Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lovelock urges ocean climate fix

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Salps occur in great swarms

Two of Britain's leading environmental thinkers say it is time to develop a quick technical fix for climate change.

Writing in the journal Nature, Science Museum head Chris Rapley and Gaia theorist James Lovelock suggest looking at boosting ocean take-up of CO2.

Their idea, already being investigated by a US firm, involves huge flotillas of vertical pipes in the tropical seas.

The two scientists say they doubt that existing plans for curbing carbon emissions can work quickly enough.

The stakes are terribly high
James Lovelock

"We are taking the very strong line that we are not going to save the planet by the regular approaches like the Kyoto Protocol or renewable energy," Professor Lovelock told BBC News.

"What we have to do is to look at it in a systems sense, or a Gaian sense, and see if it's curable by direct action."

Natural cycles

Professor Rapley, who has just moved to head up the Science Museum from a similar post at the British Antarctic survey, said the two men developed the ocean pipes concept during country walks in James Lovelock's beloved Devon.

It's worth investigating these kinds of ideas, but premature to start deploying them
Ken Caldeira

Unbeknown to them, a US company, Atmocean, had already begun trials of a very similar technology.

Floating pipes reaching down from the top of the ocean into colder water below move up and down with the swell.

As the pipe moves down, cold water flows up and out onto the ocean surface. A simple valve blocks any downward flow when the pipe is moving upwards.

Colder water is more "productive" - it contains more life, and so in principle can absorb more carbon.

One of the life-forms that might benefit, Atmocean believes, is the salp, a tiny tube which excretes carbon in its solid faecal pellets, which descend to the ocean floor, perhaps storing the carbon away for millennia.

Atmocean CEO Phil Kithil has calculated that deploying about 134 million pipes could potentially sequester about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities each year. But he acknowledges that research is in the early stages.

Gray whale. Image: Geoff Shester
The scheme could pose problems for marine creatures such as whales
"There is much yet to be learned," he told BBC News. "We need not only to move towards the final design and size (of the pipes), but also to characterise the ecological effects.

"The problem we would be most concerned about would be acidification. We're bringing up higher levels of CO2 along with the nutrients, so it all has to be analysed as to the net carbon balance and the net carbon flux."

Atmocean deployed experimental tubes earlier this year and gathered engineering data. The pipes brought cold water to the surface from a depth of 200m, but no research has yet been done on whether this approach has any net impact on greenhouse gas levels.

The company says a further advantage of cooling surface waters in regions such as the Gulf of Mexico could be a reduction in the number of hurricanes, which need warm water in order to form.

And Professors Lovelock and Rapley suggest that the ocean pipes could also stimulate growth of algae that produce dimethyl sulphide (DMS), a chemical which helps clouds form above the ocean, reflecting sunlight away from the Earth's surface and bringing a further cooling.

Ethical fix

In recent years, scientists have developed a wide range of technical "geo-engineering" ideas for curbing global warming.

Seeding the ocean with iron filings to stimulate plankton growth, putting sunshades in space, and firing sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere from a giant cannon have all been proposed; the iron filings idea has been extensively tested.

But the whole idea of pursuing these "technical fixes" is controversial.

Chris Rapley.  Image: BBC
There's evidence that the Earth's response to climate change might be going faster than people have predicted
Chris Rapley

"One has to understand what the consequences of doing these things are," commented Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in California, who has published a number of analyses of geo-engineering technologies.

"There are scientific questions of safety and efficacy; then there are the broader ethical, social and political dimensions, and one of the most disturbing is that if people start getting the idea that technical fixes are available and cheaper than curbing carbon emissions, then people might start relying on them as an alternative to curbing emissions.

"So I think it's worth investigating these kinds of ideas, but premature to start deploying them."

Chris Rapley does not believe ideas like the ocean pipes are complete answers to man-made global warming, but may buy time while society develops a more comprehensive response.

"It's encouraging to see how much serious effort is going into technical attempts to reduce carbon emissions, and the renewed commitment to finding an international agreement," he said.

"But in the meantime, there's evidence that the Earth's response to climate change might be going faster than people have predicted. The dramatic loss of ice in the Arctic, for example, poses a serious concern for the northern hemisphere climate."

High stakes

Professor Rapley said the letter to Nature, one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, was intended to get people thinking about the concept of technical fixes rather than just to advocate ocean pipes.

"If you think of how the science community has organised itself," he said, "with the World Climate Research Programme, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, International Polar Year and so on - you've got all this intensive interdisciplinary collaboration figuring out what Earth systems are up to and figuring out how they work, but we don't have a similar network working across the entire piece as to what we can actually do to mitigate and adapt."

Faecal pellets (Madin/WHOI)
Salp pellets take carbon to the floor of the ocean
He said there was a need for some sort of global collaboration to explore potential climate-fixing technologies.

"Geo-engineering is one of the types of thing that are worth investigating," opined Ken Caldeira, "and yes, the amount of effort going into thinking of innovative solutions is far too little.

"If we can generate 100 ideas, and 97 are bad and we land up with 3 good ones, then the whole thing will have been worthwhile; so I applaud Lovelock and Rapley for thinking along these lines."

He observed that human emissions of greenhouse gases are bringing huge changes to natural ecosystems anyway, so there was nothing morally difficult in principle about deliberately altering the same natural ecosystems to curb climatic change.

But changing patterns of ocean life could potentially have major consequences for marine species. Whales that feed on krill, for example, could find their favourite food displaced by salps.

These would all have to be investigated, James Lovelock acknowledged.

But, he said, it is time to start. "There may be all sorts of ecological consequences, but the stakes are terribly high."

Pump graphic
1. Buoy: Helps hold the pump in position
2. Pump: James Lovelock believes the tubes would be about 100m long to access deep cold water, and 10m wide; Phil Kithil thinks 200m long and 3m wide could be optimum
3. Valve: Could be at the top or bottom of the pipe; top perhaps preferable for maintenance. Water is drawn through the open valve on wave down slopes; no external power needed
4. Cold water: On wave up slopes, cool water spills out of the pump
5. Pump sites: Locations could also be chosen to reduce hurricane risk by cooling surface waters

Why forest fires are spreading

Esperanza Fire, California, in 2006
Four firefighters were killed in Banning, California, last year

By Tim Egan

Fires wreaking destruction in the American West are set to become the norm for many months of the year.

The fires that raced through Greece, killing 64 people and leaving thousands of farmers in ruin, are down to a few smouldering remnants.

But here in the American West, our season of heat and destruction is just now getting into its peak. More than 50 active wildfires are raging throughout a million-and-half acres as we speak.

California is burning, with fresh fires crackling to life with every evening's dry thunderstorm. Montana, Idaho, Colorado and other parts of the Rocky Mountain West are burning as well - a seasonal affliction, aggravated by a siege of drought.

An army of yellow-shirted fire-fighters have been dispatched by air and land to contain these blazes. But they can only do so much. Nor will they. But more about that in a moment.

Fires create their own weather, sucking up oxygen and thundering outward in search of fresh fuel.

To live west of the 100th meridian is to live with fire - to live with its terrifying suddenness, its bullying winds and the horrid sound of a blaze on the run. Fire comes with the land. But of late, our fires have been bigger, hotter, with a season that starts in late winter and extends well into the fall.

This year, the first of the fires burned up pockets of the lovely, pine-scented heights of the mountains in the Southwest.

They call these areas of alpine green the Sky Islands - poking above the desert floor, an attic of breezy relief. I happened to be there on a February day when the temperature nudged 99 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 37 Celsius), with smoke in the air, a menace too early to arrive.

The forests were splotched with a rusty tinge, as trees die from heat and insects. Frogs, squirrels and other animals with a 10,000-year-old history of habitation have all but disappeared. To me, everything felt out of whack.

Then, last week, I was in the Rocky Mountains, where 50 active fires are burning. You smell one of these big fires well before you see it. The smoke gets in your nostrils, your hair; it clouds your eyes; it lingers in your clothes.

It feels ominous. Then the wind kicks up, and your adrenaline starts to surge. Fires create their own weather, sucking up oxygen and thundering outward in search of fresh fuel. They are unpredictable, especially in a mountain environment. Even from a hundred miles away, snow-white ashes fall from the sky.

