Posts filed under ‘Climate Change’

Not so lucky

I always call Australia the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. We are already the driest inhabited continent on earth and areas of Australia have been experiencing prolonged severe drought since around 2003. We’re the so-called Lucky Country but maybe our number is up. It’s going to be a real party for Australia when global warming hits us. I heard the other day on the news that mosquito-borne illnesses such as Dengue Fever will be increasingly common as we heat up.

I know that some of you will be shaking your heads saying noooooooo climate change isn’t real. Especially because some scientists seem to have been naughty boys and girls. But climate change scientists and academics are fighting back and here’s the really chilling part of what they have to say:

None of the handful of mis-statements (out of hundreds and hundreds of unchallenged statements) remotely undermines the conclusion that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations“.

Some 250 climate change scientists and academics have signed the open letter in an attempt to bring back some credibility to the climate change debate. They also state:

“…measurements of global average temperatures show an increase of about 0.6 degrees C over the twentieth century and about 0.8 degrees C warming since mid-19th century.  The pattern of increase has not been smooth or monotonic.  There have been several 10- to 15-year periods of stable or declining temperatures over the past 150 years, but 14 of the warmest 15 years on record have been experienced between 1995 and 2009.  Since 1970, observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are already being affected by these temperature increases“.

Globally, the winter of 2009-2010 was the second warmest on record despite the snowstorms and cold temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere.

Whether it’s anthropogenic global warming or just plain old global warming – the scientific stuff is pointing to rising temperatures. Americans: if you want to know what your country might look like in say 20 years, read this. Australia is already there.

And the CSIRO (serious pointy-headed dudes) has just released their State of the Climate report. You can download it here. There are no “is climate change really happening” type questions in this report. It is full of grim statistics like:

  • rapidly rising sea levels from 1993 to 2009, with levels around Australia rising, between 1.5 and 3mm per year in Australia’s south and east and between 7 and 10mm in the north;
  • from 1870 to 2007, the global average sea level rose by close to 200mm;
  • since 1960 the mean temperature in Australia has increased by about 0.7 °C. Some areas have experienced a warming of 1.5 to 2 ºC over the last 50 years. Warming has occurred in all seasons, however the strongest warming has occurred in spring (about 0.9 °C);
  • the geographic distribution of rainfall has changed significantly over the past 50 years. Rainfall decreased in south-west and south-east Australia, including all the major population centres, during the same period;
  • global CO2 concentrations have risen rapidly over the last century. Methane, which is another greenhouse gas, has shown similar increases. The carbon dioxide concentration in 2009 of 386 parts per million (ppm) is much higher than the natural range of 170 to 300 ppm that has existed in the atmosphere for at least the past 800,000 years and possibly the past 20 million years.

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (parts per million) and Methane (parts per billion)

What does this all mean? We’re going to be toast, literally. In the next few decades, Australia will be a much hotter place. The CSIRO report says:

Australian average temperatures are projected to rise by 0.6 to 1.5 ºC by 2030. If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow at rates consistent with past trends, warming is projected to be in the range of 2.2 to 5.0 ºC by 2070“.

Great. Guess I’ll be able to toast some marshmallows on my searingly hot balcony. And of course there will be a decrease in rainfall, which of course will lead to what I most fear – water scarcity and skirmishes over water. The report includes a blunt statement: “Our observations clearly demonstrate that climate change is real”.

Yeah, well I’m not arguing with pointy-headed scientific dudes who have more knowledge than me about global temperature changes and the causes. The science is strong. Australians should stop putting the the proverbial head in sand, hoping this nasty climate stuff will disappear. It won’t. Think about future generations of children instead of worrying about your McMansion or whether you can afford The Brands.

March 23, 2010 at 2:00 am 6 comments

It’s not crap Tony

I said somewhere in a recent post that 2010 will be a battle ground for climate change. Climate change deniers are popping up everywhere harping on about climate change being an hysterical pseudo-religion, dangerous alarmism, indoctrination or bunkum. You can read about 10 top climate change deniers and their arguments here. In Australia, we have Tony Abbott, the leader of the Opposition (Liberal Party), who is probably our most vocal climate change skeptic. His very scientific consideration of whether or not our planet is heating up is: “climate change is crap“.

