Category Archives: Health

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Trees’ shade can cool cities by 5°C

Urban planners need more than just a leaf from nature’s book. To cool sweltering citizens they should exploit the whole woodland canopy and use the trees’ shade.

LONDON, 11 April, 2019 − Tomorrow’s sweltering cities could be tamed, thanks to their trees’ shade. Leafy figs and magnolias, beeches and birches, planes and chestnuts in the sterile tarmac and cement world of the great modern city could deliver canopies that could bring temperatures down by more than 5°C in the hottest of the heatwave summers.

And researchers now know this, not because they tested it with computer simulations, and not because they interpreted the radiation signal from satellite studies. They know it because one scientist fitted one bicycle with its own tiny weather station and took the temperature every five metres along 10 rides or transects, each along roughly seven kilometres of highly built-up city infrastructure.

To make sure of her readings, Carly Ziter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison repeated each ride between three and 12 times at different times of the day

And the conclusion: the city streets were hot as sunlight slammed down on the hard, impervious surfaces of street, pavement, flyover and square. But where there was green sward or shade from a tree, the temperature dropped.

“The trees we plant now or the areas we pave now are going to be determining the temperatures of our cities in the next century”

In those patches where two or more trees met and two-fifths of the sky was screened by foliage, the temperature dropped by an average of 3.5°C and sometimes − especially where the number of trees and their proximity delivered ever more shade − by up to 5.7°C.

Trees not only deliver shade, they transpire. That is, they exhale water through the stomata in their leaves and provide a second outdoor air-conditioning mechanism. The difference, too, between shade and sunlight temperatures can set up an air flow.

The results, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “suggest strategies for managing urban land-cover patterns to enhance resilience to cities’ warming.” In other words, trees are good things to plant, anywhere, but especially in the concrete jungle.

Once again, this is no surprise. Researchers have been looking at what might be called the green response to urban warming for years, and found that urban tree cover can add as much as $500m to the economies of the great cities.

Urban trees don’t just deliver shade, they can soak up atmospheric carbon in ways that match any rainforest giant, and the simple presence of trees in suburban roads can add appreciably to property values as well as simple amenity.

Hotter cities

And tomorrow’s cities will need help from the trees. More than half of the world’s population is already crammed into cities, and all cities are plagued by what is known as the urban heat island effect: that is, because of lighting, central heating, air conditioning, traffic, tarmac, tiles and slate, metro systems, and light industry, cities can be hotter than the surrounding countryside by 3°C or more.

With global warming so far on track to reach a global average of 3°C higher than at any time in human history by the century’s end – when cities will be even more crowded as population soars – city planners need a low-cost answer to what promises to be the serious and potentially lethal health hazard of ever more intense and prolonged heatwaves.

And not only do trees deliver cool shade: there is even research to suggest that they do better in the warmer cities. The Madison studies offer fine detail to something most city dwellers know intuitively. Cities need green spaces and tree-lined avenues. The next step is to work out how best to use such findings.

“It’s not really enough to just kind of go out and plant trees, we really need to think about how many we are planting and where we’re planting them. We’re not saying planting one tree does nothing, but you’re going to have a bigger effect if you plant a tree and your neighbour plants a tree and their neighbour plants a tree,” Dr Ziter said.

“The trees we plant now or the areas we pave now are going to be determining the temperatures of our cities in the next century.” − Climate News Network

Urban planners need more than just a leaf from nature’s book. To cool sweltering citizens they should exploit the whole woodland canopy and use the trees’ shade.

LONDON, 11 April, 2019 − Tomorrow’s sweltering cities could be tamed, thanks to their trees’ shade. Leafy figs and magnolias, beeches and birches, planes and chestnuts in the sterile tarmac and cement world of the great modern city could deliver canopies that could bring temperatures down by more than 5°C in the hottest of the heatwave summers.

And researchers now know this, not because they tested it with computer simulations, and not because they interpreted the radiation signal from satellite studies. They know it because one scientist fitted one bicycle with its own tiny weather station and took the temperature every five metres along 10 rides or transects, each along roughly seven kilometres of highly built-up city infrastructure.

To make sure of her readings, Carly Ziter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison repeated each ride between three and 12 times at different times of the day

And the conclusion: the city streets were hot as sunlight slammed down on the hard, impervious surfaces of street, pavement, flyover and square. But where there was green sward or shade from a tree, the temperature dropped.

“The trees we plant now or the areas we pave now are going to be determining the temperatures of our cities in the next century”

In those patches where two or more trees met and two-fifths of the sky was screened by foliage, the temperature dropped by an average of 3.5°C and sometimes − especially where the number of trees and their proximity delivered ever more shade − by up to 5.7°C.

Trees not only deliver shade, they transpire. That is, they exhale water through the stomata in their leaves and provide a second outdoor air-conditioning mechanism. The difference, too, between shade and sunlight temperatures can set up an air flow.

The results, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “suggest strategies for managing urban land-cover patterns to enhance resilience to cities’ warming.” In other words, trees are good things to plant, anywhere, but especially in the concrete jungle.

Once again, this is no surprise. Researchers have been looking at what might be called the green response to urban warming for years, and found that urban tree cover can add as much as $500m to the economies of the great cities.

Urban trees don’t just deliver shade, they can soak up atmospheric carbon in ways that match any rainforest giant, and the simple presence of trees in suburban roads can add appreciably to property values as well as simple amenity.

Hotter cities

And tomorrow’s cities will need help from the trees. More than half of the world’s population is already crammed into cities, and all cities are plagued by what is known as the urban heat island effect: that is, because of lighting, central heating, air conditioning, traffic, tarmac, tiles and slate, metro systems, and light industry, cities can be hotter than the surrounding countryside by 3°C or more.

With global warming so far on track to reach a global average of 3°C higher than at any time in human history by the century’s end – when cities will be even more crowded as population soars – city planners need a low-cost answer to what promises to be the serious and potentially lethal health hazard of ever more intense and prolonged heatwaves.

And not only do trees deliver cool shade: there is even research to suggest that they do better in the warmer cities. The Madison studies offer fine detail to something most city dwellers know intuitively. Cities need green spaces and tree-lined avenues. The next step is to work out how best to use such findings.

“It’s not really enough to just kind of go out and plant trees, we really need to think about how many we are planting and where we’re planting them. We’re not saying planting one tree does nothing, but you’re going to have a bigger effect if you plant a tree and your neighbour plants a tree and their neighbour plants a tree,” Dr Ziter said.

“The trees we plant now or the areas we pave now are going to be determining the temperatures of our cities in the next century.” − Climate News Network

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Indian voters demand environmental clean-up

A huge exercise in democracy starts on 11 April as 900 million Indian voters turn out, many seeking a cleaner environment.

CHENNAI, 10 April, 2019 − Candidates promising to fight for clean drinking water and a halt to pollution are likely to gain the support of millions of Indian voters.

Environmental issues, particularly clean water and air, traffic congestion and better public transport, are among the top priorities of urban voters as they prepare to vote in the world’s largest general election.

In India it is no longer religion or caste that tops the poll of issues that concern voters, but policies that affect their daily lives, still blighted by some of the worst pollution in the world which is also contributing to climate change and the shortage of clean water.

Although for both rural and urban voters job opportunities and the need to make a living are the number one priority, a whole list of environmental issues are more important than terrorism or strong military defence, both of which appear to be of little concern to the electorate.

With air pollution a major cause of illness and death in both town and country, the voters are also demanding better hospitals and health care centres to help them with breathing difficulties.

The elections start on 11 April, and with 900 million people able to vote it will not be until 23 May that the result is finally declared in 29 states to elect the 543 members of the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, which in turn elects the prime minister for a five-year term. Astonishingly, there will be 84 million new voters, those who have reached the age of 18 since the last general election.

“My daughter has sacrificed her life to save future generations from pollution . . . We won’t let go of her goal’’

In rural areas, where a majority of Indian voters still live, new jobs are still the main priority, but voters’ next five issues involve agriculture, especially the availability of water, and loans and subsidies to help farmers to buy seeds, fertiliser and electricity.

An enormous survey among nearly 300,000 voters conducted by ADR (Association for Democratic Reforms),  a non-government organisation which campaigns for election reforms, has found that Indian voters will opt for candidates who will bring in solutions for basic environmental needs rather than those addressing terrorism.

This trend has encouraged one current Lok Sabha candidate, environmentalist T. Arul Selvam, who says the culture of voting based on the performance of their candidate in battling environmental degradation will improve governance at the ground level.

“The ADR survey shows that there is a positive trend among voters who earlier considered religion and caste as important factors in casting their votes. The drinking water crisis remains unaddressed in scores of villages and urban areas across the country.

“Negligence in preserving water bodies is the origin of the water crisis in this nation. People were fed up with politicians who did not care enough to protect nature, which eventually added problems during calamities like floods and drought,’’ he said.

Smelter opponents shot

Arul Selvam recalled protests held by voluntary groups for more than 100 days in Tamil Nadu, a state in the southern part of India seeking the closure of nuclear power plants and the Sterlite copper smelter, the centre of recent controversy.

