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Posts Tagged Amazon

Adventures in the Anthropocene Bryan Walker Jul 28

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Science journalist Gaia Vince left her desk at Nature and spent two years visiting places around the world, some of them very isolated, where people were grappling with the conditions of what is sometimes described as a new epoch, the Anthropocene. It dates from the industrial revolution and represents a different world from the relatively settled Holocene in which human civilisation was able to develop. Adventures in the Anthropocene tells the story of Vince’s encounters with some remarkable individuals and their communities. It also includes lengthy musings on the technologies the future may employ as humanity faces the challenges of climate change, ocean acidification, population growth, resource depletion and more.

Vince goes to the front lines of the human battles. In a remote village in Nepal she describes the extraordinary work of Mahabir Pun who gained a university scholarship in the US and returned years later to bring computers and Wi-Fi to the children of his village. It’s a fascinating story, full of hope for development in his region. But it’s also precarious. Electricity for the computers comes from a small hydro-scheme fed by glacier water. In the same chapter Vince points out that the warming rate in that Himalayan region is five times greater than the global average and the glaciers are melting. Once they are gone there is no meltwater and no power. Levels have already been diminishing in the once-deep stream near the village.

Nowhere is the precariousness of forward-looking attempts to carve out development in the Anthropocene more poignant than in the Maldives where Vince expresses her deep admiration for the work of since-ousted President Mohamed Nasheed. All the impressive attempts to adapt to rising seas and to set an example of renewable energy development are clearly doomed by inexorable sea level rise, as the author explicitly recognises in her fictional epilogue.

Vince spends time with renowned activist Rosa Maria Ruiz in the Amazon forest. Here the immediate danger is not (yet) from climate change so much as from the human forces hell bent on destructive activity which will hasten its onset. Vince reports Amazon activists killed at the rate of one a week in 2011. It is not at all clear that government control will be asserted to protect significant sectors of the great forested areas.

The book’s stories from a great variety of different places around the world are valuable chronicles of how individuals and larger communities are seeking to sustain and enhance human life in often difficult circumstances. Vince acknowledges those difficulties and gives them due weight. The relentless pressure of climate change is always prominent among them. She can be quite brutal about the realities. For instance she describes the aim of experimenters she visits in the Brazilian Amazon as being “to discover whether the Amazon will reach a tipping point and change rapidly to desert, or gradually worsen, perhaps giving us time to act”.

She can also point to reasons for optimism. The vast unexploited tracts of sun and wind-exposed deserts are seen as the key to future energy production in the Anthropocene. But at the same time there are very few signs of the uptake of renewable energy at a rate sufficient to replace fossil fuels in good time. China, Vince says, needs to be bolder in its development of non-carbon energy.

Threats and opportunities jostle in the communities Vince visits and in her book. For all her recognition of human adaptability and inventiveness and her innate optimism she cannot assure her readers that all will be well for humanity in the Anthropocene. It is city life on which she places most of her hope. Cities may be the most artificial environment on Earth, but they are where humanity feels most at home, and they may well be where our demands on the environment can be most minimised. Not that she idealises them – her account of wading through a stream of raw sewage to reach a shanty slum she wants to visit is one of the memorable moments in the book. Cities can include areas of extreme deprivation, as described in the city of Khulna in south Bangladesh where 40,000 flood-displaced migrants were joining the slums each year. But slums can be rebuilt and cities ultimately deliver better lives. Colombia’s Medellín  is offered as a prime example.

The book provides impressive city statistics. If the population of a city is doubled, average wages go up by 15%, as do other measures of productivity, like patents per capita. Economic output of a city of 10 million people will be 15– 20% higher than that of two cities of 5 million people. At the same time, resource use and carbon emissions plummet by 15% for every doubling in density, because of more efficient use of infrastructure and better use of public transportation.