Don’t know about you but I’d rather our leaders were more measured in their evaluation of the most serious global crisis we currently face. I’d rather they listen to the climate change scientists (who surely have the expertise to assess what’s going on) and if there is a remote possibility that climate change is happening, act collectively with other countries to do what can be done.

But seems the battle is heating up (so to speak) because a recent poll revealed a steep decline in Americans’ belief in global warming. 57% of Americans think there is solid evidence the world is getting warmer, down from 77% in 2006.

The problem is that scientists aren’t great at communications and working with the media. It’s difficult to communicate complex scientific ideas to the general public. The climate change deniers on the other hand are good at propaganda. If you look at the Top 10 deniers, most of them are politicians, journalists, people with degrees in areas other than science, lobbyists or people who have a hand in the back pockets of oil companies. So it’s somewhat easier for the deniers to win the propaganda war.

But there are consistent reports emerging that point to climate change occurring. The most recent I’ve found is from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (gee, they probably have some serious pointy-headed scientists there – I’d rather listen to them than a politician like Tony Abbott who holds extreme views on so many topics). NASA’s analysis shows that in the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year since modern records began in 1880. And overall, 2009 was the second warmest year since record-keeping began and January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Although the tropical El Niño-La Niña cycle causes year-to-year variability of global temperature, the analysis suggests that global warming is continuing unabated. The figure below highlights how Earth’s surface temperatures have increased since 1880, with the last decade experiencing temperatures at the highest levels ever recorded:

And this figure shows the largest temperature increases are in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula:

The analysis suggests that average global temperatures have increased by about 0.8°C (1.5°F) since 1880. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are not the only factors. Changes in the Sun’s irradiance, oscillations of sea surface temperature in the tropics and changes in aerosol levels can also cause slight increases or decreases in the planet’s temperature. Temperatures tend to decrease when La Niña is around, which is what has been happening recently in Europe with the icy weather. But the El Niño phenomenon takes over and scientists are predicting that 2010 could be the warmest year on record.

Here in Australia since about November, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney have experienced temperatures around 40℃ (104 ºF) if not higher and hot weather conditions have been declared “catastrophic fire alerts”. Maybe I’m getting to be a really old goat but I don’t recall growing up with such extreme weather conditions. We even have 40℃ days followed by a dramatic drop in temperature so the next day might be 26℃ (78.8 ºF).

The analysis also points out that volcanic eruptions have not counteracted global warming during 2009. Volcanoes spew forth sulfate aerosols that reflect incoming solar radiation back into space and this helps to moderate global temperatures.

If you want to read more pointy-headed scientific stuff, check out this interview with a climatologist, discussing surface temperature record. And you should also read the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration global analysis. The NOAA concluded that global land and ocean temperatures for 2009 tied with 2006 as the fifth warmest year on record. NOAA puts the year at 0.56°C above the 20th century average. The NOAA have produced a chart showing global significant weather and climate events for 2009.

You can view a larger visual here. Some highlights are:

  • Alaska had its second warmest July on record.
  • Australia had record-breaking heatwaves (ah yeah, I felt them).
  • China suffered its worst drought in five decades.
  • East Africa: drought led to massive food shortages affecting 23 million people.

So Tony – you might just want to check out some of the serious scientific stuff before you declare climate change to be crap.

February 3, 2010 at 2:00 am 5 comments

2010: gazing into the tea leaves

So from my last post, you know that I’m giving myself ticks for my 2009 predictions. I have now gazed into the crystal ball and here’s what I think could happen in 2010.

Global Financial Crisis: I’ve said I’m no economist, so am happy to be corrected but I don’t think the GFC has finished with us yet. Let’s take the US as an example. With US $787 billion in Government stimulus packages and $700 billion in bank bail outs, I think the financial crisis will be of a different form in 2010. It will be a crisis in public finance. The US Government deficit seems to be spinning out of control. Total US debt is bulging and is now $12.1 trillion (and growing by an average of $3.81 billion per day).  In 2010, Congress will seek to rein it in or at least stabilize it.