“These days people are ready to unite to save nature because their daily survival is becoming tough. People are forced to pay a heavy price for drinking water and food.

“Increasing medical bills for people living in industrial areas are a major cause of concern. These instances have brought a change in voting behaviour among the people’’.

Arul Selvam’s views were echoed when Climate News Network met families who had lost children who were fired on by police during the protest against the smelter in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district.

Thirteen protestors were killed by police in May 2018 when they sought the closure of the copper plant, accusing the owners of degrading land, air and water resources.  Now the families say that their relatives and many in the villages in Thoothukudi, a port city, have decided to vote for a party that promises permanent closure of the plant and action against pollution that has affected them for over two decades.

Permanent closure sought

“My daughter was shot in her throat. We fought against pollution caused by Sterlite. Now the plant has been closed down temporarily. We want to vote for a political party that will ensure permanent closure of this plant and save our town from pollution.

“My daughter has sacrificed her life to save future generations from pollution. She told me many died in our village due to cancer and also suffered severe asthma problems because of pollution. We won’t let go of her goal,’’ says Vanitha, mother of Snowlin, aged 19, who was killed during the shooting.

Some politicians welcome the new priorities of voters in these elections. J. Jayavardhan, India’s youngest member of parliament, elected by the South Chennai constituency, says he is happy to see the survey result with voters “going green.”

“It’s an emerging trend in India among people to go green in their lives and taking small steps for sustainable living. Though this seems to be a small number now, it will grow in a phased manner. Voters considering candidates based on environmental conservation show how pollution has affected their daily lives.

“I am campaigning for cloth bags and waste segregation at source and opened compost plants in my constituency. This has impacted residents here to cut down on usage of plastic bags and to use composting facilities in their neighbourhood.’’ − Climate News Network

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Paul Brown wrote this report with our Chennal correspondent.

A huge exercise in democracy starts on 11 April as 900 million Indian voters turn out, many seeking a cleaner environment.

CHENNAI, 10 April, 2019 − Candidates promising to fight for clean drinking water and a halt to pollution are likely to gain the support of millions of Indian voters.

Environmental issues, particularly clean water and air, traffic congestion and better public transport, are among the top priorities of urban voters as they prepare to vote in the world’s largest general election.

In India it is no longer religion or caste that tops the poll of issues that concern voters, but policies that affect their daily lives, still blighted by some of the worst pollution in the world which is also contributing to climate change and the shortage of clean water.

Although for both rural and urban voters job opportunities and the need to make a living are the number one priority, a whole list of environmental issues are more important than terrorism or strong military defence, both of which appear to be of little concern to the electorate.

With air pollution a major cause of illness and death in both town and country, the voters are also demanding better hospitals and health care centres to help them with breathing difficulties.

The elections start on 11 April, and with 900 million people able to vote it will not be until 23 May that the result is finally declared in 29 states to elect the 543 members of the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, which in turn elects the prime minister for a five-year term. Astonishingly, there will be 84 million new voters, those who have reached the age of 18 since the last general election.

“My daughter has sacrificed her life to save future generations from pollution . . . We won’t let go of her goal’’

In rural areas, where a majority of Indian voters still live, new jobs are still the main priority, but voters’ next five issues involve agriculture, especially the availability of water, and loans and subsidies to help farmers to buy seeds, fertiliser and electricity.

An enormous survey among nearly 300,000 voters conducted by ADR (Association for Democratic Reforms),  a non-government organisation which campaigns for election reforms, has found that Indian voters will opt for candidates who will bring in solutions for basic environmental needs rather than those addressing terrorism.

This trend has encouraged one current Lok Sabha candidate, environmentalist T. Arul Selvam, who says the culture of voting based on the performance of their candidate in battling environmental degradation will improve governance at the ground level.

“The ADR survey shows that there is a positive trend among voters who earlier considered religion and caste as important factors in casting their votes. The drinking water crisis remains unaddressed in scores of villages and urban areas across the country.

“Negligence in preserving water bodies is the origin of the water crisis in this nation. People were fed up with politicians who did not care enough to protect nature, which eventually added problems during calamities like floods and drought,’’ he said.

Smelter opponents shot

Arul Selvam recalled protests held by voluntary groups for more than 100 days in Tamil Nadu, a state in the southern part of India seeking the closure of nuclear power plants and the Sterlite copper smelter, the centre of recent controversy.

“These days people are ready to unite to save nature because their daily survival is becoming tough. People are forced to pay a heavy price for drinking water and food.

“Increasing medical bills for people living in industrial areas are a major cause of concern. These instances have brought a change in voting behaviour among the people’’.

Arul Selvam’s views were echoed when Climate News Network met families who had lost children who were fired on by police during the protest against the smelter in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district.

Thirteen protestors were killed by police in May 2018 when they sought the closure of the copper plant, accusing the owners of degrading land, air and water resources.  Now the families say that their relatives and many in the villages in Thoothukudi, a port city, have decided to vote for a party that promises permanent closure of the plant and action against pollution that has affected them for over two decades.

Permanent closure sought

“My daughter was shot in her throat. We fought against pollution caused by Sterlite. Now the plant has been closed down temporarily. We want to vote for a political party that will ensure permanent closure of this plant and save our town from pollution.

“My daughter has sacrificed her life to save future generations from pollution. She told me many died in our village due to cancer and also suffered severe asthma problems because of pollution. We won’t let go of her goal,’’ says Vanitha, mother of Snowlin, aged 19, who was killed during the shooting.

Some politicians welcome the new priorities of voters in these elections. J. Jayavardhan, India’s youngest member of parliament, elected by the South Chennai constituency, says he is happy to see the survey result with voters “going green.”

“It’s an emerging trend in India among people to go green in their lives and taking small steps for sustainable living. Though this seems to be a small number now, it will grow in a phased manner. Voters considering candidates based on environmental conservation show how pollution has affected their daily lives.

“I am campaigning for cloth bags and waste segregation at source and opened compost plants in my constituency. This has impacted residents here to cut down on usage of plastic bags and to use composting facilities in their neighbourhood.’’ − Climate News Network

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Paul Brown wrote this report with our Chennal correspondent.

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Mosquito risk to health may double by 2100

As the world warms, the horizons also widen for the mosquito risk to health, putting another billion people in jeopardy.

LONDON, 1 April, 2019 − Within 80 years the health of twice as many people as today could face a serious mosquito risk − and not only in the tropics.

One billion people are already in danger of mosquito-borne disease. As the world warms and climates become more hospitable to the insects that transmit dengue fever, yellow fever, Zika and other fearful viruses, that number could double by the end of the century.

And as Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus extend their range to the north and the south, and higher up the hill regions, tropical infections that already kill millions will spread into the temperate zones.

“Climate change is the largest and most comprehensive threat to global health security . . .  after the Zika outbreak in Brazil in 2015, we’re especially worried about what comes next”

At some point in the next 50 years, according to a study in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, one billion people could become newly exposed not just to dengue and yellow fever, but to emerging diseases such as chikungunya, Zika, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis, all carried by just two species of mosquito.

“Climate change will have a profound effect on the global distribution and burden of infectious diseases,” the authors warn. “Current knowledge suggests that the range of mosquito-borne diseases could expand dramatically in response to climate change.”

As temperatures go up – the planet is already 1°C warmer on average than it has been for most of human history, thanks to profligate use of fossil fuels to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and is on course to hit 3°C warmer by 2100 – so does the scope for disease transmission by insects that flourish in a range of temperatures.

No let-up

Infections could begin to happen year-round in the tropics, and some people could be at risk during the warmer seasons almost everywhere else. Infections, too, could become more intense.

Rising temperatures open up new ranges for carriers of potentially lethal disease, and the latest study takes a closer look at what climate models predict about disease transmission by just two species.

“These diseases, which we think of as strictly tropical, have been showing up already in areas with suitable climates, such as Florida, because humans are very good at moving both bugs and their pathogens around the globe,” said Sadie Ryan, a medical geographer at the University of Florida, who led the study.

Mosquitoes grounded?

And her co-author Colin Carlson, a biologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC, said: “Climate change is the largest and most comprehensive threat to global health security. Mosquitoes are only part of the challenge, but after the Zika outbreak in Brazil in 2015, we’re especially worried about what comes next.”

Paradoxically, rising temperatures could be good news for some at-risk populations: both the Anopheles mosquito that carries the malaria parasite and the Aedes that is host to a number of diseases are most dangerous within a range of temperatures: as the thermometer rises, it could become too hot for malaria transmission in some places, or even too hot for mosquitoes.

“This might sound like a good news, bad news situation, but it’s all bad news if we end up in the worst timeline for climate change,” said Dr Carlson. “Any scenario where a region gets too warm to transmit dengue is one where we have different but equally severe threats in other health sectors.” − Climate News Network

As the world warms, the horizons also widen for the mosquito risk to health, putting another billion people in jeopardy.

LONDON, 1 April, 2019 − Within 80 years the health of twice as many people as today could face a serious mosquito risk − and not only in the tropics.

One billion people are already in danger of mosquito-borne disease. As the world warms and climates become more hospitable to the insects that transmit dengue fever, yellow fever, Zika and other fearful viruses, that number could double by the end of the century.

