“IMAGINING OTHER…”

Protecting the Planet

(a WEA course)

 

Links:

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 5

Imagining Other Index Page  

 

Week 4: (i) Other consequences of global warming:

 

Main issue: disruption of ‘natural’ order:

National Trust’s review of 2016: Some creatures and plants did well, others suffered, as result of varied/unsettled weather, which is ‘becoming the norm’ according to Matthew Oates, green expert for the National Trust. NT is the country’s biggest farmer, with 2,000 tenants and the biggest landowner after the Forestry Commission. Winters have become milder, and the summer wetter – which is what scientists predict with climate change.

 

29th Dec 2016: Birds migrating earlier: Researchers at the University of Edinburgh who looked at hundreds of bird species across five continents, found that birds are reaching their summer breeding grounds on average one day earlier for every degree of increasing global temperatures. (Guardian.) The research is published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, and supported by the Natural Environment Research Council. [add from Al Gore...]

 

16th Oct 2016 (Observer New Review, Bill McGuire, UCL) Climate change and the weather:

Hurricanes vary year-on-year, and recently we have in fact not seen very many. One bad hurricane cannot be blamed on climate change, but there could be more of the most powerful and destructive kind (Kerry Matthew at MIT). There has been strong disagreement among experts, but ‘the weight of evidence looks to have come down on the side of a broad and significant increase in hurricane activity that is primarily driven by progressive warming of the climate.’ The trend is to more powerful and wetter storms, and rising sea temperature is the main factor.

 

Other possibilities: typhoons reduce atmospheric pressure, and this could trigger earthquakes... ‘Global temperatures have risen to more than 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, and in southern Alaska, which has in places lost a vertical kilometer of ice cover, the reduced load on the crust is already increasing the level of seismic activity.’ See McGuire’s book: Waking the Giant: How a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.

 

12th July 2016: Damian Carrington, Guardian:  food

 

We could have heat waves up to 48C in London in the worst case scenario. High temperatures would lead to spread of viruses in plants. Benefits could be that we grow more food – but only if the impact on water supplies and soil fertility can be overcome. Already 85% of the rich peat soils of East Anglia has disappeared. We could lose the remaining fertile soil in the next 30 – 60 years.

Global warming would affect our imports of food (we import 40% of our food).

 

 

17th May 2016, World Bank warning: people and property

Climate change puts 1.3bn people and $158tn (double the total annual output of the global economy) at risk, says World Bank.  The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery said total damages from disasters had ballooned in recent decades but warned that worse could be in store as a result of a combination of global warming, an expanding population and the vulnerability of people crammed into slums in low-lying, fast-growing cities that are already overcrowded.

 

The annual cost of natural disasters in 136 coastal cities could increase from $6bn in 2010 to $1tn in 2070.

 

Total annual damage – averaged over a 10-year period – had risen tenfold from 1976–1985 to 2005–2014, from $14bn to more than $140bn. The average number of people affected each year had risen over the same period from around 60 million people to more than 170 million.

 

And 11th March 2015: Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warns that climate change is one of the biggest risks facing the insurance industry. Paul Fisher, a senior ban policymaker, also warned that insurers could take ‘a big hit’ if they invest in fossil fuels, which we may have to leave in the ground. (Guardian Financial).

 

May 2015, Guardian: ‘Already in Bangladesh 50,000 people migrate to the capital every month because rising sea levels have made their villages uninhabitable and have destroyed their arable land.’

 

Glaciers melting: NOAA (US government National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration www.noa.gov).  This is the most visual proof of climate change see the pictures from Al Gore p 43 ff.

 

Species extinction:

Al Gore points out p 152 ff, that if the seasons change, then food (plants or insects) will not necessarily be available for creatures when they hatch – since hatching has been ‘timed’ for the point in the year when food is available.

 

May 2015: a ‘meta-study’ of 131 studies of the impact of climate change on biodiversity loss concludes that one in six species face extinction if nothing is done about global warming and the temperature rises by 4 degrees. If the rise in global temperature is kept back to 2 degrees then one in twenty species still face extinction. Most endangered: those that depend on Arctic ice.

