreds of billions of tons of water pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, raising sea levels. And temperature records evaporated, one after another: 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit in Cambridge, England, and 108.7F in Paris. The same in Lingen, Germany.

“We have always lived through hot summers. But this is not the summer of our youth. This is not your grandfather’s summer,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres told reporters as July gave way to August. [Continue reading…]