August 29, 2010

Artic Ice - Going, Going...

The Coming Food Crisis

CAP's John D. Podesta and Jake Caldwell have a new piece in Foreign Policy,"The Coming Food Crisis." Here are a few of the key points from that article.

There was already little margin for error in a world where, for the first time in history, 1 billion people are suffering from chronic hunger. But the fragility of world food markets has been underscored by the tragic events of this summer.
The brutal wildfires and crippling drought in Russia are decimating wheat crops and prompting shortsighted export bans. The ongoing floods and widespread crop destruction in Pakistan are creating a massive humanitarian crisis that has left more than 1,600 dead and some 16 million homeless and hungry in a region vital to U.S. national security. These and other climate crises trigger widespread food-price volatility, disproportionately and relentlessly devastating the world's poor.
Less noticed has been the spiking price of wheat — up 50 percent since early June. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization recently cut its 2010 global wheat forecast by 4 percent amid fears of a scramble among national governments to secure supplies. As wheat prices climb, demand for other essential food crops such as rice will increase as part of a knock-on effect on world food markets, driving up costs for consumers. In particular, Egypt and other countries that depend heavily on Russian wheat might see dramatic price increases and unrest in the streets.
But lasting gains in agricultural productivity will require something more — action to confront climate change. Food shortages resulting from severe crop losses will occur more frequently and take longer to recover from as more people become vulnerable to extreme weather events like the droughts and flooding we see today in Russia and Pakistan. The World Bank predicts that developing countries will require $75 billion to $100 billion a year for the next 40 years to adapt to the effects of climate change on agricultural productivity, infrastructure, and disease.
Unless we take immediate action, we are destined to race from food crisis to food crisis for generations to come, with grim consequences for the world's poor and our own national security.
John D. Podesta is the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. Jake Caldwell is the director of policy for agriculture, trade, and energy at CAP.

August 23, 2010

European Renewables Revolution

European efforts to accelerate the development of low-carbon energy supplies are working. That is the central conclusion to be drawn from new figures from the EU's statistics agency, Eurostat, which reveal that almost a fifth of energy production in the EU came from renewable sources last year.
The data-rich report, entitled Statistical Aspects of the Energy Economy in 2009, concluded that renewable energy accounted for 18.4 per cent of energy production in the EU, putting the sector in third place behind natural gas which accounted for 19.3 per cent and nuclear energy which provided 28 per cent of the EU's power.
Renewable energy output increased by more than eight per cent compared to 2008, while total energy production from natural gas and hard coal power plants fell by 10.1 per cent and 9.2 per cent respectively.

North Atlantic Garbage Patch

Millions of pieces of plastic — most smaller than half an inch — float throughout the oceans. They are invisible to satellites, and except on very calm days you won’t even see them from the deck of a sailboat. The only way to know how much junk is out there is to tow a fine net through the water.

Scientists have gathered data from 22 years of surface net tows to map the North Atlantic garbage patch and its change over time, creating the most accurate picture yet of any pelagic plastic patch on earth.

Millions of pieces of plastic — most smaller than half an inch — float throughout the oceans. They are invisible to satellites, and except on very calm days you won’t even see them from the deck of a sailboat. The only way to know how much junk is out there is to tow a fine net through the water.

Scientists have gathered data from 22 years of surface net tows to map the North Atlantic garbage patch and its change over time, creating the most accurate picture yet of any pelagic plastic patch on earth.

Plastic accumulated in regions called gyres, where currents circle and push water toward the center, trapping the floating bits. There are five major gyres in the the world, one in each major ocean.  

Read more:

August 12, 2010

Pollution from Russian fires circling the globe

This video from NASA shows the pollution from the Russian wildfires reaching Beijing, New York and London. The fires were caused by an extended drought, then by an unprecedented heatwave with temperatures 27 degrees above normal for 6 days. 

The fires are now burning in the Chernobyl disaster area, lifting radioactive dust into the atmosphere. 

We are all more closely connected then we we suspect. 

August 10, 2010

EPA limits mercury emissions from cement plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is issuing final rules that will protect Americans’ health by cutting emissions of mercury, particle pollution and other harmful pollutants from Portland cement manufacturing, the third-largest source of mercury air emissions in the United States.

