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Archive for the ‘Climate change’ Category

‘Threatened’ Status For Polar Bear

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Polar bear adult and two cubs
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service

The polar bear, whose summertime Arctic hunting grounds have been greatly reduced by global warming , will be placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in 2005 to force a listing of the bear. The Center, based in Arizona, has been quite open about its hopes to use this as a legal weapon to attack anthropogenic causes of climate change, such as proposed coal-fired power plants or other new sources CO2 emissions.

On April 28, a judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final listing decision by May 15. Just a day before the newly imposed deadline, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the polar bear would be listed as ‘threatened’. This move offers the bear some new protections, such as prohibiting the import of hides or other trophies from bears killed by US hunters in Canada. However, the Interior Department added some seldom-used stipulations that would allow oil and gas exploration and development to proceed in polar bear territories, as long as companies abide by existing restrictions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Bush administration continues to maintain it is under no obligation to address or try to mitigate the causes of melting sea ice that is threatening the bear. Mr. Kempthorne said, “When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think terms like ‘climate change’ were part of our vernacular.” Barton H. Thompson Jr, director of the Woods Institute of the Environment at Stanford University, said the decision reflected the administration’s view that “there is no way, if your factory emits a greenhouse gas, that we can say there is a causal connection between that emission and an iceberg melting somewhere and a polar bear falling into the ocean.”

It should all have been so straightforward. There are about 25,000 polar bears, all dependent on a fragile and rapidly-changing environment. What’s the problem with giving them a little protection? Well, for a start, there’s a worrying lack of consensus on whether the polar bear is ‘endangered’ at all. Over all, scientists agree that rising temperatures will reduce Arctic ice and stress polar bears, which prefer seals they hunt on the floes. However, few foresee the species vanishing entirely for a century or more.

Of the 25,000 bears in the Arctic, 15,000 live in Canadian territory. A scientific study issued last month reported that four out of thirteen bear populations would probably decline by over 30% over the next 36 years, while the others would remain stable or increase. M. Reed Hopper of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group based in Sacramento, called the decision to list the polar bear “unprecedented” and said his group would sue the Interior Department over the decision.

“Never before has a thriving species been listed [under the Endangered Species Act] nor should it be. The Endangered Species Act was not intended, nor does it allow, the listing of a thriving species. PLF is prepared to challenge this arbitrary listing of the polar bear. The polar bear is already among the most protected species in the world. According to the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act would provide ‘very little added protection.’

“This listing could have the effect of imposing severe restrictions on land use, job creation, and normal economic activity, not merely in Alaska but also – if global warming factors are cited in lawsuits based on the listing – throughout the lower 48 states.”

Meanwhile in Canada, management of bear populations is the responsibility of the various provinces and territories. The territorial government of Nunavut has campaigned against new US protection for the bear, concerned that lucrative local bear hunts run for US visitors will stop when trophy skins can no longer be taken home. John Baird, Canadian environment minister, said that the government would adopt an independent scientific panel’s recommendation to declare polar bears a species “of special concern,” a lower designation than endangered.

So there we are. One of the world’s most photogenic creatures has been granted ‘protection’ after a three-year legal battle, but little seems to have changed. We still want to dig up and pollute its hunting grounds, and we still want to kill it and hang its skin over the fireplace.

Rumours that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney had tried to block the listing of the bear are greatly exaggerated and, of course, completely unfounded.


Monsoon Britain

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monsoon britain

Prepare for more floods. Last summer was the second wettest on record and experts who have studied over 250 years’ worth of rainfall and river flow patterns say we must prepare for worse to come. Professor Stuart Lane, from Durham University’s new Institute of Hazard and Risk, says that after about 30 to 40 less eventful years, we seem to be entering a ‘flood-rich’ period. More flooding is likely over a number of decades.

Prof. Lane, who publishes his research in the current edition of the academic journal Geography, set out to examine the wet summer of 2007 in the light of climate change. His work shows that some of the links made between the summer 2007 floods and climate change were wrong. Our current predictions of climate change for summer should result in weather patterns that were the exact opposite of what actually happened in 2007.

