Posts filed under ‘Climate Change’

Dear New Yorkers

Dear New York readers. Are you worried about climate change? Wondering if your wonderfully cosmopolitan city will shimmer in the landscape as hotter weather breathes down on it? You’d better be – basically you’ll be toast. Just in case you missed it, your Mayor Bloomberg (sounds like a smart dude) commissioned a report entitled Climate Risk Information: New York City Panel on Climate Change. You can download it here (scroll down). I’ve been researching into climate change, particularly in cities and so I came across it.

I’ll save you the trouble of reading all 74 pages and give you the bad news:

  • NYC has a 570-mile coastline and 8.5 million people live only about 10 feet above sea level.
  • NYC average temperature will rise 1.5-3 °F by the 2020s; 3- 5 °F by the 2050s; and 4- 7.5 °F by the 2080s.  Heat waves will become frequent, more devastating and last longer – cities retain heat, much more so than surrounding areas.
  • you will get milder temperatures and less snowfall but….a third of the days during summer will above 90 degrees.
  • rising sea levels will happen (>95% probability of occurrence). Maybe not enough to send your Statue of Liberty underwater but you’ll see 2-5 inches by the 2020s; 7-12 inches by the 2050s; and 12-23 inches by the 2080s.  If you include ice-melt, then the sea level could rise by approximately 41-55 inches by the 2080s. Check your home insurance policy now to see if you’re covered for water damage! But rising sea levels will lead to coastal flooding; increased street, basement & sewer flooding; structural damage; issues with water quality; and encroachment of saltwater on freshwater sources and ecosystems. The report mentioned an increase of salt front up the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, leading to reduced supply of drinking water – that would freak me out. Mind you, a wall of water flooding Wall St and getting rid of greedy banking dudes is not a bad idea.
  • a sea level rise of only only a foot and a half  — a realistic prediction for 2050 — would see a storm as severe as Katrina requiring New York City to evacuate as many as 3 million people – can you imagine the chaos.
  • droughts will become more severe, especially towards end of 21st Century.
  • the strain on the power grid during the summer months of heat will cause it to, well…possibly fall over.

The report’s conclusion is stark – if humans continue on their wayward path of greenhouse gas emissions and if the polar ice is indeed melting faster than predicted causing a sea level rise of six inches or more – most of NYC will be under water. And I sense that the report is saying that NYC needs to prepare for the inevitable changes that climate change will bring – it’s about adaptation and mitigation. The 1995 Chicago heat wave knocked off around 600 people in five days so the health and human life implications of having a third of summer days above 90 degrees is staggering.

But what can be done to prepare? I checked out some engineering reports and blogs to find out.

  • don’t build on the waterfront
  • ensure high rise apartment buildings can withstand fierce storms
  • a lot of infrastructure will need to be elevated – so for example, a new waterfront power generating station on the East River has been built to withstand a 4-foot sea level rise
  • solid barriers across the entrance to New York harbour might need to be built. They can be opened for shipping traffic and closed during vicious storms.
  • introduce congestion tax (like London) to reduce the flow of traffic within the city itself.
  • plant a whole heap of trees to help absorb carbon dioxide.

I found a great site – Climate Change Information Resources – which outlines what is being done in the New York metropolitan region to adapt and mitigate. For those of us not in New York, there’s a site I came across called City Based Climate Action Plans, which offers plans from North and South American, Asian, European and African cities. Mmmmm…..I can see Melbourne’s plan but where is Sydney?

Well, New Yorkers, you are not alone. Sydney of course might just be the world’s major climate change catastrophe about to happen. The canary in the coal mine. A CSIRO scientist is saying you don’t want to be living here in 2060 because basically Sydney will be toxic and suffering from dust storms. Hang on!! Sydney was hit with an unprecedented, apocalyptic-looking dust storm just this week. International readers, here’s what Sydney looked like on Wednesday September 23, 2009, covered by a blanket of eerie orange red dust:

Another (smaller one) hit us on Saturday September 26. Is it related to climate change? One source is saying yep, possibly. Mmmmm…another reason for leaving Australia.

