2028: The End of the World As We Know It?

“There is nothing radical in what we’re discussing,” journalist and climate change activist Bill McKibben said before a crowd of nearly 1,000 at the University of California Los Angeles last night. “The radicals work for the oil companies.”

Bill McKibben

Taken on its own, a statement like that would likely sound hyperbolic to most Americans—fodder for a sound bite on Fox News. Anyone who saw McKibben’s lecture in full, however, would know he was not exaggerating.

McKibben was in Los Angeles as part of his nationwide “Do the Math” tour. Based on a recent article of his in Rolling Stone, (“The one with Justin Bieber on the cover,” McKibben joked) the event is essentially a lecture circuit based on a single premise: climate change is simple math—and the numbers do not look good. If immediate action isn’t taken by global leaders: “It’s game-over for the planet.”

The math, McKibben explained, works like this. Global leaders recently came to an international agreement based on the scientific understanding that a global temperature raise of 2°C would have “catastrophic” consequences for the future of humanity. In order to raise global temperatures to this catastrophic threshold, the world would have to release 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Here’s the problem: Fossil fuel companies currently have 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in their fuel reserves—and their business model depends on that fuel being sold and burned. At current rates of consumption, the world will have blown through its 565-gigaton threshold in 16 years.

To prevent the end of the world as we know it, it will require no less than the death of the most profitable industry in the history of humankind.

“As of tonight,” McKibben said, “we’re going after the fossil fuel industry.”

Obviously no easy task. The oil industry commands annual profits of $137 billion and the political power to match. As McKibben noted, “Oil companies follow the laws because they get to write them.”

However, there are some numbers on McKibben’s side. Recent polling data shows 74 percent of Americans now believe in climate change, and 68 percent view it as dangerous. The problem environmental activists are facing is in converting those favorable polling numbers into grassroots action.

Enter “Do the Math.”

Using McKibben’s popularity as an author, organizers are turning what would otherwise be a lecture circuit into a political machine. Before rolling into town, Do the Math smartly organizes with local environmental groups. Prior to McKibben’s lecture, these groups are allowed to take the stage and talk about local initiatives that need fighting. Contact information is gathered to keep the audience updated on those efforts. Instead of simply listening to McKibben, as they perhaps intended, the audience has suddenly become part of their local environmental movement.

It’s a smart strategy, and an essential one—because the problem of climate change is almost exclusively a political in nature. Between renewable energy and more efficient engineering, the technology already exists to stave off catastrophic global warming. Though its application is lagging in the United States, it is being employed on a mass scale in other countries. In socially-stratified China, with its billion-plus population and tremendous wealth inequalities, 25 percent of the country still manages to use solar arrays to heat its water. Germany—Europe’s economic powerhouse—in less than a decade, has managed to get upwards of half of its energy from sustainable sources.

The same can happen here in America—provided we have the will to make it happen. McKibben says the key to realizing that goal is to battle the lifeblood of the fossil fuel industry—its bottom line.

To start, he’s calling for an immediate global divestment from fossil fuel companies. “We’re asking that people who believe in the problem of climate change to stop profiting from it. Just like with divestment movement in South Africa over apartheid, we need to eliminate the oil companies veneer of respectability.”

In conjunction with the divestment regimen, continued protests against unsustainable energy projects will also be crucial. McKibben will be in Washington, D.C. on November 18 to lead a mass rally against climate change and the Keystone Pipeline. “We can no longer just assume that President Obama is going to do everything he promised during his campaign. We need to push him.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to win. But I do know we’re going to fight.” More

 

Major Companies Push for More, Easier Renewable Energy

Some of the largest companies in the United States have banded together to call for a substantial increase in the production of renewable electricity, as well as for more simplicity in purchasing large blocs of green energy.

A dozen U.S-based companies, most of which operate globally, say they want to significantly step up the amount of renewable energy they use, but warn that production levels remain too low and procurement remains too complex. The 12 companies have now put forward a set of principles aimed at helping to “facilitate progress on these challenges” and lead to a broader shift in the market.

“We would like our efforts to result in new renewable power generation,” the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles, released Friday, state. The companies note “our desire to promote new projects, ensure our purchases add new capacity to the system, and that we buy the most cost-competitive renewable energy products.”

The principles consist of six broad reforms, aimed at broadening and strengthening the renewable energy marketplace. Companies want more choice in their procurement options, greater cost competitiveness between renewable and traditional power sources, and “simplified processes, contracts and financing” around the long-term purchase of renewables.

Founding signatories to the principles, which were shepherded by civil society, include manufacturers and consumer goods companies (General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Proctor & Gamble), tech giants (Facebook, HP, Intel, Sprint) and major retailers (Walmart, the outdoor-goods store REI).

