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Posts Tagged Africa

Ange Palmer: Why I Feel So Good About Climate Change Gareth Renowden Jun 26

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I have been marinating in the meaty world of climate change for a good five years now. I’ve been on a wild ride as a film maker producing a documentary called 2 Degrees (that’s the trailer above). Our film looks at the flaws in the UN climate negotiation process through the gritty lens of climate justice, and then follows a fantastic community uprising lead by a fiery 80 year old woman mayor in South Australia.

As a result of this process I have become intensely interested in how we respond psychologically to climate change as humans. How do we cope with the grief, anger, confusion, disbelief and disempowerment that inevitably arises when we allow the reality of those doomsday news reports to sink in? Can we keep our chins up amidst all this?

Personally, I can. I’m way beyond depression and anxiety. In 2009 I sat in at the Four Degrees and Beyond conference in Oxford when the world’s eminent climate scientists shared their current research and came to a collective realisation that the worst case scenarios that each was predicting via their various areas of specialty modelling was, in fact, already playing out. It was a sobering vibe to say the least.

Later, filming in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I witnessed poverty and suffering which left me stunned and numb with shame and sadness. And then of course there was the Copenhagen climate conference. Watch my film to get a feel for that! It was… unbelievable…

Congo Villagers reduced

Yet today I feel good about this climate emergency – a time of emerge-ence – because each morning when I awake I know that I will do the best that I can in the day ahead to address it. In my own small ways. And that this is the most I can do…that any of us can do.

In conversations about climate, of which I have many, people often express to me their despair at what WE have done, at what WE need to do, and what WE are unlikely to do, with faces grim and foreheads sagging. And therein lies my message. For me it is not so relevant how WE respond. Ultimately I am only responsible for how I myself tackle climate change and this is where it all begins.

Hold the concept of a million tiny lights across the world. We are each one of these lights and together they make up a virtual supergrid of life as we all wake up to the destructions and step up, speak out and act. Every day I learn of incredible new ideas and initiatives and am now constantly in awe and celebration of these.

Think of ourselves, those of us who care deeply about all this, as the Earth’s immune system. As the dis-ease of ecocide – large scale air pollution and destruction of ecosystems – takes hold, we are mobilised like white blood cells to protect our pulsing, precious body. Make the difference you can make – by what you consume, how you travel, changes you initiate or support in the work you do, your work place, school or community group.

Importantly, talk about climate change. A lot. Because this is how we learn and how we connect in to a collective response. Build community. There is much to be inspired and excited about, and much work to be done. Join the revolution.

Ange Palmer is a Nelson-based documentary film maker. She is planning a NZ tour with her film 2 Degrees in August / Sept. where she will share her experiences of making the film, and speak on our response to climate change and Eradicating Ecocide. If you could support Ange by hosting a screening send her an .

Volunteers are also sought to assist with distribution. See here for details. A film is a great way to create a community dialogue, and can be a pathway to action. The film can also be watched online via the 2 Degrees website, and you can follow the film’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.

Out of Africa: Nigerian environment minister warns of devastating climate impacts Bryan Walker Jun 09

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The government in New Zealand may make soothing noises about climate change impacts, but that is not an option for the Minister of Environment in Nigeria, Mrs Laurentia Mallam. She issued this chilling warning about the impacts of sea level rise a few days ago:

“Studies have projected that with an accelerated sea level rise of 0.5 meters, 35 per cent of the Niger Delta land mass will be lost, and with accelerated sea level rise of 1.0 meters, 75 per cent of the Niger Delta will be gone under water.

“Given this scenario, it implies that nearly 32 million people (22.6 per cent of the national population) who live along the coastal zone are at the risk of becoming environmental refugees. Such forced movement could result in social frictions arising from demands of land resources for economic activities by the refugees.”

For good measure she listed the full effects of climate change on her country:

“In Nigeria, the impacts of climate change are manifested by erosion and landslides in the east, drought, and desertification in the north, raising sea levels in the coastal areas and flooding across the nation.”

The adaptation measures required by Nigeria will obviously be of staggering proportions, and add urgency to the need to prevent the problem from getting even worse than it is already going to be.

The Minister puts the needed response into a global context:

“It is clear that the only choice for humanity is to take practical actions through reducing emissions, awareness creation, preparing for extreme events and adapting to the impacts of climate change. We need to plan for the changes that are expected to occur. We need to adjust our ecological, social, and economic systems and change the way we do things.”

This clarity about the impacts of climate change on human societies is not often encountered from government Ministers in developed countries, most of whom are not yet confronted by the kind of undeniable and devastating prospect which Nigeria faces. For that matter it may not be easy for a Minister in a government which relies as heavily on fossil fuel revenues as Nigeria’s to speak so unequivocally. But those who govern owe it to their citizens to face these realities themselves and communicate them with some gravity. Ignoring them is dereliction of duty.

It is somewhat depressing to read the Nigerian statement in a country where the government is still largely avoiding the issue. Consider the measures of required practical action that the Nigerian Minister lists. New Zealand presently falls woefully short on most of them. We are increasing emissions, not reducing them. Awareness creation is hardly part of the government’s programme — I can’t recall any government minister speaking with deliberation of the seriousness of what lies ahead if emissions continue to increase, let alone what is already unavoidable. Perhaps the guidance offered to local councils in relation to planning for future sea level rise might be construed as preparation, but it devolves responsibility at a very advanced level and looks as if it entails a degree of avoidance.

