Tuesday, March 31, 2015

1793. Climate Change Threatens to Kill Off More Aspen Forests by 2050, Scientists Warn

By Justin Gillis, The New York Times, March 30, 2015
Aspen forest in autumn
The beloved aspen forests that shimmer across mountainsides of the American West could be doomed if emissions of greenhouse gases continue at a high level, scientists warned on Monday. That finding adds to a growing body of work suggesting forests worldwide may be imperiled by climate change.

The new paper analyzed the drought and heat that killed millions of aspens in Colorado and nearby states a decade ago. Such conditions could become routine across much of the West by the 2050s unless global emissions are brought under control, the study found.

“I think of aspens as a good canary-in-the-coal-mine tree,” said William R. L. Anderegg, the Princeton University researcher who led the new study, released online Monday by the journal Nature Geoscience. “They’re a wet-loving tree in a dry landscape. They may be showing us how these forests are going to change pretty massively as that landscape gets drier still.”

The study found that large aspen die-offs were a near-certainty only if greenhouse emissions were to continue at the runaway pace that has characterized the last decade. If global emissions are brought under control, the chances will improve that large stands of aspens could be preserved, the paper found.

In the fall, stands of trembling aspens are among the most breathtaking sights in the West, turning hillsides an iridescent golden hue.

Dr. Anderegg grew up camping and hiking in the aspen forests of southwestern Colorado and was dismayed when the trees started dying a decade ago. He has devoted part of his early scientific career to understanding the dieback — and the implications of it for forests elsewhere.

A central focus of the research has been to get a better handle on exactly how trees die in droughts, crucial for predicting how they will fare as global warming proceeds. Dr. Anderegg’s research on aspens suggests that when the ground gets too dry, air bubbles appear in the tiny tubes that carry water through the tree.

“These air bubbles block the pipes and interrupt water transport, giving the tree a kind of heart attack, basically,” Dr. Anderegg said.

He and his collaborators have devised a computer model that, when programmed with climate parameters, can predict aspen mortality with about 75 percent accuracy, and they are working to improve it. Applying their model to the rainfall and temperature conditions expected in coming decades as the climate warms under business-as-usual emissions yielded the prediction of a major aspen die-off.

Depending on exactly how dry the soil gets in the hotter climate, the mortality could extend beyond the West, with aspens — and perhaps many other types of trees — dying across the country, Dr. Anderegg said.

At a global scale, forests have been responding to the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with accelerated growth, allowing them to pull large amounts of the gas out of the air and thus helping to limit the effects of human emissions. How robust this forest “carbon sink” will remain through time is among the most important topics in climate science.

Dr. Anderegg’s paper fits with other recent findings suggesting that forests may not be as resilient to global warming as once hoped. For instance, a paper published two weeks ago found that the ability of the vast Amazon forest to pull carbon dioxide out of the air was weakening through time, with trees growing faster and dying earlier.

Craig D. Allen, a forest expert with the United States Geological Survey who was not involved in the new research, said Dr. Anderegg’s work was a step toward understanding what might happen across broad landscapes.

But, he warned, a huge amount of work is still needed on other tree types, in other locales, before the picture becomes clear. “There’s just a lot of variability between species,” Dr. Allen said. He noted that aspens have relatively shallow roots, limiting their ability to tap deep water in a drought, whereas other trees could be more resilient.

Forest experts, including Dr. Allen, are particularly worried about future “hot droughts,” similar to the one that struck Colorado and nearby states in the early 2000s. Huge stands of aspens died, and heat-loving beetles killed millions of acres of pine trees.

These droughts are characterized not just by a lack of rainfall but by high temperatures that suck residual moisture out of the soil. They are predicted to increase in a warming climate.

In addition to killing forests, these types of droughts may make food production more difficult, as is becoming evident in California, which is suffering through the fourth year of an especially warm drought.

The frequency and intensity of such lethal droughts later this century will most likely be reduced if efforts to control carbon dioxide emissions are successful over the next few decades, scientists believe.

“The more we lower emissions, the less the risks become,” Dr. Anderegg said. “The choice is in our hands.”

1792. From Trap to Table: Wildlife in Vietnam

By Rachel Nuwer, The New York Times, March 30, 2015
Restaurant workers cutting the heart from a live cobra in front of customers at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.  Photo: Rachel Nuwer for the New York Times.