Image credit: New York Post and National Post.

September 27, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Environmental boundaries to save Gaia

If you’re wondering whether humans are stupid enough to be the architects of civilisation’s collapse and will become extinct….read on. Twenty eight scientists have been asked how we are going as stewards of Planet Earth. Really, why bother with twenty eight scientists when I could have given the short answer: humans are wrecking the planet and we will all be kaput!

Anyway, the pointy-headed scientists have drawn up a list of nine “planetary boundaries” that we had better not transgress if we, as a species, want to hang around and not suffer disastrous consequences. Check out this article from Nature for full details but basically, I’ll give you the goss – and the bad news? We’ve already crossed three of the planetary boundaries. Our planet’s environment has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years. This stable period is known as the Holocene (aka The Long Summer) and has seen civilisations rise and fall. But since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been in a new period – the Anthropocene – and basically the signature of this period is human activity driving environmental change, which could push us beyond the stability of the Holocene and into abrupt, irreversible climate change. So here is the framework the scientists propose to keep us within safe boundaries:

(1) Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Human changes to atmospheric CO2 concentrations should not exceed 350 parts per million by volume (p.p.m.v.) but current CO2 concentration stands at 387 p.p.m.v. and climbing. The boundary of 350 p.p.m.v. ensures the continued existence of the large polar ice sheets (but as we know, these are rapidly melting). So we’re probably toast as we’ve crossed this climate boundary already. The article says that we are already seeing evidence that some of Earth’s subsystems are moving outside their stable Holocene state eg accelerating rates of sea-level rise during the past 10–15 years and the retreat of mountain glaciers around the world.

(2) Biodiversity loss. This is the second boundary we’ve crossed and/or screwed up. Species extinction is a natural occurrence but biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene has accelerated massively and many scientists say we are in the grip of a sixth great extinction event. In 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is losing around 30,000 species per year (and this equates to three species per hour). Here’s a great site if you want to learn more about the mass extinction humans are causing. Today, the rate of extinction of species is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times more than what could be considered natural.

(3) Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The rise of industrialised agriculture has thrown off Earth’s natural nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and we have pollution on land and in our water ways. We’ve passed the threshold with the nitrogen cycle because the planet and oceans simply can’t process the chemicals being dumped by humans obsessed with food production and cultivation of crops using chemicals. A major side-effect of nitrogen use is pollution of oceans – the Gulf of Mexico, for example, has a 5,800 square mile “dead zone” caused by nitrogen/fertilizer run off.

(4) Ozone. We haven’t stuffed this up because a 1987 ban on ozone-eating chemicals (being chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) has resulted in atmospheric levels of ultraviolet radiation-blocking ozone now being at the safe level. Ozone depletion is a serious issue because it can lead to skin cancer, cataract and premature ageing of the skin.

(5) Freshwater use.  Demand for fresh water is soaring due to hygiene, sanitation, food production and industry. But planetary supplies of freshwater are dwindling. Current consumption for agricultural, for example, may expand from 2,600 cubic kilometers to 4,000 cubic kilometers in the future and this will lead to further environmental damage and water scarcity. Check out this freshwater scarcity map – it will freak you out:

Source: Scientific American

(6) Land use: I was reading the other day that Australia’s population growth is exploding (and given that we are the most arid continent on Earth, not sure this is smart). We will have 35 million by 2049 (current: 21,993,806 according to ABS). The world population is currently around 6.8 billion and is projected to surpass 9 billion by 2050. Just imagine: in 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion. To accommodate 9 billion people in 2050 you need land – so natural terrain, forests, fields and wetlands will most likely disappear to make way for cities and expanding suburbia. We’ll be lucky to spot a small shrub in the crowded concrete jungles of the future!

(7) Ocean acidification: Our civilisation oozes carbon dioxide and eventually it finds its way into waterways and oceans, raising their acidity levels. In acidic seawater coral, for example, have a tough time building their skeletons because the minerals they produce to build the skeletons quickly dissolve in acidic water. Apparently, oceans are now acidifying 100 times faster than at any time during the past 20 million years.