Heat records

In one of these fires, in the resort town of Ketchum, in Sun Valley, where Ernest Hemmingway fished the Wood River and ultimately killed himself, they were forced to start up the snow-making machines to spread moisture over the ski slopes. A thousand people were evacuated, and the national guard was sent in to protect multi-million dollar homes. In many ways, all of this is the New Normal.

We can expect longer, more damaging fire seasons. And they will threaten more homes. Two trends - climate change, and a population surge into the open country - are converging in a place where fire has long had a home.

If you look at a map, you find that the fastest growing areas of the US are in places that are most prone to wildfire - the canyons, mesas and alpine retreats of the West.

Of course, fire is no stranger to this area. But the region has been warming for nearly 30 years. And now we are seeing the kind of heat records that nobody wants.

Phoenix, the fastest growing big city in America, just recorded 32 days of temperatures above 110 degrees (43 Celsius) - a record for one year. There, people live indoors this time of year, racing from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office or air-conditioned mall.

Phoenix, Arizona, US
Cities like Phoenix experience 'killer heat'
Now it may be alarmist to say that Phoenix and other places may one day become unliveable. But the climate models suggest that killer heat and catastrophic wildfires will not be anomalies.

They will be part of this "New Normal". Last spring in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a draft of its projections. The panel said the American West would be one of the hardest hit areas. Already, stress is killing large, forested sections here.

You can see this narrative of heat and climate change in tree rings. I went to visit Dr Thomas Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona.

He showed me a crosscut of an ancient bristlecone pine tree - one of the oldest living things in America. The rings were thick for healthy, wet years and thin for dry, difficult years. He then showed a section from the 16th Century, during one of the worst droughts over the last thousand years. Then he showed me the last few years - a time when the tree essentially stopped growing.

The drought of 500 years ago was worse, he said. But the temperatures are warmer today by four or five degrees, suggesting that this is just enough to push these forests over the edge.

"Climate change is happening now all over the West," he said. The changes are big, and coming fast. These new fires are different from others. They not only burn hotter, but they are enormous.

Trophy homes

Consider this comparison. In Greece, nearly 450,000 acres were consumed - a huge swatch of olive groves, forests and parkland. By contrast, the West has lost nearly 20 times that amount this year.

At the same time, hordes of people are moving into the open country at the far suburban edge of these new, fast-growing Western cities. On the surface, the land still looks good. But most western forests are sick, as I mentioned. The trees are losing their fire-resistant resin or bark. They are tinder, ready to go.

Wildfire near Palm Springs
Since 1990 more than eight million homes have been built in Western areas; places called the "urban-wild land interface." That means that enough people to populate New York City are now living in places where fire is part of the natural cycle.

What you see in these new communities at the edge of a national forest are not little cabins or humble mountain shacks. People build trophy homes of 5,000 square feet or more, three stories, half a dozen bedrooms, with huge timbers.

They revel in their palaces in the wilderness, away from the urban clusters, and then they expect that the wild will not touch them. But fire, as I said, is a much a part of this ecology as perennial grass. Fire renews the forest. Many trees need fire to sustain themselves.

So those stately, pretty trees shading a McMansion would disappear without fire, which forces open the cones and releases the seeds.

These new houses, many of them, are dream homes. They look perfect in their setting, if a bit oversized. But to a fire, they are just fuel. The people who live in these homes - with all the creature comforts - also expect someone outside their community to protect them when the woods are ablaze.


Thus the Forest Service, set up to nurture and patrol the great publicly-owned reserves of the West, has become the Fire Service. They spend nearly half their budget on helicopters, tractors, buckets and paying to feed and move these big camps of seasonal firefighters.

Not long ago I was in Colorado when a fire jumped a ridge and burned down into a cluster of expensive new homes not far from Aspen, one of the wealthiest communities in the world. The owners cried for help. "Do something," they demanded.

Some of the best firefighters in the world - Hotshots and Smokejumpers, elite men and elite women trained to tackles flames in a vertical battleground - rushed to the rescue. They came up with a containment plan and started to dig a fire line in the scrub oak and smoke. But then - as suddenly as the wind can change - disaster came.

I was down below the fire, at a base camp, and you could hear radios spark with strained voices, and the sound of panic. The fire sprinted out of control, toward the crews, riding gusts of 40 miles an hour. It was a storm unto itself, spreading a wall of flames at the rate of 35 feet per second.

In the West, it looks like normal is going to be a fire season that now lasts for nearly half the year, with homes in the way
The firefighters ran for their lives, up a hillside. Some hunkered down in their fire shelters, these little aluminium-foil pup tents used as a last line of defence against a fire.

Still, it was not enough. The super-heated gases penetrated the tents. Others were burned to death. Fourteen people died that day on Storm King Mountain.

Afterwards, the Forest Service vowed that it would never happen again. They would not lose men and women to protect people's summer homes. They even wrote a new manual for firefighting. At the top, more important than anything, they wrote, was saving lives. Property was at the bottom.

But since then, they've lost more than a dozen people. It's almost always the same scenario. Somebody does something heroic. In the post-mortem, the crew chiefs say the fire was hotter, bigger, faster than anyone expected.

They say it wasn't normal, but what is normal? In the West, it looks like normal is going to be a fire season that now lasts for nearly half the year, with homes in the way. Because nature, especially during mood swings, doesn't respect a city line.

Journey through the California wastelands

The worst wildfires in the state's history have left 2,000 people homeless for the foreseeable future and experts anxiously looking to the weather

Dan Glaister in the San Bernadino mountains
Saturday October 27, 2007
The Guardian

Lyons Valley as the Harris Fire continues growing.
Lyons Valley as the Harris Fire continues growing. Photograph: David McNew/Getty

In a low-slung hangar in San Bernardino, two giant plasma screens are playing out the final instalments of California's wretched week.

People lie sprawled on green cot beds, scratching themselves, staring open-mouthed at the images: of families trickling home, returning to communities ravaged by one of the worst wildfires in California's history.

There is footage of emotional homeowners returning to their wasted properties, some thanking their lucky stars, others rueing the years of physical memory gone up in smoke. One man weeps over the remains of his Harley; a second picks out charred photographs from the ashes; still another looks at the devastation in his backyard and says: "Thank God no one lost their lives.

But for those in the hangar, there will be no going home any time soon. For these 2,000 or so temporary residents of the quaintly named National Orange Show Events Centre, home for the foreseeable future is here, beneath the low polystyrene ceilings and fluorescent lights of a Red Cross shelter 65 miles east of Los Angeles.

This place, with its lines of portable toilets, its rows of insurance company stalls declaring "We care!", its free internet, its prayer chapel is, you can't help remembering, a long way from Malibu. Here there is no Juicy Couture, no Ralph Lauren, no Nobu. Instead there are ordinary people, turfed out of their homes in the small hours, clad in dungarees. While the celebrities from the Malibu Colony survived their brush with disaster, enduring a couple of nights at the ritziest hotels in the region (the Ritz-Carlton by the ocean had no rooms available for the first half of the week) and were then allowed home, these mountain people have nowhere to go and are unlikely to be allowed back for weeks.

Bill Freer runs his finger across the map in the evacuation centre, tracing the latest outline of the fire. Its uncontained limit is marked with a jagged red edge. "It's like the fire went all around us," says the resident of Arrowbear, in the mountains. "Four years ago was nothing like this. We were out for two weeks then. This is 10 times worse."

Freer's story is typical: woken in the middle of night by smoke, he threw a few things together - picture albums, insurance documents, pets - and jumped in his car.

Sitting on a kerb inside the centre, waiting for information, Robert Schneider gives his version. "We weren't too concerned," he says, "because it would have to burn through the whole town before it got to us. But it moved so quickly. We saw it coming towards the house, the glow in the sky. We could hear it crackling but we didn't see any flames jumping. Then it got so smoky we had to leave. When we left there were little embers in the air."

That was at 4am on Tuesday. Since then he's been trying to find out something about his home.

Around him teenagers in black T-shirts and drainpipes try to perfect the Ollie, the Californian skateboarder's rite of passage. Families chat to each other, laughing and joking as if they are there for a day at the fairground. Off to one side, a small audience forms for some singalong religion. Ladies circulate with cardboard trays offering slices of pizza.

But this isn't a holiday. This is the Californian version of the stiff upper lip, a determined positivity, an acceptance that nature is a freak and that California is its plaything.

