Thursday, January 28, 2010
Environmental Performance Index (EPI) was released today (1/28) at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2010. The EPI ranks 163 countries on their performance across 25 metrics aggregated into ten categories including: environmental health, air quality, water resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture, and climate change. ) It has been produced by a team of environmental experts at Yale University and Columbia University. This is the third edition of the EPI, which has been revisited biannually since 2006.
The EPI builds on the "best data available" with indicators drawn from international organizations, such as the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as research groups such as the World Resources Institute and the University of British Columbia. As the press release adds: "But many of these data sets are based on reporting by national governments that is not subject to any external review or verification." These are the same governments that shamelessly refused to set aside their own interest in Copenhagen to arrive at an action program to effectively deal with global warming. As a leading team member, Christine Kim, told the New York Times, "The state of the data hasn't gotten much better in the last 10 years. We have better data on baseball than we do on climate change." Baseball is a lucrative business and good climate change data may challenge existing government and private sector policies.
Moreover, even the scientific effort itself is influenced by ideology. According to the New York Times, the researchers used Cuba's ranking (9th with score of 78.1) as the example of how government's can massage data to achieve higher ranking. However, Cuba ranks very favorably in health, education, culture and sports. It has also done quite well in reforestation, preserving its coastal waters and fisheries, clean air, and has launched a large-scale effort at urban farming and organic agriculture. From my personal observations in the Island (and I have been there ten times for research purpose since 1994), Cuba also correctly reported weaknesses such as the poor quality of its drinking water (see, EPI's country specific data). So, why pick at socialist Cuba as the example of a cheater government? The same research team is careful when dealing with the U.S. They go out of their way to note that the U.S. low ranking does not not reflect the recent Obama administration's policies enacted too late to be reflected in the data! So much for scientific objectivity!
Still, the EPI report provides a detailed analysis for each country, showing its performance on each of the 25 basic indicators, the ten core policy categories, and the two over-arching objectives of environmental public health and ecosystem vitality. In addition, each nation is benchmarked against others that are similarly situated with groupings based on geographic regions, level of development, trading blocs, and demographic characteristics. These peer group rankings make it easy to highlight leaders and laggards on an issue-by-issue basis and to identify “best practices.”
The top performers were Iceland (93.5), Switzerland (89.1), Costa Rica (86.4), and Sweden (86.0), with 100 being the maximum score. Iceland's score reflect the fact that it generates virtually all its energy from renewable sources (hydropower and geothermal). But as Daniel Esty, director of Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy told the New York Times: "Countries that take seriously the environment as a policy challenge do improve, and those that don't deteriorate." The two major global emitters of carbon dioxide, China and U.S., ranked 121st and 61st respectively (out of 163 participating countries). India ranked 123 and Brazil ranked 62.
A significant finding is that economic slowdown improves the EPI score: Iceland's top standing may be partly due to the severity of its economic crisis. The same is probably true of Slovakia and Serbia and Montenegro. Zero or negative economic growth is good for the environment! So, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting may be exactly the wrong venue for releasing these data. Another venue, such as the World Social Forum (see the photo), could have been a better venue where the idea of zero economic growth, lower birthrate policy, and distributive policies that benefit the working poor worldwide, combined with massive social spending to deal with human and environmental catastrophe, would have had a much better audience. Surely, capitalist powers will resist such policies. That is why mass education and mobilization of working people worldwide are necessary to deal with the problems that information such as EPI reveal.
Monday, January 25, 2010
ScienceDaily (Jan. 16, 2010) — Higher temperatures on the earth's surface at higher latitudes cause an increase in the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas that plays an important role in global warming. Therefore, higher temperatures are not just a consequence of climate change but can also worsen cause of it, conclude climate researchers in an article published in Science.
During their research, the researchers made use of the methane concentrations determined by SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research on the basis of measurements from the Dutch-German space instrument SCIAMACHY (on board ESA's environmental satellite Envisat).
The team of researchers -- from SRON and the University of Edinburgh -- investigated the methane emissions from the world's largest methane sources: paddy fields, marshes and bogs. These wetlands can be found in both the tropics and at higher altitudes and exhibit strong variations in their emissions.