(8) Chemical pollution: I’m always saying that our era will be known as the “chemical generation” (that is if there are any humans left in the future).  We are chemical crazy. Go off and look at the ingredients in your shampoo…I’ll wait. Do you see Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Sodium Laurel Sulfate? If so, chuck it out now – these chemicals are known as surfectants and are basically foaming agents. They are known irritants and have also been linked to liver toxicity and may be carcinogenic. These chemicals also pop up in toothpaste, soap, mascara, laundry detergent, body wash, shave cream and so on. But you can get SLS-free products, go here for a list. Of course, nasty chemicals end up in our waterways and have been linked to genetic damage.

(9) Atmospheric aerosols. A volcano spewing forth its muck is likely to pollute the atmosphere but so are human-made sulfate aerosols created by the burning of coal and oil. Human-made sulfate aerosols are now thought to outweigh naturally produced sulfate aerosols such as desert dust and volcanic aerosols resulting from eruptions. Human-made sulfate aerosols are suspended in Earth’s atmosphere and actually have a cooling effect on climate but do not offset global warming.

Of the 9 planetary boundaries, we have crossed three. Below is the “planetary boundaries” table that shows the sorry state of affairs.

Click here for larger view (Source: Nature).

September 26, 2009 at 2:14 am Leave a comment

Water and food security

StoppingI attended a talk the other day by Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia. He talked about his recent experiences in Ethiopia and climate change in general. He talked about how the future, unless we act fast, will be one of skirmishes over food and water.

And a report is now suggesting that the global cost of adapting to climate change could be at least 2–3 times more than the previous estimate from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (which was between US$49 billion and $171 billion from 2030).

I’ve blogged about this many times before. We all need to be turning our minds to coping in a world with scarce water and diminishing food supplies. South Africa is expected to run out of available water reserves by 2025; one quarter of the planet’s population could be affected by flooding due to warming in the Arctic outstripping predictions; and Australia will literally be toast. Climate change scientists are predicting that Australia’s temperature will increase more than the average global temperature rise with more days over 35 degrees C. This will be accompanied by water shortages, due to evaporation, and loss of biodiversity.  August has seen very warm weather in NSW and Queensland for example. The Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that this is almost certainly going to be the hottest August on record.

Climate change will alter where people can find water, grow food and live. And the result of this will be “forced” migration as people search for water and food and communities (and possibly nations) will be in conflict over dwindling natural resources.

Pause: if you don’t belive in global warming, this is the time to buzz off to another blog.

Climate change has contributed to social insecurity before. Temperature shifts of even a few degrees can lead to conflict gradually over the long term. Modern humans, for example, moved into Europe, pushing Neanderthals into the northern part of the continent where colder temperatures (and clashes with humans) led to Neanderthals being kaput. Theories suggest that climate change, leading to warmer weather in Europe, triggered the interaction of human societies with Neanderthals.

Peasant revolts occured in China, between 700 and 900 AD, due to weak summer monsoons that failed to develop over the Pacific Ocean. Crops failed to grow and intrastate conflict weakened, and eventually led to the complete collapse of, the Tang Dynasty.

Diminished long-term rainfall patterns around 860 AD led to crop failures for the Mayans and warming temperatures (along with Spanish conquistadors and other factors) led to skirmishes within the Mayan empire and its eventual demise.

So wars and conflicts have historic links to climate change. By 2050, I can imagine a world nothing like we have now. Perhaps only a quarter of the estimated 9.2 billion people in 2050 will have clean water, regular food and a secure pension (Government pensions will surely be kaput as nations struggle to finance the affects of climate change and the long-term fallout from the GFC stimulus packages).

I’ve been reading various reports on what our future world will be like – it’s not pretty, especially when it comes to community and national security. I thought I’d share these resources with you and encourage you to read them so that you can start to think (if you’re not already) about how to protect yourself and your family.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development’s report on rising temperatures and rising tensions is a must read. Also their report on climate change and security in Africa (Africa surely must be the canary in the coal mine).

The International Food Policy Research Institute has a number of useful resources on climate change. You can download discussion papers, powerpoint presentations and watch webcasts. Two focus briefs I found of particular interest – Adaptation to Climate Change and Climate Change in Africa: Key Facts & Findings.