And as Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus extend their range to the north and the south, and higher up the hill regions, tropical infections that already kill millions will spread into the temperate zones.

“Climate change is the largest and most comprehensive threat to global health security . . .  after the Zika outbreak in Brazil in 2015, we’re especially worried about what comes next”

At some point in the next 50 years, according to a study in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, one billion people could become newly exposed not just to dengue and yellow fever, but to emerging diseases such as chikungunya, Zika, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis, all carried by just two species of mosquito.

“Climate change will have a profound effect on the global distribution and burden of infectious diseases,” the authors warn. “Current knowledge suggests that the range of mosquito-borne diseases could expand dramatically in response to climate change.”

As temperatures go up – the planet is already 1°C warmer on average than it has been for most of human history, thanks to profligate use of fossil fuels to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and is on course to hit 3°C warmer by 2100 – so does the scope for disease transmission by insects that flourish in a range of temperatures.

No let-up

Infections could begin to happen year-round in the tropics, and some people could be at risk during the warmer seasons almost everywhere else. Infections, too, could become more intense.

Rising temperatures open up new ranges for carriers of potentially lethal disease, and the latest study takes a closer look at what climate models predict about disease transmission by just two species.

“These diseases, which we think of as strictly tropical, have been showing up already in areas with suitable climates, such as Florida, because humans are very good at moving both bugs and their pathogens around the globe,” said Sadie Ryan, a medical geographer at the University of Florida, who led the study.

Mosquitoes grounded?

And her co-author Colin Carlson, a biologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC, said: “Climate change is the largest and most comprehensive threat to global health security. Mosquitoes are only part of the challenge, but after the Zika outbreak in Brazil in 2015, we’re especially worried about what comes next.”

Paradoxically, rising temperatures could be good news for some at-risk populations: both the Anopheles mosquito that carries the malaria parasite and the Aedes that is host to a number of diseases are most dangerous within a range of temperatures: as the thermometer rises, it could become too hot for malaria transmission in some places, or even too hot for mosquitoes.

“This might sound like a good news, bad news situation, but it’s all bad news if we end up in the worst timeline for climate change,” said Dr Carlson. “Any scenario where a region gets too warm to transmit dengue is one where we have different but equally severe threats in other health sectors.” − Climate News Network

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Hunger is growing as the world warms faster

Climate change is speeding up, and among its malign impacts is a setback for efforts to feed the world: hunger is growing again.

LONDON, 29 March, 2019 − The global threat of hunger is growing again after years of progress in reducing it, the United Nations says, because of the effects of climate change.

It says this is just one aspect of a wider acceleration in the pace of the changes wrought by the world’s unremitting consumption of fossil fuels and the consequential rise in global temperatures..

The evidence that hunger and malnutrition are once again on the rise is published in a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on the state of the global climate in 2018.

The report, drawing on material from scientists, UN agencies and countries’ own meteorological services, says the physical signs and the impacts of climate change are speeding up as record greenhouse gas concentrations drive global temperatures towards increasingly dangerous levels.

“New evidence shows a continuing rise in world hunger after a prolonged decline . . . ”

Highlighting record sea level rise and exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years, the report warns that this warming trend has lasted since the start of this century and is expected to continue.

Carbon dioxide levels, which were at 357.0 parts per million when the first statement in the series was published in 1994, keep rising − to 405.5 ppm in 2017. Greenhouse gas concentrations for 2018 and 2019 are expected to show a further increase.

The start of 2019 has seen warm record daily winter temperatures in Europe, unusual cold in North America and searing heatwaves in Australia. Arctic and Antarctic ice extent is yet again well below average.

In a statement the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, writes that the data released in the report “give cause for great concern. The past four years were the warmest on record, with the global average surface temperature in 2018 approximately 1°C above the pre-industrial baseline … There is no longer any time for delay.”

Four warming years

The WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, says: “Key findings of this statement include the striking consecutive record warming recorded from 2015 through 2018, the continuous upward trend in the atmospheric concentrations of the major greenhouse gases, the increasing rate of sea level rise and the loss of sea ice in both northern and southern polar regions.”

One particular concern highlighted is food security. In the words of the report, “exposure of the agriculture sector to climate extremes is threatening to reverse gains made in ending malnutrition.

“New evidence shows a continuing rise in world hunger  after a prolonged decline, according to data compiled by UN agencies including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme.

“In 2017, the number of undernourished people was estimated to have increased to 821 million, partly due to severe droughts associated with the strong El Niño of 2015–2016.”

Climate refugees

The FAO says the absolute number of undernourished people − those facing chronic food deprivation − reached  nearly 821 m in 2017, from around 804 m in 2016.

The WMO report also singles out the plight of those forced by climate change to leave their homes and become refugees, either within their own countries or abroad. Out of 17.7 m people classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs) tracked by the International Organization for Migration, it says, by September 2018 over 2 m people had been displaced by disasters linked to weather and climate events.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR’s Protection and Return Monitoring Network, about 883,000 new internal displacements were recorded between January and December 2018, of which 32% were associated with flooding and 29% with drought.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees were affected by what the UN calls “secondary displacement”, caused by extreme events, heavy rain, flooding and landslides.

More acid seas

The WMO also expresses concern about a range of impacts of climate change on the global environment, including reduced levels of oxygen in the oceans. Since the middle of the last century there has been an estimated 1-2% decrease in the amount of oxygen in the world’s oceans, according to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC).

In the past decade the oceans have absorbed around 30% of CO2 emissions of human origin. Absorbed CO2 reacts with seawater and changes the pH of the ocean. This process, known as ocean acidification, can affect the ability of marine organisms such as molluscs and reef-building corals, to build and maintain shells and skeletal material.

Observations in the open ocean over the last 30 years have shown a clear trend of decreasing pH. In line with previous reports and projections, ocean acidification is ongoing and the global pH levels continue to decrease, according to UNESCO-IOC. One recent report suggested possible alarming future impacts.

The State of the Climate report will be one of WMO’s contributions to the UN’s Climate Action Summit on 23 September. − Climate News Network

Climate change is speeding up, and among its malign impacts is a setback for efforts to feed the world: hunger is growing again.

LONDON, 29 March, 2019 − The global threat of hunger is growing again after years of progress in reducing it, the United Nations says, because of the effects of climate change.

It says this is just one aspect of a wider acceleration in the pace of the changes wrought by the world’s unremitting consumption of fossil fuels and the consequential rise in global temperatures..

The evidence that hunger and malnutrition are once again on the rise is published in a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on the state of the global climate in 2018.

The report, drawing on material from scientists, UN agencies and countries’ own meteorological services, says the physical signs and the impacts of climate change are speeding up as record greenhouse gas concentrations drive global temperatures towards increasingly dangerous levels.

“New evidence shows a continuing rise in world hunger after a prolonged decline . . . ”

Highlighting record sea level rise and exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years, the report warns that this warming trend has lasted since the start of this century and is expected to continue.

Carbon dioxide levels, which were at 357.0 parts per million when the first statement in the series was published in 1994, keep rising − to 405.5 ppm in 2017. Greenhouse gas concentrations for 2018 and 2019 are expected to show a further increase.

The start of 2019 has seen warm record daily winter temperatures in Europe, unusual cold in North America and searing heatwaves in Australia. Arctic and Antarctic ice extent is yet again well below average.

In a statement the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, writes that the data released in the report “give cause for great concern. The past four years were the warmest on record, with the global average surface temperature in 2018 approximately 1°C above the pre-industrial baseline … There is no longer any time for delay.”

Four warming years

The WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, says: “Key findings of this statement include the striking consecutive record warming recorded from 2015 through 2018, the continuous upward trend in the atmospheric concentrations of the major greenhouse gases, the increasing rate of sea level rise and the loss of sea ice in both northern and southern polar regions.”

One particular concern highlighted is food security. In the words of the report, “exposure of the agriculture sector to climate extremes is threatening to reverse gains made in ending malnutrition.

“New evidence shows a continuing rise in world hunger  after a prolonged decline, according to data compiled by UN agencies including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme.

“In 2017, the number of undernourished people was estimated to have increased to 821 million, partly due to severe droughts associated with the strong El Niño of 2015–2016.”

Climate refugees

The FAO says the absolute number of undernourished people − those facing chronic food deprivation − reached  nearly 821 m in 2017, from around 804 m in 2016.

The WMO report also singles out the plight of those forced by climate change to leave their homes and become refugees, either within their own countries or abroad. Out of 17.7 m people classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs) tracked by the International Organization for Migration, it says, by September 2018 over 2 m people had been displaced by disasters linked to weather and climate events.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR’s Protection and Return Monitoring Network, about 883,000 new internal displacements were recorded between January and December 2018, of which 32% were associated with flooding and 29% with drought.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees were affected by what the UN calls “secondary displacement”, caused by extreme events, heavy rain, flooding and landslides.

More acid seas

The WMO also expresses concern about a range of impacts of climate change on the global environment, including reduced levels of oxygen in the oceans. Since the middle of the last century there has been an estimated 1-2% decrease in the amount of oxygen in the world’s oceans, according to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC).

