Archive for April 17th, 2008

Major Global Warming Tipping Point Vastly Closer than Anticipated

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Wow, I thought I’d posted my quotient of hideous news for the day.  And then I spotted this over at The Automatic Earth

“It’s always been a disturbing what-if scenario for climate researchers: Gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean floor — hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high pressure — could grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more worrisome than carbon dioxide, the result would be a drastic acceleration of global warming. Until now this idea was mostly academic; scientists had warned that such a thing could happen. Now it seems more likely that it will.”

And for good measure:

“The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.”

An older report on the potential problem reports:

“But calculations by Dr Sitch and his colleagues show that even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly the same amount that is released annually from the world’s wetlands and agriculture.

It would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, he said.”

There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that the release couldn’t take place quite rapidly – over years or decades.  BTW, the last time the methane was released, half the life on earth died.

Of course, the odds can’t be more than 50-50 that’ll happen this time, so why worry?


The Mirror, Not Malthus: The Hunger Crisis and the Illusion of Scarcity

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Perhaps you saw the recent UNESCO report on the future of agriculture .  It calls for a major paradigm shift in agriculture, away from fossil fuels, towards organic agriculture and greater equity of distribution.  Wow, I wonder why I didn’t think of that ;-)

Seriously, this is the largest single report ever to tell us what we already knew – that ”the status quo is not an option.”  That is, we cannot go into the future as we are.  We all know this on some level. 

But until now, the larger narrative has been that we will rely on some magical technology - genetic engineering or a new green revolution - to create food in such abundance that we do not have constrain our appetites.  Although the UNESCO report dances around some of the central issues, it is also true that they admit that the solution is both simpler and more complicated – work on food justice.  Get the fossil fuels warming the world out of agriculture.  In the meantime, get the rich nations to pay for the food desperately needed in the poor world.

It seems so obvious – but the fact that a major institution like the IAASTD is actually calling for fewer fossil fuels and more equity represents the beginning of a sea change – and change that couldn’t possibly happen fast enough.

Even ignoring the fact that various institutions supported by UNESCO have helped create the mess we’re in, promoting fossil fueled agriculture and globalized markets, and ignoring the fact that despite widespread public perception the reality that organic agriculture can match yields has been widely known for some years, this is still a move forward.  But again, not fast enough.

Consider this report from a group of nurses just returned from a humanitarian mission in Haiti:

“The nurses saw firsthand desperate lives made worse by the world food crisis.

“It is incredibly astounding … having a family sit in front of you and have the mother offer you the baby in arms – and the baby is 8, 9 pounds – and be told that child is 2 ½ years old,” Tinker said.

“Everyone is malnourished.”

The food crisis only worsens the desperate circumstances of this poorest-of-the-poor nation.

Children with stick-like limbs arrive at the clinic listless and with distended stomachs. Common worms “take what little nutrients these starving people can give themselves,” Tinker said.”

I have a two and a half year old.  Asher weighs 27 lbs.  I don’t think there’s a better way of understanding the food crisis than to look at your own child, or your grandchild, a nephew or a niece or a neighbor’s child, and ask “how would I feel if this were my child?”  In fact, most of the world’s faiths would argue that their children *are* our children – that there can be no difference. 

I hope the answer to how you feel  is not just sad – I think this is an excellent reason to weep, but I don’t want anyone to stop with weeping – anger and outrage are the appropriate reactions, and we need more anger of the sort that moves us forward.  In fact, the poor are furious – riots are breaking out all over the world.  The victims of our affluence are not fools. They know they are being “massacred” as one UN report put it. 

And we should be equally angry – both because what can be done to poor Haitians can also be done to our “own” (I never have been clear on why American children are supposed to be mine, when the rest of the world’s aren’t, but we’ll use the conventions) children under the current system (they already are, as I reported this winter), and because THERE IS NO SHORTAGE!!!  It would be terrible if this were happening in times of absolute shortage, if there really wasn’t enough food to go around.  But that’s not true – there is plenty of food for the whole world- the world is overflowing in food.  The problem is entirely one of distribution, and of the indifference of the affluent. 

