Friday, April 17, 2009

The emissions reductions gospel is failing – we need something more

NGOs who oppose geo-engineering are running the risk of climatic catastrophe

Planting trees for a carbon offset project in Kenya

Planting trees for a carbon offset project in Kenya. Growing trees is one way of stocking carbon out of the linked ocean-atmosphere system. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

Interviewed last week, John Holdren, President Obama's chief scientific adviser, said that drastic measures should not be "off the table" in discussions on how best to tackle climate change and that geo-engineering could not be ruled out. Making clear these were his personal views, he said: "It's got to be looked at. We don't have the luxury of taking any approach off the table."

He's right. We don't have that luxury – not only because the Kyoto protocol's first phase, running to 2012, is manifestly failing, but because the emissions reduction approach that it embodies cannot succeed. It is manifestly failing because emissions are going ahead faster than even the worst scenarios considered by the IPCC, which provides scientific assessments to the UN Climate Convention and because many rich countries are on course to fall short of their emissions reductions commitments.

Research since the IPCC's last assessment reveals that the threat of climatic disaster is more serious than previously supposed. Several threats exist but the most imminent is probably a collapse of substantial areas of land-based ice into the oceans, as studies of ancient climates show happened in previous warming phases. This seems likely to be due to the lubrication of Greenland's ice floes by water that accumulates year after year, with warmer summers melting the surface and rivers of melt-water flowing down crevasses to the bedrock, making the underside of the ice increasingly mushy and prone to slip down towards the ocean. Reports from Greenland, of increased frequency of "ice-quakes", suggest that areas of the ice cover have slipped and bumped into other areas that are still stuck. When the last bit gives way there may be an unstoppable rush of ice into the ocean, as with ancient warming phases, raising ocean levels by several metres over a few decades.

"Probably"? "Likely"? "Suggest"? "Maybe"? Yes, all is uncertain and the models are inadequate. But you don't drive full-speed down a twisty lane on a foggy winter's night hoping there's no ice round the next bend. A measure of the threat is the accumulation of warmth from successive summers, which is making the glaciers' undersides increasingly mushy. Even a deeply implausible reduction of emissions to zero in 25 years sees that measure treble over the next half-century with no end in sight.

So something more than emissions reductions is needed. We must take CO2 out of the atmosphere or prevent some of the sun's radiation from reaching the surface. But geo-engineering is usually thought of as shielding the earth from solar radiation by whitening clouds and by putting reflectors in space between earth and sun. The latter seems difficult to reverse and perhaps a very last resort. But whitening clouds can be quickly halted. It involves putting sulphur aerosols into the clouds in amounts that are trivial compared with the effects of either volcanic eruptions or coal burning worldwide. Or injecting saltwater micro-particles into ocean clouds which, whitened, then rain slightly salty water back into the oceans.

Amazing though it may seem, these apparently hopeful options are opposed by NGOs that seem more willing to run the risk of climatic catastrophe than deviate from the emissions reductions gospel. Their concern seems to be that geo-engineering will result in relaxed pressure to reduce emissions, which neglects the reality that more ambitious commitments will obviously go with increased capability to mitigate. They even oppose research, unlike Holdren's "it's got to be looked at".

The British researcher Tim Lenton uses the term geo-engineering to mean any way of cooling the earth that is not emissions reductions (even growing trees, which is included under the Kyoto protocol). His definition puts me – somewhat to my surprise – among the ranks of geo-engineers, as I have long advocated widespread tree-planting programmes, such as those initiated by the Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Muta Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted more than 30m trees across Kenya.

Growing trees is one way of stocking carbon out of the linked ocean-atmosphere system. Others advocate fuelling power stations with energy crops and capturing CO2 from flue gases and piping them into deep saline aquifers. A third option is biochar, current darling of the policy community, which promises not only to store carbon in the soil but to provide rural energy supplies and raise soil productivity as the basis for sustainable rural development. Yet even this win-win-win prospect is rejected by 129 NGOs who have declared "Biochar – a new big threat to people land and ecosystems". I would rather listen to the 1,500 poor subsistence farmers in Kumba, south-west Cameroon, who are already experiencing its benefits and who deny rich-country NGO claims that civil society in the developing world rejects biochar.