As for adjusting our ecological, social, and economic systems and changing the way we do things, we are, as Rod Oram’s trenchant Sunday Star Times column on the ETS this week points out, “stuck playing the old game. Thanks to New Zealand’s corporate strategies and government policies we’re trying to squeeze ever-more cheap commodities out of our increasingly stressed environment.”

Mrs Mallam didn’t say anything we don’t already know or can’t deduce, but her statement still hit me with considerable emotional force and underlined how important it is to keep challenging the climate apathy in which the New Zealand government is currently mired.

Protest, procrastination and #wtf? cindy Nov 22

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When people just arriving in Warsaw over the last few days ask me how long I’ve been here, my general response has been “all my life.” That’s what it feels like.  You’d think I’d be used to this, it being my 11th COP. But there’s nothing like that special feeling of tiredness having been in a hideous, air-conditioned stadium for 15 hours a day. And I’m not even a negotiator.

We had a discussion today about whether a warm weather COP is better for achieving progress on the climate than a cold one, and it seemed this was so. Bali, Cancun and Durban did make better progress, on the whole, than Poznan, Copenhagen, and now Warsaw.

Today was the day that a bunch of civil society walked out of the Polish National Stadium. WWF, Greenpeace, Action Aid, 350 and Oxfam, along with unions and youth left the meeting, noisily, in big numbers and with the slogan “polluters talk, we walk,” in protest at the way the fossil fuel industry appears to be running progress, or lack thereof.

I understand where they’re coming from.  Separate Oil and State and you’d get a lot further than where we are right now. Some NGO’s are staying inside to help steer the process through to the bitter end, which also seems understandable.

So where are we?  It looks like, with the policies in place so far, we’re heading to 3.7degC, which is half a degree of warming above where we’d be if governments actually did what they pledged in Copenhagen to do. They’re not even on track to meet those crappy targets.

All this meeting was supposed to do was to set up a decent timetable so that governments can complete the brave march to Paris, December 2015 where they will agree a major new climate treaty that will keep global warming below 2degC. Oh, and increase emissions cuts before 2020 because if we wait until then to do only what everyone agreed in Copenhagen we’ll be going to hell in a very warm handbasket.

But even that seems like too difficult a task. There’s been a concerted effort by what’s known as the “Umbrella Group” (Australia, NZ, the US, Canada, Japan… you know, those really good and progressive governments) to stall as much as possible.

The Australians have really been the bad guys here, getting a number of fossil of the day awards, and making even NZ look like the nice people (well, sort of). It’s not that we’re good, it’s just that Tony Abbott’s new Government is so much worse than anyone could ever have imagined. I’ve never heard the word “belligerent” so often used to describe the attitude of one country’s behaviour in these talks (well, maybe the Saudi’s…)

On Finance, today the French pledged $5 million to the Adaptation Fund, set up to receive money from CER’s (units generated from Clean Development Mechanism projects) and to help the smallest, most vulnerable countries adapt to the (now inevitable) impacts of climate change.  Woot! This now means that the Adaptation Fund has reached the threshold of the $100 million it needed just to keep going.

A UNEP report earlier in the week showed that the African Continent, four degrees of warming would require up to $350 bn a year by 2070 to pay for adaptation. So that $100m isn’t going to go very far.

In the rest of the Finance discussion it’s all too bogged down in nasty fighting right now to say what will happen, but the major problem appears to be with those who want to talk about rules for the Green Climate Fund for the rest of their lives. The GCF will, maybe one day, be the place that produces funding for the small island states and other desperately poor countries in coping with climate change.

But so long as you don’t agree on the rules of how the fund will work, then nobody has to start stumping up the $100bn a year by 2020 that the developed world promised in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, money continues to pour into the coffers of the fossil fuel industry in subsidies.

On the vexed issue of Loss and Damage, in Doha they agreed to keep talking. Here, boiling it down very simply, it’s a question of whether a separate institution be set up to deal with it. Developed countries like the US argue no way. But when it comes to climate change there are a whole set of issues that are above and beyond simply adapting to. Things like permanent loss of land. Of culture (eg small islands disappearing). That’s all bogged down too.

And tonight the Indian Government, who fought tooth and nail in Durban for the principles of equity to be central to any future agreement, got a Fossil of the Day for insisting that strong wording on equity proposed by South Africa be dropped.

It’s going to be a long 48 hours ahead.

A sunnier outlook from the ground up Bryan Walker May 19

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The NZ Herald business supplement recently carried a thoughtful feature by Peter Huck in which he described moves to combat climate change at lower levels than the floundering international negotiations. He begins with a report on Desertec Industrial Initiative, the German-led consortium which this year hopes to trial in Morocco a concentrated solar power plant as the harbinger of ambitious plans to provide very large quantities of solar and wind energy to North Africa and Europe.

Huck takes this as one of the many signals that the top-down approach to limiting carbon emissions through international deals is giving way to a ground-up attitude that stresses action.  Others include the EU’s introduction of a carbon tax on airlines that use its airports; Scotland’s investment in wave power; California’s embrace of renewable energy, clean fuels, a cap-and-trade programme to limit emissions, and other green policies; Ecuador’s efforts to preserve its forests by getting donors to pay it to keep oil in the ground; China’s approval last year of its 12th Five Year Plan, which aims to tackle energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Further down the chain Huck instances a growing urgency about reducing emissions which can mean corporate investment in renewable energy, municipal emphasis on public transport, or a family insulating their home.

He produces comments from a number of people in the course of his article, one of the most direct being from GLOBE’s president, John Gummer, Lord Deben:

“The shape of the debate is changing from one about sharing a global burden – with governments naturally trying to minimise their share – to one of realisation that acting on climate change is in the national interest.”