 

See also Al Gore p 163 for rate of loss...

 

However, the rate of change is slow, so there may be time to mediate the effects.

 

 

Great Barrier reef (8th June 2016, Michael Slezak, The Guardian):

Coral bleaching: coral reefs are inhabited by organisms, polyps (or ‘zooks’ i.e. zooxantheliae] – ‘when coral is stressed by changes... in temperature or light or nutrients, they expel the algae living in their tissues – the coral flesh becomes transparent, revealing the stark white [calcium carbonate] skeleton beneath.’ The algae feed on the flesh of the sickly polyps. Because the algae provides the coral with 90% of its energy, the polyps quickly begin to starve – and then they die, disintegrates, and the reef is taken over by seaweed.

 

When the coral dies, the entire ecosystem is transformed. Fish that feed on the coral or use it as a shelter move away or die. The bigger fish that feed on them disappear too. Birds that eat fish lose their food source, and island plants that thrive on bird dropping can become depleted. And of course people who rely on reefs for food, income, or shelter from waves – some half a billion people worldwide – lose their vital resource.

 

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest such reef in the world – 1,400 miles long, covering an area about the size of Germany – but 22% is now dead, and 93% is being bleached.

Its biodiversity is fantastic: 1,600 species of fish, 133 types of shark and rays, more than 30 species of whales and dolphins. One of the most complex ecosystems on the planet.

Tourists visit it and bring income to Australia. Indigenous people depend on it...

The problems were first noticed on a large scale in 1979. Then, with extreme El Nino events in 1982 and 1983 spread warm water and affected weather throughout the world. The Smithsonian Institute published a paper in 1990 warning that global warming was to blame, and ‘would probably continue and increase until coral-dominated reefs no longer exist’.

Since 1950 more than 90% of the excess heat our carbon emissions have trapped in the atmosphere went into the oceans. As a result, their surface temperature has risen 1C in 35 years. That puts the water much closer to the temperature limit that coral can bear. Then, when a surge of even warmer water comes through – often as a result of the El Nino cycle – corals over large stretches get stressed, bleach and die.’

 

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(ii) Other environmental problems:

 

Agriculture and soil:

Soil is crucial, not only to grow food and feed animals, but we get most of our antibiotics from it, and scientists are looking for more. Soil is rich in biodiversity: it contains almost one third of all living

organisms, according to the EU Joint Research Centre. Only 1% of its micro-organisms have been identified. A teaspoon may contain billions of microbes, divided among 5,000 different types. Not to mention thousands of species of fungi, nematodes, mites etc. See the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative.

 

Repeated plowing kills off beneficial fungi and earth-worms – it requires more fertilizer and is prone to being washed away in heavy rain (and the nitrogen etc spreads into rivers and streams). Each 1% increase in soil organic matter helps the soil hold 30,000 more litres of water per hectare. It also helps the soil store carbon dioxide (reducing global warming).

 

A 2,000 hectare farm in North Dakota, and uses no tilling, and applies ‘green manures’ etc – no nitrogen fertilizers, and no fungicide, and produces yields above the county average. Organisations like No-Till on the Plains encourage it. Some 35% of cropland in US is no-tillage. For soybeans the amount of no-till land has doubled in the last 15 years (12 million hectares in 2012). (NYT/Observer article 2015).

George Monbiot: allotment holders (according to UK researchers last year) produce 4 - 11 times more food per hectare than farmers do!!

 

We have used so much of our land for (intensive) agriculture, and removed hedges, that we have removed habitats for wildlife, so the RSPB has suggested a mandatory 4-5% of farmland to be out of production. Increasingly farmers are leaving uncultivated strips around their fields. When the EU had a ‘set-aside’ policy – which lasted about 20 years until 2007 (it was dropped when food prices rose after some poor harvests) the bird population flourished. [The policy was brought in because of over-production: grain mountains etc...]