 The term “Malthusian” gets tossed around a lot lately – my doctoral dissertation was on population and literature, and part of it was specifically about Old Thomas Malthus and his idea.  So let me offer that point to say that “Malthusian” is precisely the wrong word to use here – Malthus was speaking of the problem of food supplies meeting rising population’s demand, but he was talking about absolute scarcity, something we are not experiencing.  The essay cited above uses it:

This Malthusian crunch has been building for a long time. We are adding 73m mouths a year. The global population will grow from 6.5bn to 9.5bn before peaking near mid-century.

Asia’s bourgeoisie is switching to an animal-based diet. If they follow the Japanese, protein-intake will rise by nine times. It takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce a 1g of beef, or 3.1g for pork.

China’s meat demand has risen to 50kg per capita from 20kg in 1980, but this has been gradual. The FAO insists that this dietary shift is “not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005″.

Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed.

Even so, the funds closed their killer “long” trades in early March, causing a brief 20pc mini-crash in grains. The speculators are now neutral on the COMEX casino in New York.”

Hedge fund speculation and meat consumption were simply not what Malthus was worried about.  Malthus was aware of the problem of inequity, but he argued that it was dwarfed by the problem of population pressure – in this case, that’s the exact reverse of our present situation.  That is, population pressure is causing difficulties – but population growth rates are quite stable, and cannot account for the doubling of grain prices every 18 months. 

It is not that population is not a growing issue – at some point in the future we will almost certainly encounter this question of absolute limits – but this is not the root cause of our present disaster, and every time we pretend that the issue is primarily population (which is growing most among the poor),  we are lying to ourselves – moreover we are telling ourselves that the problem is someone else’s fault.  We’re going to have to ask ourselves harder questions - do I want that burger enough to justify a 9lb 2 1/2 year old? Do I really need to go to soccer practice that badly?

Look at the names on the table.  Niger.  Liberia.  Eritrea.  Botswana. Haiti. Bangladesh – they are small nations that rely on imports to feed themselves.  100 million people are quickly sliding towards death in those nations – and they will, rightly, decline to slide quietly. They sound like far away places.  They have always had their troubles – and yet millions of people who survived global warming, war, poverty are now meeting the one thing they cannot survive – our appetites.

 Waiting in the wings, with its poor on the fast track to starvation are more nations – India, the Phillippines, North Korea, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan.  Note how many of those nations have strategic importance for us or hold nuclear weapons.  It is a fantasy to believe that we can allow this to happen and not pay a price.

And if this were a Malthusian world of real scarcity, we might be able to say that we cannot do anything about this.  But as Greenpa points out, that’s errant nonsense.  We could very easily prevent this tragedy.  There is plenty of wealth in the rich world to feed the hungry. We could stop hedge fund speculation about food.  We could stop eating so much meat.  We could stop making biofuels.  We could stop.

But that would require that we care in a deep way – not in the way we’ve become accustomed to, of thinking “Oh, how terrible” and then “oh, someone should do something about that.”  It is time for all of us to let our moral rubber hit the road, and recognize that more is being asked of us than simply to think something is very sad.  This is a crime of our creating – and we have the power to stop it.

 How?  As Greenpa suggests, call your representatives and talk to them about biofuels and food speculators.  Cut the meat back in your diet, and focus on meat that is raised without the use of human food – that is fed on grass.  The rest of the time, go vegetarian.  And most of all, get to work raising awareness in your community, raising funds for hunger relief, and making it clear to people that this isn’t happening because of something we cannot control, the spectre of Malthus rising – that’s a longer term problem, and one we have to deal with.  But this crisis is one Malthus never foresaw, and the root causes look back from the mirror.