Cities are certainly growing fast. A million-person city will be built every ten days for decades to come. By 2030, 75% of Chinese will live in cities; thirty years ago, less than 20% did. Vince’s cities chapter includes lengthy surveys of ways in which such highly urbanised life can be sustainable, while acknowledging that some existing cities will be drowned by rising seas.

The author emerges from her invigorating tour of the Anthropocene with hope grounded on the human qualities she has encountered on her journeys.

“Our threats are many, including much of what we are bringing on ourselves – but we humans are resourceful, intelligent and endlessly adaptable.”

Let’s hope there is enough power in the qualities she lists to see humanity through the crises ahead. But there are also darker forces at work driving us to environmental destruction of massive proportions, and it remains an open question as to which will prevail.  Vince doesn’t pretend her book answers the question conclusively. But she does offer some plausibility for a better outcome than many of us fear.

Russian roulette with a rainforest Bryan Walker Feb 11

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I reported in a November post that it appeared likely that the 2010 Amazon drought was even more severe than the 2005 drought, itself identified as a 1-in-100-year event. Now Simon Lewis of Leeds University and Paulo Brando of Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and others have published a paper in Science with rainfall analysis showing that the 2010 drought was indeed more widespread and severe than that of 2005.

The 2005 drought killed billions of trees within the rainforest. On the ground monitoring showed that these forests stopped absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, and as the dead trees rotted they released CO2 to the atmosphere.

The press release reports that this new research, co-led by Dr Lewis and Brazilian scientist Dr Paulo Brando, used the known relationship between drought intensity in 2005 and tree deaths to estimate the impact of the 2010 drought.

They predict that Amazon forests will not absorb their usual 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in both 2010 and 2011, and that a further 5 billion tonnes of CO2 will be released to the atmosphere over the coming years once the trees that are killed by the new drought rot. For context, the United States emitted 5.4 billion tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuel use in 2009.

They can’t be sure, of course, until they have completed forest measurements on the ground and they describe their results as an initial estimate, one which incidentally does not include any emissions from fires which can be extensive during hot and dry years.

The danger is that this could be a precursor of the Amazon rainforest no longer playing the part it does in regulating atmospheric CO2. Simon Lewis:

’Two unusual and extreme droughts occurring within a decade may largely offset the carbon absorbed by intact Amazon forests during that time. If events like this happen more often, the Amazon rainforest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change, to a major source of greenhouse gasses that could speed it up.’

Of course it is possible that the two droughts are just an unusual natural variation, but Lewis points out that they are consistent with climate models which project a grim future for Amazonia.

Tropical ecologist Daniel Nepstad  is Director of International Programs at IPAM and one of the paper’s authors. He was  interviewed a couple of months ago during the Cancún conference.

’It’s about as bad as we’ve seen. I’ve been working in the Amazon for about 25 years now, and I haven’t seen anything like it. We thought we had the worst drought of the century in 2005, and this one is worse.’

The interviewer comments that the drought in 2005 was called a once-in-a-century drought, just five years ago.

’I know. And, there was a drought in 2007 that didn’t even capture any immediate attention, it wasn’t even worth it because drought is really becoming part of the fabric of the Amazon.’

The cause?

’You know, statistically, it’s just very hard to take an individual event like this mega-drought of the Amazon, and say that it is a direct cause of climate change. But, with both this and the 2005 and the 2007 drought, they’re all consistent with the scenario of increasing accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.’

How does the drought affect the rainforest?

’The forest actually makes the rain in the Amazon. By the end of the dry season, a lot of Amazon trees are sucking water from the soil- it could be 60 feet beneath the ground surface. So, they’re going way down deep to get that water, so that they can keep their green lush canopy, even though they’ve been deprived of water for a few months. And, that water going into the atmosphere makes the clouds that make the rain. Similarly, the rain coming down, if it weren’t for that rain, if those dry seasons got longer on a permanent basis, then that forest would cease to be. It would be replaced by grassy vegetations, savannahs, woodlands and scrub that would burn periodically, and that would look very different and have far fewer species.’