In the past decade the oceans have absorbed around 30% of CO2 emissions of human origin. Absorbed CO2 reacts with seawater and changes the pH of the ocean. This process, known as ocean acidification, can affect the ability of marine organisms such as molluscs and reef-building corals, to build and maintain shells and skeletal material.

Observations in the open ocean over the last 30 years have shown a clear trend of decreasing pH. In line with previous reports and projections, ocean acidification is ongoing and the global pH levels continue to decrease, according to UNESCO-IOC. One recent report suggested possible alarming future impacts.

The State of the Climate report will be one of WMO’s contributions to the UN’s Climate Action Summit on 23 September. − Climate News Network

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The day the Earth’s climate went berserk

The day in 1815 when the world’s climate went berserk was only the start of months and years of global climate disruption and social unrest.

LONDON, 19 March, 2019 − If you had been in what were then called the Dutch East Indies on 10 April 1815, the day would have been etched indelibly on your memory: it was the day the global climate went berserk.

Many parts of the world are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Island nations in the Pacific are seeing their lands eaten away by rising sea levels.

Whole communities of people in Arctic regions are threatened by rapidly expanding ice melt. The foundations of houses are being swept away. Traditional hunting grounds are being lost.

Wolfgang Behringer is a climate historian who seeks to draw parallels between what is going on now and events long ago. In particular Behringer, a professor of early modern history at Saarland University in Germany, looks at how changes in climate can influence and shape events – political, economic and social.

In a new book he focuses on the 1815 volcanic explosion of Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia. The eruption still rates as the largest in human history; the cloud that burst from the volcano reached a height of 45 kilometres.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity suffice to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems”

Many thousands of people were killed on Sumbawa and adjoining islands, including Lombok and Bali. Dust clouds from Tambora were swept around the globe; the world’s climate went berserk, says Behringer.

“The dimensions of the Tambora crisis were so extraordinary because its roots lay in nature, in processes of geology, atmospheric physics and meteorology. These forces of nature respect no borders.”

The suspended particles from the volcano reduced solar radiation and led to global cooling. What scientists call a dry fog enveloped much of Asia. A blue sun appeared in Latin America. Snow that fell in Italy was red and yellow.

The winter of 1815/16 in much of the world was one of the coldest of the century. In Europe, 1816 became known as the year without summer. In North America what was described as the “Yankee chill” resulted in the worst harvest ever recorded.

Global upset

Torrential rains caused floods and thousands of deaths in China and India. Famine was widespread.

Behringer says the changes in climate provoked social unrest on a worldwide scale.

“The reactions to the crisis offer an example of how societies and individuals respond to climate change, what risks emerge and what opportunities may be associated with it”, he writes.

Epidemics broke out. In 1817 the cholera pathogen appeared for the first time. In India alone it’s believed 1.25 million died of the disease each year for more than a decade following the Tambora explosion. The suffering led to uprisings against British colonial rule in India and Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka.

Simmering revolution

In Ireland, Scotland and Wales people rioted as grain prices soared. In England the authorities became concerned at a rise in revolutionary activity. Prisons filled up.

The years following 1815 were a time of mass migration. Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, in an effort to escape hunger, travelled across the Atlantic to the US and Canada. Within the US there was a movement westwards towards California, which had largely escaped the more severe effects of the eruption.

There were other, less dramatic consequences. Behringer says Tambora inspired a new-found preoccupation with weather and climate phenomena. Not surprisingly, it spurred the emergence of the science of volcanology.

Establishing the cause and effect of changes in climate – whether caused by volcanic eruptions or by the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in consequence – is an extremely tricky business.

Temporary influence

Behringer makes the point that not all of the events of 1815 and subsequent years can be directly attributed to Tambora. But the explosion did act as a catalyst.

The eruption was a single event and its after-effects were not permanent though, for a limited period, the world’s ecological framework was altered.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity sufficed (and still suffice today) to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems.

“And without their daily bread, people can very quickly become angry. In such situations it is clear – even in absolutist monarchies or dictatorships – who the sovereign is.” − Climate News Network

* * *

Tambora and the Year without a Summer, Polity Books, £25.00: to be published on 26 April, 2019.

The day in 1815 when the world’s climate went berserk was only the start of months and years of global climate disruption and social unrest.

LONDON, 19 March, 2019 − If you had been in what were then called the Dutch East Indies on 10 April 1815, the day would have been etched indelibly on your memory: it was the day the global climate went berserk.

Many parts of the world are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Island nations in the Pacific are seeing their lands eaten away by rising sea levels.

Whole communities of people in Arctic regions are threatened by rapidly expanding ice melt. The foundations of houses are being swept away. Traditional hunting grounds are being lost.

Wolfgang Behringer is a climate historian who seeks to draw parallels between what is going on now and events long ago. In particular Behringer, a professor of early modern history at Saarland University in Germany, looks at how changes in climate can influence and shape events – political, economic and social.

In a new book he focuses on the 1815 volcanic explosion of Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia. The eruption still rates as the largest in human history; the cloud that burst from the volcano reached a height of 45 kilometres.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity suffice to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems”

Many thousands of people were killed on Sumbawa and adjoining islands, including Lombok and Bali. Dust clouds from Tambora were swept around the globe; the world’s climate went berserk, says Behringer.

“The dimensions of the Tambora crisis were so extraordinary because its roots lay in nature, in processes of geology, atmospheric physics and meteorology. These forces of nature respect no borders.”

The suspended particles from the volcano reduced solar radiation and led to global cooling. What scientists call a dry fog enveloped much of Asia. A blue sun appeared in Latin America. Snow that fell in Italy was red and yellow.

The winter of 1815/16 in much of the world was one of the coldest of the century. In Europe, 1816 became known as the year without summer. In North America what was described as the “Yankee chill” resulted in the worst harvest ever recorded.

Global upset

Torrential rains caused floods and thousands of deaths in China and India. Famine was widespread.

Behringer says the changes in climate provoked social unrest on a worldwide scale.

“The reactions to the crisis offer an example of how societies and individuals respond to climate change, what risks emerge and what opportunities may be associated with it”, he writes.

Epidemics broke out. In 1817 the cholera pathogen appeared for the first time. In India alone it’s believed 1.25 million died of the disease each year for more than a decade following the Tambora explosion. The suffering led to uprisings against British colonial rule in India and Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka.

Simmering revolution

In Ireland, Scotland and Wales people rioted as grain prices soared. In England the authorities became concerned at a rise in revolutionary activity. Prisons filled up.

The years following 1815 were a time of mass migration. Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, in an effort to escape hunger, travelled across the Atlantic to the US and Canada. Within the US there was a movement westwards towards California, which had largely escaped the more severe effects of the eruption.

There were other, less dramatic consequences. Behringer says Tambora inspired a new-found preoccupation with weather and climate phenomena. Not surprisingly, it spurred the emergence of the science of volcanology.

Establishing the cause and effect of changes in climate – whether caused by volcanic eruptions or by the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in consequence – is an extremely tricky business.

Temporary influence

Behringer makes the point that not all of the events of 1815 and subsequent years can be directly attributed to Tambora. But the explosion did act as a catalyst.

The eruption was a single event and its after-effects were not permanent though, for a limited period, the world’s ecological framework was altered.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity sufficed (and still suffice today) to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems.

“And without their daily bread, people can very quickly become angry. In such situations it is clear – even in absolutist monarchies or dictatorships – who the sovereign is.” − Climate News Network

* * *

Tambora and the Year without a Summer, Polity Books, £25.00: to be published on 26 April, 2019.

*

Food security at risk as web of life unravels

Biodiversity, the web of life, is on the decline. That includes the natural ecosystems that directly and indirectly manage the catering for humanity’s supper table.

LONDON, 1 March, 2019 – The biggest agricultural authority in the world has warned that the web of life is coming apart as the loss of biodiversity increases.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations says the wholesale destruction and degradation of natural ecosystems puts human food security at risk, and adds a warning that the same loss could also seriously affect human health and livelihoods.

Although conservationists and biologists have been warning for decades of the increasing threat of mass extinction of species, the FAO study focuses on what its authors call “associated biodiversity for food and agriculture” – that is the networks or ecosystems of living things that underwrite all human food, livestock feed, fuel and fibre, as well as many human medicines.

These ecosystems include all plants, animals and microorganisms – insects, bats, birds, fungi, bacteria, earthworms, mangroves, corals, seagrasses and so on – that create soil fertility, pollinate plants, purify air and water, feed and protect fish, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

Fish in jeopardy

And entirely independently, a team of French scientists has modelled marine biological systems on which humanity’s annual 80 million metric ton haul of fish depends, and warned that climate change could be about to trigger what they call “unprecedented biological shifts” in the world’s oceans.

In a new, 576-page report the FAO concerns itself not just with the remorseless loss everywhere of the natural wilderness and the biological variety fine-tuned by three billion years of evolution, but also with the wild ancestors of crop plants and the myriad breeds, strains and variants selected and bred by generations of farmers and pastoralists during the past 10,000 years of settled agriculture.

There are more than 250,000 flowering plants. Around 6,000 are cultivated for food, but most of the global diet is based on fewer than 200 species, and 66% of all crop production is delivered by just nine crop plants.