Government debt is also known as public debt, national debt or sovereign debt and refers to the money or credit owed by any level of government eg Federal, state, local. It includes any money owed to foreign countries (referred to as individual investors). Public debt soared from $5.8 trillion to $7.6 trillion in 2009 and and is more than half the size of the US economy for the first time since 1956. And annual interest on the public debt will be around $800 billion by 2019.

What does this all mean? Apart from the US needing to go on a serious budget diet, it means that there has been a massive expansion in the scale of public finance in areas such as bank bailouts, mandatory expenditure on unemployment and related social needs, housing, funding the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, infrastructure spending and so on. But some states have literally run out of money – California is a good example. And the money being spent is borrowed money. There’s a huge risk here and one that’s not talked about much – Governments are gambling on the stimulus spending creating economic growth and jobs, which then allows Governments to make debt payments and continue spending (hopefully without raising taxes).

The risk I think is that in 2010 a crisis in public finance will start to weigh heavily on all public expenditure and that will affect you and me. Let’s take Japan (the world’s second largest economy) as our example. Big business has been asking Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to slash social spending and rein in public debt, which is expected to soar above 200% of gross domestic product in 2010. In 2009, Japan scrapped controversial plans to reduce social security spending by 220 billion yen a year – basically, it would have meant putting a cap on social security spending which is higher when there is more unemployment and a large aging population, as in Japan’s case. Malaysia is also cutting its spending in 2010 by 4.4% to rein in its ballooning deficit. So I think we’re going to start to see a public finance crisis. Governments will say they will cut costs not services but cuts or reductions in growth of spending on education, health care and other programs will happen. Or we’ll see tax hikes. Take your pick.

So Federal governments will cut back and then State governments will cut back, leaving local governments screwed. This could mean that local councils will increase property taxes for example. Or you might find garbage/trash services cut back.  Or local area health services are given a haircut. Or it could mean laying off government or local council workers. You get the idea.

Globally, the public debt dilemma is very worrying. Just look at what’s been happening to Dubai – no longer the rich oasis it used to be and needing Abu Dhabi to help bail it out of $59 billion worth of debt and asking for a 6 months’ moratorium. The total global debt in 2010 is predicted to reach at least $49.5 trillion. Even Moody‘s is warning that 2010 will see sovereign debt spiralling and warns of social unrest. And you also get financial markets losing confidence in the ability of countries to cough up what they owe after borrowing vast amounts. From this scenario, it’s not a big leap to imagine financial markets steering clear of official debt instruments—such as treasury bonds—and this would deprive countries of fresh cash.

So my prediction is: 2010 is the year for a crisis of public finance and the year we see government spending pruned. The European Union will lead the way. Look at what’s happening with Greece with its crisis budget.

UPDATE: 16/1/10 I could be tracking well with this prediction already. Marc Faber (Swiss investment analyst) is saying the next crisis will be sovereign debt and he thinks it will particularly affect the “PIIGS”: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Watch this video of him talking about sovereign debt.

UPDATE: 8/1/10 seems the State is already screwing school districts – the state misses grant payments to all 871 Illinois school districts and leaves a $4.5 billion IOU for services from schools to homeless shelters.

UPDATE: 4/3/10 Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, warns that the United States could soon face a debt crisis like the one in Greece.

UPDATE: 10/3/2010 Financial Times opinion piece on how to handle the sovereign debt explosion.

Climate Change Fatigue: because some scientists behaved badly and emails suggesting that climate change data had been manipulated leaked on the Internet, 2010 will be a battleground for climate change. Public concern and belief in anthropogenic global warming is on the decline already.

A recent Pew Research Center poll (conducted in late 2009) showed that only 57% of Americans think there is solid scientific evidence to support the global warming thesis, compared with 71% in April, 2008. I know in my own area of Australia, a recent radio poll showed that two-thirds of people doubt climate change is caused by human activities.  This green fatigue will lead to confusion over what to believe and cynicism. There are mixed messages: we’re told that the planet is heating up yet we continue to see airplanes flying around, runways being built, coal being mined and so on. I think there will be mounting resistance to any form of “green taxes”.