The air at the centre is thick; an acrid, cloying thickness that scratches your throat and pinches your sinuses. Travel away from the centre, away from San Bernardino and towards the fires and the air unexpectedly clears.

Ghost town

Strangely, it is a clear autumn day in the mountains. A gaggle of people gather at the blocked entrance to Highway 330, poring over the same fire map pinned up at the centre. The scene could have been taken from any disaster movie set in Los Angeles. The highway is empty. As the road narrows and starts to climb to the mountains, the air worsens. Now and then official vehicles pass, coming down from the fire sites.

Running Springs, 2,000 metres (6,000ft) above sea level, is a ghost town. Ned's Pizza is closed, as is the Old Country coffee shop across the street. Along the 100 metres of downtown, all clapboard houses and faded splendour, there is nothing but the smell of smoke. In San Diego, they have emptied the football stadium that temporarily sheltered 10,000. But in the mountains, the homecoming will have to wait.

Some firefighters are flopped on plastic chairs outside the Bus Stop coffee house. They have the dead-eyed look of the beaten. Their uniforms and the multicoloured array of fire engines parked alongside the road tell the story of the effort to stop the fire: Vernon, Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Georgetown; red fire engines, lime-green fire engines, blue and white.

They point out a piece of paper stuck on a board alongside the ubiquitous fire map: it tells the story of the fire at Green Valley Lake: 11,366 acres burned at a cost of $2.5m (£1.2m). The incident status summary hints at a cause: "High-density residential properties intermixed amongst bug-killed timber," it states.

Further on, close to the hamlet of Arrowbear Lake, Mike Sampson stands next to what looks like an antique fire engine laying out hose along the side of the road.

"We're standing ground with the hoses making sure the fire doesn't jump the road," he says. "A few minutes ago there was a gust of wind and we had to scramble."

How close did it get? He points down the slope to a spot about 7 metres away, where a branch is smouldering.

Further on there are plumes of white smoke. Now there are firefighters stationed every 25 metres along the side of the mountain road, some playing with their mobiles, others leaning on their pickaxes and watching the fire. Behind them are the dark greens and autumnal browns of the forest. Across the road and up the mountain, the black of scorched ground. A charred tree trunk stands, smoke pouring out of its broken end. Steve Seltzner, a battalion chief with the US forest service, stops to brief his troops. "We're actually making some progress," he tells two of them. "A couple more days."

I ask him if he really believes it is close to the end. "This has a lot of potential," he says. "If it gets to Big Bear then we've got a whole lot of new problems. If we contain it, we've got to hold it. No matter how much water we put on them, they're not going out."

When will they go out, I ask, thinking of the people sleeping on the cots in the Orange centre. "These fires are not going to go out until there's snow on the ground," he replies.

Fires in numbers

Flames spread across 800 sq miles (2,072 sq km), fanned by Santa Ana winds gusting at 100mph (161kph)

8,000 firefighters tackled the blaze

500,000 people fled from their homes

10,000 people took shelter in the San Diego football stadium

2,000 buildings were destroyed.

12 people have died

More than 60 people have been injured

Losses are believed to exceed $1bn (£500m) in San Diego county alone

Police are investigating three fires as arson cases

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Berkeley going solar - city pays up front, recoups over 20 years

Berkeley is set to become the first city in the nation to help thousands of its residents generate solar power without having to put money up front - attempting to surmount one of the biggest hurdles for people who don't have enough cash to go green.

The City Council will vote Nov. 6 on a plan for the city to finance the cost of solar panels for property owners who agree to pay it back with a 20-year assessment on their property. Over two decades, the taxes would be the same or less than what property owners would save on their electric bills, officials say.

"This plan could be our most important contribution to fighting global warming," Mayor Tom Bates said Thursday. "We've already seen interest from all over the U.S. People really think this plan can go."

The idea is sparking interest from city and state leaders who are mindful of California's goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. Officials in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica and several state agencies have contacted Berkeley about the details of its plan.

"If this works, we'd want to look at this for other cities statewide," said Ken Alex, California deputy attorney general. "We think it's a very creative way to eliminate the barriers to getting solar panels, and it's fantastic that Berkeley's going ahead with this."

This is how Berkeley's program would work:

A property owner would hire a city-approved solar installer, who would determine the best solar system for the property, depending on energy use. Most residential solar panel systems in the city cost from $15,000 to $20,000.

The city would pay the contractor for the system and its installation, minus any applicable state and federal rebates, and would add an assessment to the property owner's tax bill to pay for the system.

The extra tax would include administrative fees and interest, which would be lower than what the property owner could obtain on his own, because the city would secure low-interest bonds and loans, officials say. The tax would stay with the property even if the owner sold, although the owner would have to leave the solar panels.

The property owner would save money on monthly Pacific Gas & Electric bill because electricity generated by the solar panels would partly replace electricity delivered by the utility. After the assessment expired, the solar panels - of a simple technology that requires little or no maintenance - would continue to partly replace PG&E electricity.

Bates' chief of staff, Cisco DeVries, came up with the idea about eight months ago when he was looking for ways the city could meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under a measure that Berkeley voters approved last year. Measure G mandates that the city cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

"Over 20 years, the economics of installing solar panels are great," DeVries said. "But the financial hurdle of the up-front costs was preventing people from doing it."

DeVries modeled the solar financing plan after underground utility districts. Putting utility wires underground can cost millions, but creating a special assessment district allows neighborhoods to pay off the costs over 20 or 30 years after the city pays for the service up front.

Electricity generated at a PG&E power plant comes from a mix of hydropower and natural gas. Greenhouse gases are emitted when the natural gas burns to create electricity. Berkeley officials hope that, over time, 25 percent of property owners will sign on to the new solar financing plan, reducing the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 2,000 tons a year, said the city's Measure G coordinator, Timothy Burroughs.

If the plan succeeds, Berkeley would be about 10 percent closer to its Measure G target, Burroughs said. Solar panels shouldn't be a tough sell in Berkeley, he said, which already has more solar systems per capita than any other Northern California city.

Berkeley also is considering using the financing plan for other energy-saving projects, such as insulation or heating. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it intends to grant Berkeley $160,000 to cover some of the city's legal, accounting and staff costs associated with starting the plan.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer has also been interested because the plan encourages property owners to save energy without much government expense.

"Anything that helps expand and enhance the financial feasibility of solar energy is definitely something we support," said Lockyer's spokesman, Tom Dresslar.

How the solar plan would work

The city aims to provide financing for residents and businesses who can't afford the up-front costs of installing solar panels. This is how the program would work:

-- Property owners would hire a city-approved contractor who would be paid for the system and its installation, minus rebates.

-- The city would tax the property owner for the remaining cost, to be paid over 20 years. Future owners of the property would inherit any unpaid tax, along with the solar system.

-- Property owners would save as much in energy costs as they would be paying in taxes while reducing the amount of greenhouse gases created by generating electricity using natural gas and hydroelectric generation.

E-mail Carolyn Jones at

Environmental failures 'put humanity at risk'

· UN report bemoans lack of urgency by governments
· Five-year study involved more than 1,400 scientists

The future of humanity has been put at risk by a failure to address environmental problems including climate change, species extinction and a growing human population, according to a new UN report.

In a sweeping audit of the world's environmental wellbeing, the study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that governments are still failing to recognise the seriousness of major environmental issues.

The study, involving more than 1,400 scientists, found that human consumption had far outstripped available resources. Each person on Earth now requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the planet can supply, it finds.

Meanwhile, biodiversity is seriously threatened by the impact of human activities: 30% of amphibians, 23% of mammals and 12% of birds are under threat of extinction, while one in 10 of the world's large rivers runs dry every year before it reaches the sea.

The report - entitled Global Environment Outlook: Environment for Development - reviews progress made since a similar study in 1987 which laid the groundwork for studying environmental issues affecting the planet.

Since the 1987 study, Our Common Future, the global response "has in some cases been courageous and inspiring," said the environment programme's executive director Achim Steiner. The international community has cut ozone-damaging chemicals, negotiated the Kyoto protocol and other international environmental treaties and supported a rise in protected areas which cover 12% of the world.

"But all too often [the response] has been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognise the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet," Mr Steiner said. "The systematic destruction of the Earth's natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged - and where the bill we hand to our children may prove impossible to pay," he said.