U MINH, Vietnam — Luc Van Ho slips through a tangled thicket of jungle, graceful as a dancer. A blanket of dried bamboo and melaleuca leaves on the forest floor barely crackles beneath his bare feet. Only the smell of cigarette smoke betrays his presence.

A hunter, Mr. Luc, 45, set out at dawn from his family’s bamboo-thatched home in Vietnam’s U Minh forest to check a half dozen homemade traps rigged along animal trails in the underbrush and on canal banks frequented by snakes and turtles.

He stops at a snare trap made of wood and bicycle brake wire, nearly invisible beneath leaves. The trap is empty, not unusual.

“Before, this forest was very different,” Mr. Luc said. “Now, the animals are so few that most hunters are changing their jobs.”

Still, in the previous two weeks, Mr. Luc had caught nine Southeast Asian box turtles and Malayan snail-eating turtles, five elephant trunk snakes, a handful of water birds and two rare Himalayan griffon vultures. For safekeeping, Mr. Luc stashed the vultures in his brother’s house, leaving them tethered in the bedroom until he can figure out what to do with them.

Restaurant workers cutting the heart from a live cobra in front of customers at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.

In the past, Mr. Luc’s hunting trips often yielded wildlife bonanzas, including prized pangolins. Also known as scaly anteaters, they are among the most trafficked mammals in the world. Mr. Luc works with traders willing to buy live pangolins for $60 a pound.
Although he caught just two pangolins last year, that price makes it well worth the effort to keep seeking them out. He knows, however, that this lucrative resource is finite.

“Pangolins will be extinct soon,” he said. Still, he expresses no plans to retire.

Mr. Luc is one of thousands of illegal hunters draining Vietnam, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, of its animals. Its rhinoceroses have already gone extinct, and conservationists estimate that just a couple of its tigers, if any, remain. Even lesser known species like soft-shell turtles and civets are sought out for traditional medicines, food, trophies and pets.

Illegal wildlife is one of the world’s largest contraband trades, netting an estimated $19 billion a year, not including illegal fisheries and timber. While all Southeast Asian countries and many others outside of the region are involved, Vietnam plays a paramount role. The country is a major thoroughfare for wildlife goods bound for China, which arrive overland from Cambodia, Thailand and Laos; by ship from Malaysia and Indonesia; or by air from Africa.

“After China, Vietnam is the next port of call in terms of where to look to figure out what’s going on with wildlife trade,” said Dan Challender, a co-chairman of the pangolin specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Vietnam is also a significant consumer of wildlife, especially those yielding the ingredients for traditional medicine, such as rhino horn, which is used to treat everything from cancer to hangovers. The exotic meats of rare animals are seen as luxuries by a rising middle class eager to advertise its prosperity.

“Pangolin is frequently the most expensive item on the menu, so ordering it is an obvious way to show off to friends and colleagues,” Dr. Challender said. “The fact that it’s illegal isn’t played down and is even attractive, because it adds this element that you live beyond the law.”

International concern about the trade has never been greater, but conferences, new enforcement strategies and ivory crushes have yet to make a dent.

In February, the Obama administration issued a plan to curb illegal wildlife trade by strengthening enforcement, reducing demand and sending a handful of agents abroad. The United States is the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products, but only an estimated 10 percent of traffickers are caught because of inadequate resources supporting enforcement, as well as legal loopholes pertaining to certain products, such as ivory.

“Wildlife trade is higher profile now than it’s ever been, and that’s great,” said Chris Shepherd, regional director in Southeast Asia of Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. “But all of the talk about this issue by world leaders is not trickling down to the ground yet.”

In January of this year, officials intercepted more than 7,500 protected pig-nosed turtles in Indonesia, a frozen tiger in Vietnam and 190 endangered black pond turtles in Singapore. As wildlife disappears in Southeast Asia, poachers increasingly turn to Africa.

More than 1,500 pounds of ivory and two tons of pangolin skins were intercepted in Uganda in January. Last year in South Africa alone, a record 1,215 rhinos were killed for their horns.

The illegal wildlife products that officials manage to interdict account for an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the total trafficked.

“We may be disrupting criminal networks, but we’re certainly not dismantling any of them,” said Scott Roberton, Vietnam country representative and regional coordinator for wildlife trafficking programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The situation is going to get worse before it gets better.”

