Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Climate destabilization is really beginning to destabilize the real lives of people.’

Europeans generally seem to believe scientists and their own eyes when it comes to natural phenomena. In many EU countries the scientific consensus around human-induced climate change is pretty much shared by the general population. Accordingly, there is a commitment to do what they can to address the problem. I hesitate to use the word "sacrifice" because I think they perceive their actions more as a duty.

It is a very different story here in the U.S. Politicians arrogantly act as if they know more about atmospheric chemistry and climate than researchers and naturalists. As a nation, we are much more likely to listen to insurers who translate climate change into serious pocket change issues. But that provides no guarantee that we'll do the right thing in response. (GW)

Bad weather policy: Insuring against climate change

For insurance companies, climate change is not only real; it’s really expensive. Will Washington notice?

ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE not the only ones who worry as projections about climate change keep getting worse and worse. So do insurance companies, which feel the effects financially as the pace of climate-related disasters accelerates. It is telling that, even as some business groups oppose climate-change legislation in Washington, many of the companies with the most to lose from global warming are treating it as a reality - and pricing their products accordingly.

Losses from extreme weather related to climate change are no longer chump change. Allstate CEO Tom Wilson this year told investors that catastrophic weather losses beyond hurricanes and earthquakes had risen four-fold over the last three years, to $2 billion. Premiums for homeowners were rising 7 percent this year, Wilson said, noting that a big driver is roof damage from hail and wind.

“If you had asked me did I think we could have a $355 million hailstorm in Arizona [in 2010], I wouldn’t have thought that hail could be that bad in Arizona,’’ Wilson said in one meeting. Wilson said pricing premiums to account for increased extreme weather events “is permanent.’’

Other insurers are seeing the same patterns. German insurance giant Munich Re estimated that in the first half of 2011, the world suffered a record $265 billion economic loss from severe natural catastrophes. Most of the economic losses came with the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, but the biggest weather-related economic losses were still enormous — the $15 billion in the United States from the tornadoes and severe thunderstorms that swept across the Midwest and the South.

Even weather changes that unfold more gradually than hurricanes and tornadoes have high costs. The global insurer Swiss Re found that damage to buildings from sinking soil induced by drought now costs France alone $450 million a year. David Friedberg, CEO of the Climate Corporation, a San Francisco-based company which insures farmers for extreme weather events, argues that the most persistent problems are either too much rainfall or too little rainfall. “What seem like minor deviations in rain and heat to the average person,’’ he says, “are millions in crop damage to soybean farmers in Indiana. We’re having worst-ever floods in North Dakota, worst-ever droughts in Texas. Higher probability of those events means higher premiums and higher prices for food. At some point, it may become unsustainable.’’

Perhaps those who aren’t yet concerned about climate change will be persuaded by hail on their roofs or cracks in the very foundations of their homes. “Unfortunately, a year like 2011 does our work for us,’’ said Sharlene Leurig, insurance analyst for Ceres, the Boston-based nonprofit that promotes corporate responsibility on climate change. “Insurers think it is a crisis unfolding. Real estate experts are starting to recalculate the value of real estate in areas of frequent extreme weather. We’re getting to the point where climate destabilization is really beginning to destabilize the real lives of people.’’

The destabilization is clearly increasing. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this month issued a new report saying that the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes are “virtually certain’’ to increase this century. But it is possible that higher bills from insurers will change minds in Washington more effectively than a preponderance of scientific evidence has.

MIT tropical cyclone researcher Kerry Emanuel said if insurers are catching on to the damage of climate change and charging homeowners for it, that perhaps homeowners might get ahead of the politicians. “Right now,’’ Emanuel said, “there is such a huge gap between science and policy, most people in my field have gotten pessimistic the United States will do anything.’’

That pessimism might change if more companies follow Allstate’s lead by factoring climate change into their prices. The more homeowners who take notice and demand action in Washington, the better the chance that — to borrow Allstate’s slogan — we’ll all be in good hands.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A meeting of the minds everywhere but here

It feels like a natural convergence. The United Nations annual meeting on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and the European Wind Energy Association's (EWEA) annual offshore wind energy conference both opened yesterday. The former is being held in South Africa, the latter in Amsterdam.