Climate change is a global priority that demands political leadership, but there has been "a remarkable lack of urgency" in the response, which the report characterised as "woefully inadequate".

The report's authors say its objective is "not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call to action".

It warns that tackling the problems may affect the vested interests of powerful groups, and that the environment must be moved to the core of decision-making.

The report said irreversible damage to the world's climate will be likely unless greenhouse gas emissions drop to below 50% of their 1990 levels before 2050.

To reach this level, the richer countries must cut emissions by 60% to 80% by 2050 and developing countries must also make significant reductions, it says.

It addresses a number of areas where environmental degradation is threatening human welfare and the planet, including water, over-fishing and biodiversity - where the UNEP says a sixth, human-induced, extinction is under way.

Billions of people in the developing world are put at risk by a failure to remedy relatively simple problems such as waterborne disease, the study says.

The 550-page report took five years to prepare. It was researched and drafted by almost 400 scientists, whose findings were peer-reviewed by 1,000 others.

One of the report's authors, Joseph Alcamo said that race is on to determine if leaders move fast enough to save the planet. "The question for me, for us perhaps, is whether we're going to make it to a more slowly changing world or whether we're going to hit a brick wall in the Earth's system first," he said. "Personally, I think this could be one of the most important races that humanity will ever run."

In numbers:

· 45 thousand square miles of forest are lost across the world each year

· 60% of the world's major rivers have been dammed or diverted

· 34%: the amount by which the world's population has grown in the last 20 years

· 75 thousand people a year are killed by natural disasters

· 50%: The percentage by which populations of fresh fish have declined in 20 years

· 20%: How much the energy requirements of developed countries such as the United States have increased in the period

Source: Global Environment Output 2007

The edge of oblivion: conservationists name 25 primates about to disappear

Biofuel plantations, logging and hunting are stealing habitats from our closest relatives, says report.

James Randerson, science correspondent

The Guardian, UK

An orang-utan in Sumatra, Indonesia

An orang-utan in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photograph: Michael DeYoung/Corbis

Sri Lanka's Horton Plains slender loris has been seen just four times since 1937. Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey was not found in an exhaustive six-year study ending in 1999 and there have been no definite sightings since. Vietnam's golden-headed langur and the Hainan gibbon in China both number in the dozens.

These are the primate species on the edge of oblivion and, according to a report commissioned by three leading conservation charities, scores of others of our closest relatives are poised to suffer the same fate. It names the top 25 species most in need of help but concludes that 114 primate species are also close to extinction.

The 25 species most at risk include two of our closest great ape cousins, the Cross River gorilla of Cameroon and Nigeria and the orang-utan from Sumatra. Miss Waldron's colobus also makes it on to the list, although more by hope than expectation. Conservationists declared it officially extinct in 2000, but a photograph taken since then of a similar-looking creature has been tentatively identified by scientists.

The document was compiled by 60 leading primatologists from the world conservation union, the International Primatological Society and Conservation International. The list includes 11 species from Asia, seven from Africa, four from Madagascar and three from South America.

"You could fit all the surviving members of these 25 species in a single football stadium; that's how few of them remain on Earth today," said Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International.

"The situation is worst in Asia, where tropical forest destruction and the hunting and trading of monkeys puts many species at terrible risk. Even newly discovered species are severely threatened from loss of habitat and could soon disappear."

The report follows assessments in 2000, 2002 and 2004. "Overall the problems are increasing," said Eckhard Heymann at the German Primate Centre in Goettingen, one of the report's authors. Common problems are habitat loss due to logging for timber or oil and mineral extraction, plus bushmeat hunting. The two issues are related because roads cut through tropical forests for logging trucks help give hunters easier routes to wildlife. "Every additional access to remove areas increases the access to hunters," Dr Heymann added.

Another problem is habitat destruction to make space for biofuel plantations such as oil palm. Developed economies such as the US and Europe are pledging to use more sustainable energy sources to combat climate change, but this is having a knock-on effect on tropical wildlife. "It is creating a huge market and now in several countries politicians are thinking of converting tropical forest areas to palm plantations," he said.

This particularly affects orang-utan populations. Although they still number in the low thousands, they are disappearing as a faster rate than any other primate species.

Dr Heymann said there had been some successes since the previous report. The golden lion tamarin from eastern Brazil, for example, had benefited from a concerted conservation campaign which involved protecting fragments of forest where it lives and breeding it in captivity. "There are still not much more than 1,000 but they are stable and no longer declining," said Dr Heymann. "The species is not yet safe but still it's a success story."

Most endangered

Greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus); White-collared lemur (Eulemur albocollaris); Sahamalaza Peninsula sportive lemur (Lepilemur sahamalazensis); Silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus)

Nigeria, Cameroon
Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli)

Ivory Coast, Ghana
Miss Waldron's red colobus (Procolobus badius); Roloway monkey (Cercopithecus diana roloway)

Rondo dwarf galago (Galagoides rondoensis); Kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji)

Tana River red colobus (Procolobus rufomitratus)

Equatorial Guinea
Pennant's red colobus (Procolobus pennantii pennantii) (Island of Bioko)

Colombia, Venezuela
Variegated spider monkey (Ateles hybridus)

Colombia, Ecuador
Brown-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps)

Peruvian yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax flavicauda)

Bangladesh, India, Burma
Western Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock)

Sri Lanka
Horton Plains slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides); Western purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus nestor); Pig-tailed langur (Simias concolor)

Indonesia (Mentawai Islands)
Indonesia Pig-tailed langur (Simias concolor) (Mentawai Islands); Sumatran orang-utan (Pongo abelii) (Sumatra); Siau Island tarsier (Tarsius sp.)

Delacour's langur (Trachypithecus delacouri); Golden-headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus); Grey-shanked douc (Pygathrix cinerea); Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus)

Hainan black-crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) (Hainan Isl

Leading Australian Scientist Tim Flannery on Global Warming and the Worsening Dangers of Climate Change Denial
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We spend the hour with one of the world's leading scientists studying climate change, Tim Flannery. An Australian mammologist, palaeontologist and field zoologist, he has discovered and named more than thirty new species of mammals. He has been described as being in the league of all-time great explorers such as David Livingstone. Flannery might be best known as the author of the bestselling book "The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change." Earlier this year he was named 2007 Australian of the Year. [includes rush transcript]
A group of scientists in Britain are warning that global warming could wipe out more than half of the earth's species in the next few centuries. That finding appears in a new study published by researchers at the University of York. Scientists examined the relationship between climate and extinction rates over the past 500 million years. They determined that rising temperatures caused three of the earth's four biggest periods of mass extinctions.

Today, we are going to spend the hour with one of the world's leading scientists studying climate change. His name is Tim Flannery. He is an Australian mammologist and palaeontologist. As a field zoologist he has discovered and named more than thirty new species of mammals. He has been described as being in the league of all-time great explorers such as David Livingstone. Here in this country, Tim Flannery might be best known as the author of the bestselling book "The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change." Earlier this year he was named 2007 Australian of the Year. Tim Flannery joins me here in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

  • Tim Flannery. Leading Australian scientist and climate change campaigner. He was named 2007 Australian of the Year. He is author of several books including "The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change."


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AMY GOODMAN: A group of scientists in Britain are warning global warming could wipe out more than half the earth's species in the next few centuries. That finding appears in a new study published by researchers at the University of York. Scientists examined the relationship between climate and extinction rates over the past 500 million years. They determined that rising temperatures caused three of the earth's four biggest periods of mass extinction.

Today, we’re going to spend the hour with one of the world's leading scientists studying climate change. His name: Tim Flannery. He’s an Australian mammologist and palaeontologist. As a field zoologist, he has discovered and named more than sixty species. He has been described as being in league with the all-time great explorers like Dr. David Livingstone. Here in this country, Tim Flannery might be best known as author of the bestselling book The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change. Earlier this year, he was named the 2007 Australian of the Year. He was awarded the prize by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard. He joins us today in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the hour.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

TIM FLANNERY: Thanks very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Tim Flannery. Well, we are talking today in dire times. The fires are raging in Southern California. A major drought has struck the Southeast, from Tennessee through the Carolinas, Georgia. Atlanta could run out of water. And then we’ve seen this drenching downpour in New Orleans. They had to close City Hall, close the schools. Is there a connection between the fire, the water and the drought?