What are scientists supposed to think when confronted with possibilities such as those represented by recent Amazon droughts? That it will be interesting to see whether this is the start of a trend which would confirm predictions of the impacts of increasing greenhouse gases? That without further evidence they must be careful not to sound alarmist? In fact Simon Lewis and Daniel Nepstad are properly cautious, acknowledging that as scientists they can’t say with certainty that these droughts are part of human-caused climate change. But they are also very aware of the magnitude of the danger represented by the droughts if they are the result of increased greenhouse gas emissions. A statement by Lewis reported in a Guardian article expresses succinctly why we can’t just wait to see whether further evidence accumulates.

“We can’t just wait and see because there is no going back. We won’t know we have passed the point where the Amazon turns from a sink to a source until afterwards, when it will be too late.”

In other words the possible consequences are so dire that it is reckless to risk them.

“If greenhouse gas emissions contribute to Amazon droughts that in turn cause forests to release carbon, this feedback loop would be extremely concerning. Put more starkly, current emissions pathways risk playing Russian roulette with the world’s largest rainforest.”

That’s a serious warning from a scientist. And the Amazon is not an isolated case.  Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, in the presentation Gareth has recently posted, is convinced with good reason that ocean ecosystems are already being seriously impacted under current elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 and that a 450 ppm level will be disastrous for ocean life and consequently for us. The world’s ice is clearly under assault from warming, with the likelihood of sea level rise of fearful consequence to human populations, as scientists like James Hansen now regularly warn. The list is long.

We’re playing Russian roulette with more than the rainforests, and the revolver has more than one chamber loaded. The longer we take to start reducing emissions the more we shorten the odds.

The Climate Show #3: Cancún and cooling Gareth Renowden Dec 02

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Climate talks heat up in Mexico, snow blankets Britain and much of Europe, and The Climate Show is at the heart of the action. Glenn and Gareth set the scene for COP16 in Cancún and then interview Oxfam NZ’s Barry Coates at the conference to find out how things are shaping up. Gareth explores the link between Arctic climate change and cold winter weather in Western Europe, John Cook debunks that favourite sceptic myth — that the world’s cooling — and we look at the potential for nuclear power to provide part of the solution to decarbonising the power economy.

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, or listen direct/download here:

The Climate Show

Follow The Climate Show on Facebook and Twitter, and soon at The Climate Show web site.

Show notes below the fold.

Drought in the Amazon: see Bryan Walker’s recent post I wish it would rain, and a good Reuters feature here.

Snow in Britain and Europe: pictures and news at the BBC.

NOAA’s Arctic Report Card on WACCy weather here.

UK Met Office statement, Nov 30.

Temperature anomaly

201011NZtempanomaly.gif

(plotted at NOAA’s ESRL Daily Mean Composites page)

Normal NH atmospheric circulation at this time of year (850mb geopotential height climatology)

201011NH850climo.gif

Current atmospheric circulation

201011NH850actual.gif

(plotted at NOAA’s ESRL NCEP reanalysis page)

Cancun starts – expectations low: Can Cancún’s COP deliver?

Copenhagen Accord sets the world on a path to 3C: (2) Degrees of existence.

…or perhaps 4C: RS Journal special issue – Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications, and Guardian report.

UNFCCC iPhone app, Negotiator.

Barry Coates at Oxfam NZ: blog, new report, Now More Than Ever: Climate talks that work for those who need them most.

Give a goat for Christmas.

Debunking the skeptic with John Cook from Skeptical Science. This week: Global Cooling.

The Many Parts Solution

Going nuclear: new power station in Finland – ’many of the engineers and building experts working here are in their late 50s and early 60s; some are in their 30s, but few are in between. There’s a hole in the nuclear workforce, not just in Finland but across the Western world.’ — Reuters special report.

