climate change

How Much Is Your Coastline Worth?

I recently saw this demonstration of how mangroves protect shorelines from erosion.

It’s incredible how Mother Nature has developed simple tools to support biodiversity, even against the powerful forces of ocean waves. Unfortunately, we haven’t been the best stewards of these natural gifts.

WWF reports that more than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests.

I am reminded of the case of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem, presented in the Al-Jazeera investigation The Disappearing Delta. Louisiana’s bayou, dubbed one of the fastest-disappearing land masses on the planet, has experienced nearly 2,000 square miles of land erased from the state’s map in the last century. Mike Tidwell summarizes the destruction:

“An area of land the size of Manhattan is subtracted from south Louisiana every 10 months – it turns to water. A football field every 30 minutes. An area the size of Delaware since the 1930’s. It’s just astonishing how much land has disappeared.”

This destruction is caused by the fossil fuel industry and their continuous exploration for more product. The clearing of vegetation along coastal habitats leads to rapid erosion, scarring the landscape forever.

Ninety-nine percent of the Isle de Jean Charles, an island once 11 miles long and five miles wide, is now underwater. “[Jean Charles was] destroyed purely by oil and natural gas,” local resident Preston Mayeaux says. “The big deep canals brought in the saltwater intrusion, then they abandoned the canals. And when they abandoned the canals system… the saltwater goes in and out in and out, killing everything, all the vegetation.”

Beyond the environmental destruction, the government now has to pay the price of awarding this precious land to oil and gas exploration. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency (CPRA) is now trying to rebuild land with sediment from the Mississippi River in a $50 billion plan to restore the coast. The only problem? Louisiana doesn’t have that kind of money. “We can’t protect everyone from everything, and there’s an inherent vulnerability living with the coast,” says Jerome Zeringue, head of the CPRA. “Louisiana is doing what it can to participate and protect this valuable resource, but it’s a national issue and a national concern. And we need national interests to support us as well.”

But who’s responsible for the damage? The investigation goes to the disappearing wetlands at Venice gas fields, where Chevron and other major firms have operated for decades. “The oil companies should be involved in [restoration efforts]. They benefited from Louisiana, and the people of Louisiana benefited from the oil companies,” said coastal restoration expert Ryan Lambert. “It’s all a circle. You can’t just blame the oil companies. They need to come to the table and help.”

Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche is pursuing a several lawsuits against oil, gas and pipeline companies in two Louisiana parishes. In Plaquemines Parish, an area heavily reliant on the industry for jobs, Councilman Byron Marinovich supported the legal challenge as a way to fund sorely needed restoration efforts. “What we need to do is start building these coasts back so we don’t have these super hurricanes coming through here like Katrina,” he says. In December 2014, he lost his re-election bid to an industry-supported candidate. Not surprisingly, the elections race in Plaquemines Parish was influenced by an organization known as LOGA, or Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Meanwhile, as Louisiana’s oil industry battles lawsuits onshore, the industry is shifting focus to offshore deep water drilling. Reporters went to the Gulf of Mexico to explore a new frontier for exploration, known as offshore fracking. “The industry has kept pretty silent about the amount of fracking that’s going on, and the federal agencies charged with issuing permits and enforcing environment laws have not revealed very much information,” says  Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“We’re talking about fracking that is basically along the entire Louisiana coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s in shallow water, near communities…Some of the fracking was actually permitted in the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon accident was.”

It’s a real shame that the American authorities did not learn from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the gross negligence and reckless conduct of British Petroleum. Instead, the US government continues to give leases to a fossil fuel industry making record profiles while performing extremely risky drilling and exploration. Risky for the coastal environment and everyone who depends on it.

In addition to the vulnerabilities that climate change brings to coastal communities around the world, the destruction of mangrove forests and other coastal habitats by industry, especially fossil fuel companies, leaves people at extreme risk. The costs are far too high. As seen in Louisiana, companies will destroy habitat and then leave the cleanup to the rest of us, while they’ve made incredible profits. People employed by these companies will be left jobless once they leave. Governments will cut social services to pay for the cleanup of corporate greed. We all lose.

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The Four Horsemen Rest Within the Security Council

The United Nations and its Security Council were formed at the end of World War II. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, also known as the Permanent Five or P5, include the following five governments: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These five nations have endowed themselves with protecting the security of the world. But how much peace (and war) have followed them since taking up this mantle.