All of them are dependent directly and indirectly on associated biodiversity. “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” said José Graziano da Silva, director-general of FAO.

Wild food problems

The FAO authors base their study on data from 91 of the 178 countries represented in the organisation. They find that 40 animal species comprise the world’s livestock, but the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs come from just a few species. The global count of breeds of livestock is put at 7,745. Of this huge variety, 26% are at risk of extinction.

Wild foods too – fruits, bulbs, tubers, grains, nuts, kernels, saps and gums, honey and insects and snails – matter hugely to many people in developing countries, but many of these report that 24% of the 4,000 species that provide wild food are in decline.

An estimated 87.5% of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals. Crops pollinated at least partially by animals – bees, but also other insects, birds and bats – account for 35% of all global food but for more than 90% of available vitamin C and more than 70% of available vitamin A.

But the researchers also focus on other services provided by natural ecosystems. Coral reefs, seagrass meadows and kelp forests provide nursery space and food sources for fish, but they also protect coastal communities against floods and storms.

“The increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk”

Wetlands, forests and grassland regulate water flow. Grazing animals reduce the risk of grassland and woodland fire, but overgrazing is a major driver of soil erosion and soil compactions.

The report is a sharp reminder of human dependence on evolution’s generosity, but the warnings about biodiversity loss are hardly new. Researchers have repeatedly warned that the global warming driven by human exploitation of fossil fuels will accelerate the loss of wild things and that once-familiar species are vanishing from many habitats.

Others have already identified the danger of losing the wild ancestors of many crops that could in turn be harmed by climate change, and German scientists warned in 2017 of catastrophic falls in insect populations.

The impact of ever higher carbon dioxide ratios is predicted to harm the kelp forests that provide shelter for many commercial fish species., and warming itself can only impoverish ocean habitats.

Kind of war game

And support for this comes in the journal Nature Climate Change from a team of French researchers with colleagues from other European nations, the US and Japan.

Because monitoring of ocean biological systems is constrained in scale and fragmented in approach, the researchers turned to computer simulation: they designed a large number of pseudo-species of marine creatures, from zooplankton to fish, in 14 eco-regions, all with a range of responses to natural temperature variations, and then conducted a kind of war game of climate change in which local ocean temperature regimes change as the planet warms.

And they warn the world to expect what they call “abrupt community shifts” that could end in long-term change in the global catch, as well as in fish farms and even the ocean’s role in the carbon cycle.

They also point to a recent rise in the number of “climate surprises” that could be attributed to natural ocean warming events such as El Niño, as well as temperature shifts in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the warming of the Arctic Ocean. – Climate News Network

Biodiversity, the web of life, is on the decline. That includes the natural ecosystems that directly and indirectly manage the catering for humanity’s supper table.

LONDON, 1 March, 2019 – The biggest agricultural authority in the world has warned that the web of life is coming apart as the loss of biodiversity increases.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations says the wholesale destruction and degradation of natural ecosystems puts human food security at risk, and adds a warning that the same loss could also seriously affect human health and livelihoods.

Although conservationists and biologists have been warning for decades of the increasing threat of mass extinction of species, the FAO study focuses on what its authors call “associated biodiversity for food and agriculture” – that is the networks or ecosystems of living things that underwrite all human food, livestock feed, fuel and fibre, as well as many human medicines.

These ecosystems include all plants, animals and microorganisms – insects, bats, birds, fungi, bacteria, earthworms, mangroves, corals, seagrasses and so on – that create soil fertility, pollinate plants, purify air and water, feed and protect fish, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

Fish in jeopardy

And entirely independently, a team of French scientists has modelled marine biological systems on which humanity’s annual 80 million metric ton haul of fish depends, and warned that climate change could be about to trigger what they call “unprecedented biological shifts” in the world’s oceans.

In a new, 576-page report the FAO concerns itself not just with the remorseless loss everywhere of the natural wilderness and the biological variety fine-tuned by three billion years of evolution, but also with the wild ancestors of crop plants and the myriad breeds, strains and variants selected and bred by generations of farmers and pastoralists during the past 10,000 years of settled agriculture.

There are more than 250,000 flowering plants. Around 6,000 are cultivated for food, but most of the global diet is based on fewer than 200 species, and 66% of all crop production is delivered by just nine crop plants.

All of them are dependent directly and indirectly on associated biodiversity. “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” said José Graziano da Silva, director-general of FAO.

Wild food problems

The FAO authors base their study on data from 91 of the 178 countries represented in the organisation. They find that 40 animal species comprise the world’s livestock, but the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs come from just a few species. The global count of breeds of livestock is put at 7,745. Of this huge variety, 26% are at risk of extinction.

Wild foods too – fruits, bulbs, tubers, grains, nuts, kernels, saps and gums, honey and insects and snails – matter hugely to many people in developing countries, but many of these report that 24% of the 4,000 species that provide wild food are in decline.

An estimated 87.5% of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals. Crops pollinated at least partially by animals – bees, but also other insects, birds and bats – account for 35% of all global food but for more than 90% of available vitamin C and more than 70% of available vitamin A.

But the researchers also focus on other services provided by natural ecosystems. Coral reefs, seagrass meadows and kelp forests provide nursery space and food sources for fish, but they also protect coastal communities against floods and storms.

“The increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk”

Wetlands, forests and grassland regulate water flow. Grazing animals reduce the risk of grassland and woodland fire, but overgrazing is a major driver of soil erosion and soil compactions.

The report is a sharp reminder of human dependence on evolution’s generosity, but the warnings about biodiversity loss are hardly new. Researchers have repeatedly warned that the global warming driven by human exploitation of fossil fuels will accelerate the loss of wild things and that once-familiar species are vanishing from many habitats.

Others have already identified the danger of losing the wild ancestors of many crops that could in turn be harmed by climate change, and German scientists warned in 2017 of catastrophic falls in insect populations.

The impact of ever higher carbon dioxide ratios is predicted to harm the kelp forests that provide shelter for many commercial fish species., and warming itself can only impoverish ocean habitats.

Kind of war game

And support for this comes in the journal Nature Climate Change from a team of French researchers with colleagues from other European nations, the US and Japan.

Because monitoring of ocean biological systems is constrained in scale and fragmented in approach, the researchers turned to computer simulation: they designed a large number of pseudo-species of marine creatures, from zooplankton to fish, in 14 eco-regions, all with a range of responses to natural temperature variations, and then conducted a kind of war game of climate change in which local ocean temperature regimes change as the planet warms.

And they warn the world to expect what they call “abrupt community shifts” that could end in long-term change in the global catch, as well as in fish farms and even the ocean’s role in the carbon cycle.

They also point to a recent rise in the number of “climate surprises” that could be attributed to natural ocean warming events such as El Niño, as well as temperature shifts in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the warming of the Arctic Ocean. – Climate News Network

*

Chernobyl’s legacy imperils many thousands

More than 30 years after it exploded, Chernobyl’s legacy still casts a baleful shadow over hundreds of thousands of lives.

LONDON, 25 February, 2019 − The risk of an accident with civil nuclear power may be small, but when an accident does happen the impact may be immense, as a new book on Chernobyl’s legacy makes clear.

The nuclear industry promotes its technology as a key way of battling climate change. A nuclear reactor can supply vast amounts of energy; compared with coal, oil or gas-fired power plants there are few or no emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

But nuclear energy does have considerable drawbacks. A nuclear power plant costs many billions of dollars to build – and is even more expensive to decommission at the end of its working life.

Nuclear power plants have been around for decades, yet the problem of how to deal with vast stockpiles of highly dangerous waste is still there – a poisonous legacy for future generations.

And then there is the safety factor.

At 1.23 on the morning of 26 April 1986, engineers at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in western Ukraine, close to the border with Belarus, were carrying out a routine turbine and reactor shut-down test.

“As far as the engineers were concerned, the reactor and its panoply of safety systems were idiot-proof. No textbook they had ever read suggested that reactors could explode”

There was a sudden roar. “That roar was a completely unfamiliar kind, very low in tone, like a human moan”, said one of those present in the plant’s central control room.

Then there was a loud blast. Nobody knew what had happened; some thought there’d been an earthquake.

In his recently published study of events at Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy– now a professor of history at Harvard, but in 1986 a Ukraine resident – says no-one believed a nuclear reactor had fractured. Chernobyl used the latest Soviet technology. A nuclear accident was inconceivable.

The nuclear industry today, whether in Russia, China or the West, is similarly confident of its safety. “As far as they (the engineers) were concerned, the reactor and its panoply of safety systems were idiot-proof. No textbook they had ever read suggested that reactors could explode.”

Yet explode it did. A build-up of steam destroyed the reactor’s casing; a concrete structure weighing 200 tonnes that mantled the reactor was blown through the roof.

Obsessed with secrecy

Vast clouds of radiation escaped into the atmosphere, blown by winds first northwest over Belarus and on over much of Scandinavia and to as far away as the hills of Wales. Later the winds changed and carried the radiation east, over Ukraine itself.

Plokhy’s book is not the first on Chernobyl, but it is billed as the most up-to-date and extensively researched.