In looking at longer rainfall and river flow records, Prof. Lane shows that we have forgotten just how normal flooding in the UK is. Seasonal rainfall and river flow patterns dating back to 1753 suggest fluctuations between very wet and very dry periods, each lasting for a few years at a time, but also very long periods of a few decades that can be particularly wet or particularly dry.

In terms of river flooding, the period since the early 1960s and until the late 1990s appears to be relatively flood free, especially when compared with some periods in the late 19th century and early 20th Century. As a result of analysing rainfall and river flow patterns, Prof. Lane believes that the UK is entering a flood rich period that we haven’t seen for a number of decades.

“We entered a generally flood-poor period in the 1960s, earlier in some parts of the country, later in others. This does not mean there was no flooding, just that there was much less than before the 1960s and what we are seeing now. This has lowered our own awareness of flood risk in the UK. This has made it easier to go on building on floodplains. It has also helped us to believe that we can manage flooding without too much cost, simply because there was not that much flooding to manage.

“We have also not been good at recognising just how flood-prone we can be. More than three-quarters of our flood records start in the flood-poor period that begins in the 1960s. This matters because we set our flood protection in terms of return periods – the average number of years between floods of a given size. We have probably under-estimated the frequency of flooding, which is now happening, as it did before the 1960s, much more often that we are used to.

“The problem is that many of our decisions over what development to allow and what defences to build rely upon a good estimate of these return periods. The government estimates that 2.1 million properties and 5 million people are at risk of flooding. In his review of the summer floods Sir Michael Pitt was wise to say that flooding should be given the same priority as terrorism.

“We are now having to learn to live with levels of flooding that are beyond most people’s living memory, something that most of us have forgotten how to do.”

Durham University news release

Institute of Hazard and Risk Research web site

Written by Pete Smith

May 9, 2008 at 10:51 am

Peak Food

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'Peak Everything' Richard HeinbergRichard Heinberg is an American writer who is probably best known for his work on Peak Oil, the proposition that global oil production has reached, or is about to reach, a maximum from which the only way is down. The cocktail of declining output and rapidly growing demand has dire consequences for all aspects of our economies that rely on plentiful supplies of cheap energy. If you seriously think there’s any component of our way of life that’s immune to Peak Oil, you might consider a change of medication.

In his 2007 book ‘Peak Everything: Waking Up To The Century Of Decline In Earth’s Resources‘, Heinberg widens his scope to embrace not just energy, but other crucial areas such as agriculture, water, population and climate stability. In a chapter entitled ’50 Million Farmers’, he postulates that the era of abundant, cheap food is ending, and discusses four key factors that will reacquaint the well-fed West with the old spectre of famine. Although written from an American perspective, this analysis is relevant to all developed economies.

Looming fuel shortages

Agriculture accounts for about 17% of the US annual energy budget; it is the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries.
“About 1500 litres of oil equivalents are required to feed each American each year.
“Every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil fuel inputs.”

A shortage of farmers

“The average age of American farmers is over 55 and approaching 60.
“The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9% in 1982 to 5.8% in 2002.”

An increasing scarcity of fresh water

“Over 80% of water consumed [in the US] goes toward agriculture.”

Global Climate Change

” ‘Global warming’ …. implies only that the world’s average temperature will be increasing by a couple of degrees or more over the next few decades. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms … unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a clmate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s production.”

Heinberg rejects 21st Century techno-fixes such as GM crops, on the grounds that they are still heavily dependent on a fuel-fed industrial system. He believes that we must de-industrialise agriculture, reducing fossil fuel inputs, increasing labour inputs and reducing transport, with the emphasis on production for local consumption. Citing examples such as Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, WW2 Victory Gardens (the equivalent of British allotments) and the Permaculture movement, he argues it is possible in principle for industrial economies to move to smaller-scale food production systems that don’t depend on fossil fuel inputs.

But we need more farmers. This implies people who aren’t afraid of hard physical work and who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. I just wonder if, collectively, we’re up to the task.