 

Soil: here is a quote from a review of book (The World-ending Fire’) a collection of essays by Wendell Berry, selected by Paul Kingsnorth (review from the New Statesman, by Andrew Marr, 2nd Feb 2017):  ‘Without topsoil the thin layer between the Earth’s scores-of-miles deep crust, and the atmosphere we breathe, we could not exist. The historian JR McNeill describes topsoil thus: ‘It consists of mineral particles, organic matter, gases and a swarm of tiny living things. It is a thin skin, rarely more than a hip deep, and usually much less so. Soil takes centuries or millennia to form. Eventually it all ends up in the sea through erosion. In the interval between formation and erosion, it is basic to human survival.’

Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer, with radical views: modern industrial capitalism is a machine based on greed and short-termism that produces grotesque unfairness and waste – and will lead us, before long, to disaster. We must return to cherish and look after the soil we depend on. ‘Our destructiveness has not been, and is not, inevitable. People who use that excuse are morally incompetent, they are cowardly, and they are lazy.... All of us, regardless of party, can be inspired by love of our land to rise above the greed and contempt of our land’s exploiters.’

Like John Berger, Berry has championed the cause of migrant workers, and he is one of the most compelling writers on racism in America.  

In Ali Smith’s novel Autumn there is this epigraph taken from a Guardian article published last July: ‘At current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left.’

(ii) Bees and biodiversity, Jonathan Lundgren:

Bee Defenders’ Alliance – coalition of beekeeping organisations: ‘This year, we’re working around the clock to get Canada to join France in banning neonics, extend the European neonic ban, and stop U.S. grocery store giants like Kroger from selling bee-killing products. We’ll also continue to support threatened bee scientists like Jonathan Lundgren and the beekeeper alliance that’s fighting Bayer and Syngenta in court.

And finally, we’ll do everything we can to stop the Bayer-Monsanto merger from hell and continue to fight the biggest bee-killer of them all, Bayer.’

Jonathan Lundgren, from Washington Post March 3 2016

“I don’t think science can be done, at least on this subject, in any of the conventional ways,” he says. “I think we need truly independent scientists — not funded by government or industry.”

Bee declines, says Lundgren, are not difficult to understand. “Yes, the bees are in crisis, and we need to help them,” he says. “But what we have is not a bee problem. What we have is a biodiversity problem.”

U.S. corporate agriculture tends toward monoculture farming — in the simplest terms, one giant farm specializing in one crop. The two key monoculture crops are corn and soybeans. Corn alone takes up 30 percent of the country’s crop space, an area almost the size of California.

Soybean acreage is nearly as vast. The corn rootworm, the Colorado potato beetle and soybean aphids all thrive best on the crops that give them their names. And so monocultures have allowed, even caused, says Lundgren, pest populations to explode.

“We’re using all of these pesticides because we’ve created a pest problem,” Lundgren says, “and bee health is a symptom of this underlying cause.”

He says the solution is to diversify American farming. “Any other course is unsustainable,” he says. “Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides should be something we resort to, not a first option.”

 

Bees:

There are many different species of bees – see chart - and they have two extremely valuable roles: to produce honey (honey bees) and to pollinate flowers, fruit and flowering vegetables. They pollinate roughly 70% of our food crops.

In America an industry has grown up around using bees as pollinators: in the early 2000s, two things shook up this industry. First, the world discovered almonds. Thanks to global demand, particularly from Asia, the nut has taken over Central Valley, nearly doubling its hectarage to 370,000 since 2005. California produces more than 80% of the world’s almond supply today. The boom brought with it an unprecedented demand for pollination. With bees, an almond tree produces 70% more nuts than without. “Bees,” one almond grower told me, “are as important as water.”

Second, the bees started to die. During the 2006 winter, beekeepers reported losing anything from 30% to 90% of their hives to disease, an unprecedented amount compared with previous decades, in which losses hovered around 10 or 15%. (The average death toll has since leveled to just under 30% each year.) Even Johnson, a second-generation keeper with “honey in the blood”, finds boxes and boxes of dead colonies every winter, and has to scrape out the crusted nectar and tiny corpses.

In the UK, hive losses were between 20% and 40% in the last few years. Factors that contribute are: loss of wild flowers, meadows, etc. the varroa mite, climate change (see above), and finally pesticides.