While China recently increased its arrests and prosecutions for wildlife crimes, those caught trafficking wildlife in Vietnam or other transit countries almost always escape punishment. Dealing in protected species is a criminal offense under Vietnamese law, as is selling wild-caught animals of any kind.

But even when trafficking kingpins are taken into custody, prosecution often depends on finding unrelated charges that are taken more seriously than wildlife crime, such as car smuggling. Poachers like Mr. Luc — who says he has never run into legal trouble — are rarely reprimanded, and punishment, if any, usually entails a small fine.

“Very few criminals caught for major violations like tiger or rhino horn possession ever do a day in prison,” said Douglas Hendrie, chief technical adviser for Education for Nature-Vietnam, a nonprofit organization based in Vietnam.

Wild-caught and protected animal products are easily procured in Vietnamese cities. “It’s not an enforcement priority yet, largely due to corruption, collusion and an absolute lack of concern,” Dr. Shepherd said. “People just do not care.”

Thien Vuong Tuu (“The Alcohol of the Gods”), a fancy restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, advertises pangolin, bear, porcupine, bat and more on its illustrated menu. Customers interested in pangolin — sold for $150 a pound — must order it two to three hours in advance and place a deposit based on its weight.

When the customer returns for dinner, the manager presents the live pangolin to the table, then slices its throat on the spot to prove that the meat is fresh and has not been substituted.

“Pangolin is very popular with customers, because it treats a lot of sicknesses,” said Quoc Trung, the restaurant manager. His staff will also dry and package pangolin scales left over from dinner — a popular ingredient in traditional medicines that are still covered by Vietnamese health insurance.

On a Sunday night, families with young children and groups of middle-aged men fill the restaurant. At one table, two French-speaking men order a cobra to the delight of their female companions. Two young servers bring out a large, writhing snake, its mouth bound tightly shut with plastic twine.

As the customers film with their smartphones, one server holds the snake taut. The other carefully feels along the animal’s abdomen until he locates the heart, then opens it up with a pair of scissors and removes the beating organ with his bare fingers.
As the servers wring out the animal, the blood drips into a ceramic bowl to be mixed later with alcohol and drunk.

“The government doesn’t allow exotic meat, but we have our sources and good connections with the police,” Mr. Quoc said after the show concluded. “The demand is so high for these things, so we have to supply them.”

Given the widespread lack of enforcement, grass-roots conservation organizations in Vietnam increasingly find themselves on the front lines. Education for Nature-Vietnam recently conducted a survey of restaurants, hotels and shops in 12 districts in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, recording each violation of wildlife laws and insisting that authorities follow up.

Several months later, the group repeated the survey and found the availability of illegal products ranging from snake “wine” to bear bile had fallen by nearly 60 percent in eight of the districts. “When authorities put us out of work by doing their job effectively and consistently, then we’ll no longer have to do this,” Mr. Hendrie said.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, a nonprofit based at Cuc Phuong National Park, organizes training sessions across the country for park rangers and the police, conducts community education programs and operates one of the country’s only rehabilitation centers for confiscated animals.

In Vietnam, much of the wildlife intercepted from illegal traders is sold by officials back into the black market. Nguyen Van Thain, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife’s founder, often must race to the sites of recent confiscations to try to recover animals before that can happen.
“Corrupt rangers still want to sell animals back to the trade,” Mr. Nguyen said. Even if the animals are not sold, very few return to the wild, because of a lack of rehabilitation facilities.

Animals not sent to a specialized rescue center often “just sit around until they die,” Dr. Shepherd said.

Over the last three months, Mr. Nguyen has helped rescue 20 pangolins, but the maximum capacity at his center — one of only two in Vietnam that can care for pangolins — is less than 50. With a budget of just $90,000 a year, he has few resources with which to expand the center and hire additional staff.

Mr. Nguyen says he is not confident that attitudes will change in time to spare his country’s wildlife.

“The problem in Vietnam is that conservation is a new way of thinking,” he said. “Vietnamese people need to learn to take seriously what we have now. We need to take care of our own environment and wildlife if we want it to be around in the future.”

1791. Cuba’s Public Health Policy: Past Present and Future

By Graham Sowa, Havana Times, March 30, 2015
Patients waiting to see the doctor in a polyclinic  in Cuba
“Public health in Cuba is not a priority…,” my public health class teacher had finally said something that brought me back from daydreaming “…it is an obsession”.