The E.P.A. estimates that the new rules will eliminate 92 percent of the mercury and fine-particulate emissions from cement kilns (more than 10 percent of the national total). The rule will also save 960 to 2,500 lives annually starting in 2013, not to mention avert hundreds of cases of bronchitis and 1,500 heart attacks, the agency said.

Mercury in the air eventually deposits into water, where it changes into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish. People are primarily exposed to mercury by eating contaminated fish. Because the developing fetus is the most sensitive to the toxic effects of methylmercury, women of childbearing age and children are regarded as the populations of greatest concern.

Plants emitting mercury can create "hot spots" in their immediate vicinity and send the toxin high into the stratosphere to fall out at distant locations.

August 9, 2010

Reducing Soot - Fastest way to slow global warming

The quickest, best way to slow the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice is to reduce soot emissions from the burning of fossil fuel, wood and dung, according to a new study by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson.

"Controlling soot may be the only method of significantly slowing Arctic warming within the next two decades," said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Stanford's Atmosphere/Energy Program.
It is the magnitude of soot's contribution, combined with the fact that it lingers in the atmosphere for only a few weeks before being washed out, that leads to the conclusion that a reduction in soot output would start slowing the pace of global warming almost immediately.
Greenhouse gases, in contrast, typically persist in the atmosphere for decades – some up to a century or more – creating a considerable time lag between when emissions are cut and when the results become apparent.
Jacobson found that eliminating soot produced by the burning of fossil fuels and solid biofuels could reduce warming above parts of the Arctic Circle in the next 15 years by up to 1.7 degrees Celsius. For perspective, net warming in the Arctic has been at least 2.5 degrees Celsius during the last century and is expected to warm significantly more in the future if nothing is done.
He also found that soot emissions kill more than 1.5 million people prematurely worldwide each year and afflict millions more with respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease and asthma, mostly in the developing world, where biofuels are used for home heating and cooking.

$557 Billion in Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Governments last year gave US$43 billion to US$46 billion of support to renewable energy through tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices (feed-in tariffs) and alternative energy credits, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said in a statement. That compares with the US$557 billion that the International Energy Agency last month said was spent to subsidize fossil fuels in 2008. That works out to 12 times the support for dirty versus clean energy. 

Between 2002 and 2008, fossil fuels received $72 billion in US federal subsidies, with 98% of that going to conventional energy sources like coal and oil. During those same six years, solar power received less than $1 billion, a massive disparity that helped keep oil and gas prices artificially low and made it impossible for renewable energy sources to gain any real ground. 

Why do we continue to subsidize fossil fuel industries at the expense of a clean, healthy and prosperous future? If we want solar, wind, and other renewable resources to succeed, we must stop funding fossil fuels. And we must stop now.