What became known as “colony collapse disorder” – a lethal combination of disease, drought, land loss and pesticide use – brought the industry to its knees, forcing hundreds of keepers, unable to maintain their hives through the cold winter, out of business.

Consequently, the national supply of bees fell, while demand for pollination has since quadrupled alongside almond growth. This year, almond farmers paid $180 to rent a single hive. And every half-hectare requires two hives... Hives are so valuable that there is large-scale theft: in 2015, poachers stole more than 1,700 hives...

Scientific research has demonstrated that insecticides – especially neonicotinoids – are perhaps the main factor in the decline of bees. (Some apiarists blame disease – and the varroa mite - first, but the counter-argument is that neonics must weaken the bees’ immunity). It is believed that neonics disrupt the bees’ nervous system, resulting in disorientation – not knowing how to find pollen/nectar, or to get back to the hive.

 

In 2013 the European Union placed a moratorium on three types of neonicotinoids on flowering crops such as oilseed rape three years ago but these insecticides have not disappeared. (Britain abstained in the vote).

 

In fact (says Dave Goulson of Sussex University) their use in British farming continues to rise. They are deployed on non-flowering crops such as wheat. We use them in horticulture, and daub them on our pets: flea powders for cats and dogs contain imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid. Dave Goulson says the “plausible deniability” he encounters from neonicotinoid makers is “rather similar to what the tobacco industry did for 50 years claiming that smoking didn’t cause any harm”.’

 

2015: ‘Scientists this year calculated that these insecticides caused a 10% reduction in the distribution of bee species that forage on oilseed rape. Another study found neonicotinoids cut live sperm in male honeybees by almost 40%. Two studies show a strong correlation between neonicotinoids and declining butterfly populations, while another showed the insecticide accumulating to dangerous levels in nearby wildflowers.

2017 (Report by Damian Carrington): The world’s most widely used insecticides harm the ability of bees to vibrate flowers and shake out the pollen to fertilise crops, according to preliminary results from a new study, led by Penelope Whitehorn of the University of Stirling in Scotland and presented at British Ecological Society conference.

Some flowers, such as those of crops like tomatoes and potatoes, must be shaken to release pollen and bumblebees are particularly good at creating the buzz needed to do this.

We are talking about tiny doses of these chemicals: The researchers took two colonies of bumblebees in a laboratory setting and split the bees in each into three groups. One control group was not exposed to the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, but the other two groups were fed solutions containing two parts per billion or 10ppb of the pesticide, doses similar to those found in crop fields.

 

The study adds to a large body of evidence from lab- and field-based studies that neonicotinoids reduce learning and memory in bees, impair their communication, foraging efficiency and immune systems and, crucially, reduce their reproductive success as well as the pollination services that they can provide.

Bees and biodiversity, Jonathan Lundgren:

Bee Defenders’ Alliance – coalition of beekeeping organisations: ‘This year, we’re working around the clock to get Canada to join France in banning neonics, extend the European neonic ban, and stop U.S. grocery store giants like Kroger from selling bee-killing products. We’ll also continue to support threatened bee scientists like Jonathan Lundgren and the beekeeper alliance that’s fighting Bayer and Syngenta in court.

And finally, we’ll do everything we can to stop the Bayer-Monsanto merger from hell and continue to fight the biggest bee-killer of them all, Bayer.’

Jonathan Lundgren, from Washington Post March 3 2016

“I don’t think science can be done, at least on this subject, in any of the conventional ways,” he says. “I think we need truly independent scientists — not funded by government or industry.”

Bee declines, says Lundgren, are not difficult to understand. “Yes, the bees are in crisis, and we need to help them,” he says. “But what we have is not a bee problem. What we have is a biodiversity problem.”

U.S. corporate agriculture tends toward monoculture farming — in the simplest terms, one giant farm specializing in one crop. The two key monoculture crops are corn and soybeans. Corn alone takes up 30 percent of the country’s crop space, an area almost the size of California.