After two years of clinical work in a Cuban hospital being back in a classroom learning public health theory is somewhere between mind numbing and infuriating.

I often wonder how I put up with this nonsense beforehand. Maybe because my Spanish was worse and I didn’t understand how empty theory sounds while outside the classroom door a very different reality is taking place.

Aside from the looming self-inflicted disconnect between theory and reality in Cuba my professor is absolutely correct, in Cuba public health is an obsession.

Getting to the status quo of a singular, state funded public health system is a journey marked four key periods and a contemporary fifth that is still being defined.

At the onset of the Revolutionary government control in 1959 the Cuban public health landscape looked much like the current United States: various levels of public, private, religious and mutual aid services.

The Revolutionary public health system began with a significant human resources shortage as tens of thousands of professionals left the island.

The government reacted by training new doctors in new medical schools. The first class held their graduation ceremony on the Pico Turquino, the highest point on the island. The invited guests were the peasants from the surrounding area, soon to be benefiting from these new graduates via the Rural Medical Corps. This symbolic act set the tone for the future of public health on the island.

Along with training thousands of new doctors nationalization of health centers began in earnest. Health insurance or “mutual aid” hospitals numbered 226 in 1961. By 1968 all but 27 had been placed under government control. The Salvador Allende Hospital where I work, once part of the Asturian Society, is legacy of this period. The last center nationalized (in 1970) was the “Centro Benéfico Jurídico de Trabajadores de Cuba”, now a pulmonary hospital that does our bronchoscopies and inpatient treatment of tuberculosis.

The second step was the Health Plan of 1970-1980. Focus was shifted from disease treatment to disease prevention in the cities and rural areas. Malaria, polio and diphtheria were eradicated. Dengue was said to be eradicated as well but now it can be argued to be an endemic disease once again, perhaps the same with cholera.
Medical service did not become universally free of charge until during the second decade of the revolution.

The internationalist mission of Cuban public health also began to expand to 3 continents during this time; a continuation of those national brigades of doctors that made up the Rural Health Corps mountainous eastern Cuba.

Part three of public health development came in the 70´s and 80´s with new health technology arriving from the Soviet Union. Investigative institutes were created, and Cuba remains one of the few countries in South America and the Caribbean with such an extensive offering of medical specialties and research fields.

The famous Polyclinic and Family Doctor were introduced as an experimental concept in 1984 to create a highly structured three tier prevention and treatment system that would cover every citizen of the island. This model was expanded to the whole nation within 10 years and largely governs public health policy today. This is also what bores the hell out of me in my public health class.

The fourth part of public health development in Revolutionary Cuba was surviving a hard right hook and uppercut combo. The first came in the form of the collapse of the Eastern European socialist projects and the second came as the form of the Torricelli and Helms-Burton act. The Soviet collapse erased foreign public health subsidies and technological support while the strengthened United States blockade made getting that money and support from other sources unlikely to impossible.

These crises in Cuban public health have constructed the reality of the system we live in today.

Doctors and patients are used to working and being cared for with a scarcity of materials, everyone knows hospital food will be terrible, and having good relationships with people in the health field is the most important part of navigating the bureaucracy of care.

The previous massive government expenditure toward public health grew even more when the Latin American School of Medicine opened in 1999 benefiting students from other countries (such as myself). This probably marks the last great public health change instigated by Fidel Castro.

Since Raul Castro became president the public health system has faced the same problem many tech startups in Silicon Valley face: how do we monetize a free service without sacrificing quality or creating barriers?

The answer to this question is what I propose to be the fifth step of the Cuban Public health system: creating an internationally profitable public health system based off of the previous egalitarian internationalist model.

Cuban doctors working in Venezuela and Brazil making money for the Cuban government have resulted in good health outcomes for millions of people and plenty of criticism about state coercion of public employees. Yet tens of thousands of Cuban doctors continue to go on mission. While some do leave these projects and immigrate to other countries many more are more or less satisfied with the experience. At least that is my impression from talking to those that return.

Medical school, residency, research and the biotechnology sector has been internationally commodified as a source of income for the Cuban state.