Global Warming and Nuclear Security

"Fueled by the buildup of fossil fuel pollution, the world's out-of-control climate is destabilizing many of the nations that control nuclear weapons, including Russia, China, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. Thousands have died in fires and floods, millions left homeless, and crops failed in the withering heat, the greatest the modern world has ever faced:"
RUSSIA Moscow has reached 102.2° F, after never before even breaking the 100-degree mark in recorded history. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev have flooded the airwaves in response to outrage over the wildfires and droughts caused by the global heat wave, as officials are forced to admit the situation is out of control. The Russian government has recommended people evacuate Moscowbanned wheat exportsdiverted flightsfired senior military officers, and warned the fires could pose a nuclear threat if they reach areas contaminated by Chernobyl. Medvedev called the linked disasters "evidence of this global climate change," which means "we need to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past."
The extreme heat has led to thousands of premature deaths in Russia. According to Yevgenia Smirnova, an official from the Moscow registry office, "We recorded 14,340 deaths in Moscow in July, that is 4,824 deaths more than in July, 2009." And that is just the premature deaths from Moscow. Undoubtedly thousands of additional premature deaths have occurred in the rest of Russia as a result of the heat. 
CHINA The worst flooding ever recorded in northeast China, caused by weeks of torrential rain with no end in sight, has caused nearly $6 billion in damage to water projects there, In addition, "52 people are reported to have died and an additional 20 are missing following rain-triggered floods in central China's Henan Province." "In the southwestern province of Yunnan, at least 11 people died and 11 were missing following a landslide caused by heavy rain." 
INDIA "Record temperatures in northern India have claimed hundreds of lives in what is believed to be the hottest summer in the country since records began in the late 1800s." "The death toll in flashfloods that hit the remote mountainous region of Ladakh in Indian-held Kashmir has risen to 103." 
NORTH KOREA "Flooding last month caused serious damage in North Korea, destroying homes, farms, roads and buildings and hurting the economy," the secretive dictatorship of North Korea admitted yesterday. "About 36,700 acres of farmland was submerged and 5,500 homes and 350 public buildings and facilities were destroyed or flooded," the official Korean Central News Agency said. "The news agency had previously reported heavy rains fell in the country in mid- to late July, but those earlier reports did not mention flooding or damage. State media in the impoverished, reclusive nation often report news days or weeks after an event takes place." 
PAKISTAN "Islamist charities, some with suspected ties to militants, stepped in on Monday to provide aid for Pakistanis hit by the worst flooding in memory, piling pressure on a government criticized for its response to the disaster that has so far killed more than 1,000 people." "Thousands of people are fleeing Pakistan's most populous areas as devastating floods" that have already affected more than 3 million people "sweep towards the south." Fatima Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's niece, lashed out: "The floods are just the latest, most tragic example of how inept the Pakistani state truly is."
As warming-fueled disasters grow more intense and more frequent, they put greater pressure on the governments of these nuclear states. This threat to global security was brought to the White House's attention as far back as 1979, when top scientists warned that global warming "would threaten the stability of food supplies, and would present a further set of intractable problems to organized societies." As the CNA Corporation wrote in 2007, "climate change is a threat multiplierin already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states — the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism." The Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review recognized that global warming impacts and disasters will "act as an accelerant of instability or conflict."

August 6, 2010

A single charger for all cell phones

Cellphone battery dead? No problem: Just borrow a charger from a friend. Oh, wait — you can't, because your friend doesn't have the same phone as you, and that charger won't work with your phone.
That annoyance will end next year, for Europeans at least. Thanks to the efforts of the European Commission, most cellphones sold in Europe will have a one-size-fits-all charger starting in 2011. So far, 10 major cellphone makers, including Apple, Motorola, Samsung and Research In Motion, have signed on to the agreement.
Today each cellphone ships with its own charger. Different companies use different connectors — and often different models from the same company do too, making it difficult for users to borrow a charger. And when it's time to toss the phone, the charger goes into the bin too.
A universal charger means consumers don't have to get a new charger with every mobile phone. As a bonus, it will be easier to borrow a charger when in need.
And if all that isn't enough, there's the green aspect. One-size-fits-all means fewer chargers will wind up in landfill, less pressure on recycling of the electronic waste, and fewer resources consumed in manufacturing chargers.
American users will have to wait. Without a government agency setting a deadline, it is up to handset makers to make the switch to a single standard.
Ultimately, economics will force handset makers in the U.S. to change, say industry experts. As companies move to a universal charger in Europe, they will bring the same connectors to U.S. models.

Plant repository at risk

Update September 12, 2010: The New York Times reports, the Russian Housing Development Foundation, the agency auctioning the land for the construction of apartments, decided that it would delay destruction of one parcel, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a group that has been leading the global campaign to halt the project.

Update August 18, 2010: The Guardian newspaper reports, President Dmitri Medvedev intervened, ordering an investigation into the decision to destroy what many scientists consider the world’s oldest seed bank.

The NY Times reports that the world’s largest collection of European fruits and berries — at the Pavlovsk Research Station outside St. Petersburg, Russia — is at risk of being plowed over so developers can build homes there, international environmental groups say.

The collection, now comprising more than 5,000 fruit samples, was established in 1926 as a repository for crop diversity. Run by the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, the collection is effectively a field-based gene bank and cannot be readily moved.
Scientists say that maintaining samples of many types of plants is important for food security because their genes can be used to breed new variants. That is particularly important in view of global climate change, as the world may need food plants that are better able to tolerate a warmer, drier climate, for example.
Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust called the Russian plan to plow over Pavlovsk’s fields the “most deliberately destructive act against crop diversity, at least in my lifetime.”
The trust says that 90 percent of the plants maintained at the Pavlovsk station do not exist anywhere else in the world.
Late last year, despite the protests of Russian scientists, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development revoked the Vavilov Research Institute’s rights to two parcels of land, transferring control to the Federal Fund of Real Estate Development, according to press material put out by the institute.
Next Wednesday, a Russian court is scheduled to rule on whether the development plan can go forward. Scientists in Russia and abroad have called on the nation’s leaders to intervene. The director of the Pavlovsk station has said that bulldozers could be in the fields within three to four months if the court decision goes against him. And that, the trust says, would “destroy almost a century of work and an irreplaceable biological heritage.” 