Soybean acreage is nearly as vast. The corn rootworm, the Colorado potato beetle and soybean aphids all thrive best on the crops that give them their names. And so monocultures have allowed, even caused, says Lundgren, pest populations to explode.

“We’re using all of these pesticides because we’ve created a pest problem,” Lundgren says, “and bee health is a symptom of this underlying cause.”

He says the solution is to diversify American farming. “Any other course is unsustainable,” he says. “Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides should be something we resort to, not a first option.”

Note: there are other dangerous chemicals that are the subject of bans in some countries but not in others:

 

Jan 29th 2017, The Observer (Joanna Blythman): 82 pesticides are banned in the EU on health and environmental grounds – but not in the US. These include: permethrin, a broad spectrum insecticide that is classed as a likely carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor, and atrazine, a herbicide thought to affect the immune system, which has also been linked to birth defects.’ Of course, if the UK agrees a trade deal with the US after Brexit, then these protections could be lost.

 

March 2015 (New York Times/Observer): atrazine, made by Syngenta, is one of Australia and America’s most popular herbicides: 33.4 million kilos were used in US in 2013. But it is banned in Europe (2004) and Switzerland as an endocrine disruptor (can alter the natural hormonal system – frogs change sex) and because it contaminates water. Farm workers show health effects of pesticides, but as they are exposed to several it is not easy to identify specific dangerous products. However, ‘maternal exposure to atrazine in drinking water has been associated with low foetal weight and heart, urinary and limb defects in humans.’ (ATSDR – Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry).

 

LD50 measurements and ‘threshold doses’ controversy. 750 mg/kg in rabbits, 1,000 mg/kg in hamsters, 3,090 mg/kg in rats...  EPA’s ‘reference dose’: 0.035 mg/kg/day. 

 

NB in US the onus is on regulators to show evidence of danger – while in EU companies have to establish they are safe before they are put on the market.

 

May 2015: US lobbying led to EU not banning Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) – this was done as a result of fears of a trade backlash under the TTIP.... Further information from PAN.

 

Biodiversity & conservation:

 

The 2016 State of Nature report found: More than one in 10 of the UK’s wildlife species are threatened with extinction. (Damian Carrington 14/9/16). The numbers of the most endangered creatures have fallen by two-thirds since 1970. This covers birds, animals, fish and plants.

 

Overall 53% - 56% of species declined between 1970 and 2011, but some species increased - this ‘does not look like a healthy, natural situation’ (Mark Eaton, conservation scientist at RSPB) – some species going up very quickly, and others going down equally quickly, so we could end up with ‘50% left’.

Insects and invertebrates have declined most dramatically, by 59% since 1970. Thus pollination, healthy soil etc are damaged. ‘They are about the most important things out there’ says Eaton.

 

Causes: intensive farming, urbanization, climate change.

 

Public funding for biodiversity has fallen by 32% from 2008 to 2015.

 

Nature provides economic and health benefits of about 30bn a year (government 2011 analysis).

 

Solutions: organic farming, more hedgerows, less pesticides, re-wilding...

 

NB: there is also a world-wide problem with the killing of elephants, rhinos, sharks etc.

 

 

Waste:

(i) food:

In the UK we send 10m tonnes of waste a year to landfill sites.

Of this, 60% is food, a quarter of which is reckoned to be edible. Some will be from supermarkets (2m tonnes according to Waste and Resources Action Programme - WRAP), some from households.  

In 2015 the UK threw away an estimated 15 million tonnes of food.

Tesco alone threw away 59,400 tonnes in 2015, the equivalent of 119m meals.

UK looks to be top of the EU league table for food waste!!! (Though Americans throw away almost as much food as they eat – a cult of perfection is to blame. Vast quantities left in the fields to rot).

200,000 tonnes of the food waste comes from seven major supermarkets.

70% of produce is dumped by producers and retailers before it even gets to the stores.

Each adult throws away over £400 of food a year (plus a further £400+ in packaging).

 

(One third of all waste in Havering is food...)

 

(ii) electronics:

People get a new mobile phone on average every 18 months

1.5 million computers are thrown away each year, of which 99% work perfectly.

‘Restart Parties’ may help? (See later).