The P5 won WWII. The Axis powers–chiefly Germany, Japan and Italy–lost. Therefore, the P5 got to dictate the rules. This system of winners rule while the rest of us are seen as causality needs to end.

The P5 are the biggest arms dealers on the planet and pose an incredible risk to all human beings thanks to their massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. They’ve had over 70 years at the wheel. Maybe it’s time for them to step aside, so the rest of us can solve the world’s problems.

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Like many others, I think the Security Council’s record shows that “security” is only for a select few. Together, these five representatives have undeniable power to shape global affairs. Power to unleash global calamity on a Biblical scale: “And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” (John 6:8).

Nuclear war and environmental catastrophe are two realities of today–realities created and owned by the P5. Two millennia after that Biblical prophecy, the UN Security Council has unleashed its own Four Horsemen–War, Death, Famine and Conquest–and must take responsibility for their costs.

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War Profiteers

Globally, the P5 are the five biggest arms dealers. Together, they sell a total of 20.45 billion U.S. dollars worth of weapons per year. This is more than triple the next 10 biggest arms dealers, who happen to be P5 allies within NATO. The United States is overwhelmingly the biggest weapons exported, with nearly double the sales of its former Cold War adversary, Russia.

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Arms sales per year, in millions of US dollars. Data source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Guns, ammunition, tanks, bombs, missiles, battleships, warplanes: these are some of the products the P5 nations are selling all over the world. The P5 aren’t fighting on their own soil. Instead they help protracted conflicts go on far longer than they should.

Two-thirds of UK weapons have been sold to Middle Eastern countries, since 2010, where instability has fed into increased risk of terror threats to Britain and across the West. Since 2010 Britain has sold arms to 39 of the 51 countries ranked “not free” on the Freedom House “Freedom in the world” report, and 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list.

Russia has supplied arms to several countries where they risk being used to commit serious human rights violations. It does not publish arms export details, but 10 per cent of all Russian arms exports are believed to go to Syria, making it the country’s largest arms supplier. Transfers include missiles and missile launchers, anti-tank missiles for the Russian-made T72 tank, and MIG jet fighters jet aircraft. Russia also supplied AK-style assault rifles to Libya under al-Gaddafi. As of 2004, “Of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK-47s”. Russia continues to supply helicopter gunships to Sudan, where they have been used to attack civilians in Darfur and Southern Kordofan.

As the main arms supplier to Egypt, the US authorized the sale of small arms, millions of rounds of ammunition and chemical agents for riot control, despite the security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters. Yemen was also supplied with small arms, chemical agents and armoured vehicles, and Bahrain with small arms. It provides Colombia’s security forces with arms, military aid and training, despite their persistent violations of human rights.

For decades, the United States and Russia fought their Civil War through proxy wars of already struggling nations. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia have all been victims of these powerful countries warmongering and arm dealings. These two nations, like the rest of the P5, continue to wield power through its arms sales. The global arms trade is the worst combination of political conquest and economic gain.

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The history of war will continue to maim and injure civilians as weapons, like land mines, continue to lay in peaceful and conflict-ridden lands. On average 5,000 people are killed by land mines each year. Millions of land mines are hidden in the ground in 78 countries. The United States, which doesn’t fear mines itself, has a stockpile of around 10.4 million anti-personal land mines–the 3rd largest arsenal in the world. Once placed in the ground, these weapons are incredibly expensive to clear. Land mines cost somewhere in the region of $3 to produce, and a staggering $1,000 to clear per unit.

In 1997, in response to a global, Nobel Prize-winning campaign, the U.N. adopted an international Mine Ban Treaty, which is currently signed by 162 countries. Under the Mine Ban Treaty, the Parties undertake not to use, produce, stockpile or transfer anti-personnel mines and ensure their destruction. Thirty-six countries, including China, Russia and the United States, which together may hold tens of millions of stockpiled antipersonnel mines, are not yet party to the Convention. The three countries continue to manufacture land mines.