Now what was converted to a free public health system in the 1970´s is one of the biggest sources of income for the Cuban state. This incredible paradox should, at the very least, leave United States assumptions about static Communism ruling Cuba by the wayside. What is emerging in the public health system is a capital generating mechanism with the ends of paying for continued free health care for the Cuban people.
Next week one of our internal medicine wards at the Salvador Allende hospital will be closed to the Cuban population for use by medical tourism. Once again paying patients will walk through its doors after 50-odd years of free health care.

Obsession over public health in Cuba has pushed it to the point to accept that entering the globalized health market might be the best way to save socialism.

Monday, March 30, 2015

1790. Book Review: The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock

By Jonathan Rutherford, March 30, 2015

Tony Weis’ new book, the Ecological Hoofprint is an outstanding work of activist scholarship. Even though, at a personal level, I was already aware of some of the problems associated with the industrial livestock industry, the book helped to both deepen my understanding and increase my moral and intellectual concern about the issues involved. I found Weis’ central contention – that ‘the deindustrialsation of livestock and the demeatificaiton diets are central to the hope of a more sustainable, just, and humane world,’ (p.12) – to be overwhelmingly persuasive.

The central aim of the Ecological Hoofprint is to challenge and expose the many unrecognized costs and problems associated with what Weis calls the growing ‘meatification’ of diets. The title is, of course, an allusion to the now well-known ecological footprint, which has successfully raised awareness about the unsustainable nature of high consumption lifestyles more generally. In the same vein, the Ecological Hoofprint seeks to draw ‘attention to the resource budgets and pollution costs that are embedded and under-accounted for in production and consumption’ of livestock (p. 129).

A related aim is to challenge the way in which dominant development narratives uncritically take for granted high-meat consumption. The livestock industry has used a range of strategies – most noticeably the (misleading) claim that meat is an indispensible source of quality protein – to reinforce the association between high meat consumption and successful societal development. Weis shows how this has influenced future development goals, such as the widely promoted imperative to ‘double food production’ by 2050. Such projections come with embedded assumptions about the continual ‘meatification’ of diets. As Weis points out ‘the scale of chronic hunger (nearly one billion) and malnourishment today, and expected population growth (more than two billion) still does not come close to adding up to a doubling scenario, which also must be understood to contain an uncritical expectation that meat consumption will continue to rise rapidly’ (p.3). 

The context for the book is the explosive, albeit geographically uneven, rise in meat consumption across the world, in the second half of the 20th century. In 1961 just over three billion people ate an average of 23 kg of meat and 5 kg of eggs a year, but by 2011, 7 billion ate an average of 43 kg of meat and 10kg of eggs a year – in other words, there has been a quadrupling of meat consumption, and an even greater rise in egg consumption, in a mere half-century (p.1). At the same time, Weis shows that the meatifcation of diets is very unevenly spread across the globe. The global-regional inequalities are massive: average meat consumption in the U.S, for example, was 121 kg in 2010, compared to 7kg in South Asia. This picture, however, needs to be tempered by the fact that meat-consumption is growing most rapidly in some of the so-called ‘emerging economies’ – China, for example, saw per capita meat consumption grow from 4kg to 61 kg between 1961 and 2010.

The great value of the book is that it situates the growth of the industrial livestock industry within the context of critical political economy – that is, Weis seeks to show how the competitive pressure acting on producers in a capitalist market economy has shaped each stage in the growth of the industry. For example, in the early 20th century economic competition had compelled U.S grain farmers to make a series of productivity enhancing technological innovations designed to simultaneously maximize agricultural yields while reducing labor costs. This, however, soon led to a food ‘glut’, as more food was being produced than could be sold, which threatened to undermine prices and agricultural incomes. Weis is quick to point out that this ‘glut’ did not mean that everyone in the U.S was being adequately fed: rather there was an imbalance between supply and effective demand – the latter referring to both the desire and ability to purchase a commodity. In a market economy, Weis reminds us, ‘the hungry people who can’t pay don’t register’ (p.72). Still, from a commercial perspective the glut was a major problem and while government purchasing of grain surpluses or third world food aid (designed to establish long term markets) could alleviate the problem for a while, a longer-term solution was needed. This was found, Weis shows, in the funneling of grain surpluses into livestock – animals which were increasingly separated from traditional farms, and systematically reared for food in specialized factory farms, warehouses and feedlots – in order to produce meat, eggs and dairy. Although the funneling of grains through livestock involves a net nutritional loss, still, the resulting meat could be sold at higher prices, enabling a new source of income and future growth for the sector. In this way, the growth of what Weis calls the industrial grain-oilseed complex, was increasingly tied to the industrial livestock complex: the growth of each reinforcing the other, to the point where, today, nearly 1/3 of all world arable land is used to grow grains for animal feed (p.148). 