That sent me to the GLOBE website and to the discovery of a recent article by John Gummer and John Prescott. I’ll leave Huck’s article at this point, recommending it as a good example of well-informed and scientifically aware journalism, and turn to Gummer and Prescott who develop the theme Huck reports by pointing to recent Mexican and South Korean legislation. They emphasise the significance of Mexico’s recent landmark environmental legislation, the General Law on Climate Change. Mexico is also noted as very close to approving a REDD+ forestry law that will set a benchmark for international best practice.  Added to this is the recent passage of far-reaching legislation introducing an emissions trading scheme in South Korea.

The passage of Mexico and South Korea’s law (which in both instances were supported, significantly, on a cross-party basis) highlights the remarkable progress on climate change now being made globally. A critical mass of strategically significant — often emerging — economies have made landmark climate and energy-related legislation over the last year. These countries, including China, are advancing laws at a pace that contrasts sharply with the UN-brokered climate change talks that formally convene again in Qatar in late November.

They put the trend in a global context and hail it as marking a major shift:

This trend comes at a time of pivotal change in international relations with continuing economic downturn in the West being counterpoised with the increasingly rapid shift of power to emerging economies.  Mirroring this structural shift is a fundamental repositioning of the centre of gravity of the global climate change debate towards domestic climate change legislation. This is nothing less than game changing.

They provide other examples of countries where governments are developing climate change action plans and note that with the exception of Australia there is an encouraging move towards political consensus over such action, with many legislators increasingly recognising the positive co-benefits of climate change legislation, ranging from greater resource efficiency and increased energy security to the reduction of air pollution.

Here’s the different order that this points to:

All this, in turn, mirrors a crucial shift in the political debate on climate change. Until now, it has been largely framed by the narrative of sharing a global burden – with governments, naturally, trying to minimise their share.

Now, legislators increasingly view the issue as one of national self-interest, with each nation trying to maximise the benefits of climate change legislation. Indeed, those countries with strong national legislation are already attracting most inward investment on low-carbon technologies because there is greater business certainty rather than high regulatory risk.

They acknowledge that although there is encouragement in these developments they are not yet sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change.

Nonetheless, the national legal and policy frameworks to measure, report, verify and manage carbon that are now being created have the potential of significant tightening. This will be the more likely as governments experience the benefits of lower energy use, reduced costs, improved competitiveness, and greater energy security.

However a global deal still matters, and it will be important to translate progress at national levels into such a deal during the negotiations that began at Durban and are due to finish in 2015.

Such a deal will probably only be possible when even more countries are committed to taking action on climate change because it is to their advantage rather than out of perceived altruism. In other words, such a deal will reflect domestic political conditions not define them.

The authors note that this has opened up new possibilities for progress in international agreement:

Countries that have found it hard to agree to international action are now outdoing their commitments in domestic legislation. Having taken those steps at home they will find it much easier to commit to a global agreement which confirms the decisions they have already taken of their sovereign free will.

But they warn of the danger of some developed countries lowering their long-term ambition and hardening their stances.

A curmudgeonly response from the developed world is now the biggest threat to the Kyoto process.

John Gummer, Lord Deben, is a former Conservative UK Secretary of State for the Environment; John Prescott, Lord Prescott, is a former UK Labour Deputy Prime Minister. Their joint authorship is an indication of the extent to which climate change is now a cross-party issue in many countries, as it should be.

The thesis is that countries considering their own best interests in their own constituencies are proving able to act more hopefully for the climate than when they are assembled in international negotiating forums, and further that this can in turn help break the deadlocks which are frustrating effective international action. It’s an attractive interpretation, albeit accompanied by warning about possible intransigence from some unnamed developed countries. Contemplating the possibility of groundswell achieving the necessary changes is certainly more pleasant than looking at the bleak prospects so far offered by international negotiation.

I thought of my own country New Zealand when reading the article. We seem to have persuaded many observers that our emissions trading scheme is a bold example of national initiative on climate change. But if they looked below the surface they would see that so far it is little more than a public relations exercise, weak in its effects and co-exists with a firm intention to obtain wealth from increased fossil fuel exploitation. One hopes that the examples Gummer and Prescott — and Huck — have offered have more substance than New Zealand is yet providing.

But not to be gloomy and to end on a positive note here’s a recent video from Desertec.

Climate Change and Migration Bryan Walker Jan 15

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It’s all too easy for wealthy America and Europe to treat climate-induced migration as a border security issue. Gregory White, Professor of Government at Smith College in Massachusetts, argues in his recent book Climate Change and Migration: Security and Borders in a Warming World that a security-minded response to the phenomenon is both inappropriate and unethical. It’s not a judgment the book rushes to; White provides ample and thoughtfully-presented material in its support.

The dynamics of globalisation have brought with them an increasing preoccupation with border security, particularly in the countries of the North Atlantic. Immigration is a hot electoral issue and the spectre of climate-induced migration adds to the already fraught subject. White writes of how easily deep fears can be aroused and of media-savvy politicians all to ready to play on them, along with the ’media’s panic entrepreneurs’.

He doesn’t downplay the possibility of migration forced by climate change. He is fully aware of   the science and includes a section of the book explaining it in broad terms and stressing the high credibility of climate change models. He surveys the situation of Bangladesh and notes that India’s high-tech ’separation barrier’, originally proposed as a protection against Islamist threat, is today often spoken of in relation to climate refugees. He also writes realistically of the South Pacific Island states, and along the way corrects the myth that New Zealand generously extended immigration to Tuvalu in response to the threat of rising sea levels. That always sounded too good to be true.