The U.N. gathering is trying to figure out how to avoid the greatest catastrophe humanity has ever faced. The folks in Amsterdam are launching an industry that will play a major role to that end.

According to an EWEA press release: "Over 141 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy capacity is built, under construction, consented, or planned in Europe: enough to power 130 million average EU households." Moreover, "EWEA estimates that by 2020, 40 GW of offshore wind power will produce 148 TWh annually, meeting over 4% of the EU’s total electricity demand and avoiding 87 million tonnes of CO2 emissions."

Meanwhile, we are about to enter the eleventh of permitting for Cape Wind, the first proposed U.S. offshore wind project. The two historic meetings DO represent a natural meeting of the minds --- everywhere except the U.S. (GW)

Sign climate deal or poorest will starve, summit told

By Rob Hastings
The Independent
November 28, 2011

As the annual United Nations talks on curbing greenhouse gas emissions begin in the South African city of Durban, Oxfam said shortages of rice and grain will only increase as wildfires and monsoons affect some of the world's poorest regions.

The charity's call for the conference to agree to a legally binding deal on reducing carbon releases into the atmosphere was backed yesterday by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He called on governments to "step up to the responsibilities only they can exercise".

But with the world economy teetering on recession, their calls look likely to fall on deaf ears as it becomes harder than ever to reconcile the 194 governments represented at the convention. Even agreements made two years ago in Copenhagen are proving problematic. In 2009, it was agreed that $100m (£64.7m) a year would be given to the poorest countries suffering from global warming by 2020.

Now the world needs to agree how that money will be raised. The Kyoto Protocol, which obliged rich nations to cut emissions and is set to expire in 2012, is a still more serious issue. To ensure that gas emissions peak in 2020 before falling as agreed, the EU wants a new treaty including every major economy – including the US, which never ratified Kyoto, and China, which fell outside the remit when it was drawn up.

Both are resistant, as are many developing nations – who insist the measures outlined in Kyoto are the bare minimum they will accept. And further compounding the issue, Russia, Canada and Japan say they will not sign up to new commitments.

Monday, November 28, 2011

China's clean energy opportunity

When it comes to the topic of energy, China is one complex bundle of contradictions. As Pogo once said ( in another context, of course), the country is faced with "insurmountable opportunities". (GW)

China's green growth potential 'could create 9.5m new jobs'

Report urges China to replace dirty, energy intensive industries with renewable technology and other 'green' businesses
By Jonathan Watts
November 18, 2011

If China phases out energy-intensive technology it can great millions of jobs, a report says.

China can make a net gain of 9.5m jobs over the next five years if it phases out its dirtiest, energy intensive industries and replaces them with renewable technology and other "green" businesses, according to an influential advisory body.

The potential for green growth was flagged up in a report that highlights the "Jeckyl and Hyde" nature of the environmental situation in China, which can claim both the world's biggest investment in new energy and the most dangerous levels of pollution. The report was released this week by the China Council of International Co-operation on Environment and Development, which is headed by Li Keqiang – widely tipped to become the next prime minister – and includes 200 domestic and overseas experts and leading figures in the United Nations and other world bodies.

On the economics of a shift to a more sustainable development path, it is brimful of ambition and optimism. The council advises the government to spend 5.8 trillion yuan (£61bn) on measures to save energy, protect the environment and replace polluting industries with hi-tech firms. It estimates this would create 10.6m jobs, boost GDP by 8 trillion yuan and result in energy savings worth another 1.4 trillion yuan. These gains, it says, would far exceed the costs of eliminating the dirtier sectors of the economy, which are calculated as a loss of 950,000 jobs and 100bn yuan in output.

At their annual meeting, the council emphasised the need to shift track – a process that the government has tried to promote in its latest five-year plan. "The industrial sector is still the prime energy consumer and a major cause of pollution, so greening the sector is key for China's green transformation," Li Ganjie, vice minister of environmental protection and the council's secretary general was quoted as saying by the China Daily.