Stalin had Vavilov killed, but his institute was supported. During the Siege of Leningrad, the institute's staff were dying of starvation, but wouldn't touch the seed banks. In the New Russia, the Pavlovsk field station may be bulldozed so somebody can make a few million dollars. 

Genetically Engineered Invasive Species

Scientists at the University of Arkansas have found populations of wild plants with genes from genetically modified canola in the United States.

Canola can interbreed with 40 different weed species and 25 percent of those weeds can be found in the United States. These findings raise questions about the regulation of herbicide resistant weeds and about how these plants might compete with others in the wild.

"We really don't know what the consequences of the gene escape " said Schafer. "We don't know what these plants are going to do."

The research team used portable strips that test for genetically modified proteins found in canola, proteins that convey herbicide resistance to crop plants. The test strips detect the protein that conveys Roundup resistance and the protein that conveys resistance to Liberty Link, another herbicide used on canola.

"We traveled over 3,000 miles to complete the sampling," Schafer said. Some of the sites had densely packed plants, with 1,000 specimens in a 50-meter space. They spray these roadsides with herbicides, and canola is the only thing still growing.

They found wild canola in about 46 percent of the sites along the highway, either growing on the side of the road or in cracks in the highway. About 83 percent of the weedy canola they tested contained transgenic material, that is, they contained herbicide resistance genes from genetically modified canola. Further, some of the plants contained resistance to both herbicides, a combination of transgenic traits that had not been developed in canola crops.

"That's not commercially available. That has to be happening in the wild," Schafer said. "That leads us to believe that these wild populations have become established populations. Technically, these plants are not supposed to be able to compete in the wild."

Current farming practices may quickly make the problem worse. Each year tens of thousands of acres of canola go un-harvested in the field. As a consequence, an enormous reservoir of seed is created, which can then spread into wild populations.

"Once this happens, it would be difficult to get rid of these weeds using current herbicides," Sagers said. While the problem looms large in North Dakota, Sagers says the message is a global one. The world recently hit a milestone, where more than 50 percent of the earth is covered in crops used for food or forage. Domesticated plants have wild cousins that often are considered weeds, and sometimes these plants can still cross breed, creating a high potential for herbicide and pesticide resistance to show up where it isn't wanted.

"Things can escape from cultivation, and we need to be careful about what we stick into plants," Sagers said.

August 4, 2010

Russian and Canadian wildfires plus flooding in Pakistan

On Friday, President Demitri Medvedev said that in 14 regions of Russia, "practically everything is burning".
"What's happening with the planet's climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate." - President Medvedev


Drought and raging wildfires have destroyed one-fifth of the wheat crop in Russia and sent wheat prices soaring around the world. The severe drought in Russia is thought to be the country's worst in 130 years. Most of the damage to the wheat crop has been caused by the drought, but now wildfires are sweeping farmlands in western Russia. Troubles with wheat crops aren't confined to that part of the world. Heavy rains during the planting season destroyed much of Canada's crop. The Canadian Wheat Board, the marketing agency for the country's farmers, is forecasting a 35 percent drop in the harvest.

There are also large firestorms in Canada. A ribbon of smoke snaked east across western Canada on August 2, 2010, clouding skies over Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and the Hudson Bay. On August 2, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center reported 1,015 fires burning in Canada, most of which were ignited by lightning.

Smoke from Fires in Canada

At the same time we have record flooding in Pakistan. The flooding in Pakistan is the worst in 70 years and has displaced several million people. These images show the scope of these unfolding disasters — involving excessive fire and water — which are related to extreme climate conditions that are projected to become more frequent in a heating world.

Aug. 1, 2009:

July 31, 2010:

Perhaps this will put to rest the notion that a little global warming in cold places like Canada and Russia would be a good thing for those countries.