The International Food Policy Research Institute will be launching a new study in Bangkok in late September entitled “Addressing Climate Change in the Asia and Pacific Region: Building Climate Resilience in the Agriculture Sector”.  The study warns that by 2050, if we keep going with our stupid ways, the yields of irrigated crops in South Asia will decrease significantly – maize (-17%), wheat (-12%) and rice (-10%) – because of climate change-induced heat and water stress. The result? Food scarcity will lead to higher prices and reduced caloric intake across the region.

The question will be how do we adapt and cope in this rather frightening future? Will genetically-modified crops be bred, which can withstand hotter temperatures and how safe will these GM crops be? Will the planet groan under the sheer weight of 9+ billion people by 2050 (I’ve also predictions of 11 billion)?  Will we be forced to secure our land and homes from waves of forced migrants seeking out water and food?

September 13, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The state of the climate

I’m going to be very busy over the next week, so posts will be more about pointing you in the direction of interesting stuff (rather than my usual ranting and raving).

I came across a very interesting debate between four scientists over climate change issues. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite before you trot off and read the full article:

  • the Earth is now 0.75 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a century and a half ago;
  • if we continue with our current trends in burning fossil fuels, the ocean will become more acidic than it has been at any time in the past 65 million years;
  • both poles are getting warmer and this is different from the past because both poles did not move together – one pole would lead and the other would follow. Now, ice is melting from both poles at an accelerated rate;
  • although the planet warmed in the past, it did so over millions of years and ecosystems could adapt. What we’re seeing now are rates of increase in greenhouse gases and warming that exceed natural rates by a factor of 100;
  • we are at a critical point in history – if we don’t stop stuffing up the planet, the scientists believe that geologists in 50 million years (if there are any!) will be able to pinpoint the exact time in history when civilization had developed advanced technology but didn’t develop the wisdom to use it wisely;
  • we will have to raise the food supply another two times to feed all of the people that we think will be alive by the latter third of the 21st century;
  • to address global warming, we’ll need US$500 billion to get going but ultimately trillions;
  • the stratosphere—the upper atmosphere—is cooling while the lower atmosphere and the land surface are warming. This is a sign that greenhouse gases are trapping energy and keeping that energy close to the surface of the earth.

All four scientists have serious academic chops and also address the contrarian view (that climate change is not happening). So if the above hasn’t scared you enough, go here to Discover magazine to read the full article.

And Happy Independence Day to all my US readers!

July 4, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Environmental stuff

I thought I’d share with you some interesting environmental stuff I’ve come across recently – in no particular order.  First up, the Swedes have just released some guidelines for climate-friendly food in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Jointly drafted by the Swedish National Food Administration and their Environmental Protection Agency, the guidelines will be circulated around the EU for comment. There are no surprises to the advice: eat meat less often; eat seasonal, locally-produced fruits and vegetables (remember when we used to do that?); and avoid bottled water (the plastic may contain chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A, which seep into the water).

It’s good to see the Swedes taking the lead in Europe and helping consumers think through their food choices. Given that one kilo of beef contributes up to 15-25 kilos of greenhouse gases and that Swedes’ meat consumption has grown by an average ten kilos per person over the past ten years and now totals 65 kilos, it’s a smart move promoting healthy food choice hand-in-hand with helping the environment.  And you only have to read this report (by the Joint Research Centre) to learn that meat and dairy products contribute on average 24% to the environmental impact of total final consumption in the EU 27, while constituting only 6% of the economic value. Click here to read the guidelines in English.

And speaking of things seeping into your water or food, if you want to freak yourself out, go here to find out what pesticides are on your food. I decided to use the site to check out if my favourite poached pears might be suspect. Holy Guacamole as they say! 28 pesticides are found on pears – 6 known or probable carcinogens; 13 suspected hormone disruptors; 8 neurotoxins; and 3 developmental or reproductive toxicants. I’m reading Paul Roberts’ book, The End of Food, and he goes through the history of when we lost the plot and starting growing our crops smothered by chemical fertilizers and pesticides and injecting animals with antibiotics so they’d grow faster. Frightening. I have no doubt that in 100 years (if humanity hasn’t knocked itself off by sheer stupidity), future generations will shake their collective heads and call us the “chemical age”.