Once established, capitalist growth imperatives have, of course, compelled the livestock industry to systematically increase and speed up the production of meat. This has particularly favored poultry production, with chickens especially well suited to the ‘technological innovations’ of industrialized livestock production. Poultry are also the most ‘efficient’ at turning feed into meat in the quickest time possible – their short lives lasting only a matter of months – even if the process inevitably involves, in the words of Bob Torres, neglecting ‘their interests to not suffer, their desires to be free and to live as beings in the world,’ and instead, subjugating them to the ‘productive ends of capital’ (quoted in Weis, p.142). 

In a powerful chapter, Weis shows the contradictory nature of this process. In a variety of ways the attempt to speed-up and intensify meat-egg-milk output, undermines basic biophysical processors. These then have to be ‘over-ridden’ by additional application of resources – most noticeably fossil fuel energy – which in turn generate mounting pollution and/or other problems. To give just one example, the sheer volume of often-contaminated biowaste generated at large (labor saving) factory farms, cannot easily be recycled back into the soil as was the case with traditional farms. Instead a variety of energy and water intensive processors are needed in order to remove the waste from factories and either transport off-site or funnel it into massive, often leaching, neighboring ‘lagoons’. 

The final chapter is an appropriately devastating summary of the true ‘hoofprint’ generated by the grain-oilseed-livestock industrial complex. At its heart, this is a challenge to the narrow conception of capitalist ‘efficiency’, which has shaped the development of the industry. In the search for profit, the industry has very ‘efficiently’ sort to increase meat-egg-dairy output while minimizing costs, especially labor costs. However, looked at through the lens of ecological and social impacts, the industry has been appallingly inefficient, generating multiple and mounting problems. These include, but are not limited to: 
  • Magnified GHG emissions (livestock production is involved in nearly 1/5 of all anthropocentric GHG emissions);
  • Increased land devoted to monocultural feed crops, which in several ways accelerates the decline and fragmentation of eco-systems;
  • Increased water use, as well as pollution of waterways from fertilizer and pesticide runoff and leaching bio waste;
  • Increased chronic diseases associated directly with high meat diets, and indirectly from the disease risks associated with livestock factory farms;
  • The domination, abuse and violence inflicted on livestock animals; 
  • The mundane, degrading and psychological unhealthy conditions experienced by animal industry workers. 
Weis concludes the book by discussing alternatives and strategies for change. On the supply side he argues for a gradual dismantling of the industrialized grain-livestock complex, to be replaced with bio-intensive organic farming. Bio-intensive farming, he argues, is capable of producing more ‘total nutrition per land area than monocultures owing to their capacity to grow a bigger range and overall number of plants, even if individual plants are lower yielding’ (p.148). The more direct use of agricultural land for (mostly plant based) food could open up space ‘for the renaturalization of forests, native grasslands, wetlands, riparian zones, streams and rivers’ (p.149). On the demand side, Weis encourages individuals to adopt more plant-based diet and discusses the debates that rage between meat minimizers, vegetarians and vegans. Still, he cautions against exaggerating the ‘impact of individual consumer choices’ worrying that ‘this could lead to self-gratification when what is needed is far more critical reflection and political engagement’ (p.154).

I felt this section could have done with further elaboration and discussion of the hugely difficult socio-political issues involved. Weis does not go into detail on some of the inevitable trade-offs that would come with such a societal shift. For example, while a transition to labor intensive bio-intensive farming may well have the advantage of increasing employment and defusing the ecological hoofprint, the costs would involve not just reduced meat availability, but also a less lucrative agricultural sector generally, as reduced labor productivity would eat into both profits and per capita incomes. Furthermore, a labor-intensive agricultural sector could undermine many sources of modern economic growth. Personally, I think these are costs worth making but the point is, when viewed in these terms, the immensity of the political challenge becomes clear. Which capitalist society today – all of which consider economic growth to be a fundamental societal goal, and most of whom are fully integrated into today’s neoliberal global economy dominated by huge Trans-National Corporations – are going to consider making the radical shifts Weis wants? 