The researchers discovered that fluctuations in the methane emissions in the tropics are mainly determined by variations in the groundwater level but that fluctuations in the methane emissions at high latitudes are mainly due to variations in the surface temperature. The team drew these conclusions based on satellite data about the earth's atmosphere (SCIAMACHY) and surface temperature for the period 2003-2007, and satellite measurements of variations in the gravitational field (GRACE) that were used to calculate variations in groundwater levels. An analysis of the data revealed that the total emission of the boggy areas increased by 7 percent during this period.
Future climate changes
In the Science article, the researchers describe which regional wetlands are sensitive to fluctuations in the groundwater level and which for extremely high temperatures, with the result that they emit more methane. This will help scientists to more accurately predict future climate changes.
The University of Edinburgh's Prof. Paul Palmer, who led the research, says: "The research results underline the fact that global warming is a complex process -- higher temperatures in turn speed up the warming process. Our research strengthens our conviction that satellites can accurately register changes in the emission of greenhouse gasses at specific locations on the earth. This makes it possible to accurately map the emission of greenhouse gases from a wide variety of natural and man-made sources."
Christiaan Frankenberg, SRON researcher at the time of the research and co-author of the article in Science, adds: "The great thing about this study is that it shows that by combining different types of satellite data, you can gain new insights into the processes that can influence our climate."
Friday, January 22, 2010
By JOHN M. BRODER
The New York Times, January 21, 2010
WASHINGTON — The decade ending in 2009 was the warmest on record, new surface temperature figures released Thursday by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration show.
The agency also found that 2009 was the second warmest year since 1880, when modern temperature measurement began. The warmest year was 2005. The other hottest recorded years have all occurred since 1998, NASA said.
James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that global temperatures varied because of changes in ocean heating and cooling cycles. “When we average temperature over 5 or 10 years to minimize that variability,” said Dr. Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, “we find global warming is continuing unabated.”
A separate preliminary analysis from the National Climatic Data Center, a unit of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that 2009 tied with 2006 as the fifth warmest year on record, based on measurements taken on land and at sea. The data center report, published earlier this week, also cited the years 2000 to 2009 as the warmest decade ever measured. The new temperature figures provide evidence in the scientific discussion of global warming but are not likely to be the last word on whether the planet’s temperature is on a consistent upward path.
Dr. Hansen, who has been an outspoken figure in the climate debate for years, has often been attacked by skeptics of global warming for what they charge is selective use of temperature data. The question of whether the planet is heating and how quickly was at the heart of the so-called “climategate” controversy that arose last fall when hundreds of e-mail messages from the climate study unit at the University of East Anglia in England were released without authorization.
Critics seized on the messages as evidence that, in their view, climate scientists were manipulating data and colluding to keep contrary opinion out of scientific journals. But climate scientists and political leaders affirmed what they called a broad-based consensus that the planet was growing warmer, and on a consistent basis, although with measurable year-to-year variations.
The NASA data released Thursday showed an upward temperature trend of about 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit (0.2 degrees Celsius) per decade over the past 30 years. Average global temperatures have risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since 1880.
“That’s the important number to keep in mind,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at Goddard. “The difference between the second and sixth warmest years is trivial because the known uncertainty in the temperature measurement is larger than some of the differences between the warmest years.”
Policy makers at the United Nations climate change summit conference in Copenhagen last month agreed on a goal of trying to keep the rise in average global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, to try to forestall the worst effects of global warming.
Earlier versions of this article referred incorrectly to the National Climatic Data Center. It is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Monday, January 18, 2010
James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a hot topic in popular culture these days. Its 3D technology offers a scenic delight and, as of this writing, it has brought in $1.4 billion in ticket sales. There also are reports of “Avatar” blues in the media. Thousands are reported to have become depressed after seeing the movie, some contemplating suicide. Typical is Ian Hill, a 17 year old student from Sweden, who told CNN: “"One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality.”
A similar, milder, yet milder reaction is probably more common among millions of viewers. A middle-aged friend from Costa Rica wrote to me that she cried when U.S. Marines destroyed the “Tree of Life” where the Na’vi people resided. A biologist, she identifies strongly with the “Tree of Life” on this plant currently under siege. I too felt choked up when the U.S. Marine forces set the beautiful Na’vi habitat ablaze. Millions probably identified with a fictional ecocenteric humanoid society and wilderness that Pandora represents. These depart radically from our daily grind of our society at war with itself and with Mother Nature.
Let me explain in more detail.
It is clear from the outset that Cameron wanted “Avatar” to speak against U.S. exploitation of native people and their natural resources. The movie also speaks against corporate greed and militarism.