He details how the nuclear industry, which grew out of and alongside nuclear arms programmes, has always been obsessed with secrecy – in what was the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

In 1957 there’d been a serious nuclear accident at a Soviet nuclear plant at Ozersk in the Ural mountains. The American military learned of the incident but decided not to disclose it to the public in the West.

“Both sides had a stake in keeping it under wraps so as not to frighten their citizens and make them reject nuclear power as a source of cheap energy”, says Plokhy.

Reports suppressed

The Soviet authorities at first denied – both to the West and to their own citizens – the scale of the disaster at Chernobyl. The KGB – the Soviet intelligence service – cut phone lines so people could not communicate what had happened, and toned down or suppressed scientists’ reports.

Several KGB agents succumbed to radiation poisoning as they crawled in bushes round the Chernobyl plant, guarding visiting officials against assassination attempts.

While many top officials showed scant regard for their own citizens’ safety, there were also many acts of great bravery. Divers swam through radioactive waters at the plant in order to manipulate submerged valves, knowing they would die as a result.

Scientists, firemen and helicopter crews did their work despite absorbing often lethal levels of radiation. Young conscripts in the Soviet military – most unprotected and not knowing what danger they were in – did much of the clean-up work at the plant.

Engineers working at Chernobyl became scapegoats for the explosion. Some were imprisoned. Some committed suicide. Others died of radiation sickness.

Frightened into silence

Plokhy says a combination of factors was to blame There were short cuts in construction at the plant. There was pressure to increase energy quotas. Testing procedures had not been followed. There were serious design faults.

Scientists and engineers frightened of losing their jobs knew there were faults but were reluctant to contradict their superiors.

The Soviet Union crumbled. There was a rush in the West to fund safety measures at Soviet-era reactors.

“The directors of the nuclear power companies in the West were in panic: another accident in the East could damage the reputation of nuclear power in the West beyond repair and potentially put them out of business.”

While deaths as a direct result of the explosion at Chernobyl were few, hundreds of thousands of people in what was the old Soviet Union have developed or are in danger of developing cancers and other diseases as a result of the explosion. Many thousands of square kilometres of land have been contaminated.

Unsafe for 20,000 years

Chernobyl is shut down and a giant metal sarcophagus now covers the fractured reactor.

The land around the plant will not be safe for human habitation for at least another 20,000 years. The costs of the explosion run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Plokhy says we’re still just as far from taming nuclear reactions as we were in 1986; he questions whether safety measures will be followed completely in countries like Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, at present involved in nuclear programmes.

“Are we sure that all these reactors are sound, that safety measures will be followed to the letter, and that the autocratic regimes running most of these countries will not sacrifice the safety of their people and the world as a whole to get extra energy and cash to build up their military, ensure rapid economic development, and try to head off public discontent?

“That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986.” − Climate News Network

Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy. By Serhii Plokhy. Penguin Books

More than 30 years after it exploded, Chernobyl’s legacy still casts a baleful shadow over hundreds of thousands of lives.

LONDON, 25 February, 2019 − The risk of an accident with civil nuclear power may be small, but when an accident does happen the impact may be immense, as a new book on Chernobyl’s legacy makes clear.

The nuclear industry promotes its technology as a key way of battling climate change. A nuclear reactor can supply vast amounts of energy; compared with coal, oil or gas-fired power plants there are few or no emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

But nuclear energy does have considerable drawbacks. A nuclear power plant costs many billions of dollars to build – and is even more expensive to decommission at the end of its working life.

Nuclear power plants have been around for decades, yet the problem of how to deal with vast stockpiles of highly dangerous waste is still there – a poisonous legacy for future generations.

And then there is the safety factor.

At 1.23 on the morning of 26 April 1986, engineers at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in western Ukraine, close to the border with Belarus, were carrying out a routine turbine and reactor shut-down test.

“As far as the engineers were concerned, the reactor and its panoply of safety systems were idiot-proof. No textbook they had ever read suggested that reactors could explode”

There was a sudden roar. “That roar was a completely unfamiliar kind, very low in tone, like a human moan”, said one of those present in the plant’s central control room.

Then there was a loud blast. Nobody knew what had happened; some thought there’d been an earthquake.

In his recently published study of events at Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy– now a professor of history at Harvard, but in 1986 a Ukraine resident – says no-one believed a nuclear reactor had fractured. Chernobyl used the latest Soviet technology. A nuclear accident was inconceivable.

The nuclear industry today, whether in Russia, China or the West, is similarly confident of its safety. “As far as they (the engineers) were concerned, the reactor and its panoply of safety systems were idiot-proof. No textbook they had ever read suggested that reactors could explode.”

Yet explode it did. A build-up of steam destroyed the reactor’s casing; a concrete structure weighing 200 tonnes that mantled the reactor was blown through the roof.

Obsessed with secrecy

Vast clouds of radiation escaped into the atmosphere, blown by winds first northwest over Belarus and on over much of Scandinavia and to as far away as the hills of Wales. Later the winds changed and carried the radiation east, over Ukraine itself.

Plokhy’s book is not the first on Chernobyl, but it is billed as the most up-to-date and extensively researched.

He details how the nuclear industry, which grew out of and alongside nuclear arms programmes, has always been obsessed with secrecy – in what was the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

In 1957 there’d been a serious nuclear accident at a Soviet nuclear plant at Ozersk in the Ural mountains. The American military learned of the incident but decided not to disclose it to the public in the West.

“Both sides had a stake in keeping it under wraps so as not to frighten their citizens and make them reject nuclear power as a source of cheap energy”, says Plokhy.

Reports suppressed

The Soviet authorities at first denied – both to the West and to their own citizens – the scale of the disaster at Chernobyl. The KGB – the Soviet intelligence service – cut phone lines so people could not communicate what had happened, and toned down or suppressed scientists’ reports.

Several KGB agents succumbed to radiation poisoning as they crawled in bushes round the Chernobyl plant, guarding visiting officials against assassination attempts.

While many top officials showed scant regard for their own citizens’ safety, there were also many acts of great bravery. Divers swam through radioactive waters at the plant in order to manipulate submerged valves, knowing they would die as a result.

Scientists, firemen and helicopter crews did their work despite absorbing often lethal levels of radiation. Young conscripts in the Soviet military – most unprotected and not knowing what danger they were in – did much of the clean-up work at the plant.

Engineers working at Chernobyl became scapegoats for the explosion. Some were imprisoned. Some committed suicide. Others died of radiation sickness.

Frightened into silence

Plokhy says a combination of factors was to blame There were short cuts in construction at the plant. There was pressure to increase energy quotas. Testing procedures had not been followed. There were serious design faults.

Scientists and engineers frightened of losing their jobs knew there were faults but were reluctant to contradict their superiors.

The Soviet Union crumbled. There was a rush in the West to fund safety measures at Soviet-era reactors.

“The directors of the nuclear power companies in the West were in panic: another accident in the East could damage the reputation of nuclear power in the West beyond repair and potentially put them out of business.”

While deaths as a direct result of the explosion at Chernobyl were few, hundreds of thousands of people in what was the old Soviet Union have developed or are in danger of developing cancers and other diseases as a result of the explosion. Many thousands of square kilometres of land have been contaminated.

Unsafe for 20,000 years

Chernobyl is shut down and a giant metal sarcophagus now covers the fractured reactor.

The land around the plant will not be safe for human habitation for at least another 20,000 years. The costs of the explosion run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Plokhy says we’re still just as far from taming nuclear reactions as we were in 1986; he questions whether safety measures will be followed completely in countries like Egypt, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, at present involved in nuclear programmes.

“Are we sure that all these reactors are sound, that safety measures will be followed to the letter, and that the autocratic regimes running most of these countries will not sacrifice the safety of their people and the world as a whole to get extra energy and cash to build up their military, ensure rapid economic development, and try to head off public discontent?

“That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986.” − Climate News Network

Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy. By Serhii Plokhy. Penguin Books

*

Growing nuclear waste legacy defies disposal

Supporters say more nuclear power will combat climate change, but the industry is still failing to tackle its nuclear waste legacy.

LONDON, 7 February, 2019 − The nuclear industry, and governments across the world, have yet to find a solution to the nuclear waste legacy, the highly dangerous radioactive remains that are piling up in unsafe stores in many countries.

A report commissioned by Greenpeace France says there is now a serious threat of a major accident or terrorist attack in several of the countries most heavily reliant on nuclear power, including the US, France and the UK.

The report fears for what may be to come: “When the stability of nations is measured in years and perhaps decades into the future, what will be the viability of states over the thousands-of-year timeframes required to manage nuclear waste?”

Hundreds of ageing nuclear power stations now have dry stores or deep ponds full of old used fuel, known as spent fuel, from decades of refuelling reactors.

The old fuel has to be cooled for 30 years or more to prevent it spontaneously catching fire and sending a deadly plume of radioactivity hundreds of miles downwind.

Some idea of the dangerous radiation involved is the fact that standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute, the Greenpeace report says.

Official guesswork

The estimates of costs for dealing with the waste in the future are compiled by government experts but vary widely from country to country, and all figures are just official guesswork. All are measured in billions of dollars.