In the case of Africa the likelihood of climate refugees becoming a threat to European countries is, in his view, overplayed. African history is a history of migrations, and the bulk of it is local, urban, and/or within a sub-region. ’…the research is persuasive that in most instances of environmental change, people move to nearby destinations as part of household strategies; they also eventually seek to return to their points of origin.’ He grants that climate-induced migration will likely intensify and flows to the Maghreb and Europe will increase, but nevertheless considers that much of the increased African migration will remain regional, rural to urban and south to south.

The heightening of migration security measures in the North Atlantic states has brought into prominence the transit states which adjoin advanced-industrialised countries (or group of countries) or offer reasonable access to them. States such as Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Turkey. The advanced countries’ concern with security has meant their taking steps to thicken their borders, so to speak, by engaging their neighbours in the task of assisting to repel would-be migrants.  The attributes of these transit states make for very interesting reading. They are themselves invariably countries of emigration but are often eager to participate in controlling the non-nationals using their country to transit to an advanced-industrialised country. Such co-operation is seen as a way of advancing their sovereignty claims and their credibility as a trusted diplomatic partner. White shows all this working out in the political life of Morocco which he takes as an example. 2.6 million Moroccans live officially in Europe. 8.6 per cent of its people live abroad but remain significant for its economy. The country is not keen to slow this emigration, but it is willing to aid control of transit migrants seeking to access Europe. White points out that the invasion of transit migrants is easily exaggerated. He refers to estimates that around 120,000 people enter the entire Maghreb each year, not insignificant but certainly not the horde some analysts and media claim.

The securitising of the issue of climate-induced migration is described as misguided. It fails to solve the problem and is actually imprudent because it employs resources against a threat more supposed than real. White also gives welcome attention to the ethics. If outsiders are seeking access because of injustice then the border fence is an especially glaring display of power. Questions of justice must be raised if people on the inside are consuming inordinate amounts of energy, enjoying luxury items, and leaving behind large amounts of waste and pollution. Borders are ethical sites.

Much preferable to the security discourse are alternative approaches which White promotes in his final chapter. He writes of the role of what he calls global governance, a broad concept engaging international institutions rooted in the liberal tradition of international relations. A wide range of institutions provide a kind of toolbox of international responses which centre on constructive assistance for climate refugees, helping with resettlement, accepting a proper measure of global responsibility. He writes also of the importance of addressing the nexus of development and climate. Development solutions need to have environmental implications at their core. The book offers many examples of adaptation measures already proving their worth in the Sahelian region. Policies which address both mitigation and adaptation from local to international levels provide a much more constructive approach to climate disruption than a focus on the security of borders.

White’s book is packed with informative discussions of the ways in which concern about climate-induced migration has impacted on the North Atlantic industrialised nations and their relations with their near neighbours. He advances an argument, but not without carefully exploring the positions that he finally cautions against. I appreciated the thoroughness of those explorations, which made his conclusions all the more telling. High alarm and calls to strengthen border security may go down well with an anxious electorate, but they are a deflection from the real task of constructively addressing climate change and helping with adaptation for vulnerable communities already experiencing its effects. Border security may have a measure of legitimacy but it is a long way from the central and over-riding requirements to assist people in the situations where they are coping with a changing environment and to find ways to cut back on the emissions which are causing the changes.

How far ethical considerations will be allowed to impact on the perceived security of wealthy nations may be moot, but I certainly appreciated White’s readiness to point them out and assume that we can be affected by them. If we lose hold of a sense of justice and global community in the swirl of political life we are lost indeed.

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Politics of Climate Justice Bryan Walker Dec 28

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I warm to any writer who identifies the solution to climate change in the simple terms employed by Patrick Bond in his recent book Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below: leave fossil fuels in the soil, halt deforestation, transform our economies so that renewable energy, public transport and low-carbon systems replace those currently threatening the planet. Short and simple to articulate, he comments, but apparently impossible to implement.

Bond writes from Africa, where he is a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He carries a deep sense of the damage that climate change is causing and will cause to African societies, and calls for justice not only in the mitigation of further climate change but also in substantial transfers of wealth to enable poor countries to cope with the adaptation and mitigation measures demanded of them. He sees this as the payment of an ecological debt.

Carbon trading he regards as a charade that will do nothing to reduce global warming. It has been accepted as the primary capitalist management technique but offsetting emissions is not the same as cutting them, and to date there is little sign that the wealthy countries are achieving emissions cuts by emissions trading. Shifting, stalling and stealing are the words he uses to describe such trading, as capitalism frantically seeks new ways to address its crises and avoid threats to its over-accumulated capital.

He points to the vast devaluation of energy capital which lies ahead. Around 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves must stay below ground if global climate managers succeed in keeping warming to 2 degrees. That represents some substantial currently accounted assets which will be worthless, a dire prospect for some very large firms and for some countries.

Carbon trading not severely focused on emissions reduction is certainly open to  the failures of which Bond is so aware, and one can understand his suspicions and appreciate the weaknesses to which he points. It can amount to little more than shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic if it deals only in the illusion of reduction. He takes the reader through a complex set of arguments as to why carbon trading is not working and is unlikely to do so, especially when it is co-opted by the financial markets or used as a thinly-disguised exploitation of the South by the wealthy North. And he is right to point out that even if carbon markets work it can only be at the margins, and that full solutions require radical transformative regulations and public investments if we’re to break through to the new energy and related systems the planet requires.