The story is set somewhere in the space in 2154, some years after Earth has been destroyed by plunder, climate change and disease. However, capitalism survives in the outer space. A space station circling Pandora includes a scientific group and a military command assisting the corporate staff preoccupied with putting its hand on a highly prized mineral found in Pandora. However, Pandora is inhibited by beautiful, blue skinned, 10 foot tall, dreadlock wearing Na’vi people. It so happens that the region the Na’vi people reside sits on top of the much-prized mineral. The corporate strategy is to move the Na’vi people using “carrots,” or if need be, “sticks.” To get this done, a technology is employed by which human DNA is mixed with Na’vi DNA to create a Na’vi body that can be controlled by the donating human when placed inside a special chamber in the space station. These avatars are to help the corporate strategists reach their goal.
Jake Sulley, a Marine who has lost his legs in a previous war, is part of a group that serves as avatars. Two others are Grace (the head scientist) and her assistant Norm. In his first adventure on Pandora, avatar Jake gets lost and has to spend the night in the forest. He is soon besieged by various animals and finds himself in mortal danger. However, Neyriti, the daughter of Na’vi tribal leaders, saves Jake’s life and takes him to her people.
The Na’vi tribe appears similar in many ways to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. They have a deep spiritual bond with their land and all its beings. Through the medium of 3D technology, the audience in drawn into the Na’vi’s world. Jake and others who are exposed to the Na’vi and their world are similarly drawn to it. In contrast, the culture in the space station is a repulsive mixture of corporate greed and brute militarism with no respect for the beautiful Pandora and its species. Their instrumentalism is even echoed when Grace, the scientists, responds to every wonder of Pandora by a command: “take me a sample of that!” Life on Pandora appears as means to the space station’s groups’ goals and not an end in itself.
While this is clearly a dream world, the movie does not really depart much from life on present day Earth. Yes, technology appears to be much more advanced. But human relations on the space station are very similar to the capitalist world we live in, in the U.S., but also elsewhere. Upon closer inspection, Pandora’s nature is also very similar to what we can find on Earth—animals and plants included.
The only significant difference lies in Na’vi life and how it relates to rest of Pandora’s nature. The notion of human superiority and the derive to control and dominate nature is scaled back. The Na’vi people live in harmony with their surrounding. Their tribal structure seems somewhat egalitarian or at least does not project social conflict. It is this that finally wins the hearts and minds of Jake, Grace and Norm and a couple of others from the space station. So, they willingly join in the defensive war of the Na’vi against the invading U.S. forces. Even though their arms a far inferior to the Marines, the Na’vi overcome them when Pandora nature rebels against the invaders. As Grace, the scientist, notices, it is as if the entire forest in one living organism. It is a familiar idea—like the Gaia theory of the planet Earth.
Depression sets in for some people when they return to the daily reality grind of capitalism and environmental destruction it brings and find themselves politically helpless. This year we reach a watershed: about half the Earth’s population will be living in urban center away from access to any significant natural setting. Otherwise, it is easy to see that Earth’s nature, where it has not been decimated, is far more beautiful than any fictional imagery.
What is needed is to find a way to replace capitalism with a democratic and egalitarian society, i.e., to radically transform our social relations, and to replace our anthropocentric approach to the rest of the nature with an ecocenteric one. At the same time, we can begin this transformation by the way each and every one of us live. The two process are intertwined and both necessary to change the world. And, this is the promise of ecosocialism.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
ScienceDaily (Jan. 11, 2010) — Although Charles Darwin is most well-known for his book On the Origin of Species, in which he described the process of natural selection, he greatly contributed to many specific fields within biology. As the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin's birth comes to a close, the December issue of the American Journal of Botany presents two papers exploring botanical history before the time of Darwin, Darwin's contributions to botany, and what scientists have discovered in the subsequent years following Darwin's first presentation of his many provocative ideas to the scientific community.
In "The 'Sensational Power' of Movement in Plants: A Darwinian System for Studying the Evolution of Behavior," Dr. Craig Whippo and Dr. Roger Hangarter discuss Darwin's research on plant movement. When Darwin first presented his theory of evolution, many opponents of the theory argued that evolution could not account for the acquisition of behavioral traits. Darwin believed that if he could present a materialistic basis for behavior, he could then explain how evolution acted on it. He used plant movements to test his theories of the evolution of behavior, and, as in many other areas of biology, Darwin's plant physiology research contributed to a paradigm shift in our understanding of the biological basis of insect, plant, and microbial behavior.