On the environmental situation, however, the report painted a far bleaker picture for the next 10 years of worsening levels of toxic waste, ecological degradation and water shortages. At the release of the report, Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, praised China's $49bn (£31bn) investment last year in renewable energy, but said the country is also paying an alarming health cost for the past three decades of dirty growth. "They are paying a price first of all individually by premature deaths ... Respiratory diseases and premature deaths in the hundreds of thousands," he said.

The report - which was three years in the making - placed much of the blame on an obsession with GDP expansion, particularly at a local government level, which has resulted in lax implementation of environmental goals. "The blind pursuit of economic growth has now become a huge obstacle for China's green growth," it says.

It suggests the introduction of a carbon tax and new pricing mechanisms that would encourage more efficient use of scarce resources such as water. The central government says it is also trying to rebalance environmental quality with economic quantity, partly by setting new goals to reduce pollution.

In the latest promise of improvement, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said it will tighten air quality monitoring and include PM2.5 small particulate matter in the index for the first time. Zhou Shengxian, the environment minister, told the council that China would move towards international standards of monitoring, but warned that there was still a long way to go. "It will be a gradual process, and won't be achieved all at once," Zhou said while outside Beijing was shrouded in a thick haze.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

“We want to grow kids in our gardens"

Food is a great organizing tool. Community gardeners have known that for decades. It is inspiring but not entirely surprising that agriculture can be an effective means for directing young people away from gangs. It's real and meaningful and many young people quickly understand the power of being able to grow their own food.

Within the last decade urban agriculture has become a serious enterprise. Meeting future food needs will require that cities become producers of food and not just places where it is consumed. The next generation of farmers will have to count city growers among their ranks. (GW)

Agricultural Program Helps Keep Youths Out of Gangs

By Gosia Wozniacka
Associated Press
November 19, 2011

WOODLAKE, Calif. (AP) — When Manuel Jimenez first set eyes on the land below a levee, thick with brush and weeds, the one-time field worker envisioned a place where youngsters could escape the temptations of gang life and learn about the Central Valley’s most vital industry.

But, like many places in California’s farming belt, this Tulare County town of 7,280 flanked by citrus groves had few resources. Best known for its annual rodeo, Woodlake has been devastated by gangs. More than forty percent of its families, many poor Latino immigrant farmworkers, live in poverty.

Over the past seven years, Jimenez found a way to teach hundreds of young volunteers farming techniques, work habits and communication skills to prepare them for jobs or college. With creativity and help from the community, they turned 14 desolate acres into lush gardens of vines, vegetables and fruit trees. And the local police chief credits the program, Woodlake Pride, with helping fight local gang crime.

“We want to grow kids in our gardens, because we’ve seen what violence, drugs and alcohol can do,” said Jimenez, a lifetime resident who works as a small farm adviser with UC Cooperative Extension.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Trouble is lapping at our collective feet

Let's be honest. Even the most ardent believers in climate change have, for the most part, figured that its real impact won't be felt for decades (if not tens of decades). Mitigating climate change has been driven by a concern for future generations.

How long can we afford to ignore what's going on all around us? (GW)

Climate change misery at our door

By John Yeld
Cape Argus
November 25 2011

Protesters at the 2005 National Climate Change Conference at Gallagher Estate in Midrand make the point that is still at the heart of international climate change negotiations: poor people, in particular poor Africans, will bear the brunt of the impacts of global warming.

IN HIS inimitable way, American comedian Groucho Marx posed the rhetorical question that exposes the inherent selfishness of so many humans: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”

Fortunately, there are also many people who do care deeply about the planet in general and about the generations that will follow them in particular.

At the most basic level, such concern manifests itself in their moral and ethical decisions to try and leave Earth in at least as good a shape as it was in during their own lifetimes, thus ensuring the ability of these future generations also to meet their needs. This is the basis of the notion of sustainability that, in theory at least, now underpins most of the world’s socio-economic frameworks.

Clearly, bequeathing a world ravaged by the impacts of unchecked human-induced climate change – likely to include huge areas unfit for human habitation because of factors such as vastly increased flooding, more severe droughts, significantly increased temperatures and the spread of disease-bearing species – does not in any way support or enhance sustainability.