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah. Look, the best way to think about these things, really, is to take a bigger global view. And Americans might feel they’re suffering from a whole lot of severe weather at the moment, but look globally and you see exactly the same thing around the world. Anywhere with a Mediterranean climate, such as Greece or Australia or California, is suffering extreme wildfires. Now, why is that happening? The climate is slowly shifting, so that the desert regions adjacent to those Mediterranean areas, you know, are starting to expand.

The same with droughts and floods. It’s not just the Southeast of the US. Europe has had its great droughts and water shortages. Australia is in the grip of a drought that’s almost unbelievable in its ferocity. Again, this is a global picture. We're just getting much less usable water than we did a decade or two or three decades ago. It’s a sort of thing again that the climate models are predicting. In terms of the floods, again we see the same thing. You know, a warmer atmosphere is just a more energetic atmosphere.

So if you ask me about single flood event or a single fire event, it’s really hard to make the connection, but take the bigger picture and you can see very clearly what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: We were reporting just a while ago about the fires in Greece. Is there a connection to the fires in California?

TIM FLANNERY: Absolutely. It’s the same sort of environment. Greece is part of a Mediterranean climate system. And what you see there is that those very harsh conditions that characterize the Sahara to the south are now attempting to move northwards. You know, the climate is shifting, such as that those conditions are going to prevail further northwards. So, this is part of a global picture.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a controversy in Washington, D.C. just this week. The Bush administration is being accused of severely editing the congressional testimony by a senior health official on the impact of climate change. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Julie Gerberding, appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee just last Tuesday. The Associated Press reports two sources familiar with both her initial draft and the White House's revisions say the administration imposed major changes. Gerberding’s final testimony is said to have omitted lengthy passages she had initially included on the health risks of global warming. Her final document was whittled down to four pages from an initial fourteen.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Dana Perino was asked about the controversy. This is what Dana Perino had to say.

    DANA PERINO: As I understand it, in the draft there was broad characterizations about climate change science that didn't align with the IPCC. And we have experts and scientists across this administration that can take a look at that testimony and say, “This is an error” or “This doesn't make sense.” And so, the decision on behalf of CDC was to focus that testimony on public health benefits. There are public health benefits to climate change, as well, but both benefits and concerns that somebody like a Dr. Gerberding, who is the expert in the field, could address. And so, that's the testimony that she provided yesterday.

    REPORTER: Is it typical for the White House to cut that much of an administration official's prepared --

    DANA PERINO: You know, I don't look at -- what I can tell you, it is typical for us to review testimony that comes across. And I think that when you have an issue as large as climate change and as complicated -- and the White House reaches out to all sorts of scientists across the administration when it comes to climate change -- if they have concerns that the IPCC document, which we agreed to its conclusions on, does not align with the testimony, that the prudent thing to do is to move forward, to have her testimony -- and remember, we only suggest the edits.

    REPORTER: There's another CDC official saying that the testimony was "eviscerated," which is pretty -- I guess, accusing the White House of playing very heavy hands.

    DANA PERINO: I understand what they're accusing us of, but I can -- I just reject it. And I will tell you that, again, we believe climate change is real; we believe that humans are largely responsible; we are working on a way to solve the problem. And in the meantime, we are working with experts like Julie Gerberding to figure out what are going to be the health benefits and the health concerns of climate change, of which there are many. And she testified fully on it yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House press secretary Dana Perino on Tuesday. Tim Flannery, your response?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, I guess, overall, it’s just deeply disappointing, and more than that. I mean, Dr. Gerberding is one of the world’s leading authorities in this area, and anyone would be privileged to have her input into this debate. It’s a critical issue for government. They need to know what these health issues are going to be in future, and they need a proper assessment of what the health issues are now. From what I understood of Perino's comments on it, the White House has decided to sort of edit out anything that’s bad and keep in the good news. And that’s just not acceptable. I mean, the public of America need to know these things.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn't there a new study on the health effects of global warming?

TIM FLANNERY: There is, indeed. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is headed by an Australian who I work with and know very well --

AMY GOODMAN: The IPCC that just won, with Al Gore, the Nobel Peace Prize.

TIM FLANNERY: Absolutely, and what a great moment that was, really, for the scientific community.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is the head of it?

TIM FLANNERY: It’s a man called Dr. Tony McMichael.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does he do?

TIM FLANNERY: He’s an epidemiologist. He studies diseases, how they spread and what they -- how epidemics are caused, and so forth. But their article, which was published in a very prestigious journal, establishes that there's already an additional 70,000 deaths a year, at least, globally from the current warming that was experienced as of 2005.

AMY GOODMAN: Deaths, how?

TIM FLANNERY: This is all sorts of impacts, some from floods, some from additional malaria and so forth, waterborne diseases, a whole series of impacts already on people. And, of course, a lot of these deaths now are happening in the developing world, where people are just less capable of dealing with this sort of a -- the assault, really, that this shifting climate is bringing.

But as these impacts deepen and get more severe, they’ll be felt globally. And it’s just very, very important that governments worldwide are well prepared to deal with this oncoming problem. We can’t stop a lot of the global warming that’s built into the system now. There’s a certain amount of change that’s inevitable. And it’s extremely important that people understand that and understand what the impacts of that really mean on their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Tim Flannery. When we come back from break, I want to ask you about the IPCC. I mean, people in the United States certainly know Al Gore’s name, but this other group that won the Nobel Peace Prize is less well known. We're talking to a man who many have described as one of the leading explorers in the world today, leading climate change scientists, has discovered more than sixty species. And we'll talk about that, as well, and we’ll talk about positive solutions that people are involved with around the world. Is global climate warming going to doom us, or is there a chance to pull out of it, to counter it, to change the course that we are headed on? This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Tim Flannery. He is known around the world as one of the leading climate change experts, leading scientists, has discovered more than sixty species, was named 2007 Australian of the Year. We live in a globalized world, yet we are so insulated when it comes to getting information in this country. His name may not be as well known here, just like the International Panel on Climate Change is not as well known in the United States.

Tim Flannery, let's talk more about the IPCC and what it has done over the years. How significant is it?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, significant enough, clearly, to win a Nobel Peace Prize, which is exactly what they should have got. That group of scientists have been working together now for over twenty years, and every five years they produce a report that really is a report on the state of our planet’s atmosphere and the warming that is damaging it. And the early reports started off rather mild in tone, you know, saying there might be a problem, and we think it might be caused by people. The last report, the fourth assessment report, which is still being reduced in -- I’m sorry, released in bits this year, is much more alarming. You know, the basic news is that this is a human-caused problem, it’s getting very severe, we need to do something about it.

And it’s 400-odd scientists, along with some government representatives, and so forth. One of the problems the IPCC faces is they have to do everything by consensus. It’s a bit like the old Quakers, you know, how they used to have to get everyone to agree. And you can imagine what it’s like trying to get, for example, the representative of Saudi Arabia to agree to particular wordings of things. So it’s a long and painful process, and in my view some of the leading scientists deserve the Order of Lenin, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, because it’s a very torturous business.

AMY GOODMAN: So the IPCC wins the Nobel Peace Prize. In the United States, there is this ongoing controversy over whether climate change is really an issue at all. You have corporations, the wealthiest in the world, like ExxonMobil, that has poured millions of dollars into Washington think tanks to simply raise questions about global warming. They also have poured, well, over $100 million into Stanford University, part of a consortium of corporations that are funding their global climate change program there. What is this doing to the science, when these corporations -- BP also, now “Beyond Petroleum,” before called British Petroleum, giving half a billion dollars to the University of California, Berkeley -- some are calling it “BPerkeley” now.

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, yeah. Well, look, it very much depends on what the expectations are. I would be comfortable with partnerships, for example, with BP, purely because I have a sense that that company is on the right track. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s starting to address the fundamental problems, and they’ve made that great leap from seeing themselves as an oil company to seeing themselves as an energy company. And once you do that, you can start participating in the new industrial revolution, which is going to change our lives and clean up our planet over the next forty years.

The bigger companies, ExxonMobil, for example, there is really no signs yet that that company has realized the nature of the world it’s now operating in, and it’s still a major problem, and particularly in the past decade. When you tally the cost of the misleading campaigns, for example, you know, ExxonMobil and its partners in the Global Climate Coalition cost us a decade of action, at least, you know? Starting with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, those companies have been frustrating progress, and as a result of that, the burden of pollution in the air causing this warming problem has grown by 20%. So that is a very serious issue and, I believe, a serious liability for those companies.