While studying carnivorous sundew plants, Darwin was shocked to learn that the plant was more sensitive to touch than human skin and could even distinguish between objects. Darwin's many experiments convinced him that plants were actively responding to the environment and that their movements were not a passive consequence of the environment acting on the plant. Darwin attempted to explain all plant movements as modified forms of circumnutation, a process whereby a plant or plant part moves in repeated revolving arcs. He believed that these movements occur as a result of the plant's response to external stimuli, which are sensed in the root and shoot apices. Darwin advanced the notion that these influences are then transmitted to other parts of the plant. Although research has since shown that this explanation of plant movement is not complete, Darwin's idea of a transmittable influence in plants led to the eventual discovery of auxin, a hormone that plays an essential role in many growth processes in plants.
"Plant biologists often cite Darwin for pioneering the study of plant movements and discovering that a transmissible substance was involved in many plant movements, later found to be auxin," Hangarter said. "In researching the material for this paper, we were surprised to learn the extent to which Darwin's predecessors and contemporaries had contributed to the same areas of study with little recognition. However, what struck us the most was to learn that his plant movement studies were largely motivated by his desire to understand how complex animal behaviors could evolve through natural selection."
In the AJB's second article, "'The Orchids Have Been a Splendid Sport' -- An Alternative Look at Charles Darwin's Contributions to Orchid Biology," Dr. Tim Win Yan, Dr. Joseph Arditti, and Dr. Kenneth Cameron explore Darwin's observations on orchids. Jacob Breynius once stated, "If nature ever showed her playfulness in the formation of plants this is visible in the most striking way among the orchids…Nature has formed orchids in such a way that, unless they make us laugh, they surely excite our greatest admiration."
Darwin's book The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects, was his first to be published following On the Origin of Species. In this book, Darwin discussed various peculiarities of orchids he observed, and he stated that although some people might use these peculiarities as examples of new organs specially created, a true understanding of these organs shows that they are modified forms of organs found in other plants. Perhaps due in part to the fact that evolution provides the framework that allows us to understand the living world, much of Darwin's research that was not explicitly related to his theory of evolution was nonetheless used to justify evolution by natural selection or was based on the premise of the theories and mechanisms.
Darwin's explorations into orchids also led him to state that orchid pollen has an "injurious and poisonous" effect on flowers. What Darwin did not know at the time was that one of the substances in the pollen that plays a role in the death of the orchid flower is auxin, as noted in the Hangarter article. Not only can much of our understanding of the natural world be traced back to Darwin, but also much of our current botanical knowledge.
"What impressed me about Darwin's work with orchid is how much more he studied and understood about orchids than just pollination," Arditti said. "But what amazed me was his prescient statement that orchid seeds depend on a fungus for germination. He made this statement on what seems to have been either deep understanding or little more than a hunch long before the French botanist Noël Bernard actually discovered orchid mycorrhiza."
ScienceDaily (Jan. 12, 2010) — California butterflies are reeling from a one-two punch of climate change and land development, says an unprecedented analysis led by UC Davis butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro.
The new analysis, scheduled to be published online the week of January 10 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gives insights on how a major and much-studied group of organisms is reacting to the Earth's warming climate.
"Butterflies are not only charismatic to the public, but also widely used as indicators of the health of the environment worldwide," said Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology. "We found many lowland species are being hit hard by the combination of warmer temperatures and habitat loss."
The results are drawn from Shapiro's 35-year database of butterfly observations made twice monthly at 10 sites in north-central California from sea level to tree line. The Shapiro butterfly database is unique in science for its combination of attributes: one observer (which reduces errors), very long-term, multiple sites surveyed often, a large number of species (more than 150), and attendant climatological data.
Shapiro's co-authors include three other UC Davis researchers and two former Shapiro graduate students, including lead analyst Matthew Forister, now an assistant professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Their most significant findings:
Butterfly diversity (the number of different species present) is falling fast at all the sites near sea level. It is declining more slowly or holding roughly constant in the mountains, except at tree line.
At tree line, butterfly diversity is actually going up, as lower-elevation species react to the warming climate by moving upslope to higher, cooler elevations.
Diversity among high-elevation butterflies is beginning to fall as temperatures become uncomfortably warm for them and, Shapiro says, "There is nowhere to go except heaven."