Written by Pete Smith

April 29, 2008 at 10:06 am

Goodies From Ken

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Goodies from Ken

We came home from our Easter break to find that the offspring had taken delivery of a sturdy parcel from the Mayor of London, addressed to me personally. “DIY Planet Repairs” it says on the box, “Will you help with the repairs?”. Inside, there’s a collection of prezzies from Mayor Ken himself:

  • A china mug with the slogan “Only boil enough water for the cups you’re making”
  • A “DIY Planet Repairs” button badge
  • A handy four-minute shower timer
  • A window sticker
  • A set of labels to stick on your appliances, saying “switch off”, “turn down”, “unplug”, “wash low”
  • A leaflet for a £49 loft insulation offer from British Gas
  • Last but definitely not least, a booklet of energy saving hints of tips. There’s actually some quite useful information in this (he said grudgingly).

There was no covering letter with this bundle, so I can’t be sure why I received it. I certainly don’t remember asking for it. It was addressed to me personally, so I may have got myself on some mailing list at

Whatever the reason, I’m sure there must be thousands of other people who received the same mailing. Someone has spent a lot of money and energy on getting this lot sent out. I applaud the message, of course we need to save energy and water, but there’s no information that isn’t freely available in many other places. I can’t help feeling that the timing, a month before the mayoral election, is either clumsy or cynical or both, and may backfire.

I like Ken Livingstone, and I’ll vote for him once again in May, but I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Is it really the Mayor of London’s job to lecture his ‘constituents’ on environmental matters? There’s a fine line between policies that directly affect the welfare of Londoners, and using the power of the Mayor’s office to promote his own pet projects. Coming so soon before the election, freebies like this can only be seen as a campaign stunt using public funds, providing ammunition for the opposition. This would be a shame, because I don’t see either of the other two major candidates (sorry, Green Party) showing any desire to make a platform on environmental issues. For that reason alone, it’s vital that Ken Livingstone gets re-elected, and I hope this little parcel doesn’t work against him.

Written by Pete Smith

April 15, 2008 at 11:44 am


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Madeira Waves

I don’t know the Portugese for “climate change” or “global warming”, but here on the holiday island of Madeira I don’t need to, because the English terms are in constant use by locals and visitors alike. Freak weather here and on the Portugese mainland has been the main topic of conversation over the past week. High winds and torrential rain caused chaos for days. Last Sunday’s annual flower festival in Funchal was rained off and postponed for a day, the first time in living memory that’s happened. Someone must have said some heavy duty prayers, because the rains held off long enough for the procession to go ahead under ominous skies before the rain started again with a vengeance. The airport was closed, forcing inbound planes full of holidaymakers to return to the UK. The cable cars were shut, cellars were flooded, sand was stripped off beaches by mountainous waves, operations were halted at the hospital because the floors were awash. Roads were closed in the interior because of mudslides and fallen trees.

The Portugese are one of the few peoples in the world who still seem to like the Brits. Perhaps they’ve picked up the habit of moaning about the weather from us, or perhaps it’s just the result of living on a chunk of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic. Be that as it may, everybody has been blaming the storms on climate change. Fair comment, you might think, but if you try and open the discussion out a bit it’s obvious that there’s very little understanding of how “climate change” and/or “global warming” might cause storms like these.

You might say that to get these issues into the public domain to such an extent is a consciousness-raising triumph. On the other hand, if the issues aren’t understood, what use are they? They just become conversation fodder, like cricket or the exchange rate.

I blame Al Gore.

Written by Pete Smith

April 13, 2008 at 5:03 pm

Earth Hour

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Earth Hour 2008

Tomorrow, Saturday 29th March at 8:00 PM, 24 cities around the world will participate in Earth Hour 2008. Earth Hour is the highlight of a major campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to take simple steps to cut their emissions on an ongoing basis. It is about simple changes that will collectively make a difference – from businesses turning off their lights when their offices are empty, to households turning off appliances rather than leaving them on standby. At the time of writing, 264,543 individuals and 19,185 businesses have signed up.