• Peter Read is an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Energy Research, Massey University, New Zealand

We must protect communities who face climate change displacement

'Climigration' requires a new and unique institutional response based in human rights doctrine

kivalina coast

Waves pounding against the sandbagged seawall in Kivalina, Alaska. In 2006, a recently completed $2.5m sea barrier was partly destroyed. The community was evacuated in 2007. Photograph: Mary Sage/AP

In Alaska, climate change is creating an unforeseen humanitarian crisis. Arctic sea ice – which had protected communities from coastal erosion and flooding – is rapidly disappearing and signalling a radical transformation of this northern ecosystem. Scientific observations during the summer of 2007 documented a new record low.

In 2006, the US government completed a $2.5m (£1.7m) seawall to protect the native village of Kivalina, located on an island in the Chukchi Sea. But on the day of the dedication ceremony, a storm surge partly destroyed the newly constructed sea barrier. One year later, the community was evacuated to protect inhabitants from a severe storm.

The situation looks set to get worse. Winter temperatures along the northern Alaskan coast have increased an average of 3.5C (38.3F)since 1975. These warming temperatures are causing the arctic seas to freeze later in autumn and the permafrost – usually permanently frozen subsoil – to thaw. Along the northwestern Alaskan coast, permafrost is the glue that keeps the land intact and habitable.

Approximately 200 indigenous villages that have inhabited the arctic for millennia are located along Alaska's coasts and rivers. Dozens of these communities are now endangered because of accelerating erosion and flooding. Five indigenous communities, located along the Bering and Chukchi Seas, have concluded that relocation is the only durable solution to the climatic events that are threatening their lives.

Government agencies now realise that erosion and flooding control can no longer protect these coastal communities. In 2006, a US government report found that relocation of three communities is required because a catastrophic climatic event could submerge them within 10-15 years. Despite these dire predictions, no community has yet been relocated because of the governance issues that must be addressed to facilitate relocation. The report recognised that no government agency has the authority to relocate communities, no governmental organisation exists that can address the strategic planning needs of relocation, and no funding is specifically designated for relocation.

Since 2006, government officials have organised numerous meetings to address the policy and practical challenges of relocation. One village, Newtok, is in the relocation process. The Newtok Planning Group is the only interdisciplinary governmental workgroup in Alaska focused on relocation. The Newtok Traditional Council is leading the effort.

Next week in Alaska, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference will host a gathering of indigenous peoples from all over the world. The goal is to develop recommendations for the UN Convention on Climate Change meeting in December 2009. One of the topics will be the creation of a human rights regime to protect those forced to relocate because of climate change. "Climigration" is the word that best describes this type of population displacement. Climigration requires a new and unique institutional response based in human rights doctrine. Communities, rather than individuals, will be forced to migrate. Permanent relocation will be mandated because there will be no ability to return home because home will be under water or sinking in thawing permafrost.

Catastrophic random environmental events, such as hurricanes, do not cause climigration. However, these random environmental events, if on-going, may alter ecosystems permanently, cause extensive damage to public infrastructure, repeatedly place people in danger and require communities to relocate. Determining which communities are most likely to encounter displacement will require a complex assessment of a community's ecosystem vulnerability to climate change, as well as the vulnerability of its social, economic and political structures. Permanent relocation must only occur when there are no other durable solutions.

International human rights principles need to be specifically created for climigration to ensure that the social, economic and cultural human rights of individuals and the communities forced to migrate are protected. These principles will ensure that the affected community is a key leader and decision-maker in the relocation process. The principles will also affirm that families and tribes remain together. For indigenous communities, tribal relationships are essential to cultural identity.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that 150 million people may be displaced by climate change by 2050. The United Nations University has developed an international research agenda on climate change and forced migration. The IPCC needs to convene an expert working group to fully develop the human rights framework that will guide nation-states in addressing climigration. The time to act is now.

Robin Bronen is a human rights attorney and a National Science Foundation fellow. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

Just what is it with evangelical Christians and global warming?