Using a battery of statistical approaches, Shapiro and his colleagues concluded that climate change alone cannot account in full for the deteriorating low-elevation numbers. Land-use data show that the butterfly losses have been greatest where habitat has been converted from rural to urban and suburban types.
He added that one of the most surprising findings was that ruderal ("weedy") butterfly species that breed on "weedy" plants in disturbed habitats and are highly mobile are actually declining faster than "non-weedy" species -- those that specialize in one habitat type.
This is especially true in the mountains, where such species do not persist over winter but must recolonize every year from lower altitudes. As their numbers drop in the valleys, fewer are available to disperse uphill, and the rate of colonization drops.
"Butterfly folks generally consider these ruderal species to be 'junk species,' sort of the way bird watchers think of pigeons and starlings," said Shapiro. "So it came as a shock to discover that they were being hit even harder than the species that conservationists are used to thinking about.
"Some of the 'weedy' species have been touted as great success stories, in which native butterflies had successfully adapted to the changed conditions created by European colonization of California. That was the case for many decades, but habitat loss has apparently caught up with them now."
The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Additional authors are: at UC Davis, research scientist James Thorne in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, and graduate students Joshua O'Brien in the Graduate Group in Ecology and David Waetjen in the Geography Graduate Group; at Denison University in Ohio, assistant professor Andrew McCall; and at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, assistant professor Nathan Sanders and associate professor James Fordyce (another former Shapiro student).
The Shapiro database is online at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu. It includes butterfly observations and study site maps, together with climate data from nearby weather stations, descriptions of study sites and habitats, and numerous photos. The 10 survey sites lie along Interstate 80 and range from low-lying Suisun Marsh on San Francisco Bay to 9,103-foot-high Castle Peak near Donner Summit.
The database was made public in 2007, also with funding from the National Science Foundation.
ScienceDaily (Jan. 15, 2010) — Norwegian School of Veterinary Science doctoral student Janicke Nordgreen has studied nociception and pain in teleost fish. Her conclusion is that it is very likely the fish can feel pain.
In her dissertation, Nordgreen studied the response to potentially painful stimuli in groups of cells and at the individual. As consciousness is essential to feel pain, Nordgreen tested as well whether fish can be taught to solve a task as in humans requires conscious attention.
The research on pain and nociception (physiological detection of stimuli that can cause tissue damage) in fish is important primarily because pain is a serious threat to animal welfare. In addition, the research may increase our understanding of the evolution of consciousness and the nociceptive system.
In her project, Nordgreen used Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), goldfish (Carassius auratus) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Her research showed that noxious galvanic stimulation elicited activity in the Atlantic salmon telecephalon, and that the response was graded with stimulus intensity. In another experiment, the goldfish showed escape responses when the temperature exceeded 38 degrees C, which is within the temperature range that is deadly to goldfish. This suggests that the ability to respond to harmful point heat is a conserved feature among vertebrates.
The third experiment mapped the metabolism of morphine in Atlantic salmon and goldfish. It was found that they metabolize and secrete morphine more slowly than humans, and that the morphine in small extent reaches the brain of the fish. It was shown that the elimination half life of morphine was approximately one order of magnitude higher than in humans for both species.
The last experiment showed that rainbow trout could learn by trace classical condition. By using reinforcer devaluation, it was also found that the underlying association was most likely of a stimulus-stimulus nature.
No single experiment can unequivocally answer the question of whether fish can feel pain, but the current findings, seen in the context of existing literature strongly indicates that fish are not only capable of nociception but also of conscious perception of pain.
Janicke Nordgreen defended her PhD-thesis, entitled "Nociception and pain in teleost fish," at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science on October 28, 2009.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Scientists aren't yet sure how animals actually appropriate genes they need
A green sea slug appears to be part animal, part plant. It's the first critter discovered to produce the plant pigment chlorophyll.
The sneaky slugs seem to have stolen the genes that enable this skill from algae that they've eaten. With their contraband genes, the slugs can carry out photosynthesis — the process plants use to convert sunlight into energy.
"They can make their energy-containing molecules without having to eat anything," said Sidney Pierce, a biologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Pierce has been studying the unique creatures, officially called Elysia chlorotica, for about 20 years. He presented his most recent findings Jan. 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Seattle. The finding was first reported by Science News.
"This is the first time that multicellar animals have been able to produce chlorophyll," Pierce told LiveScience.