Nuclear is certainly part of the solution, for good coverage of a key technology – ’fourth generation’ integral fast reactors – see Prof Barry Brook’s excellent Aussie blog Brave New Climate.

Smaller scale: LED lightbulbs approaching mass market — 60 watt replacement due soon.

Thanks to our media partners: Celsias.co.nz and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

I wish it would rain Bryan Walker Nov 28

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We (or at least some of us) rightly feel apprehension and alarm at the prospect of melting glacial and polar ice. There are new reminders that we should be equally alarmed at the prospect of Amazonian drought. Joe Romm has written a lengthy post on Climate Progress drawing attention to the 2010 drought which may prove more widespread and severe than the 2005 drought, itself identified as a 1-in-100-year type event.  He quotes an email to that effect from forest scientist and Amazon expert Simon Lewis (he of the Sunday Times fightback and subsequently granted apology).

Lewis recommends an article in the Global Post which is well worth reading.  It refers to three scientists. Oliver Phillips, a tropical ecology professor at the University of Leeds, speaks of his concern that parts of the Amazon may be approaching a threshold point beyond which the eco-system can’t go. He led a team of researchers who studied the damage caused by the 2005 drought which caused a massive die-off of trees and led to the forest expelling carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it. He’s worried that another severe drought is following so soon after the last one.  Greg Asner, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, points out that some tropical forests in the world now are starting to be exposed to temperatures they’ve never experienced. His studies show that higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall could leave as much as 37 percent of the Amazon so radically altered that the plants and animals living there now would be forced to adapt, move or die. Foster Brown, an environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre, comments that drought has made ecosystems so dry that instead of a being a barrier to fire, the forest became kindling.

Nikolas Kozloff’s book No Rain in the Amazon which I reviewed earlier this year refers to much-cited scientist Philip Fearnside of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, who for some years has observed the connection between drought and El Niño-like conditions which are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming. He too is concerned that the Amazon might dry out and be placed in jeopardy as a result of climate change. Kozloff also reports the belief of some researchers that warming sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean are linked to Amazon drought.

In an October press release Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) comments:

“The drought of 2010 still hasn’t ended in the Amazon and could surpass that of 2005 as the region’s worst during the past four decades… Even if this doesn’t occur, the forest will have already experienced three extreme dry spells in just 12 years, two of which occurred during the past five years: 1998, 2005 and 2010. And this is not including the drought of 2007, which affected only the Southeastern Amazon and left 10 thousand sq. km. of forest scorched in the region…`The Amazon that had wet seasons so well-defined that you could set your calendar to them — that Amazon is gone,’ says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of IPAM…”

Deforestation of the Amazon by humans has long been a major international concern, and Simon Lewis’s communication with Jo Romm indicates that there is a degree of good news on that front in that since 2005 deforestation rates have been radically reduced. But the droughts are bad news. They kill trees and promote damaging fires, ’potentially leading to a drought-fire-carbon emissions feedback and widespread forest collapse’. Lewis expresses particular concern that while two unusual droughts clearly don’t make a trend, they are consistent with some model projections made well before 2005: ’that higher sea surface temperatures increase drought frequency and intensity, leading later this century to substantial Amazon forest die-back.’

Hot Topic commenter Tony on a previous post linked to an Al Jazeera video clip (which I’ve posted below), with the observation that if anything should motivate a sense of urgency in Cancun, what it portrayed should. Simon Lewis also linked what may be happening in the Amazon to the Cancun conference. Not with any great expectation, but with a dry reminder that the risks to which we are exposing humanity don’t diminish because we ignore them. ’While little is expected of the climate change talks in Cancun next week, the stakes, in terms of the fate of the Amazon are much higher than they were a year ago in Copenhagen.’