But even if the lot of future human generations and of the millions of other plant and animal species with which we share the Blue Planet is of no individual moral and ethical interest or concern, there are very good reasons for everyone to respond now to the threat of climate change, and hence to be concerned about what global mitigation and adaptation measures our political leaders manage to negotiate at the COP17 climate change summit in Durban between November 28 and December 9.

Increasingly, climate change impacts are being experienced much closer to home. International development organisation Oxfam stated this in blunt metaphoric terms during its recent presentation to Parliament’s water and environmental portfolio committee’s climate change hearings: “In the world we live in, the big bad wolf of climate change has already ransacked the straw house and the house made of sticks, and the inhabitants of both are now knocking on the door of the brick house where the people of the developed world live.”

It was actually part of a quote by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in the foreword to a book published last year, Education and Climate Change: Living and Learning in Interesting Times: “Our friends there should think about this the next time they reach for the thermostat. They should realise that the problem of the Mozambican farmer might seem far away, it may not be long before their troubles wash up on our shores.”

Those troubles are, in fact, lapping at our collective feet.

South Africa’s recently published White Paper policy states that climate change is already a measurable reality, and that although Africa is least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, this continent will be most deeply affected. South Africa itself is “extremely vulnerable and exposed”, and climate variability that includes an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, will disproportionately affect the poor – like rural farmers – mainly because they have the fewest resources to adapt.

Of course, there have always been, and will continue to be, vagaries and variations in weather and climate. But there is already plenty of statistically significant evidence of climate change around the world – from melting glaciers and rising sea levels to more frequent extreme weather events that include prolonged heatwaves, severe droughts and floods, less snow to the north and increased drought to the south.

Such changes are accompanied by a number of economic, humanitarian and ecological challenges related to food security in particular, the international Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change reported last week. It said the current drought in the Horn of Africa had contributed significantly to one of Africa’s worst food-related humanitarian disasters, and elsewhere in the world there had been a sharp rise in food prices during the last year, attributable partly to extreme weather conditions in the major bread-baskets of Russia, Australia and China. After a rigorous 11-month process, the commission warned that changes had pushed millions of people into extreme poverty and contributed to political instability around the world.

Climate change is now being experienced at a regional level with direct impacts on individuals. In the Western Cape, for example, 12 “significant” disaster events between March 2003 and November 2008 cost the province more than R2.6 billion in damage and affected tens of thousands of people – directly in line with the prediction of climate change models.

The local deciduous fruit industry has already been impacted by the drop in the required number of chill hours (cold temperatures) trees need to set fruit,

affecting jobs, export earnings and the price of fruit.

While individual events cannot always be directly linked to climate change with certainty and while some impacts have not yet fully manifested themselves, current research is picking up very worrying signs and trends.

In southern Africa, for example, there is real concern that shifting rainfall patterns and temperature fluctuations might see increases in the number of life-threatening malaria cases. Biologists at Stellenbosch University’s DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology are conducting the Hope research project aimed at understanding how climate change influences the spread of insects that carry human and animal diseases, or that are used as biological control agents against invasive species. They include two mosquito species, Anopheles arabiensis and Anopheles funestus, the Argentine ant, the tsetse fly that causes sleeping sickness and nagana, and the Salvinia weevil, a significant biological control agent of Kariba weed, a major ecological problem.

The rich developed nations are not exempt from climate change effects. For example, the US has this year experienced 14 disasters each causing damage estimated at more than $1bn – more in a single year than since comprehensive record-taking started in 1980.

“This is a global problem and no country will be ‘safe’ from climate change,” says Tasneem Essop, WWF’s international climate policy advocate.

Coastal towns and cities are at real risk from rising sea levels, and individuals will be affected directly through property prices and – particularly – insurance costs. Even seemingly small rises in sea level translate into major damage during storm surges, for example.

Polar scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey

said sea ice in the Arctic region had been declining dramatically faster than anyone had predicted, and there had been observations of ice shelf collapse.

“We are particularly worried about the Greenland ice sheet because we believe that it will melt even if the temperature stays at a 2°C increase. This would ultimately give rise to a 5m sea level rise, and once it’s started to go it might be impossible to stop it,” Shuckburgh said.