Nevertheless I balked when he described people like Mary Robinson, Nicholas Stern and Al Gore as part of a paralysed elite trapped in market solutions. Stern strikes me as discriminating and often critical in his estimation of market solutions, and he is adamant, in his book  Blueprint for a Global Deal that combating climate change is inextricably linked with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and that we shall succeed or fail on them together.  Al Gore in his 2009 book Our Choice expressed preference for a carbon tax over carbon trading, but recognised that the ascendance of market fundamentalism in the US meant that only a cap and trade system had any likelihood of acceptance. He also wrote of the importance of direct regulation.

Climate finance is a major concern for poorer countries faced not only with adapting to the early impacts of climate change but also the challenge of developing their economies without the fossil fuel energy sources which were used by the world’s richer economies in their development.  That there is a debt owing to such countries is a notion hard to argue with for anyone who has a feeling for justice in human affairs. Bond puts the case for a very substantial transfer of funds from the rich countries to the poorer, but in ways which ensure that they go to poor people, not to venal elites, and which also ensure developing economies emancipated from current fossil fuel dependency. He sees little chance of such finance being provided through market-centred emissions trading. The Green Climate Fund looks like a step in the right direction, but Bond sees it as too dependent on carbon markets to provide much of the funding and as open to rewarding allied Southern elites and investing in false solutions.

Governments of developing countries are often susceptible to bullying and bribing from the more powerful governments in international negotiations and persuaded to scale back their best intentions, as Bond explains in the course of a quite complex narrative of the politics involved in climate finance.  He rests more hope on the contribution that civil society can bring to the process of negotiation. He advances the kind of demands that have been put together by such groups as the World Council of Churches, Action Aid, Africa Action, the Third World Network and the radical Cochabamba Conference in Bolivia in 2010. On the matter of the distribution of climate debt repayments, assuming they ever become part of Northern climate concessions, he draws attention to the idea of simply passing a universal monthly grant to each African citizen through an individual Basic Income Programme payment. This would bypass the corruption which too easily assails African governments.

The claims of full climate justice owed to poorer countries can seem like crying for the moon. But Bond sees hope in the development of grassroots activist movements and in his final chapter offers an analysis of how they might better combine their energies and concerns to challenge the dominance of the failing climate solutions currently employed. Eco-socialism and eco-feminism feature as important directions in his analysis.

The world needs to be constantly confronted with what climate change means for the precarious livelihoods of poorer populations, and challenged to accept a fair measure of responsibility to assist them. Bond’s book does a valuable service both to those populations and to our own moral awareness, supposedly one of the characteristics that mark us out as civilised human beings. I sometimes felt he was too exclusive in his judgments of people less progressive politically and economically than he deems necessary for effective climate change activism, but his insistence that we address the injustices being suffered is absolutely right. It’s also a necessary part of any effective response to the dangers ahead.

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Vidal’s voyage to Durban Bryan Walker Nov 28

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How better to journey to the climate conference at Durban than through the African countries along the way which are already grappling with climate change? That’s the route John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, has been following over the past ten days and reporting on in a series of articles.

He started in Egypt. The impacts of climate change are difficult to disentangle from natural coastal processes and the effects of human activities on the flow of the Nile, but an inexorably rising sea level and the increasing intensity of storms threaten increased salination of groundwater and soil as well as inundation. Extreme heat will also take its toll on city life.

Sudan was next. A Sudanese researcher reports drought and extreme flooding becoming more frequent, temperatures rising in winter, extreme — good and bad — years now more common and rainfall patterns changing. If temperatures continue to rise, as is predicted over the next 50 years, Sudan can expect more desertification, and more tension between traditionally hostile groups. The country is not well placed to adapt to changes in climate, stressed as it is by endemic poverty, ecosystem degradation, complex conflicts and limited access to markets, infrastructure and technology. In South Sudan changes in rainfall patterns threaten crops and livestock.

In Uganda Vidal visited a coffee-growing village.

 One by one, the farmers, who mostly cultivate two acres of land each, tell us what they have observed in their lifetimes. “The springs are drying up”; “we find we can only plant crops twice’; “the coffee has started behaving differently; it flowers even as it fruits”; “we have more diseases”; “we have lost 20% of our income”; “there is less water from the mountain”.

The villagers say they have no scientific understanding of why it is hotter and there is less rain, but they instinctively believe it’s because there are fewer trees, and argue that they should plant more. And they had something to say to the negotiators at Durban:

“We must start with mitigation. Our message to the world leaders and the countries meeting in South Africa is to talk less and act more”, says Januario Kamalha, a villager.

Vidal moved on to Kenya where he reports the ambitious plans to continue the legacy of Wangari Maathai in massive tree-planting projects and to build one of Africa’s biggest wind farms near Lake Turkana. He includes an extract from the environment department’s official assessment of what has happened in the past 20-30 years:

“Rainfalls have become irregular and unpredictable, when it rains [the] downpour is more intense, extreme and harsh weather is now the norm. Since the 1960s both minimum (night time) and maximum (daytime) temperatures have been warming. Rainfall has increased variability year to year, there is a general decline in the main rainfall season and drought in the long rains season is more frequent and prolonged. On the other hand, there are more rains during September to February. This suggests that the short rains are expanding into what is normally the hot and dry period of January and February.”

An official in the environment department sums it up:

’We are vastly affected by climate change. The trends are now extreme. We are seeing adverse effects everywhere. When no crops grow, we have to seek aid. Our economy is greatly affected, so adaptation is our priority.’

In South Africa Vidal visited Ocean View near Capetown, where 75 fisherwomen each own a small 5 metre-long boat and go one mile out in the giant Atlantic swells two or three times a week to catch rock lobsters. They know that fish stocks are affected adversely by a variety of factors, including poaching and over-fishing, but they are convinced that climate change now plays a part.