I hope it doesn’t appear as incidental if I note before concluding that the droughts affect not only the forest and through it the welfare of the whole planet but also the local populations whose livelihood and wellbeing is jeopardised. The Global Post article reports the anxiety of village chief Mariazinha Yawanawa. Her people are sustained by the forest. They hunt in the woods, fish the rivers and grow crops in the clearings where they live.  ’Everything has changed. We don’t know when we can plant. We plant and then the sun kills everything. If it continues like this, we expect a tragedy.’

[The Temptations]

Sceptics face yawning credibility gap Bryan Walker Jun 23

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We know that the vast majority of climate scientists support the explanation of anthropogenic climate change set out by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. That majority is now quantified in the first study of its kind published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Expert credibility in climate change.

’Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97—98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.’

The study explains the criteria by which these conclusions were reached, paying particular attention to the question of expertise, where weight was given to the number of climate publications of researchers and to their citation levels.

’We show that the expertise and prominence, two integral components of overall expert credibility, of climate researchers convinced by the evidence of ACC vastly overshadows that of the climate change skeptics and contrarians. This divide is even starker when considering the top researchers in each group.’

The team of four has obviously put a good deal of time into the study which was contributed for publication by Stephen Schneider (pictured). Why bother, one might ask.  Surely it’s all too apparent. It may be to readers of Hot Topic but the study notes that considerable and even growing public doubt remains about the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement about the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in climate change. The vocal minority of researchers and other critics who contest the conclusions of the mainstream scientific assessment has received large amounts of media attention and wields significant influence in the societal debate about climate change impacts and policy.

An analysis such as the study offers has not been conducted before, and the writers observe that it can help inform future ACC discussions. Translated into common parlance I guess that means they hope this will put paid to the idea still abroad, in at least the American media, that denial of anthropogenic climate change retains a respectable level of scientific credibility.

That may be optimistic. Journalism in general still has difficulty getting its head around the reality of mainstream climate science. The idea that there is a realistic alternative shows remarkable persistence. When I was writing occasional columns for my local paper, the Waikato Times, I discovered that my attempts to explain aspects of the current science eventually came up against an anxiety that the paper was not presenting a balanced picture. There was finally talk of pairing my column with another which would meet the paper’s obligation to offer its readers more than one opinion. I protested that I was representing mainstream science and asked why the paper should feel that needed to be balanced. I made that my last contribution and escaped the indignity of a balancing viewpoint. It seemed fairly clear that the East Anglia emails and the baseless attacks on the IPCC report by the likes of Jonathan Leake were enough to unsettle the journalists with whom I was dealing and bring back to life concerns which I thought had long been laid to rest.

One nevertheless hopes that  surveys and appraisals such as this one in a highly regarded journal will make a difference to media perception and help establish in the public mind the seriousness of the scientific understanding and predictions. It seems inconceivable that we should continue much longer refusing to face the reality.  But I’ve been thinking that for four years now.

Sunday Times apologises for ’Amazongate’ misinformation Bryan Walker Jun 21

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Three months after Simon Lewis laid a complaint with the UK’s Press Complaints Commission, which I reported here, the Sunday Times has retracted Jonathan Leake’s disgraceful Amazongate article and apologised to Dr Lewis. The article has been removed from their website. Here’s the apology:

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view — rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

Leake’s article was not only celebrated ad nauseam in the denialist community but also taken up by mainstream media in many countries.  Here in New Zealand the Dominion Post used it in an editorial claiming that the ethics and integrity of climate scientists is being called into question. I wrote about that here. The editorial accepted that human activity is contributing to global warming, but drew this appalling conclusion about the IPCC:

’Why trust a panel that confuses opinion and fact, wrongly attributes that opinion, tries to shout down critics and displays a determination to make the facts fit the theory rather than the other way around.

’The IPCC should leave the spin to the politicians and get on with its real job — establishing the facts. By glossing over inconvenient truths and misrepresenting opinion as scientific fact, it has undermined its credibility.

’It now has a great deal of work to do if it is to persuade peoples and governments that its findings should be taken seriously.’