On 31st March 2007, 2.2 million people and 2,100 Sydney businesses turned off their lights for one hour. If the greenhouse reduction achieved in the Sydney Central Business District during Earth Hour were sustained for a year, it would be equivalent to taking 48,616 cars off the road for a year. To put it another way, Earth Hour itself saved just over 5.5 car-years of emissions. Earth Hour 2008 hopes to build on that success and become a global event. Whether you embrace initiatives like this or regard them with a touch of cynicism is a personal choice, of course. You might say that every little helps, and we should reduce our energy consumption and carbon emissions however and wherever we can. Hard to argue with that, unless you’re a died-in-the-wool climate change sceptic.

“Switching the lights off for an hour is not going to make a dent in global emissions,” organiser Charles Stevens, from WWF, admits. “But what it does do is it is a great catalyst for much bigger changes. It engages people in the processes of becoming more energy efficient.”

Be that as it may, there’s a nagging suspicion about this kind of mega event that nothing really changes, that once it’s over it’s over, everyone’s had a good time, now it’s back to business as usual with a warm glow of righteous satisfaction that they finally found something useful to put on their Facebook page. Think Live 8.

For those who like this sort of thing, sign up here. Quite what is achieved by signing up escapes me, but then a lot of stuff passes me by nowadays. I’ll just carry on saving resources using good old-fashioned frugality. All day, every day, not just for an hour.

“You’ll love it, it’s a way of life” – Frank Zappa, ‘The Central Scrutinizer’

Written by Pete Smith

March 28, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Vox Populi

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This is the first of an occasional series in which Change Alley looks at the state of environmental debate at the grassroots. No deep analysis here, local opinion will be allowed to speak for itself for the most part, although it may prove hard to resist the odd comment or two in passing.

The Western Daily Press is a Bristol-based regional newspaper covering Avon, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset and parts of Gloucestershire and South Wales. The Press celebrates its 150th anniversary in June, but has kept firmly up to date with a successful online edition that provides a number of interactive features to allow readers to ‘have their say’. Here is a recent thread from their Forum pages, contributors’ details have been omitted to avert embarrassment, but you can read the whole thing here.

Manmade or natural?

  • There is a threat to some wetlands and their inhabitants due to dry winters. Do you believe that climate change is manmade or is it a natural cycle of the earth?
  • History tells us that climate change has always taken place. The Romans grew vines in the Severn Valley. The climate change con has been put about by governments in order to (a) A good excuse to tax us more and (b) to try to get us to save oil and gas which are of course finite resources. If you look at the scientists who have supported the theory they have all been paid by government grants to say whay the government wants to hear. Independent scientists have very grave doubts about lots of the so called facts that have been produced.
  • To believe we can destroy what has taken all of eternity to create, just by what is essentially ‘keeping warm’, is fanciful I think. . That doesn’t mean I don’t believe we should be protecting, conserving and always trying to find ways to improve our environment. . We certainly should; and increasingly so. . But in any case, in the overall scheme of things the Earth is pretty insignificant. . . . Mind you I do know someone who believes that if you haven’t got a PASSPORT and don’t fly, you should get petrol FREE OF TAX; and if you haven’t got a car either you should get FREE BEER! . . AND HAVE TO SAY I AGREE WITH HIM!
  • I find some of the comments made by so called experts quite annoying.These people travel round the globe warning us of climate change and how do they travel,by plane.When they get to their destination how do they get to the venue,by car.So to me it’s just a load of eco freaks on the take.They get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for speaking out of their backsides.We’ve been down this road millions of years ago.What about the ice age,i suppose that was the dinosaurs fault for letting off too much methane
  • The indignity of ‘The Speaker’ of the House of Commons personifies the corrupt thinking of all these people. . . The jailed Conservative politician Jonathon Aitken, was jailed for lying under oath about hotel expenses for his daughter I believe. . . They are all disgusting hypocrites. . . And WE are paying their wages. . . Is it surprising we try and avoid paying Income Tax.

And there we have it. Five degrees of separation to take us from drying wetlands to political corruption and tax avoidance. A valuable insight into the thought processes of the Man On The Yeovil Omnibus. It makes one so proud that the British public can penetrate the blanket of lies and propaganda on climate change and see it for what it really is.

Written by Pete Smith

March 28, 2008 at 10:49 am