These 12 companies combined have renewable energy consumption targets of more than eight million megawatt hours of energy through the end of this decade, according to organisers. Yet the new principles, meant to guide policy discussions, have come about due to frustration over the inability of the U.S. renewables market to keep up with spiking demand.

“The problem these companies are seeing is that they’re paying too much, even though they know that cost-effective renewable energy is available. These companies are used to having choices,” Marty Spitzer, director of U.S. climate policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a conservation and advocacy group that helped to spearhead the principles, told IPS.

WWF was joined in the initiative by the World Resources Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute, both think tanks that focus on issues of energy and sustainability.

“The companies have also recognised that it’s often very difficult to procure renewables and bring them to their facilities,” Spitzer continues. “While most of them didn’t think of it this way at first, they’ve now realised that they have been experiencing a lot of the same problems.”

‘Too difficult’

In recent years, nearly two-thirds of big U.S. businesses have created explicit policies around climate goals and renewable energy usage, according to WWF. While there is increasing political and public compunction behind these new policies, a primary goal remains simple cost-cutting and long-term efficiencies.

“A significant part of the value to us from renewable energy is the ability to lock in energy price certainty and avoid fuel price volatility,” the principles note.

In part due to political deadlock in Washington, particularly around issues of climate and energy, renewable production in the United States remains too low to keep up with this corporate demand. According to the U.S. government, only around 13 percent of domestic energy production last year was from renewable sources.

Accessing even that small portion of the market remains unwieldy.

“We know cost-competitive renewable energy exists but the problem is that it is way too difficult for most companies to buy,” Amy Hargroves, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Sprint, a telecommunications company, said in a statement.

“Very few companies have the knowledge and resources to purchase renewable energy given today’s very limited and complex options. Our hope is that by identifying the commonalities among large buyers, the principles will catalyse market changes that will help make renewables more affordable and accessible for all companies.”

One of the most far-reaching sustainability commitments has come from the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. A decade ago, the company set an “aspirational” goal for itself, to be supplied completely by renewable energy.

Last year, it created a more specific goal aimed at helping to grow the global market for renewables, pledging to drive the production or procurement of seven billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy globally by the end of 2020, a sixfold increase over 2010. (The company is also working to increase the energy efficiency of its stores by 20 percent over this timeframe.)

While the company has since become a leader in terms of installing solar and wind projects at its stores and properties, it has experienced frustrations in trying to make long-term bulk purchases of renewable electricity from U.S. utilities.

“The way we finance is important … cost-competitiveness is very important, as is access to longer-term contracts,” David Ozment, senior director of energy at Walmart, told IPS. “We like to use power-purchase agreements to finance our renewable energy projects, but currently only around half of the states in the U.S. allow for these arrangements.”

Given Walmart’s size and scale, Ozment says the company is regularly asked by suppliers, regulators and utilities about what it is looking for in power procurement. The new principles, he says, offer a strong answer, providing direction as well as flexibility for whatever compulsion is driving a particular company’s energy choices, whether “efficiency, conservation or greenhouse gas impact”.

“We’ve seen the price of solar drop dramatically over the past five years, and we hope our participation helped in that,” he says. “Now, these new principles will hopefully create the scale to continue to drop the cost of renewables and make them more affordable for everyone.”

Internationally applicable

Ozment is also clear that the new principles need not apply only to U.S. operations, noting that the principles “dovetail” with what Walmart is already doing internationally.

In an e-mail, a representative for Intel, the computer chip manufacturer, likewise told IPS that the company is “interested in promoting renewables markets in countries where we have significant operations … at a high level, the need to make renewables both more abundant and easier to access applies outside the U.S.”

For his part, WWF’s Spitzer says that just one of the principles is specific to the U.S. regulatory context.

“Many other countries have their own instruments on renewable production,” he says, “but five out of these six principles are relevant and perfectly appropriate internationally.”

Meanwhile, both the principles and their signatories remain open-ended. Spitzer says that just since Friday he’s heard from additional companies interested in adding their support. More

 

 

New Study Reveals Whales as Marine Ecosystem Engineers

Baleen and sperm whales, known collectively as the great whales, include the largest animals in the history of life on Earth.

Though large in size, whales have long been considered too rare to make much of a difference in the ocean, and the focus of much marine ecological research has been on smaller organisms, such as algae and planktonic animals. While these small organisms are essential to life in the sea, they are not the whole story. As great whales recover from centuries of overhunting, scientists are beginning to appreciate their roles as ecosystem engineers of the ocean.

A recent synthesis, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, evaluates decades of research on the ecological role of great whales. The authors, led by Joe Roman at the University of Vermont, suggest that the influence of these animals has been substantially undervalued because, until now, scientists have underestimated the degree to which the decline in whale population has altered marine ecosystems.

Commercial whaling dramatically reduced the abundance of great whales—by at least 66 percent and perhaps as high as 90 percent, according to some estimates—but recovery is possible, and potentially critical for ocean resiliency.