But if the climate experts are right, in 2010 we’ll really start to see the planet heating up and wild weather patterns will increase.

China crashes or doesn’t. I’m hedging my bets on this as I’m not sure. I think China will continue to flex its muscles (as it did at Copenhagen) and might stop buying up American debt, which of course would plunge the US into crisis. Newsweek is predicting that the China stock and real-estate bubble will collapse, leading to a destabilizing bout of global deflation. I’m inclined to lean in this direction. Certainly, China seemed to navigate through the GFC storm easily, but there are a number of factors at play: property prices are forming a bubble; exports are weak (because the West, which is China’s major market, is curbing spending); the Chinese are dangerously overheating their economy by erecting cities (70 at last count) at a rapid rate; and they boast luxury stores and malls for which there is hardly any demand. So is there an illusion of progress? Is China more a paper tiger than a roaring dragon?

Jim Chanos (the short-seller who was the first to see that the accounting of Enron was dodgy) is saying that China will be “Dubai times 1000, or worse”. I think China is starting to look a lot like Japan in the late 1980s  – and we know how that turned out. So prediction is that China teeters.

Major food shortages. I’ve blogged many times about how I think the future will be one of water and food scarcity. I think we’ll really start to see things happening in 2010. A perfect storm is coming: there are continuing droughts; the world population is growing rapidly; there is a wheat fungus causing problems and there are crippling crop failures – when you put this all together, you get the frightening possibility that global food supplies will be in trouble. Let’s look at some examples, starting with Ug99. This is a wheat fungus (known as stem rust) that I’d never heard of until recently. But crop scientists fear this fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops. If the fungus spreads to the US (which is considered inevitable), US $10 billion worth of wheat would be wiped out. And the result would be a ” significant humanitarian crisis” according to Rick Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

I think the lack of monsoons in India is also something to be concerned about. In 2009, India’s monsoon season was 29% below average from 1 June –11 August and caused drought in 278 of the country’s 626 districts, damaging crops of sugar cane, wheat, rice and oilseeds. India is an important producer of wheat (number 2 in the world) and it dominates the world’s rice harvest. What happens when there is no bumper wheat harvest in India? There is significant loss in yield, wheat quality is affected, prices go up and civil unrest occurs.

There are many more examples of global food supply concerns I could give you. Just read here and here to start. And make sure you read 2010 Food Crisis for Dummies and all the links in the article. It’s a comprehensive run-down of the crisis we’ll be facing and you will end up being as concerned as I am about global food supplies.

Obama.  IMHO 2009 was an unpromising year for Obama. And I think in 2010, his ratings will take a dive. Mind you, it’s already pretty low with an average 48-50% in the lead up to Christmas 2009 and it’s down 15 points since the start of 2009 (I think this is the worst third quarter decline in public approval ratings for any elected president since World War II). Heck, even Oprah’s ratings have taken a plunge since she openly supported Obama (known as the O2 effect).

Americans will start to blame Obama for worsening conditions in 2010 and Obama will no longer be able to blame Dubya. His approval ratings could sink to 40% or lower in 2010 as Americans (and the world) wonder what Obama actually stands for. His campaign and the massive movement that swept him into office was largely personality, not issues, based.  The Obama campaign raised such enormous hopes and in his first year of governing, the Prez has disappointed many. The bank and auto bailouts have been broadly unpopular during a time of significant unemployment. I don’t see him as decisive – look at how long his deliberations over Afghanistan have taken (a speech in March 2009 announced a new strategy but it was almost eight months later that he announced additional troops would be needed).

Americans have most likely felt betrayed by a Prez who has bailed out banks (close to $1 trillion and used to pay bonuses for senior executives) without demanding significant reforms; failed to close Guantanamo Bay; failed to withdraw US military forces from Iraq; failed to end the conflict in Afghanistan; stuffed up health care reform; and seems to have the same stance on Gaza as Dubya.