The sea slugs live in salt marshes in New England and Canada. In addition to burglarizing the genes needed to make the green pigment chlorophyll, the slugs also steal tiny cell parts called chloroplasts, which they use to conduct photosynthesis. The chloroplasts use the chlorophyl to convert sunlight into energy, just as plants do, eliminating the need to eat food to gain energy.
"We collect them and we keep them in aquaria for months," Pierce said. "As long as we shine a light on them for 12 hours a day, they can survive [without food]."
The researchers used a radioactive tracer to be sure that the slugs are actually producing the chlorophyll themselves, as opposed to just stealing the ready-made pigment from algae. In fact, the slugs incorporate the genetic material so well, they pass it on to further generations of slugs.
The babies of thieving slugs retain the ability to produce their own chlorophyll, though they can't carry out photosynthesis until they've eaten enough algae to steal the necessary chloroplasts, which they can't yet produce on their own.
The slugs accomplishment is quite a feat, and scientists aren't yet sure how the animals actually appropriate the genes they need.
"It certainly is possible that DNA from one species can get into another species, as these slugs have clearly shown," Pierce said. "But the mechanisms are still unknown."
Monday, January 4, 2010
The slogan is from the Copenhagen protesters who faced inaction by world powers in face of disastrous climate change. They have every right to be angry; the faith of the world hangs in balance.
The magnitude of the crisis
There is no lack of clarity about the calamity we face. On August 26, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned member countries that global greenhouse gas emissions are on an accelerating trend and if left unchecked, could lead to a 6.4 degree Celsius (11.5 degree Fahrenheit) temperature increase by the end of the century, exceeding earlier conservative estimates.[i] There is evidence that warming of the climate may have already triggered positive feedback mechanisms. For example, Professor Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has found that increased release of methane gas from thawing permafrost of the Arctic lakes appear to have contributed to the accelerating trend in global warming. She too concludes that the only realistic way to slow the permafrost thaw is to limit climate warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.[ii] Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and chair of the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change, has warned,] that “[t]he risk of global warming is comparable to the risk of nuclear warfare catastrophe.”[iii] To prevent such catastrophe, Dr. Pachauri had reminded the world governments that it is crucial to ensure that global emissions peak no later than 2015; that is only five years from now.
Failure of leaderships
The UN-organized Copenhagen conference met for two weeks after two years of preparatory work. However, the meeting proceeded as if it was not prepared at all or that the climate change catastrophe is not the most burning issue before the governmental delegations.
Instead, what transpired was much posturing and haggling by the delegations representing different economic and political interests. No government or political leader rose to the occasion by offering a positive program of action that could win at least a large majority to stop and reverse emission of carbon dioxide, and to educate and mobilize hundreds of millions worldwide as the only guarantee that the action plan is adopted universally and enforced.
The United State announced a last minute agreement it reached with Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. The delegations from the rich countries and those involved in drafting it attempted to impose it as the consensus outcome of the conference. But as a result of vigorous objections by Cuba, Venezuela and other developing countries, the conference was only able to “take note of the Copenhagen Accord."
The not-legally binding Accord leaves it to each government to reach interim targets with the “general aim” of limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. The first review will not be until 2015, the year that UN scientists insist is the last opportunity to halt the accelerating warming trend. Dr. Schellnhuber had warned that “[e]ven if global emissions were to peak in 2015, the reductions required thereafter to stay below a critical 2 degrees Celsius threshold increase would be equivalent to a Kyoto Protocol for all countries every year.”
The Western politicians and media often blame China, Venezuela or demand by the African countries to limit temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial level for the failure of Copenhagen. By that they mean the failure of the so-called Danish Text, which was put together secretly by the US, UK and Denmark. It called for a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 and an 80% reduction by the developed countries. The proposal would have sidelined the UN by handing power and control to the rich countries themselves; it would have entrenched global inequality by allowing the rich countries to emit 2.67 tons of CO2 per capita while granting developing countries only 1.44 tons; it would have handed control of climate change finance to the World Bank; it would have locked the world into a disastrous system of carbon trading; it would have attached tight strings to any financial aid; and it would have abandoned any interim 2020 targets. It also would have aim at “stopping and reversing” deforestation by rewarding countries like Brazil and Indonesia but also provide polluting industries in the U.S. and elsewhere the right to “buy” carbon credits under the (failing) cap and trade scheme. All in all, the Danish Text would perpetuate existing international order without seriously taking on the challenge of the climate change.[iv]
The big majority of delegations belonging to Group of 77, which now includes 130 “developing” countries, denounced the Danish Text. But the Group of 77 did not have its own counter proposal. Founded in the crest of successful national liberation struggles in June 1964 it has never been an ideologically or politically coherent bloc. In fact, Brazil, China, India and South Africa all belong to this bloc, with China being the number one emitter of carbon dioxide and India, Brazil, and South Africa, all having fast growing economies, share little interest in limiting their emissions. It is no wonder they came to an understanding with United States behind the back of the rest of the Group of 77 countries.