Jonathan Leake and the Sunday Times have a lot to answer for, but so do journalists in many places who allow themselves to be so easily misinformed. The credulity with which they have received accusations of malpractice by the East Anglia scientists, and alleged IPCC errors (beyond the acknowledged and regretted error relating to the Himalayan glaciers) is astonishing. Where on earth did the Dominion Post find the confidence to make such a declaration about the IPCC?  Not by reading the science, that’s for sure.  And that’s the nub of the matter: the media generally gives the impression that it has not ensured that enough of its journalists are informed about climate science. That’s why the mischief wrought by disinformers, especially when they’re backed by seemingly reputable papers, can reach global media proportions overnight.

Perhaps any of our readers who see the Dominion Post might consider writing to the editor and inviting them to retract their editorial, or at least to write another acknowledging that they have reason to reconsider their verdict on the IPCC.

The Sunday Times correction has been published on their website here, but be warned that you have to go through a full registration procedure to view it.

No Rain in the Amazon Bryan Walker May 17

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U.S. writer Nikolas Kozloff aims to give a voice to the peoples of the Global South in his new book No Rain in the Amazon. At the same time, as indicated by the sub-title How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, he warns that what happens in the Amazon affects us all, wherever we live.

In this book the South is mainly Peru and Brazil. For the purposes of the book Kozloff traveled throughout the two countries, speaking with government officials, experts, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples. A specialist in Latin American affairs, Kozloff is not a scientist but is well acquainted with current climate science.

He has a lot to tell as he develops his major themes. Among them: climate change is already being experienced in the region and taking effect on poorer people’s lives; it poses further threats for them in the future; the Amazon forests are threatened by climate change, particularly drought; they are also severely threatened by the deforestation caused by humans; loss of Amazon forest is global in its impact because of the vital part it plays in the global environment; the Global North is complicit in deforestation and must help stop it.

In Peru the melting of glaciers carries serious implications on many levels, from  irrigation for farming and water for pack animals through to the long term threat to the water supply to Lima, a city of 7 million built on a desert.  Unpredictable and testing weather patterns are emerging in some regions. The Andean cloud forests, which carry out a vital hydrological function as well as maintaining extraordinary biodiversity, are under threat from climatic change as clouds condense at higher altitudes. Kozloff considers the drastic effects of El Nino events on Peru, including outbreaks of cholera and dengue, and points to the IPCC expectation that El Nino-like conditions are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming.

Kozloff doesn’t constantly enter scientific caveats when assigning the effects of climate change on the lives of poorer people. It’s reasonable that he doesn’t: the cumulative picture is strong, and he’s not arguing the scientific case but giving a voice to people whose plight is being ignored. He comments on the extreme inequalities whereby, in general, the people who are most at risk from global warming live in the nations that have contributed the least to the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They also, like Peru, tend to be among the poorest and hence ill-equipped to deal with the changes they are facing.

Turning to the Amazon Kozloff points out that it contains about one-tenth of the total carbon stored in land eco-systems and recycles a large fraction of its rainfall. Drawing on the expertise of much-cited Brazilian scientist Philip Fearnside he explains how El Nino-driven drought is threatening the forest. The warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic may also be linked to Amazonian droughts. Climate change is responsible for these enhanced threats. And of course the effects are not just local. Tropical rainforest literally drives world weather systems. The billions of dollars needing to be provided by the rich nations to tropical countries to sustain forests are an important and necessary insurance policy.

But the Amazon is threatened by more than climate change.  Deforestation as a result of human activity is the focus of a major section of the book.  Kozloff sets the scene for his survey by pointing out that the relentless slashing and burning of tropical forests is now second only to the energy sector globally as a source of greenhouse gases.  Powerful political and economic forces within Brazil are pushing deforestation, but the Global North is complicit  in the destruction. The affluent nations, acting through large financial institutions, fund destructive tropical industries and buy up the tropical commodities that are hastening the day of our climate reckoning.