I think Americans will fret over the escalating national debt, continuing unemployment problems, Obama’s health-care reform and the decline of the US as the world’s only superpower (watch out for Brazil in 2010 – an economic powerhouse on the rise). And many will question the wisdom of expensive reform during a time of unprecedented economic distress. So prediction is – brand Obama takes a nose dive in 2010 as people realise he’s the consummate campaigner and a masterful orator but an inexperienced politician with an administration that is floundering. The actions sadly don’t match the rhetoric.

Really, I’m hoping I’m wrong and 2010 will be a rosy year but from all I’ve been reading, it’s a Nyet on that.

January 4, 2010 at 2:43 am Leave a comment

Water barons

I’ve blogged many times about a future world facing water and food scarcity, along with skirmishes over access to water and food. Go here and here for a refresher.

I recently said that water will be the oil of the 21st Century and that private companies are increasingly buying rights to water. I even suggested you search the names of two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – did you do that? No? Search now. I’ll wait.

You might have found that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US). They have quietly assumed control over the water supplied to millions of people. Scary. Think about a future when every time you flush the toilet or turn on the tap/faucet, you are pouring profit into private water companies.

American readers: you may have heard of T.Boone Pickens – corporate raider and oilman – he owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and is aiming to control more. And he is planning on selling 65 billion gallons a year to thirsty Americans. Have you heard of Dr William Turner and the WaterBank?  Turner is from New Mexico and is a new breed of professional – an Internet water-rights broker – who lists water rights for sale or lease and trades in the water marketplace.

In most countries, the State owns the water resources. But the infrastructure to run the water supply (eg dams, filtration and supply systems, the charging process) is one more Government activity that is being increasingly run by private water utility companies who argue that they are cheaper and more efficient than public works.

Because I think this is such a serious issue, I am going to provide you with some stuff to read and follow up, so you can educate yourself. And think about how to secure your access to a basic human right – water.

  • CBC News Canada report on water privatisation in South Africa
  • in fact check out the whole series by CBC Canada on water privatisation
  • US companies raid Aussie water
  • The Center for Public Integrity’s in-depth investigation into the water barons
  • The Jakarta Post – taking on the water barons
  • World Economic Forum report that warns we will face water bankruptcy in less than 20 years
  • World Vision report (audio) Water Wars
  • World Water Wars– website for exchange of ideas and information about water privatisation and exploitation
  • series of videos featuring Datta Desai and the protest over water privatisation in Maharashtra, India.

There are two interweaving factors at play here: the world is running out of fresh water, FAST and multinational companies and private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit. You and I will not reap the benefits of these profits. No. We will be slugged with substantially increased water rates; contaminated water supplies; poor service delivery. Don’t believe me? Then read this and this.  If you ask me, very soon “www” will not stand for World Wide Web. It will signify World Water Wars.

December 8, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Scientists behaving badly?

No doubt you’ve heard of the fracas going on over the global warming emails that were allegedly hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Centre in the UK and leaked to the world on the Internet. Now known as Climate Gate, the leaked emails have been feasted on by global warming skeptics. Just in case you’ve been hitting the snooze button and missed the whole thing, you can search the emails on this handy website. If you want a potted version of the emails, Andrew Bolt  of the Herald Sun provides excerpts of the juicy bits.

Around 1079 emails and 72 documents supposedly show that scientists have been behaving badly by manipulating climate change data; colluding to suppress data that suggests there is no heating up of the planet happening; and darkly wishing to beat the crap out of scientists who are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). So the allegation is that a bunch of nerdy scientists are guilty of fraud and conspiring to cover up the warming theory. 

On the other side of the fence, there are those who are loudly suggesting that the emails have been taken out of context and that skeptics are “cherry picking” the emails, searching for words and phrases that spectactularly reveal some grand plan on the part of climate change scientists. I think this is an important point to ponder. We all know that email communication can often be blunt, direct, suggestive and misinterpreted by a recipient.  And I’d say that scientists are a pretty direct lot and heavily critique or criticize their peers’ work. Without contextual information, we can all jump to incorrect conclusions. And I’d suggest that’s what might be happening with Climate Gate. Here is a thoughtful analysis that provides some of the missing contextual information surrounding the emails.