The delegations from Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela (prominent countries in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, ALBA) presented the most radical positions at the conference. President Hugo Chavez expressed solidarity with the demonstrators and correctly criticized the undemocratic workings of the conference, and in particular, the U.S. delegation and the Danish host. President Evo Morales of Bolivia followed Chavez’s remarks by addressing the U.S. delegation: “Well, then you should act by using the money you are spending for wars against the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, for militarizing Colombia with seven military bases to save lives, to save the planet our Mother Earth.”[v] These leaders denounced capitalism for the climate change. However, they used a propaganda approach in a forum where the world expected action. Moreover, their notion of “capitalism” seemed to be limited to the “developed countries” or “rich countries.” In reality, all ALBA member countries economies except for Cuba are capitalist. Moreover, “socialist” industrialization, from the 1930s in the Soviet Union to today’s China, has also contributed to environmental/ecological degradation and climate change.
Neither Chavez nor Morales offered the conference or the public an action program for fighting climate change. Neither pointed to any programs in their own countries for fighting global change. Morales, for example, claimed that any treaty that limited temperature rise to more than 1 degree Celsius would be unacceptable because, he claimed, some Island nations will be overrun by rising sea. This is a much more stringent demand compare to those of the UN scientific committee’s finding cited earlier and those of the African nations. However, Cuba's vice-president Esteben Lazo was able to point to his country’s achievement in reforestation: “Before our revolution, capitalism had nearly depleted all our forests. We have focused on replanting and now 20% of the land is covered by forests. We also educate our school children about ecology, and about the ALBA network. We are founded on principles of solidarity, of human rights and nature’s rights.”
The Road Forward
Scientific policy makers often look to technology to address climate change crisis. Of course, there are always better technologies for power generations. However, the root-cause of the problem is the destructive marriage of hydrocarbon energy sources and capitalist industrialization. Arguably, the "benefits" of industrialization, indeed industrialization itself, could not have unfolded without both hydrocarbon technologies and the capitalist derive for accumulation.
Thus, there is much validity in the Marxian argument that in order to effectively address climate change it is necessary to do away with capitalist social relations of production.
In these pages, I have argued that the Marxian theory of overcoming alienated social relations(or socialism) is only coherent if it is based on an ecocentric as opposed to anthropocentric view of life in general and social life in particular. Any action program to effectively deal with climate change must begin with principles such as the Eight Points of Deep Ecology (see post 3) to radically change social relations and associated technologies.
Given the urgency of the climate change crisis, it is imperative to begin with a minimum action program to halt climate change; that is why leftist posturing by leaders like Chavez and Morales are counterproductive. It is also necessary to educate worldwide about Our Place in the World: how human well being depends in an organic and fundamental way on the well being of the Earth and its biodiversity. It is no wonder that global warming coincides with what is called as the Sixth Great Extinction of species and their reversal demands radical change in how humans relate to the rest of the Nature.
Of course, there is unevenness in public consciousness and grassroots participation in this worldwide effort. Some countries have a head start social, environmental/ecological, or political consciousness. For instance, the Cuban revolutionary process that began in 1959 has provides some of the best context for such radical change. The radicalization in some Latin American countries, notably Venezuela, has provided space for mass participation along all these fronts. But the problems persist: Even in revolutionary Cuba, Mariela Castro, daughter of president Raul Castor, who heads Cuba's commission on homosexual rights, notes: "The Soviet legacy is a problem." Inside the Communist leadership "some segments think in very rigid and dogmatic ways.” “Yes they have blocked reforms, [but] they coexist with sectors searching for new ideas and methods."[vi]
[ii] Anthony, Katey Walter. “Methane: A Menace Surfaces,” Scientific American, Vol. 301, No. 6, p. 69-75, December 2009.