The cattle industry accounts for 60 to 70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon. Kozloff recounts some of the brutal realities of ranching and its ’insidious alliance’ with politicians. Land ownership is often unclear and plagued by corruption. Poor workers can labour in conditions amounting to virtual slavery.  An activist like Sister Dorothy Strang who worked on behalf of landless farmers and advocated for sustainable development projects was eventually simply assassinated. She was an ’agitator’ who had only herself to blame for her death, said a local cattle ranchers’ leader.  The Brazilian state seems hopelessly compromised by powerful agricultural interests and finds it hard to police the Amazon and control deforestation. But financial institutions in the Global North, like the World Bank, provide key investment backing to the ranching explosion. Northern companies purchase leather, beef and other products and consumers buy them. Blame is shared.

The depressing news doesn’t end with cattle. Kozloff moves on to soy and its reach into the Amazon and the Brazilian cerrado, which covers one-fifth of the country and is the world’s most biologically rich savannah.  Soy monoculture liberates carbon from the soil of the cerrado and its advance also displaces cattle farming into new forest development.

Kozloff acknowledges that there are problems with the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation progamme (REDD), not helped by the blocking by the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of moves to incorporate protections for indigenous peoples into the programme. But he sees it as ’the only game in town right now that makes preserving forests more economically valuable than cutting them down’. Which is the nub of the matter.

Kozloff is not impressed by the ’clean energy’ initiatives being pursued in Brazil, hydro-electric dams for electricity and biofuels from sugar cane for transport. Apart from the population displacement and road building associated with dam-building, the dams in forest areas lead to vast emissions of methane from the decaying vegetation.  Ethanol from sugar cane has been one of Brazil’s apparent success stories, but it involves destruction of the coastal Atlantic rainforest, one of the world’s top five biological hotspots. The nasty hell of debt-slavery operates in many sugar cane plantations. American agribusiness giants are now rushing to set up shop in Brazil to help greatly expand the industry. Much of the growth may be outside the rainforest, as officials claim, but it is planned to be within the cerrado.

If the Global North wants to avert yet further climate change, Kozloff says, it needs to get serious about the transfer of truly green technologies, particularly wind, solar, and waves. He points to the need for a ’Manhattan Project’ scale development of alternative clean energies, and the sharing of the new technologies with tropical nations such as Brazil. There’s little sign of such transfer taking place.  Indeed before Copenhagen the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to ensure that the negotiations would not ’weaken’ US intellectual property rights on wind, solar, and other green technologies.

Full of interesting accounts though it is, the book is hardly a cheering read. Not because nothing can be done for Peru and Brazil by way of mitigation and adaptation but because it is by no means clear that the Global North is ready and willing to provide the necessary assistance. Nevertheless Kozloff presses the case for action convincingly.

Note: There’s a Democracy Now interview with Nikolas Kozloff relating to his book here on YouTube. (It’s in two parts.)

[Buy through: Fishpond, Amazon.com, Book Depository.]

Amazongate closes on Sunday Times: Simon Lewis fights back Bryan Walker Mar 26

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Jonathan Leake and the Sunday Times got a lot of mileage out of his disgraceful Amazongate article, which I wrote about in February. It was pleasing to read yesterday in Climate Progress that tropical forest researcher Simon Lewis has lodged an official complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The IPCC wrote:

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.”

Jonathan Leake opened his article:

“A startling report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.”

Simon Lewis writes in the course of his 31 page PCC complaint (pdf, published by ClimateProgress.org):

“Specifically, I consider this article to be materially misleading. I am the scientific expert cited in the article who was asked about the alleged ’bogus rainforest claim’. In short, there is no ’bogus rainforest claim’, the claim made by the UN panel was (and is) well-known, mainstream and defensible science, as myself and two other professional world-class rainforest experts (Professor Oliver Phillips and Professor Dan Nepstad) each told Jonathan Leake.”