A poll this week showed that only 34% of America's white evangelical Protestants accepted there is solid evidence that global warming is real and that it is attributable to humans

PEW forum on religion and public life global warming graphic

Graphic: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Just what is it with evangelical Christians and global warming? I doubt we're ever going to get a satisfying answer to this long-running question, but it is being raised yet again by the publication yesterday of a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The poll canvassed views on climate change among the "major religious traditions" in the US. Surprise, surprise, it shows that "white evangelical Protestants" were the group with the lowest level – 34% of those surveyed – of acceptance that there is solid evidence that global warming is real and that it is attributable to humans. This compares with 47% of the total US population (still startlingly low), and 58% of those surveyed who "had faith" but who were unaffiliated to any particular religious tradition.

It would have been interesting to have seen the stats for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and any of the other "major religious traditions", but the Pew Forum said that out of the 1,502 American adults it surveyed the sample sizes were too small for the data to be worth reporting. But with 76% of Americans claiming to be Christians, perhaps this isn't much of a surprise.

All religious groups have their charismatic leaders, but US evangelicals – who some claim to number up to 100 million people – probably know better than any other group how to get their message across loud and clear to their followers with their syndicated radio stations, TV channels, megachurches and sophisticated online activism.

Some of these leaders display a particular sort of venom towards the "global warming agenda". Others, however, have appeared in recent years to start speaking up the need to adopt environmentalism – or "creation care", as it is more popularly known – and wrapped up within all this is an acceptance that global warming is a reality and needs tackling.

The division between these stark viewpoints has led to some public bust-ups between leading evangelicals – but the facts remain, as the Pew Forum survey indicates, that many evangelicals have little time for talk of global warming.

Last year, there was even an attempt by some leaders to talk up the need for "creation care", but to dampen concern for global warming. The "We Get It!" campaign's declaration is something to behold:

God created everything. He made us in His own image, and commanded us to be fruitful and multiply and watch over His creation. Although separated from God by our sin, we are lovingly restored through Jesus Christ, and take responsibility for being good stewards. Our stewardship of creation must be based on Biblical principles and factual evidence. We face important environmental challenges, but must be cautious of claims that our planet is in peril from speculative dangers like man-made global warming. With billions suffering in poverty, environmental policies must not further oppress the world's poor by denying them basic needs. Instead, we must help people fulfill their God-given potential as producers and stewards. We will follow our Lord Jesus Christ and honor God as we use and share the principles of His Word to care for the poor and tend His creation.

I have always been intrigued about how Christians square the whole "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion…over every living animal that moveth upon the earth" thing from Genesis 1:28 with "creation care" – something I put to the Bishop of London in an interview a couple of years ago.

But I think the We Get It! declaration makes better sense when you learn that it is backed by the Family Research Council and its spokesperson Tony Perkins (no, not the one in Psycho – I think) who says that "we cannot justify policies that make food and energy more expensive on the grounds that we're fighting against an environmental threat that is at best speculative". (Head over to the "issues" page of the Family Research Council for a sample of its other viewpoints – its views on homosexuality are pretty enlightening.)

Another key supporter of the We Get It! Campaign is the Cornwall Alliance which, since its creation in 2000, has been doing its best to whip up the fires of scepticism about global warming. (It does claim to have supporters from other faiths and denominations, but it is a predominately evangelical organisation.) Again, it's worth reading over its views in detail yourself, but here's a little taster:

Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards. Consequently, they ignore our potential, as bearers of God's image, to add to the earth's abundance… Our position, informed by revelation and confirmed by reason and experience, views human stewardship that unlocks the potential in creation for all the earth's inhabitants as good. Humanity alone of all the created order is capable of developing other resources and can thus enrich creation, so it can properly be said that the human person is the most valuable resource on earth… While some environmental concerns are well founded and serious, others are without foundation or greatly exaggerated… Some unfounded or undue concerns include fears of destructive manmade global warming, overpopulation, and rampant species loss.

It's a popular rebuke made by climate change sceptics that environmentalism displays all the traits of a religion (the words "pot", "kettle" and "black", spring to mind for some reason), but I have to say I'm left perplexed when I even attempt to understand the logic of creation care through the prism of evangelicalism.

Many millions of people hold these views so it would be foolish to ignore this huge constituency, but how do you even go about responding to such beliefs?


"Manufactured Landscapes" SEE THIS BRILLIANT MOVIE! You'll never have the same shopping experience again.