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Issue #1748      September 14, 2016

Culture & Life

Climate change, profit and nature

The recent floods in the US state of Louisiana were exceptional. They were reported on our TV news of course. For the editors of our television news media, natural disasters are what news is all about: eye-catching visuals, human drama, and no explanation is needed since it’s an “act of God”.

Science, however, suggests it has less to do with God than with climate change, and climate change, as we now know, is caused at least partially by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, amongst other things. The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events is a recognised consequence of climate change. And Louisiana’s weather has changed dramatically.

According to Weather Underground meteorologists Jeff Masters and Bob Henson, August was the wettest month in the Louisiana city of Baton Rouge since records were first kept 174 years ago. “Baton Rouge picked up ... more rain in three months than downtown Los Angeles has recorded over the last five years!” The resulting floodwaters left more than a dozen people dead and some 60,000 homes inundated.

This flood may have been more severe than others, but it is by no means unique. Near the beginning of the year another massive flood hit southern Louisiana. You could say nature was trying to tell America something. Not loudly enough, however, for within days of President Obama visiting the devastation in Baton Rouge, the US federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a division of the US Interior Department, conducted an auction – in the Superdome football stadium, no less – of almost 25 million acres in the western section of the Gulf of Mexico, for under-water exploration and extraction of oil and gas. Oil and gas, of course, are fossil fuels.

The US government, however, is very keen – almost desperate in fact – to promote offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico despite widespread protests. In March this year, hundreds of people protested against a similar auction, also being held in the Superdome football stadium. The Superdome itself achieved international notoriety when thousands of refugees from another extreme weather event, Hurricane Katrina, were given “temporary” shelter there that went on and on. The irony of holding these auctions in that venue was not lost on US climate activists.

“Those thousands in the Superdome after Katrina should be considered climate refugees. For this building now to house the auctions for drilling for more fossil fuels only adds insult to the injury,” said Antonia Juhasz, a journalist and energy analyst.

Amy Goodman, the host of the widely syndicated US TV/radio news hour Democracy Now! reported comments Juhasz made on her program: “The Interior Department is continuing the problems that helped accelerate this storm in the first place, helped make it more ferocious, helped make these storms more frequent. And that, of course, is the burning of fossil fuels, leading to climate change.”

Goodman herself points out that “While any one extreme weather event can’t be directly attributed to climate change, storms, droughts, wildfires, floods and hurricanes all are expected to become more frequent and more severe as the planet warms. ... Rather than enabling more dangerous deep-water oil extraction off the shores of the Gulf Coast, President Obama should be spending his remaining months in office doing everything in his power to reduce our national dependence on fossil fuels.”

Actually, President Obama has his hands full sanctioning assassinations, approving drone strikes on Pakistani villages, arranging with the Pentagon for the bombing of Libya and Syria, not to mention engineering coups against democratically elected governments in Ukraine, Brazil and elsewhere. Given all that, it’s astonishing the way otherwise intelligent Americans still have this belief that President Obama is one of the good guys.

Meanwhile, US journalist Judith Schwartz, author of the book, Water In Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, has a timely caution against taking a too simplistic view of combating climate change. Her article is important, I think. So I have unashamedly quoted from it extensively. She says “we need to understand how natural systems regulate climate and to ally with the processes that maintain those functions.

“Shifting to renewable energy is essential. But this alone won’t avert climate disaster. [my italics :RG].Even if we stopped fossil fuel emissions this minute, it would take centuries to bring CO2 down to appropriate levels. ... Climate is too complex to be reduced to a single variable.

“Many ecological processes that influence climate reflect the movement and phase change of water. While carbon dioxide traps heat, water vapour acts as a conveyer of heat, retaining and releasing heat as it circulates. Consider transpiration, the upward movement of water through plants. This is a cooling mechanism, transforming solar radiation to latent heat embodied in water vapour. According to Czech botanist Jan Pokorny, each litre of water transpired converts 0.7 kilowatt-hours of solar energy, an amount comparable to the capacity of, say, a large room air conditioner.

“A single tree can transpire upwards of 100 litres of water in a day. That’s a lot of cooling power – not to mention the shade, the drawdown of carbon, and everything else a tree does for us.

“We may see a denuded landscape as a sign of climate change, but it’s also a cause. When we strip away vegetation, we lose the temperature modulation those plants provided. Sunlight beaming down becomes sensible heat – heat you can feel – as opposed to being captured and transformed by plants. Peter Andrews, an Australian maverick farmer and author, emphasises the extent to which plants direct and manage water. He adds: ‘Every time a plant manages water, it manages heat’. He estimates that a quarter of earth’s land has lost plant cover.

“The best tactic for reconciliation with nature is regenerating ecosystems. What’s crucial is to know that it’s possible: we’ve grown so accustomed to diminished landscapes we’ve lost sight of how lush they can be. ... From Mexico to Southern Africa and across the US [you can find] numerous examples of people restoring land to reduce poverty, support wildlife, store carbon, – and hold moisture.

“The strategy depends on the setting but may entail building carbon-rich, living soil; slowing the flow of water; promoting the growth of trees; and managing grazing animals in a way that restores land. In grassland regions, many of which are desertifying, ruminants like cows and sheep are managed to serve as a proxy for the vast animal herds that helped create and maintain these environments.

“Per the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an intact forest is worth zero; its contribution to biodiversity, water regulation, area cooling and human wellbeing is treated as irrelevant. If someone takes a chainsaw to it, the sale of wood goes in the plus column. This is ‘growth’. At the very least, ‘externalised’ costs – with our lumber sale, this includes soil erosion, lowered water quality, loss of recreation – should be on the balance sheet.

“Filmmaker and researcher John D Liu believes our economic structure needs more fundamental change. In 1995 Liu filmed the rehabilitation of China’s Loess Plateau, a chunk of degraded land the size of Belgium, for the World Bank. Upon documenting this and other areas brought back from the brink, he’s become an advocate of valuing ecological function over products and services, which he calls ‘derivatives’ of nature.

“The route to climate equilibrium [is not] through technology alone – there are always unintended consequences – but in partnership with plants, animals and micro-organisms.”

Wise words to ponder over, but the solution Judith Schwartz posits is not at all an easy one. The problem is complex and so is the solution. The wholesale regenerating of ecosystems will require the reining in of capitalism’s unbridled quest for profits. This is more than just a subject for academic discussion, however. As Judith Schwartz observes, succinctly but tellingly, “time is running out”.

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