“We the fisher people know what we see, and we can see changes. The lobsters are hibernating for longer, and their shells are softer and more fragile than they were. Their breeding cycles are being disrupted. The sea temperature is definitely warmer than it used to be. The seas are much rougher these days and people are scared to go out. The wind comes up bigger than before. The weather patterns seem to have changed too.”

Vidal sums his journey up in a final article.

From north to south the broad observations are remarkably similar. More floods, droughts, storms and changing seasons are being experienced: the heatwaves are getting longer and more frequent; the storms more intense; the nighttime temperatures higher; the farmers see new diseases and pests; and the growing seasons appear disrupted. On top of that, the marginal areas are turning to desert and cities are becoming unbearably hot. The peer-reviewed science is still sketchy, but it’s the best there is in a continent starved of research funds and it is consistent with the latest models done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But as the evidence continues to mount and the pain begins to be experienced in some of the poorer parts of the world there is little sign that the rich countries are preparing to tackle the issue seriously  at Durban or anywhere else:

… some leaders of the rich and big-emitting countries have lost interest and political momentum and want to consign the talks, like those on world trade, to a never-ending, never-achieving, low-grade, low-profile discussion to take place in backrooms without anyone listening or caring much. They may profess concern, but there is little evidence they want to act.

The 175 or more developing countries are not taking this submissively.

[They are] talking more as one, and the great illusion trick of the rich world is wearing thin. What has changed, they ask? The science of climate change is firmer than it ever was. A 2C-4C temperature rise still means that Africa fries and the polar bears die out, that Bangladesh and Egypt drown, the droughts in Latin America and Ethiopia continue to worsen, and the poorest communities and small-island states, who have the least resources to adapt, will be hurt the hardest.

Vidal is hardly optimistic. He ends with the comment that convincing the US to stop playing with the lives of the poorest or China to brake their economic rise may be too much to expect. Nevertheless he’s right to put his journalism at the service of those who are already discovering in their vulnerable lives what climate change means. Maybe the rich world will prove impervious to moral appeal. But the advocacy must continue and be reiterated again and again so that at least we cannot claim ignorance of the human effects of ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions. I often think how repetitive I feel my own writing about climate change has become as the years go by and little appears to change, at least at the political level. But there’s no escape from that repetition. The twin themes of the reality of the science and the injurious human impacts of climate change must go on being sounded until the world wakes up to what we are doing to ourselves.

Horn of Africa Drought: is it climate change? Bryan Walker Aug 12

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The horrifying pictures of famine in the Horn of Africa haunt us as human tragedy, and the more because they carry with them the question of whether this has something to do with climate change. Are we going to see more and more of this kind of suffering as climate change impacts begin to mount? That’s an easier question to muse than to answer with certitude, but it deserves our attention. There is every indication that poor people are going to suffer from the impacts of climate change sooner and more harshly than the rest of us. But is the Horn of Africa famine part of that?

Oxfam has been addressing that question, and recently issued a briefing on the subject. The short answer is that we don’t know.

There are what may be indications:

’Reports from the Kenya Food Security Group and from pastoralist communities show that drought-related shocks used to occur every ten years, and they are now occurring every five years or less. Borana communities in Ethiopia report that whereas droughts were recorded every 6-8 years in the past, they now occur every 1-2 years.’

Meteorological data shows mean annual temperatures from 1960-2006 increased by 1 degree in Kenya and 1.3 degrees in Ethiopia, and the frequency of hot days is increasing in both countries.

Rainfall trends are less clear, though recent research suggests that rainfall decreased from 1980 to 2009 during the ‘long rains’ (March to June).

But no conclusion can be drawn:

’[Globally] there are so far only a few cases in which scientists have been able to estimate the extent to which man-made climate change has made a particular extreme weather event more likely, and no such studies as yet exist in the case of the current drought in the Horn of Africa.’

However, the current drought has highlighted the vulnerability of the communities to changes in the climate, as Oxfam on the ground in the refugee camps is only too aware.  Last night I watched on Campbell Live an interview with a New Zealand woman Janna Hamilton working for Oxfam at the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border. Vulnerability sounds like a euphemism alongside what some of the people she described had been through.

So whatever part human-caused climate change may or may not have played in the current drought there can be no doubt that what the future holds for the populations in the Horn of Africa is deeply concerning. Higher temperatures are certain and in the absence of urgent action to slash global emissions they will likely be 3 to 4 degrees higher in the region in 2080-2099 relative to 1980-99. Rainfall patterns are more difficult to predict. Some models suggest more rain for East Africa, others that it will decrease. The briefing notes however that even if rainfall does increase, this will in part be offset by temperature rises which cause greater evapotranspiration, and more rain falling in heavy events will result in increased surface runoff and flooding.

This adds up to major problems for food production and availability — one recent estimate published by The Royal Society suggests much of East Africa could suffer a decline in the length of the growing period for key crops of up to 20 per cent by the end of the century, with the productivity of beans falling by nearly 50 per cent.

In other words, whether the current drought is down to climate change or not, it reminds us that these populations are going to be profoundly affected in the future as climate change begins to bite.

And so the briefing sounds again Oxfam’s oft-repeated recommendations for international action to slash greenhouse gas emissions to a level which keeps global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, for action on mobilising the $100 billion per year that has been committed for climate action in developing countries, and for a dramatic increase in long-term investment towards building the resilience and boosting the productivity of pastoralists and smallholder food producers in the Horn of Africa.