“My research indicates that sea levels will increase by 10cm to 60cm in the absence of ice sheet collapse, although the exact projections are very uncertain. In Asia, about 150 million people will be exposed to coastal flooding; which could more than double with a 30cm rise. Tokyo, Shanghai, Rotterdam and London will all be at risk of flooding.”

The consequences and threat of climate change were exacerbated by the global population heading to nine billion by the year 2050, by water use growing at twice the rate of population, and by the increasing energy demand, especially in India and China, she added.

l John Yeld is the Cape Argus’ environment and science writer (

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Spokesperson for the microcosm”

I have many wonderful memories from the years I spent at the New Alchemy Institute. Among them are the times spent with Lynn Margulis. During my stint as director of education she would bring her students to the Institute for a tour and lively discussions with the researchers there.

I was amazed that someone so brilliant could also be so gracious and kind. I was, however, not surprised that she appreciated the convention-challenging work being conducted there. (GW)

Lynn Margulis, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 73

By Bruce Weber
New York Times
November 24, 2011

Lynn Margulis, a biologist whose work on the origin of cells helped transform the study of evolution, died on Tuesday at her home in Amherst, Mass. She was 73.

She died five days after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, said Dorion Sagan, a son she had with her first husband, the cosmologist Carl Sagan.

Dr. Margulis, who had the title of distinguished university professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, since 1988, drew upon earlier, ridiculed ideas when she first promulgated her theory, in the late 1960s, that cells with nuclei, which are known as eukaryotes and include all the cells in the human body, evolved as a result of symbiotic relationships among bacteria.

The hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.

Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.

“She talked a lot about the importance of micro-organisms,” said her daughter, Jennifer Margulis. “She called herself a spokesperson for the microcosm.”

The manuscript in which Dr. Margulis first presented her findings was rejected by 15 journals before being published in 1967 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology. An expanded version, with additional evidence to support the theory — which was known as the serial endosymbiotic theory — became her first book, “Origin of Eukaryotic Cells.”

A revised version, “Symbiosis in Cell Evolution,” followed in 1981, and though it challenged the presumptions of many prominent scientists, it has since become accepted evolutionary doctrine.

“Evolutionists have been preoccupied with the history of animal life in the last 500 million years,” Dr. Margulis wrote in 1995. “But we now know that life itself evolved much earlier than that. The fossil record begins nearly 4,000 million years ago! Until the 1960s, scientists ignored fossil evidence for the evolution of life, because it was uninterpretable.

“I work in evolutionary biology, but with cells and micro-organisms. Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould all come out of the zoological tradition, which suggests to me that, in the words of our colleague Simon Robson, they deal with a data set some three billion years out of date.”

Lynn Petra Alexander was born on March 5, 1938, in Chicago, where she grew up in a tough neighborhood on the South Side. Her father was a lawyer and a businessman. Precocious, she graduated at 18 from the University of Chicago, where she met Dr. Sagan as they passed each other on a stairway.

She earned a master’s degree in genetics and zoology from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley. Before joining the faculty at Massachusetts, she taught for 22 years at Boston University.

Dr. Margulis was also known, somewhat controversially, as a collaborator with and supporter of James E. Lovelock, whose Gaia theory states that Earth itself — its atmosphere, the geology and the organisms that inhabit it — is a self-regulating system, maintaining the conditions that allow its perpetuation. In other words, it is something of a living organism in and of itself.

Dr. Margulis’s marriage to Dr. Sagan ended in divorce, as did a marriage to Thomas N. Margulis, a chemist. Dr. Sagan died in 1996.

In addition to her daughter and her son Dorion, a science writer with whom she sometimes collaborated, she is survived by two other sons, Jeremy Sagan and Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma; three sisters, Joan Glashow, Sharon Kleitman and Diane Alexander; two half-brothers, Robert and Mark Alexander; a half-sister, Sara Alexander; and nine grandchildren.

“More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct,” Dr. Margulis and Dorion Sagan wrote in “Microcosmos,” a 1986 book that traced, in readable language, the history of evolution over four billion years, “but the planetary patina, with its army of cells, has continued for more than three billion years. And the basis of the patina, past, present and future, is the microcosm — trillions of communicating, evolving microbes.”