AMY GOODMAN: In the United States, we have a situation where the Bush administration is vacuuming the words “global warming” off of websites. You hear the whole controversy with Gerberding, changing the wording to soften the impact of findings that climate change is a major problem. Do you have the same problem in Australia?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, look, our prime minister and George Bush were the only two leaders globally who saw fit not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. So it gives you a sense that he’s hardly a left-winger, this prime minister of ours.

AMY GOODMAN: John Howard.

TIM FLANNERY: Exactly, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The one who gave you Australian of the Year.

TIM FLANNERY: He did, although -- could I just say -- he presented it to me; the people of Australia really gave it to me. It’s -- people make submissions from the public, and then there’s a committee process, so I think it’s --

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he had a hard time doing it?

TIM FLANNERY: I think he probably did, but he may have felt it was necessary. Perhaps it was -- he thought at that stage he could do something to shift public perception of his stance. But that hasn’t happened. We have an election on the 24th of November, and the polls are running strongly to the opposition. And I think we’ll have a new government on the 24th of November. And their first move, they’ve said, is to recall parliament and ratify the Kyoto Protocol. So then it will be the US alone, if that happens.

You ask about the nature of the White House intervention in this climate change issue. For me, it’s perplexing, it’ counterproductive. And despite the orientation of our government in Australia, it’s just not possible for them to do that. What they’ve done is cut funding to critical programs dealing with development of new energy, for example, and the monitoring of the science of climate change. And astonishingly, this year, which is the International Polar Year, Australia, which claims a third of the Antarctic, is giving zero dollars to support research into the International Polar Year. It gives you a sense of how bad things are. But we don’t get this sort of lying to the public, where people deliberately twist what their experts are saying. And I find that deeply disturbing. This is a democratic country; people have a right to know.

AMY GOODMAN: And you don’t, because of the check and balance?

TIM FLANNERY: That’s right. It’s much more difficult for our government to operate that way. We have a tradition of frank and fearless advice coming from the bureaucracy to government. And although that’s compromised when government has a particular view, it’s really impossible to eradicate and to alter wordings, such as occurs here in this country. I think it’s just -- it’s a legacy of -- perhaps the power of the White House and the structure that scientists work within in this country may suffer this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the problem of the feedback loop? What does that mean?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, earth's climate system is set up in a way that it’s finely balanced, so it can go along for a certain period of time in one state, and then a small impact can precipitate a whole series of changes that build on each other to rapidly shift the climate into another state. And I’d say a bit like, you know, the old analogy of the flap of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon causing a hurricane, that’s the sort of model that you’ve got to think about when you think of this climate system of ours. And a small -- a relatively small input, such as human pollution into the atmosphere, can translate into a very big impact that can become impossible for us to stop. We're not there yet, but we could get to that point in the next few decades, if action isn’t taken.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, you talk about the concert of the three scenarios. What are those scenarios?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, look, those scenarios really deal with those big positive feedback loops, you know. The first is the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, which, if that occurred -- and, you know, the Gulf Stream runs along the US East Coast and up into the North Atlantic and brings a tremendous amount of warmth to Europe. We know it has shut down in the past. If it shuts down again, Europe will face very severe conditions, cold conditions. And that heat, of course, has to go somewhere, that was normally going north and being dissipated. My guess is it’s going to go into the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic and cause more severe hurricanes and so forth. But, you know, we have to do more science on that to really justify that view.

The second scenario is the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, you know? Climate change is looking as if it has the power to destroy those forests, which are the greatest carbon sink on our planet. So if those forests start dying, the pulse of carbon released to the atmosphere will set us on an irreversible trajectory to a world that is really hostile to the way we live and who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: How would they die?

TIM FLANNERY: What we think will happen is that the plants -- as carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere, the plants breathe less and less. This is a very simple view of it. But when plants breathe, they let moisture go back into the atmosphere. And that moisture falls again as rainfall over the Amazon. So if the plants breathe less and there’s less rain coming in, basically we’ll see very widespread drought conditions in the Amazon. And I was very concerned last year to see those very low water flows in the Amazon, because that’s exactly what we’d expect from the first change -- stages of this change. And eventually there’s just not enough water for the trees to survive, so they die. And then, the computer modeling suggests that anything is going to have a hard time growing there, because conditions become so hostile. We may get some sort of semi-desert vegetation growing where there was once a rainforest. And, of course, all that carbon that’s locked into trees, because trees are made of carbon dioxide, you know, is just released into the atmosphere and sets us on an irreversible trajectory. I hope it doesn’t happen. This is a scenario. We have scientific concerns about it. But it would be an absolute disaster for life on earth if we start to see that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the third scenario?

TIM FLANNERY: The third one concerns another greenhouse gas called methane. Vast amounts are methane are locked up in what’s called clathrates, which are an icy substance that’s found at the bottom of the world’s oceans. And it’s held in that form in the ice by pressure and temperature. So in the Arctic, for example, as temperatures increase, these clathrates become unstable, and we may see a mass release of methane. Methane is twenty-one times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. So if we saw a mass eruption of methane into the atmosphere, again we’re set on an irreversible trajectory towards a hostile world.

We know these sort of things have happened in the past. Predicting if and when that will happen in the future is extremely difficult. But they’re the sort of things that we really have to be aware of as possibilities, and they should act as a great spur to us to reduce the burden of pollution in our atmosphere that may unleash these very severe positive feedback loops.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, you talk about the golden toad and the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica.

TIM FLANNERY: Well, look, that animal was really, I think, the first well documented victim of this global climate change that we’re about -- or that is looming on our horizon. It was a beautiful animal found just up in the mossy forests, and the American Indians had wonderful stories about it. They didn’t see it very often, because it only came out a couple of weeks a year. And it was golden, of course, a wonderful animal. They believed if you ever found one, you would find great happiness. And they tell stories of one person who found such a toad and didn’t know what happiness was. Another one just couldn’t bear the happiness that he had found. And a bit like us humans, really, we don’t recognize the beauty and wonder of the world that we have, and we seem willing to trade it for such short-term benefits. But, anyway, that animal is the leader in this extinction cascade that’s now emerging. As you said earlier, half of the world's species may go extinct in the next century or two. And that would just change our world, ultimately impoverish it, destabilize it. And, you know, what a legacy to leave our children! Horrifying.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, you write in your books about how you were a global warming, climate change skeptic. What changed you?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, I had studied geology, and good old Charles Lyell, you know, the first modern geologist, really, who wrote The Principles of Modern Geology in 1850, told us that if you want to understand the rocks, look at the world around you. You know, and that’s fine for many geological processes, but for climate change it just doesn’t work, because we’ve had a long period of climate stability. And so, as a geologist, I thought, well, climate change, it might be real, but it’s going to unfold over hundreds or thousands of years.

What really changed me was the ice core record, you know, this wonderful record. Scientists now have drilled out of the Antarctic ice cap and the Greenland ice cap, where we have a year-by-year record of the state of our planet and its atmosphere going back 640,000 years. And what that record tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that our climate can shift very rapidly from one stable state to the next with very severe consequences for life on earth. And once you understand that, that simple fact, you have to be concerned about the current indications that we’re getting from the world’s climate scientists that we are approaching a threshold to dangerous climate change and the time to act is very limited.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening at the North and South Pole?

TIM FLANNERY: Oh, this is, for me, the most disturbing thing. You know, the ice cap at the North Pole has been there for three million years. You know, walrus, polar bears, many unique species have evolved in that wonderful environment. And, of course, it’s an absolutely essential regulator of earth’s climate. It reflects a vast amount of heat, of energy, back into space, that doesn’t then heat our planet.

What we've seen, starting in the 1970s, but particularly since 2005, is a rapid melting of that ice cap. And it’s possible now that as early as 2013 there will be no polar ice cap in summer, and that will change the world, if -- that is, if that happens. We cannot -- I just hope that that will not happen, that we’ve got a long good timeframe to act. But all indications are it’s melting with unprecedented rapidity. Once that happens, you know, the North Pole turns from a cooling agent or refrigerator for our planet to a heater, because the ocean starts trapping heat energy, and then we see a restructuring, I think, of the whole of the northern hemisphere’s climate systems. Now, how severe that will be, how it will unfold, it’s very difficult to say at the moment, but it is one of the areas of grave concern for all climate scientists. In fact, when you speak to them, they find it hard to comprehend, really, what’s happening. They keep hoping that next year things will get better. It’s not, at the moment. It is the great warning sign for us that all is not well, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: The South Pole?