Now, before you jump all over me, I’m not a climate scientist (nor are most of the climate change skeptics I’d say). But I am someone who likes to explore issues before jumping up and down, pointing the finger of blame. So I’ve now read many of the key emails skeptics have seized on and I’ve even taken the time to read a few of the original articles of the named scientists and I do think that things have been taken out of context.

For example, Phil Jones (Director of the Climate Research Centre) in a 1999 email said (about temperature reconstructions):

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

Yep, on the face of it, not looking too good for old Phil. It does read as though he’s been up to some tricky stuff, manipulating data. But…I took the time to track the original article (referenced as “Mike’s Nature trick). It appears to be from a 1998 article in Nature, entitled “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” by Mann, Bradley and Hughes (the dudes of Hockey Stick fame) Nature 392, 779-787 (23 April 1998). I actually waded my way through it. I’m no pointy-headed scientist (although I do have a Masters in Complexity) and I confess to not understanding some of it because it deals with Paleoclimatology – but seems to me that Jones is using language commonly employed by scientists (let’s remember that every profession has its own language) and he means bag of tricks or a technique to resolve a problem.

In this case, as I understand the article, Jones is referring to a divergence problem. Briefly, proxy data (such as tree rings and ice cores) – going back thousands of years but ending in 1980 – were examined and appeared to diverge from modern instrumental temperature records post-1960. The authors were trying to construct long-term (centuries to millennia) temperature records. Instrumental records from the late 20th Century were pointing to global warming but reconstructed temperatures from trees were showing cooling or no change. Hence, a divergence problem. I read somewhere (I’m hoping to find the reference) that climate change itself could very well be affecting trees, so they don’t grow as they once did and therefore don’t provide useful proxy data. The “trick” that Jones mentioned in his email is the technique of plotting recent instrumental data along with the reconstructed data  – not to “hide” a decline – but because the scientists understood that the tree-ring data was suspect due to global warming (which is shown by the instrumental records). In his words:

“.. they’re talking about two different things here. They’re talking about the instrumental data which is unaltered – but they’re talking about proxy data going further back in time, a thousand years, and it’s just about how you add on the last few years, because when you get proxy data you sample things like tree rings and ice cores, and they don’t always have the last few years. So one way is to add on the instrumental data for the last few years.”

The future of our planet depends on whether or not anthropogenic global warming is a reality. For non-scientists and conspiracy theorists to pounce like wolves on a series of emails and cry “fraud” is itself suspect. IMHO we all need to go back to the original sources, the articles, the science itself and have a whole lot of PhDs after our names before we can even remotely begin to comment.

If you want a conspiracy theory, how about this – no hacking of computers or emails took place (by Russians it’s suggested). It was an inside job. Someone or a group of shadowy dudes, who want to discredit climate change scientists and knew what they were looking for, leaked the material. Because let’s be honest, there are a range of vested interests that would like to smack AGW in the chops and see the whole issue fade away.

For a good laugh: read this….brilliant.

November 27, 2009 at 3:10 am Leave a comment

Thankfully Aussies are good swimmers

My last post brought you rather depressing news about future water wars and food insecurity. Well, there’s more worrying news I’m afraid, especially if you’re an Aussie. No doubt you’ve heard about the latest climate change report that focuses on Australia: Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coasts. The report is now up on the Department of Climate Change’s website – go here.

If you can’t be bothered wading your way through this meaty report, I’ll give you the bad news:

  • Australia has become a coastal society. Around 85% of the population now live along the coastline and it is of immense economic, social and environmental importance to the nation;
  • all Australian state capital cities are located within the coastal zone;
  • airports, sea ports and almost a quarter of a million residential homes on Australia’s coastline are at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels by 2100, if climate change continues unchecked;
  • up to AU$63 billion of existing residential buildings are potentially at risk of inundation from a 1.1 metre sea-level rise;
  • 157,000 to 247,600 existing residential buildings will be at risk from sea inundation by 2100, under a sea-level rise scenario of 1.1m;
  • basically if you have a house along the coastline, you’re toast and will have real hassles selling;
  • the report offers 47 recommendations such as reviewing evacuation plans (yep, I’d get these plans ready fast) and overhauling building codes to ensure sturdier homes.