The P5 are the primary sellers of tools of war. They also are the primary hindrances to obtaining justice once the bullets stop flying. The International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Unlike France and the UK, which are a party to the International Criminal Court, China is opposed to the Court (like North Korea and Somalia), the US no longer intends to ratify the treaty (in line with Sudan) and Russia has not ratified its agreement (akin to Syria and Yemen). The majority of P5 nations prefer to protect themselves, preventing justice to be served for crimes against humanity.

They are not world leaders. They are cowards. And should be treated as such.

 

Certain Death

Unfortunately, the Cold War hasn’t melted away. And neither has the threat of nuclear annihilation.

There are currently 15,375 nuclear devices in the world. Of these, 98 percent (or 15,045) are held by the P5. The U.S. and Russia account for nearly 93 percent of all nuclear weapons. These two nations have it within their power to end the threat of nuclear war.

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Data source: Ploughshares Fund

The other three nations with large stockpiles of nuclear weapons–Pakistan, India and Israel–received assistance from the U.S. in developing their own nuclear programs. Rather than creating a safer world following WWII, the P5 have made the world more turbulent. They split into Eastern and Western superpower blocks during the Cold War, which has continued following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite their differences, the Eastern and Western  blocks agree that they should continue holding the balance of power globally. Worst of all, the P5 have a poor track record when it comes to supporting the means for peace.

Last month, UN General Assembly (UNGA) members have defied the P5 by voting to ban nuclear weapons. The UNGA’s First Committee passed an historic resolution to begin negotiations for a legally binding nuclear weapons ban treaty next year. The landmark resolution passed 123 to 38 – with 16 countries abstaining – and succeeded despite smaller states accusing nuclear-armed countries of “pressuring them to oppose the ban.

The most vocal supporters of the treaty included Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. Even North Korea voted in favor of the treaty, which will attempt to bring in a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

Some nuclear-armed states abstained on the vote, including China, India and Pakistan, while opponents included the United States, Russia, the UK, France and Israel. Green Party MSP John Finnie accused the UK government of giving up on nuclear disarmament:

“Instead of siding with the overwhelming majority of the world’s nations in voting to set up a conference to negotiate ways of prohibiting and eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the UK voted with the nuclear club states who continue to stand in the way of progress on disarmament.”

 

Global Famine

The most effective strategy to prevent war is to mitigate its causes. One of more overlooked (at least in news media) sparks for war is climate change.

Even the U.S. Department of Defense has recognized the danger, saying that “global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.” The problem of global climate change is directly linked to rapid industrialization, which provided incredible wealth in a handful of countries. The P5 nations, and their allies, being the biggest beneficiaries.

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Although the P5 nations today produce similar levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the trend hasn’t always been like this. China began industrialization far later than other nations but its high population is closing the cumulative gap. It’s also important to remember that much of China’s emissions are linked to the products shipped to European and American consumers. The United States, with its population of 300-plus million and long history of industrialization, has done more to cause climate change than any other nation.

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Cumulative national emissions between 1850 and 2007 (MT CO2e). Data source: World Resource Institute

The United States is responsible for at least 27 percent of global emissions. The European Union, including France and the UK, account for another 25 percent. At 8 percent, Russia has the lowest contribution among the P5 nations, although it is still a substantial amount. Like the issue of nuclear weapons, the P5 are among the top 5 polluters and are responsible for the damage caused by high industrialization on those affected by climate change.

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A study led by Jacob Schewe of Potsdam finds that “the combination of unmitigated climate change and further population growth will expose a significant fraction of the world population” to “chronic or absolute water scarcity.” Current agricultural models estimate that climate change will directly reduce food production from maize, soybeans, wheat and rice by as much as 43 percent by the end of the 21st century, encompassing a loss of between 400 and 2600 petacalories of food supply. But incorporating hydrological models reveals that when accounting for the decline of freshwater availability, there would be an additional loss of 600 to 2900 petacalories – potentially wiping out quantities equivalent to the total present-day food supply.

There’s an old saying that people revolt before they starve. This is the future that the highly-industrialized countries, especially the P5, have brought to bear. Climate refugees will join the movements of displaced people who have historically fled conflicts (worsened by the arms sales noted above) and environmental hazards, like earthquakes.

 

Conquest’s Victims

Environmental forced migrants are people who have to leave due to deteriorating environmental conditions, such as the slow deterioration of their environment due to deforestation or coastal deterioration. Environmental motivated migrants, on the other hand, are people who choose to leave to avoid possible future problems, such as declining crop productivity caused by desertification.