TIM FLANNERY: South Pole is a little bit better off. We’re seeing melting around the margins and very severe melting out on the Antarctic Peninsula. But because the South Pole is land-based and is a very high ice cap, we're not yet seeing those profound impacts. And I just have my fingers crossed that we’ll see ongoing stability there, because if we start seeing a severe meltdown at both poles, the changes would be astronomical.

AMY GOODMAN: The NASA scientist, Jim Hansen, is speaking in Houston at the Houston Progressive Forum, where you spoke a few months ago.

TIM FLANNERY: Yes. Yes, I did.

AMY GOODMAN: He is a man, a scientist, who has been silenced, as you point out. He’s one of the winners, really, of the Nobel Peace Prize, because he’s part of the IPCC.

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, exactly. And what a great hero! That man has done more from a more difficult position than almost any other climate scientist. And he heads an institute, NASA, run by the federal government, and yet he’s had the bravery to speak out and try to be heard. And, you know, it was extraordinary what happened to him. They put a sort of a media manager in place who had lied about his credentials. Just an amazing incompetence.

AMY GOODMAN: Lied about graduating from college.


AMY GOODMAN: I think it was in 2003.

TIM FLANNERY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: So already he was, to say the least, rather young, less than half the age of Jim Hansen.

TIM FLANNERY: Can you imagine what it would be like for one of the world’s leading scientists, who is revered by everyone, to have this pipsqueak who lied about his credentials controlling what he tells the public? Just appalling. And, you know, the countries around the world would -- I don’t know what they’d pay to have the advice of a Jim Hansen. It’s the sort of stuff we all desperately need. And here, in a country that actually pays him a salary and allows him to do his work, he is silenced. I mean, I honestly cannot see the sense of that. I can’t see who benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to break again, but we’re going to come back to Tim Flannery and ask him what it is like to discover a species. Also, I want to talk about the wars of the twenty-first century and how they’ll differ from the wars of the twentieth century. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back with one of the world's leading climate change scientists in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where last night hundreds of people crowded into the historic Lensic Theater for an evening sponsored by the Lannan Foundation, a speech by Tim Flannery -- Tim Fridtjof Flannery, to be exact. Fridtjof, named for, well, a distant relative, a Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, who was an explorer, a diplomat, won the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize. A relative of yours, Tim Flannery.

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, supposedly. We haven’t been able to trace back how, but apparently he is, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: A chip off the old block. What is it like to discover a species? Talk about one of the most remarkable ones that you did discover.

TIM FLANNERY: Well, it’s a very humbling experience. And if I could just say that I’m more like the person who presents the species to the world, because often the local people where I work, the indigenous people, have known about these animals for some time. But one of the most extraordinary discoveries, really, was of a tree kangaroo. Now, I know people don’t think about kangaroos hopping around in the treetops of the tropical rainforest, but they do. There are seventeen species of them. And in 1995, I discovered one species of tree kangaroo that had come down from the treetops and lived in the alpine meadows under the glaciers of the highest mountains in our region, in West Papua. And that animal was about the size of a Labrador dog and looked like a little panda, black and white, gorgeous animal. And it was really tame. It didn’t have any fear of people, because there was no people in its habitat. That was an amazingly humbling moment to think that, you know, I’m the first outsider to see this creature. It was just fantastic.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about indigenous people, the indigenous people you work with, in your book, Throwim Way Leg: Adventures in the Jungles of New Guinea, what does “throwim way leg” mean?

TIM FLANNERY: It means “Hit the road.” I mean, Papua New Guineans walk everywhere, because there is no roads through most of the country. So when they're going, you know, after a meeting, they say, “Me by throwim way leg now.” It means, “I’m going to hit the road” or “See you later.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you dedicate the book to Jim Bob Moffett, his successors and all the other CEOs of mining companies with interests in Melanesia in the hope that, through reading it, they’ll understand a little better the people whose lives they’ve so profoundly changed. Explain Jim Bob Moffett's company, Freeport-McMoRan.

TIM FLANNERY: Well, Freeport-McMoRan runs the world's largest copper mine in West Papua.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s based here in the United States.

TIM FLANNERY: It is based in New Orleans. And the mine itself, though, is in West Papua, and it’s in a very remote region that has dense populations of people who are really still living pretty much a Stone Age existence. And, of course, that mine just has had enormous impact. One of the most profound impacts is that the agreement to operate in that area was forged under the Suharto government, and it involved a fairly significant military presence.

AMY GOODMAN: The dictator of Indonesia.

TIM FLANNERY: That’s right, yeah, yeah, yeah. So the mine has acted as a focal point for those -- for military officers to come in and then really suppress those local people. Indonesia sees West Papua as its sort of wild frontier, and the sort of things that happened here on the frontier in the 1850's are now going on in West Papua: displacement and murders of indigenous people, the theft of resources, really an attempt, you know, to take that wealth for others. Now, things have got better, very much better under the recent president, but there are still significant abuses going on in that area perpetrated by the military.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the controversial proposals you’ve put forward is using models of indigenous people in Australia, how they dealt with the environment today. You’re a fierce critic of coal mining.

TIM FLANNERY: Yes. Yeah, I am. I think coal brings many problems with it. It’s not just the global warming, although that’s probably the most significant. You know, the reason that we can’t eat fish or pregnant women shouldn’t eat fish too often is that the mercury that’s got into the fish, the food chain of fish in the oceans, most of that mercury comes from burning coal, people don’t realize. Cadmium poisoning from burning coal. The sulfur problems we’ve got from burning coal.

AMY GOODMAN: Mercury in the fish from burning coal?

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, that’s where it comes from. Mercury gets up in this wonderful atmosphere of ours and is dispersed across the planet within a few weeks. And some of that mercury falls to the oceans, where it is oxidated and then it tends to preferentially build up in living things. So by the time we eat tuna, it’s full of the mercury that has come from the smokestacks of our coal-fired power plants.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about geothermia and the hot rocks.

TIM FLANNERY: Well, look, it is so important that we get this new industrial revolution happening and move from the dirty fossil fuels to clean sources of energy. One of the most promising is geothermal energy. You know, it’s an old source, really. We’ve had some geothermal plants around the world for a long time. But recently there’s been astonishing discoveries of massive reserves of heat energy in the earth's crust. One of the biggest is in Australia. And I’ve proposed to our government that we try to exploit this clean and sustainable energy resource to run a lot of our heavy industrial needs, such as mineral processing. We could have a new city in central Australia that I’ve sort of called Geothermia, you know, based around the use of this resource, and use our national rail system to bring in minerals to be cleanly processed and then shipped out.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain how this was discovered, where it is in the earth.

TIM FLANNERY: Look, it’s in the most dismal spot in Australia. It’s right in the dead center of our continent, near Lake Eyre, which is a huge salt pan, and it’s four kilometers down in the earth. And it was discovered by an oil and gas company, who had discovered a ring of oil-bearing rocks and then a ring of gas-bearing rocks and, in the middle of this, really hot rocks.

They spent hundreds of millions of dollars drilling. And being an oil and gas company, they thought, “We like the oil, we like the gas, but these hot rocks, we can just post that information publicly.” And, of course, someone else came up and said, well, the amount of energy in the hot rocks is actually probably a hundred times greater than the energy in the oil and gas they discovered, so this is the real gem. And so, they got a free ride. They got a couple hundred million dollars worth of free drilling, and now they're going out trying to exploit this resource.

And we’ll know by Christmas, I think, whether this can be successfully done. The second drill bit is now deep in the earth. It’s getting close to those hot rocks. And if we can get circulation happening of the hot fluids, as projected, then we will have unlocked an enormous energy resource at about the price of coal. And that will change everything for Australia.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long would it last?

TIM FLANNERY: If you run the whole Australian economy on it, it will last at least a century. And that’s the one deposit, you know. This is -- there’s ten companies looking for more of these hot rocks in Australia now. And in China there’s great prospects, as well. There’s prospects in Europe and, doubtless, in parts of the US. So as we shift away from coal and take a medium to long-term view, we can’t just imagine the choices between clean coal technologies and nuclear power. There are other very formidable sources of power that can deliver large volumes of what’s called baseload electricity, you know, the stuff you need twenty-four hours a day, at low cost.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's talk about your proposals around a green electrical grid, green transportation.