To give an example of actual annual costs for one waste site in the UK, Sellafield in north-west England, the budget just for keeping it safe is £3 bn (US$3.9 bn) a year.

It is estimated that disposing of the waste at Sellafield would cost £80 bn, but that is at best an informed guess since no way of disposing of it has been found.

The report details the waste from the whole nuclear cycle. This begins with the billions of tons of mildly radioactive uranium mine tailings that are left untended in spoil heaps in more than a dozen countries.

Then there are the stores of thousands of tons of depleted uranium left over after producing nuclear fuel and weapons. Last, there is the highly radioactive fuel removed from the reactors, some of it reprocessed to obtain plutonium, leaving behind extremely dangerous liquid waste.

Although the environmental damage from uranium mining is massive, the major danger comes from fires or explosions in spent fuel stores, which need constant cooling to prevent “catastrophic releases” of radioactivity into urban areas.

“Standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute”

There are now an estimated quarter of a million tons of spent fuel stored at dozens of power stations in 14 nuclear countries.

The report concentrates on Belgium, Finland, France, Japan, Sweden, the UK and the US. What happens in Russia and China is not open to public scrutiny.

All countries have severe problems, but those with the most reactors that have also gone in for reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons face the worst.

The report says of France, which has 58 reactors, a number of which are soon to be retired: “There is currently no credible solution for long-term disposal of nuclear waste in France; the urgent matter is reducing risks from existing waste, including spent fuel.”

In the 60 years since the nuclear industry began producing highly dangerous waste, some of it has been dumped in the sea or vented into the atmosphere, but most has been stored, waiting for someone to come up with the technology to neutralise it or a safe way of disposing of it.

Sea dumping outlawed

Since the option of dumping it in the sea was closed off in the 1980s because of alarm about the increase in cancers this would cause, governments have concentrated on the idea of building deep depositories in stable rock or clay formations to allow the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

The problem with this solution is that high-level waste stays dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, so future generations may be put in danger.

Only two countries, Finland and Sweden, which both have stable rock formations, are building repositories, but in both cases there are still doubts and controversy over whether these schemes will be robust enough to contain the radioactivity indefinitely.

In democratic countries, in every case where a depository has been or is proposed, there is a public backlash from nearby communities. This is true in all the countries studied, many of which have been forced to abandon plans to bury the waste

As a result of this resistance from the public the report says that the US “lacks a coherent policy” and the American Department of Energy suggests that “extended storage for 300 years” is the current plan. − Climate News Network

Supporters say more nuclear power will combat climate change, but the industry is still failing to tackle its nuclear waste legacy.

LONDON, 7 February, 2019 − The nuclear industry, and governments across the world, have yet to find a solution to the nuclear waste legacy, the highly dangerous radioactive remains that are piling up in unsafe stores in many countries.

A report commissioned by Greenpeace France says there is now a serious threat of a major accident or terrorist attack in several of the countries most heavily reliant on nuclear power, including the US, France and the UK.

The report fears for what may be to come: “When the stability of nations is measured in years and perhaps decades into the future, what will be the viability of states over the thousands-of-year timeframes required to manage nuclear waste?”

Hundreds of ageing nuclear power stations now have dry stores or deep ponds full of old used fuel, known as spent fuel, from decades of refuelling reactors.

The old fuel has to be cooled for 30 years or more to prevent it spontaneously catching fire and sending a deadly plume of radioactivity hundreds of miles downwind.

Some idea of the dangerous radiation involved is the fact that standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute, the Greenpeace report says.

Official guesswork

The estimates of costs for dealing with the waste in the future are compiled by government experts but vary widely from country to country, and all figures are just official guesswork. All are measured in billions of dollars.

To give an example of actual annual costs for one waste site in the UK, Sellafield in north-west England, the budget just for keeping it safe is £3 bn (US$3.9 bn) a year.

It is estimated that disposing of the waste at Sellafield would cost £80 bn, but that is at best an informed guess since no way of disposing of it has been found.

The report details the waste from the whole nuclear cycle. This begins with the billions of tons of mildly radioactive uranium mine tailings that are left untended in spoil heaps in more than a dozen countries.

Then there are the stores of thousands of tons of depleted uranium left over after producing nuclear fuel and weapons. Last, there is the highly radioactive fuel removed from the reactors, some of it reprocessed to obtain plutonium, leaving behind extremely dangerous liquid waste.

Although the environmental damage from uranium mining is massive, the major danger comes from fires or explosions in spent fuel stores, which need constant cooling to prevent “catastrophic releases” of radioactivity into urban areas.

“Standing one metre away from a spent fuel assembly removed from a reactor a year previously could kill you in about one minute”

There are now an estimated quarter of a million tons of spent fuel stored at dozens of power stations in 14 nuclear countries.

The report concentrates on Belgium, Finland, France, Japan, Sweden, the UK and the US. What happens in Russia and China is not open to public scrutiny.

All countries have severe problems, but those with the most reactors that have also gone in for reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons face the worst.

The report says of France, which has 58 reactors, a number of which are soon to be retired: “There is currently no credible solution for long-term disposal of nuclear waste in France; the urgent matter is reducing risks from existing waste, including spent fuel.”

In the 60 years since the nuclear industry began producing highly dangerous waste, some of it has been dumped in the sea or vented into the atmosphere, but most has been stored, waiting for someone to come up with the technology to neutralise it or a safe way of disposing of it.

Sea dumping outlawed

Since the option of dumping it in the sea was closed off in the 1980s because of alarm about the increase in cancers this would cause, governments have concentrated on the idea of building deep depositories in stable rock or clay formations to allow the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

The problem with this solution is that high-level waste stays dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, so future generations may be put in danger.

Only two countries, Finland and Sweden, which both have stable rock formations, are building repositories, but in both cases there are still doubts and controversy over whether these schemes will be robust enough to contain the radioactivity indefinitely.

In democratic countries, in every case where a depository has been or is proposed, there is a public backlash from nearby communities. This is true in all the countries studied, many of which have been forced to abandon plans to bury the waste

As a result of this resistance from the public the report says that the US “lacks a coherent policy” and the American Department of Energy suggests that “extended storage for 300 years” is the current plan. − Climate News Network

*

Food shocks increase as world warms

Heat extremes harm harvests. So do floods, drought and high winds. Climate change spurs food shocks that threaten the supper table.

LONDON, 1 February, 2019 − More than ever, the world’s ways of keeping hunger at bay are taking a pounding as food shocks become more frequent. Potatoes are being baked in heat waves. Corn is being parched by drought. Fruit is being bitten by frost.

And a long-term study suggests that for the world’s farmers and graziers, fishing crews and fish farmers, things will get worse as the world warms. Australian and US scientists report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they examined the incidence of what they call “food shocks” across 134 nations over a period of 53 years.

They found that some regions and some kinds of farming have suffered worse than others; that food production is vulnerable to volatile climate and weather changes; and that the dangers are increasing with time.

The researchers looked at cases of dramatic crop failure, harvest loss and fishing fleet failures between 1961 and 2013, as recorded by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and other sources, and then mapped shock frequency and co-occurrence.

In their database of 741 available time-series of food production, they found 226 cases of food shock: dramatic interruption of supply.

Hunger increases

Agriculture and livestock emerged as slightly more vulnerable to shock than fisheries and aquaculture. South Asia suffered most from crop damage or loss; the Caribbean for livestock, and Eastern Europe for fisheries; some of these regions were hard hit in more than one sector.

“The frequency of shocks has increased across all sectors at a global scale,” the authors report. “Increasing shock frequency is a food security concern in itself. Conflict-related shocks across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East since 2010, combined with adverse climate conditions, are responsible for the first uptick in global hunger in recent times.”

More than half of all shocks to food production were climate-related, and drought was the biggest factor. Extreme weather accounted for a quarter of shocks to livestock, and disease outbreaks another 10%, but the biggest single factor for pastoral farmers arose from geopolitical conflict and other crises.

Fisheries seemed better protected, and the worst shocks to fish landings could be traced to overfishing. Disruption to fish farming – a relatively new form of food production – has grown at a faster rate and to a higher level than in any other sector.

Climate scientists and agricultural researchers have been warning for years that food security is at hazard from global warming and climate change, both driven by profligate human use of fossil fuels and unthinking destruction of forests and natural grasslands and wetlands.

“While the number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the long-term trend shows they are happening more often”

Heat extremes can harm cereal yields almost anywhere, but Africa and South-east Asia are particularly at risk from changes in precipitation patterns.

The latest study is a reminder that, in some ways, the future has already arrived: the forewarned rise in climate extremes such as flood, heat and drought can be detected in the annual harvest tally around the globe.

And although a high percentage of the food supply damage can be linked to social conflict or political stress, climate change seems increasingly to be a factor in civil and international violence.

A new study for the UN security council – co-incidentally released on the same day – confirms the picture. Hunger and conflict are in a persistent and deadly partnership that threatens millions.

Mass famine

The number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the Nature Sustainability authors say. That is because factors such as social conflict and climate change can in synergy create a number of shocks across different sectors at different times. At least 22 of the 134 nations experienced shocks in many sectors over the same five-year time period.