Ultimately, Weis’ systemic analysis points towards the need for a new anti-systemic movement. This is especially clear when the hoofprint is understood as just one more set of problems that global-consumer-capitalist society is generating, and particularly when viewed in light of the emerging (savage) limits to growth. The book, in short, provides further ammunition for those who see a need for a reconceived ‘eco-socialism’, which, for this reviewer, might look something like Ted Trainer’s inspiring, albeit challenging, vision of a ‘Simpler Way

Weis’ book stands as a fine achievement and a must read for anyone working for transition to a democratic, sustainable and peaceful world order. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

1789. Two Degree Celsius Climate Change Target 'Utterly Inadequate', Expert Argues

By Science Daily, March 27, 2015

The official global target of a 2°C temperature rise is 'utterly inadequate' for protecting those at most risk from climate change, says a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), writing a commentary in the open access journal Climate Change Responses.

The commentary presents a rare inside-view of a two-day discussion at the Lima Conference of the Parties (COP) on the likely consequences of accepting an average global warming target of 2°C versus 1.5°C (measured from pre-industrial times until 2100).

The discussions were part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 'structured expert dialogue' in December 2014. They reveal unevenly distributed risks and political power differentials between high-income countries insisting on a 2°C target and low- and many middle-income countries pushing for 1.5°C or lower.

The 2°C target has been said to carry an increased risk of sea level rise, shifting rainfall patters and extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and heat waves, particularly targeting the Polar Regions, high mountain areas, and the Tropics.

The author Petra Tschakert from The Pennsylvania State University and a coordinating lead author of the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report says: "The consensus that transpired during this session was that a 2°C danger level seemed utterly inadequate given the already observed impacts on ecosystems, food, livelihoods, and sustainable development.

"A low temperature target is the best bet to prevent severe, pervasive, and potentially irreversible impacts while allowing ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensuring food production and security, and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

In her commentary, Tschakert explains that the target of keeping the global average temperature rise to below 2°C originates from early studies in the 1970s. This target became anchored in policy debates over the decades, and was officially sanctioned as the long-term global goal for greenhouse gas emission reductions at the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

Despite support from high and upper middle-income countries with high emissions, the 2°C target has been subject to repeated criticism from climate scientists, economists, and political and social scientists.

Alliances representing over 70% of the parties around the table, including over 100 low- and middle-income countries and small island states, have repeatedly said that a 2°C rise is unsafe for their communities, and insist on a long-term goal to keep global average temperatures below 1.5°C. These states include the Pacific nation of Tuvalu that was recently hit by Cyclone Pam.

While the 2°C target is now being re-evaluated, no reference to an explicit 1.5°C target is included in the 2014 Lima Call for Climate Action, despite specific remarks on the lower temperature limit being made throughout the negotiations.

Having taken part in the latest structured expert dialogue in Lima, Peru, with country delegates to the COP, fellow IPCC authors and representatives from UN agencies and intergovernmental organizations, Tschakert now shares new insights into the ongoing debate on the adequacy of the long-term goal.

A representative of the World Health Organization at the session stressed that there was no 'safe limit' for health, as current impacts and risks from climate change were already unacceptable, impacting people's health significantly and inequitably. This includes a rise in undernutrition, food- and water-borne infections, and excess deaths during heat waves, of which 10,000 have already been attributed to the 2010 Russian heat wave.

In addition to heat waves, science participants in the dialogue said that extreme events such as floods and hurricanes were expected to cause high risk in a 2°C warmer world. These events would put at significant danger disadvantaged populations in megacities like Lagos, Mexico City or Shanghai, people whose livelihoods are dependent on natural resources, and those at risk from conflicts over scarce resources.

Tschakert says: "Using a figure for average global warming may indeed be the most convenient and compelling means to discuss the severity of climate change impacts, but not only does it inadequately capture the complexity of the climate system, it poorly reflects locally experienced temperature increases and the extreme and large variation across regions -- no single person or any species faces a global average.”