Lewis wrote this to Leake prior to the article: ’The IPCC statement itself is poorly written, and bizarrely referenced, but basically correct.’  Leake, with the help (’research’ they called it) of well-known denialist Richard North, strove to give the impression that the statement was scientifically dodgy and by highly selective reporting implied, by omission, that Lewis agreed with them.

Lewis posted a comment on the Sunday Times website saying that he was the expert referred to and that the article was misleading. His comment was deleted. He also wrote a letter to the editor, early enough to allow publication the following Sunday. The letter was neither acknowledged nor published.

However, the PCC complaint appears to have caused some reaction. As told on Climate Progress today Lewis had a message on his answerphone from the letters editor saying it has been recognised that the story is flawed and offering to print his letter, nearly two months old.  Lewis will not now agree to the publishing of his letter, since it would mean that he was associated with a ’flawed’ article.  He says to Joe Romm that the article ought to be taken down from the website and an apology be issued in its place, or that the PCC complaint should run its course.

Romm comments:

“I agree that this is no time for yet another uber-lame, after-the-fact correction/letter on a dreadful piece of disinformation that has ricocheted through the media and blogosphere, disinformation that has probably been seen by well over 10 times as many people as would ever see the correction or letter.

“The Sunday Times should simply take the piece down and issue a retraction and apology.  At the very least, now that they have admitted the story is ‘flawed’, they should take the piece down until the PCC issues its ruling.”

It’s good to see a scientist fighting back against deliberate misrepresentation which starts in one newspaper and then takes wings in the media. It would take some time to prepare a complaint of the length that Lewis has written, and is no doubt a considerable distraction from his work. But dignified silence from scientists who are misused or attacked plays into the hands of the denialists and the uncritical media who have loosed the extraordinary torrent of misinformation which has been abroad in recent months. Lewis is to be applauded for his action.

Late addition: Evidently the renewable energy industry in the UK is also considering making a complaint to the PCC regarding a misleading story Leake has written about wind farms. He cherry-picks the worst performing wind farms to make a case that wind farms are a “feeble” source of electricity. Tim Lambert at Deltoid has the details.

Tipping and other points Gareth Renowden Feb 15

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

During the Copenhagen kerfuffle a lot of interesting stuff hit the web: here’s something that deserves a bit more air – a Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) special issue on tipping elements in the earth system, edited by John Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Tipping elements (or points, as Malcolm Gladwell would have them) are changes that once started take on a life of their own, and can’t easily be returned to their original state. In the climate system that might be the rapid loss of an ice sheet in a few decades or hundreds of years, while regrowing it might take many thousands. The PNAS special issue deals with nine: dust production in the Bodélé Depression in Chad, ENSO, Arctic sea ice and ice sheets, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, deep ocean hydrates (not shallow sea bed, Siberian methane) — David Archer dubs them a “slow tipping point”, the Amazon rainforest (no “Amazongate” here, just a confirmation that concern is justified), monsoons, oceans, and policy responses to the climate challenge. And the best thing is that all the articles are available online, free (click on the link above). Schellnhuber contributes an introduction, and the Potsdam press release also provides a good overview. For some introductory thoughts, check out Tim Lenton’s discussion here.

Another recent example of a real tipping point is the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. Recent modelling suggests that the glacier’s grounding line retreated beyond a ridge in 1996, and is now free to retreat by several hundred kilometres inland. This could happen in a hundred years and result in the loss of half of the ice in the glacier — enough to raise sea level by 24cm. New Scientist reports:

Observations already show that the model severely underestimates the rate at which PIG’s grounding line is retreating, says Katz. “Ours is a simple model of an ice sheet that neglects some important physics,” says Katz. “The take-home message is that we should be concerned about tipping points in West Antarctica and we should do a lot more work to investigate,” he says.

Amen to that.

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