Among their many ecological functions, whales recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity, locally and on a regional scale. Whales mix the water column, and after feeding at depth, release surface plumes of fecal material. This “whale pump” supplies iron and nitrogen—essentially fertilizers—to primary producers in the surface ocean. Further, the migrations of baleen whales between highly productive, high-latitude feeding and low-latitude calving grounds are among the longest annual movements of mammals. By fasting in these winter calving grounds near the equator, humpback whales, for example, release nitrogen in the form of urea into comparatively nutrient-poor areas—transporting nutrients nearly 10,000 kilometers on the “great whale conveyor belt.”

Sometimes, commercial fishermen have seen whales as competition. But this new paper summarizes a strong body of evidence that indicates the opposite can be true: whale recovery “could lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth,” supporting more robust fisheries.

Whales, as one of the longer-lived species in marine systems, can ease the impact of perturbations inclimate, predation and productivity. The continued recovery of great whales may help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses and could lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth.

And when they die, many whale carcasses sink to dark depths of the ocean—delivering massive pulses of organic material to a realm that is typically nutrient and energy impoverished. A 40-ton gray whale, for example, provides more than 2,000 times the background carbon flux that would typically rain down on the area underlying the carcass in an entire year.

“Whales appear to harbor a specialized suite of animals in the deep sea, with many species requiring whale falls to complete their life cycles and persist in the ocean,” said Craig Smith, co-author and Oceanography Professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “When whales were removed from the ocean by whalers, these whale-fall specialists lost their essential habitat.” More

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I question if it would be possible for humans to work with marine mamals and other sea creatures to 'manage' the oceans for the benefit of the marine environment, the inhabitants of the oceans as well as the living beings on the planet. It would certainly be beneficial to all concerned and would possible go some way towards mitigating climate change. Editor

 

Besieged by the rising tides of climate change, Kiribati buys land in Fiji

The people of Kiribati, a group of islands in the Pacific ocean particularly exposed to climate change, now own a possible refuge elsewhere. President Anote Tong has recently finalised the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fijiislands, about 2,000km away.

Abandoned house affected by sea water

The Church of England has sold a stretch of land mainly covered by dense forest for $8.77m. “We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” Tong told the Associated Press. Kiribati has a population of about 110,000 scattered over 33 small, low-lying islands extending over a total area of 3.5m sq km.

In 2009 the Maldives were the first to raise the possibility of purchasing land in another country in anticipation of being gradually submerged. At the time the government looked at options in India and Sri Lanka.

Now Kiribati has taken action. “Kiribati is just the first on a list which could get longer as time passes,” says Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles ambassador at the United Nations, who took part in the international negotiations on climate change in Bonn last month.

In March the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the volume on adaptation of its fifth assessment report, confirming in starker terms forecasts first outlined by scientists in 1990. Within a few decades, small islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans risk being extensively or even completely submerged. In places the sea level is rising by 1.2cm a year, four times faster than the global average.

The cost of protecting these places against rising sea levels, compared with national income, is among the highest in the world. Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives are among the 10 countries where the financial impact of climate change is the most severe.

For many of these countries, which are represented by the Alliance of Small Island States, the impacts of climate change are “irreparable”, as Tong has often stressed. “Whatever is agreed within the United States today, with China [the two largest sources of CO2 emissions], it will not have a bearing on our future, because already, it's too late for us … And so we are the canary. But hopefully, that experience will send a very strong message that we might be on the frontline today, but others will be on the frontline next,” he said in an interview on CNN last month. This explains why small island states think it is so important to set up an international mechanism for loss and damage, to compensate for the irremediable consequences of global warming.

The international community approved the principle of such a mechanism in November 2013. “When a population is forced to leave its country, it is no longer a matter of adaptation,” Jumeau claims. “Where will these countries find funds? It is up to the industrialised countries, which caused global warming, to shoulder their responsibilities.” He wants to make the loss and damage mechanism a priority for the global deal on climate change slated to be signed in Paris in December 2015.

In the immediate future, the land purchased by Kiribati will above all be used to for agricultural and fish-farming projects to guarantee the nation's food security. With sea water increasingly contaminating the atolls' groundwater and catastrophic coral bleaching – total in some cases such as Phoenix atoll – there are growing food shortages. “Among the small islands, Kiribati is the country that has done most to anticipate its population's future needs,” says François Gemenne, a specialist on migrations at Versailles-Saint Quentin University, France. “The government has launched the 'migration with dignity' policy to allow people to apply for jobs on offer in neighbouring countries such as New Zealand. The aim is to avoid one day having to cope with a humanitarian evacuation.”

Kiribati has long-standing relations with Fiji. In the 1950s families from Banaba island, who had been displaced to make room for a phosphate mine, took refuge there, Gemenne recalls. More