Improved governance has a part to play, as the briefing fully acknowledges: ’It should be noted that whilst the current drought has been caused by lack of rainfall, the disaster is man-made.’ But it would be wrong to shrug off the climate challenges ahead as if they were simply down to inadequate government. We owe the world’s poor, and eventually our own children, the earnest effort Oxfam keeps calling for and that we keep delaying.

Oxfam on food justice: clearheaded and admirable Bryan Walker Jun 22

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I thought of Oxfam’s recent report on food justice while I was reviewing Christian Parenti’s book Tropic of Chaos. He wrote of how climate change impacts are compounding the existing economic and political problems of many poorer populations. This is also very evident in Oxfam’s report on the alarming new surge in hunger as higher food prices hit poor countries. Time for a post on the report, I thought.

The message that climate change is already having bad effects on the welfare of poor populations needs to be hammered home. The fact that it intertwines with other causes doesn’t mean that it can be downplayed. It is clearly a significant part of the combination of factors threatening the food supply of many.

Overarching all the factors is one supreme element, as Oxfam sees it: ’power above all determines who eats and who does not’. That’s the power of the status quo and the special interests that profit from it, the power concentrated in the hands of a self-interested few.  The report speaks of a broken food system constructed by and on behalf of a tiny minority — its primary purpose to deliver profit for them. ’Bloated rich-country farm lobbies’ gain subsidies that tip the terms of trade against farmers in the developing world.  Self-serving elites amass resources at the expense of impoverished rural populations. Powerful investors play commodities markets like casinos. Enormous agribusiness companies, hidden from public view, function as global oligopolies. Dominant minorities are imposing paralysis on tackling climate change. Concentrations of greenhouse gases are already above sustainable levels and continue to rise alarmingly. Land is running out. Fresh water is drying up.

It will catch up with us all in the long run, but in the meantime it’s the poor and vulnerable who are suffering first from extreme weather, spiralling food prices, and the scramble for land and water. Ominously, food prices are forecast to increase by something in the range of 70 to 90 per cent by 2030 before the effects of climate change, which will roughly the double price rises again.

The report calls for a redistribution of power from a handful of companies and political elites to the billions who actually produce and consume the world’s food; for a shift in the share of consumption to allow adequate, nourishing food for those who live in poverty; and for a shift in the share of production from polluting industrial farms to smaller, more sustainable farms, including an abandonment of the subsidies which prop up the former and undermine the latter. The report adds that the vice-like hold over governments of companies that profit from environmental degradation — the peddlers and pushers of oil and coal — must be broken.

Strong words, and no less welcome for that. But the report doesn’t stop at generalised statements. It goes on to detail three specific challenges presented by the failing food system. The first is the sustainable production challenge. The dramatic yield increases of last century are drying up, but within the developing world there is huge untapped potential for yield growth in small-scale agriculture.  However investment in developing country agriculture has been pitiful. It has declined by 77 percent over the past 25 years, at the same time as rich country governments increased support for their own agriculture to be 79 times as large as the agricultural aid to developing countries.

Climate change plays its part in the decline of yield growth.  Estimates suggest that rice yields may decline by 10 per cent for each 1°C rise in dry-growing-season minimum temperatures. Modelling has found that countries in sub-Saharan Africa could experience catastrophic declines in yield of 20—30 per cent by 2080, rising as high as 50 per cent in Sudan and Senegal. Climate change will also increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods which can wipe out harvests at a stroke. Meanwhile, creeping, insidious changes in the seasons, such as longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns are making it harder and harder for poor farmers to know when best to sow, cultivate, and harvest their crops. The International Food Policy Research Institute has recently calculated that 12 million more children would be consigned to hunger by 2050, compared with a scenario with no climate change.

In addition to sustainable production the report highlights two other challenges, of equity and resilience. Equity is to do with access to land, to markets and to technology. Resilience includes adaptation to climate change, and it’s sobering to read that the rich countries have so far pinned down no details of the $100 billion a year pledge for future climate financing. Nor is current financing measuring up — the report says that most of the $30 billion of Fast Start Finance agreed at Copenhagen has turned out to be old aid money, recycled, repackaged and renamed. There is much to substantiate the report’s acid observation: ’History shows that justice tends not to come about through the benevolence of the powerful.

The report may be outspoken about why the the food system is failing, and go so far as to talk of a ’dance of death’, but it is primarily an appeal to make the changes which can solve the crisis and set us on a more hopeful road. There are three big shifts we need to work for. The first is developing new forms of governance both nationally and globally in which attention is more closely focused on reducing vulnerability to disasters. The second is changing the shape of agriculture by prioritising the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries and reversing the current misallocation of resources whereby the vast majority of public money for agriculture flows to agro-industrial farms in the North. The third is building the architecture of a new ecological future; a global deal on climate change will be the litmus test of success.  The report follows these three shifts into details which there is not space here to describe. Suffice to say they add up to a realistic and hopeful programme well within human capability.

There must of course be an immediate caveat to those last words. It is not clear that our moral and political capability will have a clear run. That’s where the issue becomes clouded. Which I guess is why, in a concluding statement which draws attention to the organisations, businesses, and movements which are growing and connecting with vigour and hope for a better future, the report finds it necessary to repeat its frequent warnings against the vested interests which will strongly resist the needed changes. ’Governments must renew their purpose as custodians of the public good rather than allowing elites to drag them by the nose.’

’Some hope,’ the cynic in us might say. But the abandonment of hope is too terrible to contemplate. Oxfam may seem quaintly idealistic to some. Not to me. The organisation is morally right to keep advocating justice for the poor and vulnerable. It is intellectually clearheaded in its delineation of the forces that are impelling us towards disaster. It is admirable in its determination to continue sounding uncomfortable truths which we’re so ready to ignore.