In some cases, these shocks ended with more than just empty shelves. The collapse of the Soviet Union late in the last century removed some economic support from North Korea: subsequent floods precipitated a famine that killed 200,000 people.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and the subsequent Gulf War, devastated agricultural land and cost Kuwait’s commercial fishermen their livelihoods. Drought in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 decimated cereal yields, pastoralists lost fodder for their cattle and animal disease incidence soared.

“While the number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the long-term trend shows they are happening more often,” said Richard Cottrell of the University of Tasmania, who led the study.

“Globalised trade and the dependence of many countries on food imports mean that food shocks are a global problem, and the international community faces a significant challenge to build resilience.” − Climate News Network

Heat extremes harm harvests. So do floods, drought and high winds. Climate change spurs food shocks that threaten the supper table.

LONDON, 1 February, 2019 − More than ever, the world’s ways of keeping hunger at bay are taking a pounding as food shocks become more frequent. Potatoes are being baked in heat waves. Corn is being parched by drought. Fruit is being bitten by frost.

And a long-term study suggests that for the world’s farmers and graziers, fishing crews and fish farmers, things will get worse as the world warms. Australian and US scientists report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they examined the incidence of what they call “food shocks” across 134 nations over a period of 53 years.

They found that some regions and some kinds of farming have suffered worse than others; that food production is vulnerable to volatile climate and weather changes; and that the dangers are increasing with time.

The researchers looked at cases of dramatic crop failure, harvest loss and fishing fleet failures between 1961 and 2013, as recorded by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and other sources, and then mapped shock frequency and co-occurrence.

In their database of 741 available time-series of food production, they found 226 cases of food shock: dramatic interruption of supply.

Hunger increases

Agriculture and livestock emerged as slightly more vulnerable to shock than fisheries and aquaculture. South Asia suffered most from crop damage or loss; the Caribbean for livestock, and Eastern Europe for fisheries; some of these regions were hard hit in more than one sector.

“The frequency of shocks has increased across all sectors at a global scale,” the authors report. “Increasing shock frequency is a food security concern in itself. Conflict-related shocks across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East since 2010, combined with adverse climate conditions, are responsible for the first uptick in global hunger in recent times.”

More than half of all shocks to food production were climate-related, and drought was the biggest factor. Extreme weather accounted for a quarter of shocks to livestock, and disease outbreaks another 10%, but the biggest single factor for pastoral farmers arose from geopolitical conflict and other crises.

Fisheries seemed better protected, and the worst shocks to fish landings could be traced to overfishing. Disruption to fish farming – a relatively new form of food production – has grown at a faster rate and to a higher level than in any other sector.

Climate scientists and agricultural researchers have been warning for years that food security is at hazard from global warming and climate change, both driven by profligate human use of fossil fuels and unthinking destruction of forests and natural grasslands and wetlands.

“While the number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the long-term trend shows they are happening more often”

Heat extremes can harm cereal yields almost anywhere, but Africa and South-east Asia are particularly at risk from changes in precipitation patterns.

The latest study is a reminder that, in some ways, the future has already arrived: the forewarned rise in climate extremes such as flood, heat and drought can be detected in the annual harvest tally around the globe.

And although a high percentage of the food supply damage can be linked to social conflict or political stress, climate change seems increasingly to be a factor in civil and international violence.

A new study for the UN security council – co-incidentally released on the same day – confirms the picture. Hunger and conflict are in a persistent and deadly partnership that threatens millions.

Mass famine

The number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the Nature Sustainability authors say. That is because factors such as social conflict and climate change can in synergy create a number of shocks across different sectors at different times. At least 22 of the 134 nations experienced shocks in many sectors over the same five-year time period.

In some cases, these shocks ended with more than just empty shelves. The collapse of the Soviet Union late in the last century removed some economic support from North Korea: subsequent floods precipitated a famine that killed 200,000 people.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and the subsequent Gulf War, devastated agricultural land and cost Kuwait’s commercial fishermen their livelihoods. Drought in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 decimated cereal yields, pastoralists lost fodder for their cattle and animal disease incidence soared.

“While the number of food shocks fluctuates from year to year, the long-term trend shows they are happening more often,” said Richard Cottrell of the University of Tasmania, who led the study.

“Globalised trade and the dependence of many countries on food imports mean that food shocks are a global problem, and the international community faces a significant challenge to build resilience.” − Climate News Network

*

Drought and conflict can spur climate refugees

How do you identify climate refugees? And is climate change at the heart of the flow of asylum-seekers? Statistics can offer a cautious answer.

LONDON, 25 January, 2019 − Austrian researchers have made it simpler to identify climate refugees, claiming to have established a direct causal link between climate change, conflict and the numbers of migrants.

They are not the first to confirm that there is a statistical association between the likelihood of drought, or heat extremes, and violence. Evidence of cause for any civil or international conflict is always complex and often disputed.

But researchers now say that mathematical techniques provide an indirect connection between formally-established drought conditions and recorded levels of applications for asylum.

“In a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources”

The link is conflict, of the kind observed in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere,” said Jesus Crespona Cuaresma of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

“But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources.”

Specific conditions

He and colleagues report in the journal Global Environmental Change that they looked at data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of asylum applications from 157 countries between 2006 and 2015.

They then matched the patterns of asylum bids against conditions in their parent countries, using a measure that scientists call the Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index, which provides a guide to the gap between rainfall and heat and drought.

They next assembled a tally measure of battle-related deaths collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme in Sweden. Then they modelled other factors, such as the distance between the countries of origin and destination, the sizes of populations, the migrant networks, the political status of the drought-stressed countries and the known divisions into ethnic and religious groups.

And they found that – in specific circumstances – climatic conditions do lead to increased migration as a consequence of conflict exacerbated by the more severe droughts.

Hard to establish

All conclusions about human behaviour at the political level are difficult to establish. Archaeologists and climate scientists have repeatedly linked the collapse of ancient civilisations to climate change but in most such cases the evidence is circumstantial, and incomplete.

But there is often little or no direct testimony from the faraway past, and no surviving voice to offer a challenge. The connection between climate conditions and human response is less certain in a disputed world.

Researchers have systematically found associations between climate and violence and between climate and the conditions for civil inequality.

Urgent prospect

Some have found an association between drought and the conflict in Syria, but others have disputed the conclusion. Researchers have warned that future climate change could create large numbers of migrants and climate refugees and that both issues are urgent.

But it remains more difficult to establish that climate is the only or even the most pressing factor in any individual case.

So the IIASA finding is a cautious one, backed, the scientists say, by statistical rigour. This identifies climate change, and migration flow, and finds conflict as the causal mediator which links the two, most obviously in the events in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006.

“Our results suggest that climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, play a statistically significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum-seeking exclusively for countries that were affected by the Arab Spring,” they write. − Climate News Network

How do you identify climate refugees? And is climate change at the heart of the flow of asylum-seekers? Statistics can offer a cautious answer.

LONDON, 25 January, 2019 − Austrian researchers have made it simpler to identify climate refugees, claiming to have established a direct causal link between climate change, conflict and the numbers of migrants.

They are not the first to confirm that there is a statistical association between the likelihood of drought, or heat extremes, and violence. Evidence of cause for any civil or international conflict is always complex and often disputed.

But researchers now say that mathematical techniques provide an indirect connection between formally-established drought conditions and recorded levels of applications for asylum.

“In a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources”

The link is conflict, of the kind observed in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere,” said Jesus Crespona Cuaresma of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

“But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources.”

Specific conditions

He and colleagues report in the journal Global Environmental Change that they looked at data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of asylum applications from 157 countries between 2006 and 2015.

They then matched the patterns of asylum bids against conditions in their parent countries, using a measure that scientists call the Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index, which provides a guide to the gap between rainfall and heat and drought.

They next assembled a tally measure of battle-related deaths collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme in Sweden. Then they modelled other factors, such as the distance between the countries of origin and destination, the sizes of populations, the migrant networks, the political status of the drought-stressed countries and the known divisions into ethnic and religious groups.

And they found that – in specific circumstances – climatic conditions do lead to increased migration as a consequence of conflict exacerbated by the more severe droughts.

Hard to establish

All conclusions about human behaviour at the political level are difficult to establish. Archaeologists and climate scientists have repeatedly linked the collapse of ancient civilisations to climate change but in most such cases the evidence is circumstantial, and incomplete.

But there is often little or no direct testimony from the faraway past, and no surviving voice to offer a challenge. The connection between climate conditions and human response is less certain in a disputed world.

Researchers have systematically found associations between climate and violence and between climate and the conditions for civil inequality.

Urgent prospect

Some have found an association between drought and the conflict in Syria, but others have disputed the conclusion. Researchers have warned that future climate change could create large numbers of migrants and climate refugees and that both issues are urgent.

But it remains more difficult to establish that climate is the only or even the most pressing factor in any individual case.

So the IIASA finding is a cautious one, backed, the scientists say, by statistical rigour. This identifies climate change, and migration flow, and finds conflict as the causal mediator which links the two, most obviously in the events in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006.

“Our results suggest that climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, play a statistically significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum-seeking exclusively for countries that were affected by the Arab Spring,” they write. − Climate News Network