Basically dear Aussies, our number is up. Our beach way of life, lazying on the beach, swimming and surfing, golden sand squishing between the toes – all the stuff that makes up our national identity – is threatened by climate change. We’d all better adapt to living away from the coastline and get used to far hotter weather and wilder weather patterns. Insurance companies are already refusing to insure coastal homes and are now tallying up the potential costs (AU$150 billion and counting).

The cat fight I reckon will be over the big question: who’s going to pay? Will owners of beachfront homes get compensation from local councils or State governments? Have State and local authorities got it together yet? – what are their plans for protecting coastal areas and citizens, coastal buildings, public works etc? My bet is that State and local authorities will scramble to protect public buildings and fret over whether angry residents, with beachfront homes sliding into the sea due to soil erosion or inundation, will create public safety issues. They won’t give a toss about the thousands of home owners who will see the value of their expensive beach front homes go belly up. Call me cynical but that’s what I think will happen.

November 18, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

A plan to save civilization

This coming week, I’m in Taiwan but through the magic of auto-posts, ThinkingShift lives on. I hope to take heaps of shots with my new plastic fantastic Superheadz Pink Dress camera.

But today I’m bringing you a slide presentation you need to look at. Awhile back I told you about Lester Brown, the American environmentalist. His website, Earth Policy Institute, has just published a slideshow called Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Plan B refers to the response to the environmental challenges our planet now faces. The major challenges, as I’ve blogged about many times, are food insecurity and climate change. Here’s a summary of the slide show:

  • Earth’s average temperature will rise 1.1-6.4˚C (33.98 ºF-43.52 ºF) during the 21st century;
  • we are already outpacing these predictions;
  • crop yields drop by 10% for every 1˚C rise in temperature;
  • in an effort to ensure their own food security, some affluent food importing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea have begun buying or leasing land abroad to grow their own food. If you don’t believe that rich dude countries are leasing foreign land, then check out this – Pakistan is having a hissy fit that Saudi Arabia is planning to lease 202,342.8 hectares of farmland in Pakistan. I would have thought Pakistan had enough hungry people without leasing out precious land. And Libya is planning to grow wheat on 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) in Ukraine ;
  • historians have argued long and hard that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to food shortages and skirmishes over access to food (along with the Sumerian and Mayan civilisations). The fall of our own civilisation will be due to food shortages and battles over water. I’m now seeing articles about future water wars. My own view is that we’ll see the rise of water privateers. Here’s just one example I can give you of how the poor in developing countries (not to mention you and me) will get shafted by the privatisation of water. Water is going to be the oil of the 21st Century. Private companies will buy rights to water. Two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – are the ones I think we need to watch. Just search for these two companies on the internet – go ahead, it will freak you out to find that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US).

The slide show offers up some responses (Plan B):

  • a worldwide switch to highly-efficient lighting would cut electricity use 12%, equivalent to closing 705 coal-fired power plants;
  • the wind potential in North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas alone could satisfy U.S. energy needs.

There are heaps of ideas in the slide show to save the planet and our civilisation. There are also a ton of facts that will freak you out such as:

  • soaring food prices – from mid-2006 to mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices tripled;
  • since 1981, oil extraction has exceeded new discoveries by a widening margin. Most of the easily recovered oil is already pumped;
  • between 1950 and 2000, world water use tripled. Some 70% of water use is for irrigation. Over-extraction is leading to disappearing lakes and rivers failing to reach the sea. Aquifer depletion is causing water tables to fall and wells to go dry;
  • massive Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting at accelerating rates. Together hold enough water to raise sea level 12 meters (39 feet). A 10-meter rise in sea level today would inundate coastal areas home to more than 600 million people.

November 16, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

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

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