Meanwhile, Houston is going to erect a dome over the city. Well, engineers are thinking about it anyway. The idea is that a giant geodesic dome, stretching over 21 million square feet, might protect the city from its grim environmental future of fierce hurricanes and baking heat. You can watch a video on the Discovery Channel and explore the dome. I’ve pinched the photo below from the Discovery Channel.

The dome won’t be made of glass as that would be too heavy. It may be built from a light polymer, called Texlon® ETFE, invented over 25 years ago and called the “climatic envelope”. It’s 99% lighter than glass and can withstand winds of more than 180 miles per hour (more than the strongest category 5 hurricane). Apparently, an army of dirigibles would be used to construct the dome since everyday city life in Houston could not be interrupted.  But what about insects, birds and rain – how would that work inside the dome?

And finally, I was out in the garden the other day muttering about pests that had attacked some flowers. I don’t want to whip out chemicals so I hunted for some homemade recipes to beat them off and found this excellent FAQ sheet from Gardening Australia – a heap of recipes using things like soap flakes, bicarb and molasses to get rid of pests like caterpillars, grasshoppers and mealybugs. I tell you: it’s a war zone out there in the garden!

June 30, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Newsflash: polar bear stranded in Thames!

Newsflash! In more evidence of global warming, a polar bear has been stranded on an iceberg in the Thames. Our reporters were standing by and bring you dramatic first photos as the polar bear wonders how the hell it ended up floating by the British Parliament.

The stranded polar bear clung bravely to the melting iceberg as it continued floating down the Thames, reaching  Tower Bridge.

This is, of course, not a true story but it’s highly possible that one day very soon we will indeed find polar bears clinging for dear life to rapidly shrinking icebergs and read headlines like this.

In an effort to raise awareness around climate change, 15 artists produced a 5m (16 ft) life-like sculpture of a polar bear (and cub) stranded on an iceberg and sent the sculpture down the River Thames, pulled by a tug.  The sculpture was commissioned by Eden, a new natural history digital channel.

Image credit: BBC News

January 29, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The environment and the Long Tail

Two quite unrelated but equally interesting topics to bring you in this post. I liked Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail – a new economic model applied to consumer consumption, which suggests that low demand/low sales items (or niche items) collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the popular bestsellers. So for example you walk into a bookstore and you see thousands of books and think “ah, choice!”. But booksellers have limited shelf space and they offer only a small percentage of books that have the broadest possible appeal to readers. The majority of books are in the “long tail” with many different genres, obscure authors and appeal that don’t fit into the mass market. Anderson’s Long Tail (LT) theory examined online music retailers and suggested that the internet economy (with its vast choice of niche markets) would see a shift from the dominance of a relatively small market of mainstream products to the huge market of obscure products, businesses and an untapped audience. Because on the Internet, you need no shelf space. You can read his original article here.

A piece in The Times Online is challenging the LT theory. A study of digital music sales showed that more than 10 million of the 13 million tracks available on the internet failed to find a single buyer last year. So the suggestion is that the big hits still account for online sales success and that the niche music market remains largely untapped. The article doesn’t say what the source was for the data but reports that with the online singles market, 80% of all revenue came from around 52,000 tracks, whilst for the 1.23 million albums available, only 173,000 were bought, meaning 85% did not sell a single copy.

Meanwhile, an article in New Scientist also looks at studies that question Anderson’s theory, with Anita Elberse being one of the dissenters. You might have read Elberse’s Harvard Business Review article, which suggests that the LT isn’t fat with choice but is flat, thin and filled with more and more products that sell few or no copies.

Turning to environmental news, Discover Magazine showcased the top 100 environmental stories of 2008, many of which I blogged about such as the migration of plants due to climate change and the huge population of lowland gorillas discovered in Congo. Afraid many of these stories make for sobering reading.

January 8, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

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