Tropic of Chaos Bryan Walker Jun 20

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Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of ViolenceThe title piqued my curiosity: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Christian Parenti’s book is about what he calls ’the catastrophic convergence’, when the dislocations of climate change collide with already-existing crises of poverty and violence. He points to evidence, often in tropical countries, that political, economic and environmental disasters are compounding and amplifying each other, to the great detriment of some populations. In other words, climate change is intertwining itself with the existing difficulties faced by those populations and making them worse.

Parenti is an investigative journalist, a contributing editor for the US progressive weekly magazine The Nation, and author of earlier books on the American penal system, surveillance in America and the American occupation in Iraq. This book is firmly anchored in close-up visits he has made to the places he writes about, visits where he met with people on the receiving end of the crises he describes. In fact the book opens with the description of a man dead with a bullet through his head who lay ’beneath a flat-topped acacia tree, its latticework of branches casting a soft mesh of shade upon his body’. He was a pastoralist in northwest Kenya belonging to a tribe Parenti was visiting. He had been killed in the course of a cattle raid by a neighbouring tribe. Drought was bad. Raiding picks up when that is the case. It could be said that tradition killed him, or the drought killed him. But in Palenti’s mind, as he walked among the tribe’s warriors scanning the hills for the neighbouring tribe’s war party, the man’s death was caused by the catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change.

He pursues this theme into the unsettled regions of north Kenya and the failed or failing states which adjoin them — Uganda, Southern Sudan and Somalia. It’s a complex picture, in which the relatively recent history of the regions plays a strong part, as Parenti’s discussions of colonialism and the Cold War remind the reader. Failed and semi-failed states are not well placed to tackle poverty or to control violence in their communities, let alone cope with the added burden of more droughts and more flooding which climate change is bringing to the region.

From Africa he turns to Asia. In Afghanistan droughts, floods and failed crops, combined with the failure of governance lead unerringly to the opium poppy as a source of relative security. In India and Pakistan water and climate have become the key drivers of the continuing conflict which has its roots in the past. Within India Parenti focuses on the Andhra Pradesh region where farmers reported that in the last ten to fifteen years regular drought and strangely timed rain had become very common. None of them had heard of greenhouse gases or anthropogenic climate change and many speculated that deforestation was the problem. The dominance of cotton growing in the area is no help since the crop needs large amounts of water. Many farmers are poor and mired in debt.  Neoliberal austerity offers them little help. Insurgency and counterinsurgency, both often brutal, plague the region. The Indian government meanwhile does not face the reality of climate change. Parenti interviews a top climatologist Dr. Murari Lal and reports him as distraught: ’The political class are in total denial…They are thinking, ‘Development first, then address the environment’.’  It’s a grim picture Parenti paints and not surprising to read his final comment that India should fight the Naxalite insurgency by adapting to climate change with economic redistribution, social justice and sustainable development.

His final focus is on Latin America. In Brazil he shuttles between the violent crime-ridden slums of Rio and the severely climate-stressed Northeast of the country, from where many of the slum-dwellers have perforce come. Once again it’s not climate alone that the people of the Northeast struggle to deal with, but a nexus of social and political factors which have made it difficult for them to establish adequate and stable farming. Lula’s attempted roll-back of neoliberalism and his economic redistribution efforts have helped, and Parenti sees interesting signs of hope on land owned by small farmers who are discovering green farming systems which work within the new climate-constrained limits. Land reform is climate adaptation, he comments.

Mexico, or at least the northern city of Juarez on which Parenti focuses, presents a grim picture. The economic and political history of the country is enough to account for the breakdown in social order which the violence in Juarez represents, and the fact that Mexico is now a social laboratory of radical free market orthodoxy only worsens its problems in Parenti’s view. But climate change is also at work. He presents a climate refugee, a former fisherman he found gazing across the river at the US. ’The sea became red and all the fish just disappeared.’  This happened at the time of the 1998 El Niño event. Parenti is well aware that it is impossible to say that a warmer globe causes any single weather event, and nowhere throughout the book does he do so. But he works from the broad correlations to discern the impacts of climate change among the problems bearing down on the stressed populations of which he writes.

Across the border from Juarez, Palenti introduces the reader to the land of walls and demagogues. He doesn’t have to scratch around to find deeply disturbing material among those without understanding or concern for the desperate people seeking illegal entry into the US.

Palenti confronts his readers in rich developed countries with uncomfortable realities. We bear responsibilities, as is often all too painfully apparent as he sets out the histories of the peoples he writes about and points to the unfairness of the economic structures they have been subjected to. We certainly bear responsibilities for the climate impacts that have been introduced into the mix; the greenhouse gases are from our activity, not theirs.

What are we in the rich countries going to do in the face of the rising crises he describes, crises which will only worsen if we allow climate change to develop further?  One possibility is that we turn to the politics of xenophobia and racism and build fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse. Neofascist islands of relative stability in a sea of chaos, in his words. Not that it will work for long, but when one considers the ease with which we ignore the plight of the populations the book investigates and even blame the sufferers, it must be a real short-term prospect. All the more since short-term seems what we are best at. The other possibility, on which Parenti rests some hope, is that civilised society moves rapidly to the mitigation of climate change, for which we have the technology and the money albeit not as yet the political will, and that at the same time we address the social inequity which tolerates extremes of wealth and poverty.

Parenti is far from alone in coupling the mitigation both of climate change and of poverty. I frequently thought while reading his book of economist Nicholas Stern whose own book makes it clear from the start that combating climate change is inextricably linked with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and that we shall succeed or fail on them together.

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