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, look, we know that in order to beat this problem we have to reduce our emissions on the order of 80% in the next forty years. Now, forty years might sound like it’s a long way off, but it isn’t really, you know. I suppose just to drive home to people what that means, it means that in forty years from now we can’t be driving cars that are fueled with fossil fuels, with oil. We can’t be generating our electricity by burning coal and natural gas. We have to have shifted decisively from those polluting sources of power to clean sources of power. So that’s why the race is on now for new affordable takes to harness energy of the sun, which is massive, to harness wind energy, wave energy, geothermal energy, all of these sources that will drive this new clean and prosperous economy of ours, if we can reach out, make the investments and push forward to avoid dangerous climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, can you talk about air conditioning?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, air conditioning is a very strange thing. Of course, as our earth warms, it’s becoming more and more necessary for older people and especially young people who are vulnerable to heat waves and so forth. But it also, at the moment, relies on the burning of fossil fuel. And, of course, it is the great driver of demand. So industry is rubbing its hands together at the moment and saying, well, let's build a few more coal-powered power plants so we can supply the demand. And, of course, that’s just worsening the problem of the warming. So it’s a very vicious feedback loop. The more we air condition, if we do it using traditional energy sources, the worse the problem gets. You know, so it’s a zero-sum game. And we have to break out of that sort of thinking and see the whole picture, see the bigger picture, and start working really as a species to try to regulate the burden of gases in our atmosphere for the good of all. And that’s going to be the great enterprise of this century of ours, this twenty-first century, it’s taking that bigger view.

AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about wind and solar, you're not talking just about a technical solution. This is a serious challenge to large consolidated corporations, because inherent in them is a more decentralized approach, a cooperative approach. Can you explain that?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, that’s absolutely right. I mean, electricity is a generic product, and I can generate some now by rubbing my backside on this seat, you know, static electricity. We can all do it. And once you realize that, and you can think, “Oh, I’ll put some solar panels on my house,” you’re getting rid of your power bill. And that means that the company is not getting those payments that they love every three months. Into the future, we can take control of our own future. Micro wind turbines are now being produced, which are --

AMY GOODMAN: Micro wind turbines.

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, very, very cost-effective, and in windy areas such as this in New Mexico, a fabulous way of generating electricity. I mean, could I just say, we’re sitting in New Mexico, which has more sunlight per day than you would want to think about, more energy per square meter than we could ever possibly use, wonderful wind resource. And all of that’s just going to waste at the moment. People are just paying for fossil fuels brought in from elsewhere to run their energy needs, which is crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about minicats. What are they?

TIM FLANNERY: They’re a new innovation in motor vehicles. Now, we don’t know yet whether they’re going to work out or not, but they’re compressed-air cars.

AMY GOODMAN: Compressed-air car?

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, yeah. You compress air into sort of containers that we now use for natural gas and then run your car off compressed air. Now, they’re potentially very good for city transport. And if we use a hybrid system, hybrid electric/compressed-air system, we can get greater synergies. But these are the sorts of things that people are going to be driving forty years form now. We can’t be driving Humvees anymore, or Hummers, I think, as you call them here, forty years from now, or anything like them. We have to be -- for transport energy, we have to be driving cars that are at least ten times as efficient in their use of energy as the ones we use today, and they can’t be using fossil fuels. So whoever cracks that, you know, they’re going to be the wealthy of the future.

And can I just say, it’s been so disappointing to see the American car industry lobby relentlessly against its own best interest. You know, if you look at what’s happened in California, where the government has regulated outboard motors to the point where America now makes the best and cleanest outboard motors in the world. They’re the equivalent of the Toyota Prius, and they will cream the opposition globally for marine transport. But the car industry have been big enough to stand up to California and argue their tops about regulation. And as a result, they’re going down the plughole; they’re going down the gurgler. And, you know, it’s so sad to see American industry argue so thoroughly and efficiently against its own long-term interest. I really don’t understand why that’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, here in New Mexico yesterday, you went to a high school in Santa Fe, and you were talking to the kids about what they can do. Can you tell us about the proposals you made to them?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, what I said to them was, at the moment, kids, you’re living like cattle in a feedlot. The electricity comes down the lines to you, and you never think about where it comes from or what the consequences of the use are. Same with your water. You never think where it comes from or where it goes to. And your food. So the first step of creating a more sustainable life is to get out of that feedlot. Ask your mom and dad for the power bill, to see it, you know? And have a look at that power bill and try to understand its consequences and what it means. And give mom and dad a challenge. Say, you know, “Look, if I can save a hundred bucks a quarter off that power bill, will you give me two hundred for pocket money?” That’s a fair deal, I reckon, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: So you save money on the energy bill, and the kids pocket what they save.

TIM FLANNERY: Yeah, pocket it and empty it, you know. Yeah, which is great incentive, because kids understand this stuff, and it’s a great thing for them to think we’ll turn things off at stand-by. And what a learning experience to learn how much electricity it takes to run a refrigerator, a television, a computer, and how you can save energy by turning them off at stand-by. Or buy some new light globes and start big savings immediately. So, you know, we’ve got to just --

AMY GOODMAN: Incandescent bulbs allowed in Australia?

TIM FLANNERY: They won’t be after 2009. You know, they were invented by Thomas Edison a century ago. And it always astonishes me that in cartoons in the US, you see the guy having a bright idea with the light bulb. It’s actually the dumbest idea around, that light globe, you know? We need the compact fluoro to appear in the thought bubble, because that’s the future.

AMY GOODMAN: How did it happen that Australia is completely banning them?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, our Environment Minister is an ingenious man. He works for a very rightwing government, but he himself ran Goldman Sachs for some time. Very smart, understands the issues. And he saw this as a win-win for everyone. And it’s amazing, because the industries even that sell lights in Australia have got on board with this. It’s been wonderful to see the transformation. So in our country, we will move to the new clean technologies within the next couple of years. And I think it’s something the whole world could do so easily.

AMY GOODMAN: The meeting that will be taking place in Bali in December, how important is this? Who’s meeting? And what role is the US going to play in that?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, this is the Kyoto process, you know, and the UN process. The nations of the world are going to get together there to start trying to broker some aspects of the new treaty that will replace Kyoto. There will probably be an emphasis on tropical forests there, just because Indonesia is such an important repository of those forests. But we will build between then and December 2009 in Copenhagen the foundation stones of the new treaty.

And have a guess what two countries don’t have a seat at the table: your country and my country, which is the great tragedy. You know, Kyoto now is coming to the end. But the signatories, the people who’ve ratified, are sitting around building the future, and we’re locked out, which is why it’s so critically important that we ratify and get a seat and get heard. Of course, the world would love to have us join in this. And China has recently said, you know, that if the world can agree on an approach, they’ll come on board, whatever that approach is. So the ball is in our court now. Australia and the US really need to make some very serious decisions in the next two years about how we address this problem. And, of course, this being a global problem -- the atmosphere is a global commons -- we need everyone to join in. We can’t do it on a country-by-country basis. We have to have a common meeting point.

AMY GOODMAN: You have painted such a dismal scenario of what can happen with global climate change, global warming. And yet, you remain hopeful; why?

TIM FLANNERY: Because the solutions are actually within our grasp, you know? When you see the changes that humanity has performed in the past, you know, whether it was World War II, where we went from having a sort of very primitive sort of technology to having rocketry and nuclear weapons, which are not a great thing, but they’re an amazing technical triumph, you know, radar and so forth, we know we can take these technologies that are now in nascent form and scale them up and produce a cleaner and greener world.

And the other thing, if I could say to you, is that I’m confident because I can see that this is going to be the great project of the twenty-first century. This is what will enthuse people. This is what will make people wealthy. It’s a bit like in the nineteenth century, you know, the emphasis was on slavery and universal suffrage, and all of those things that we benefit from so much today, those changes. The twenty-first century is going to be about sustainability. It will be the great energizing project, and none of us can afford to be left behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Tim Flannery, here with us in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Australian of the Year for 2007, zoologist, palaeontologist, one of the world's leading climate change scientists.


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