One example where climate change contributed to environmental displacement and ultimately an armed conflict is Syria.

Researchers acknowledge that many factors led to Syria’s uprising, including corrupt leadership, inequality, massive population growth, and the government’s inability to curb human suffering. But a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compiled statistics showing that water shortages in the Fertile Crescent in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey killed livestock, drove up food prices, sickened children, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s jam-packed cities–just as that country was exploding with immigrants from the Iraq war. The suffering and social chaos caused by the drought were important drivers of the initial unrest.

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The five nations of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt collectively host over 4.7 million Syrian refugees. In contrast, the P5 host around 32 thousand; this equates to around one out of every 200 Syrian refugees. The P5 has a cumulative GDP fourteen times that of the five countries neighboring Syria.

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Syrian refugees resettled. Data source: Oxfam

These low figures of refuge offered by the P5 nations are even more shocking when you consider that the P5 nations are supplying weapons and bombing fighters in Syria as well as Iraq. Clearly, the world’s “most powerful” countries are not doing their fair share.

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What percentage of its “fair share” each country has actually pledged to resettle. Source: IRIN

Thanks to the legacy of the Iraq invasion led by the U.S. and the U.K., 3.9 million people were already internally displaced in Iraq before the war in Syria started.

Another region of the world where all of these issues–nuclear weapons, climate change, displacement of people–intersect is the Pacific Islands. The Marshall Islands are one of many that highlight these overlapping concerns.

The United States tested their nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s, causing scores of health problems and displacement. Now, climate change may wipe the Marshall Islands off the map, as sea levels rise. The United States in a pathetic excuse for a solution provides Marshall Islanders asylum. Unfortunately, they will become exiles to a nation underwater. Will the U.S. ever learn its lesson?!

The Security Council spend the past seven decades failing to eliminate the threat of nuclear annihilation, which they themselves created. Now, the world has to face the threat of climate change; also primarily caused by the P5 nations.

We can’t wait for their slow and inconsequential attempts to correct their own misbehavior. It’s up to all of us to demand change. The world depends on it.

The Power of Humanity to Reach New Heights

The thing about new human endeavors is how easy and obvious they seem in hindsight.

From sailing around the world tapollo-11-920-0o submerging to the bottom of the ocean, humanity is defined by inspiring people solving seemingly impossible challenges.

We’ve designed telescopes that peer deep into the universe and particle colliders that tell us how it all began. We’ve built airplanes that defy gravity (and made the world seem smaller). We’ve even sent men to the Moon! This last great achievement, accomplished in 1969, is what I would like to discuss now.

The Space Race of the 1960s between the USA and the USSR showed how human imagination, combined with technology and science, can make something which seems impossible possible. It’s astonishing to think that John F. Kennedy promised (quote below) to have an American land on the Moon less than 60 years after the Wright Brothers first flight! From our feet off the ground to our first steps on another body of the solar system in only six decades!

“We choose to goapollo-11-920-85 to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …

“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”

John F. Kennedy,
September 12, 1962

The Apollo program brought imagination and inspiration to the world and to the generations that followed. (To learn more about the details to America’s push to make Kennedy’s goal a reality, I can’t recommend enough the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The 12 episodes explores various aspects of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, from the design of the lander to the stress on the wives of the astronauts.)

So, why do I bring up this pinnacle of human achievement? It’s not for a history lesson. I use it to show what humanity can carry out when we put the best minds in science, the right leadership from government, and the hopes and dreams of the world together to tackle a singular challenge. Like the challenge of climate change.

Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns when that change lasts for an extended period of time. Our contribution to this process started about 150 years ago with the Industrial Revolution, when we started to burn coal, oil, and gas, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. We’ve increased the average global temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius since then and are on track to add a few more degrees by the end of this century. Add to fossil fuel burning the systems of industrialized farming, which realizes methane, and deforestation, that reduces photosynthesis, you create an industrial world and global warming.

A comparison between sending a man to the Moon and man-made climate change is even more apt when considering their respective (and in many instances, overlapping) detractors. I’m talking about conspiracy theorists – the people who ignore scientific evidence and replace it with their own gut feeling on the matter.