Singapore highlighted that certain risks were already catastrophic for people and ecosystems in their region while only moderate in the aggregate. Along the same lines, Ethiopia re-emphasized the uneven distribution of risks for the African continent. Trinidad and St. Lucia stressed regional differences in risk from ice sheet loss and coral bleaching. Botswana raised the subject of costs for mitigation, adaptation, 'loss and damage' and technology transfer associated with both temperature targets.

In terms of ecosystems, it was said that limiting warming at 1.5°C could keep sea level rise below 1m, saving half of the world's corals, and leave some of the Arctic summer ice intact.

Tschakert says: "These implications emphasize what is truly at stake -- not a scientific bickering of what the most appropriate temperature target ought to be, but a commitment to protect the most vulnerable and at risk populations and ecosystems, as well as the willingness to pay for abatement and compensation. This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world.”

The findings are timely as the long-term goal to stay below 2°C warming is currently undergoing a 2013-15 Review, the results of which are expected this June and could be adopted in Paris at COP21 in December 2015.

Tschakert concludes in her commentary: "The crux of the matter is no longer about the scientific validity of one temperature target over another... It is first and foremost about overcoming deeply entrenched divisions on value judgments, responsibility, and finance... It is about acknowledging that negative impacts of climate change under a 0.8°C temperature increase are already widespread, across the globe, and that danger, risk, and harm would be utterly unacceptable in a 2°C warmer world, largely for 'them' -- the mollusks, and coral reefs, and the poor and marginalized populations... even if this danger hasn't quite hit home yet for 'us'."

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by BioMed Central. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
end story_source

Journal Reference:
1 Petra Tschakert. 1.5°C or 2°C: a conduit’s view from the science-policy interface at COP20 in Lima, Peru. Climate Change Responses, 2015; 2 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s40665-015-0010-z

1788. Biofuels Greenhouse Emission Saving in Government Models Come from Reduction in Food Consumption

By Science Daily, March 27, 2015
Methane emissions from cows
Shrinking the amount of food that people and livestock eat decreases the amount of carbon dioxide that they breathe out or excrete as waste. The reduction in food available for consumption, rather than any inherent fuel efficiency, drives the decline in carbon dioxide emissions in government models, the researchers found.

"Without reduced food consumption, each of the models would estimate that biofuels generate more emissions than gasoline," said Timothy Searchinger, first author on the paper and a research scholar at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy.

Searchinger's co-authors were Robert Edwards and Declan Mulligan of the Joint Research Center at the European Commission; Ralph Heimlich of the consulting practice Agricultural Conservation Economics; and Richard Plevin of the University of California-Davis.

The study looked at three models used by U.S. and European agencies, and found that all three estimate that some of the crops diverted from food to biofuels are not replaced by planting crops elsewhere. About 20 percent to 50 percent of the net calories diverted to make ethanol are not replaced through the planting of additional crops, the study found.

The result is that less food is available, and, according to the study, these missing calories are not simply extras enjoyed in resource-rich countries. Instead, when less food is available, prices go up. "The impacts on food consumption result not from a tailored tax on excess consumption but from broad global price increases that will disproportionately affect some of the world's poor," Searchinger said.

The emissions reductions from switching from gasoline to ethanol have been debated for several years. Automobiles that run on ethanol emit less carbon dioxide, but this is offset by the fact that making ethanol from corn or wheat requires energy that is usually derived from traditional greenhouse gas-emitting sources, such as natural gas.

Both the models used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board indicate that ethanol made from corn and wheat generates modestly fewer emissions than gasoline. The fact that these lowered emissions come from reductions in food production is buried in the methodology and not explicitly stated, the study found.

The European Commission's model found an even greater reduction in emissions. It includes reductions in both quantity and overall food quality due to the replacement of oils and vegetables by corn and wheat, which are of lesser nutritional value. "Without these reductions in food quantity and quality, the [European] model would estimate that wheat ethanol generates 46% higher emissions than gasoline and corn ethanol 68% higher emissions," Searching said.

The paper recommends that modelers try to show their results more transparently so that policymakers can decide if they wish to seek greenhouse gas reductions from food reductions. "The key lesson is the trade-offs implicit in the models," Searchinger said.

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by Princeton University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
end story_source

Journal Reference:

1 T. Searchinger, R. Edwards, D. Mulligan, R. Heimlich, R. Plevin. Do biofuel policies seek to cut emissions by cutting food? Science, 2015; 347 (6229): 1420 DOI: 10.1126/science.1261221