Deniers of the Moon landing will point to any minor flaws in the video, photos, or speeches related to Apollo as evidence of its fraud, without evaluating the technology at the time and the many scientific discoveries that resulted, both of which are much more powerful points of discussion. Likewise, climate change deniers will say that climate always changes, or that humans can’t possibly impact the planet’s nature, or even that the scientists are publishing papers for the money! Both of these cases have the same problem: the skeptics don’t look at the science.

Coming from Alberta – home of the Athabasca oil sands – makes this debate even more difficult for myself. Politicians, business leaders, and most people want oil sand extraction and the employment it creates. Nature, however, can go fend for herself. But what does the unbiased, scientific world say.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the scientific body in which the world’s governments go to for consensus on this issue. They have written five reports since starting in 1988 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their contributions.

In their Fifth Assessment Report released last year, the IPCC concluded:

  • Warming of the atmosphere and ocean system is unequivocal. Many of the associated impacts such as sea level change (among other metrics) have occurred since 1950 at rates unprecedented in the historical record.
  • There is a clear human influence on the climate.
  • It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950, with the level of confidence having increased since the fourth report.
  • IPCC pointed out that the longer we wait to reduce our emissions, the more expensive it will become.

This is the science. You either accept it or need to find some evidence to the contrary.

Climate change, along with general environmental issues, is something that I’m particular interested in, but it’s an issue that other people might take less seriously. In the arena of international problems, there are plenty of causes to focus on: poverty, civil war, malaria, lack of clean water, hunger, and more. But what makes climate change different (especially, when compared to that list) is that it affects all humans. ALL humans. Not just the poorest in the world.

Unaddressed climate change will also make current problems worse. Climate refugees will need new countries to call home. Droughts and floods will add chaos to growing seasons. Warming climates will mean a spread of mosquitoes and other pests. And, as the IPCC notes, it will cost more later if we don’t address it now. So, government will have less funds to solve these and other important issues. If we know we need to act, then we need to ask can we solve it.

What are the costs and do we have the technology to solve global warming?

Unlike the Space Race, which had to design and build equipment over years to finally make their goal real, we have the technology and know-how at our disposal today. For a reference point, NASA calculates that the Apollo program costs were roughly $170 billion, in 2005 dollars.

Unfortunately, today’s free market ain’t so free.

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For decades, coal, oil, and gas companies received large subsidies from governments to keep costs low. Whereas, the renewable energy sector – makers of solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal heating – have only started to subsidies, in a bid to compete. If you included the cost of carbon, which polluters get to release for free, and tax relief than the subsidy level would be as high as $2 trillion, according to the IMF. These numbers are even more ridiculous because BP, Exxon Mobil, and Gazprom are some of the most profitable companies in the world. Would it make any sense to give subsidies to Apple and Samsung to make our phones? The answer is no, it would not. Especially when health and education are needed more.

The costs to adapt to existing climate change and then mitigate future effects is estimated at $100 billion per year. The cost of doing nothing will be even higher. We need the political will, from public pressure, to change the status quo: moving away from a carbon-intensive economy to a carbon-free one.

But, do we have the will to change?

There are two major reasons why humans act: greed and grievance. Unlike many human accomplishments, originating for either monetary gain or increased self-esteem (greed), climate change is social justice fight (grievance). Climate change is caused, predominately, by high-industrial nations – USA, Canada, European Union, Japan, and Australia – as well as emerging economies – China, India, Brazil. Developing countries are the ones who will be most affected by the negative consequences of climate change and, importantly, have contributed the least to the problem.

So, the case to tackle climate change is a moral one. And it starts will all of us, changing our daily habits. But it also needs global unity, as we’ve done with space exploration and the International Space Station.

Let’s go back in time for a moment and pretend that President Kennedy had climate change on his mind. Go back and read his speech again, but instead of starting with “We choose to go to the Moon”, replace that opening line with “We choose to prevent climate change” and see what happens. It spoke volumes to me and shows the value of great leadership.

apollo-11-920-54I hope the Earth will stay this beautiful until the next time we step on the Moon.

I urge you to become active in the climate change debate. Start discussing this issue with friends and family. Make your home more energy efficient. Explore more by watching a documentary (Chasing Ice is a great one). Drive less. Walk more. Lobby your government representatives to end fossil fuel subsidies. 

Even small changes make a difference.