Shrinking harvests likely as heat increases

A warmer world could mean shrinking harvests and a more meagre diet for millions of people, according to two new studies.

LONDON, 19 June, 2018 – A hotter world could also be a hungrier one, with shrinking harvests and poorer quality plants. As planetary temperatures rise in response to ever more profligate combustion of fossil fuels, climate change could lower the yield of  vegetable and legume crops – and at the same time reduce their nutritional content.

And the same high end-of-the-century temperatures could raise the risk of massive, near-global losses for the world’s most widely grown cereal, maize.

This double blow comes close upon the evidence – from field trials over many years – that another global staple, rice, is likely to become less rich in protein and vitamins as temperatures increase.

British researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they studied 174 research papers based on 1,540 experiments in 40 countries between 1975 and 2016, on the probable effect of changes in water supplies, ozone, atmospheric carbon dioxide and ambient temperatures, on vegetables and legumes.

They found that on the basis of changes predicted for later this century, average yields of vegetables could fall by 35%, and legumes by 9%. There has been evidence that more atmospheric carbon dioxide could fertilise more plant growth, but other accompanying changes – greater extremes of heat, drought, flood and so on – could cancel out any such gains.

“As the planet warms, it becomes more likely for different countries to simultaneously experience major crop losses”

Pauline Scheelbeck, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the study, called the finding “a real threat to global agricultural production, with likely impacts on food security and population health.”

Scientists have been warning for at least five years of the potential impact of climate change on agriculture and food supply: other studies have shown that fruit and vegetable supplies could be at risk.

There has also been evidence that heat extremes could damage wheat yields while endangering food supplies across the whole of Africa, and at the very least test the capacity of global markets to cope with sudden harvest failures across whole regions.

US researchers report – once again, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – that they took a fresh look at the response of markets to what they call “volatility” in the global crop of just one cereal: maize, or corn.

Heavy dependence

This is grown widely: it is a staple for humans and fodder for livestock; it provides oil for cooking and has even been turned into fuel for motor cars. It is traded worldwide, but four countries – the US, Brazil, Argentina and Ukraine – account for more than 85% of all exports. The chance that all four exporters would have bad harvests in the same year right now is almost zero.

But under a warming of 2°C – a level which 195 nations agreed in Paris in 2015 to keep well below – this risk would rise to 7%. If global temperatures rise by 4°C, which is what will happen if humans go on burning ever more fossil fuels, the chance that all four maize exporters would have harvest failures at the same time rises to 86%. And, if that happened, corn prices would rise dramatically.

“When people think about climate change and food, they initially think about drought, but it’s really extreme heat that’s very detrimental for crops,” said Michelle Tigchelaar of the University of Washington, who led the research.

“We find that as the planet warms, it becomes more likely for different countries to simultaneously experience major crop losses, which has big implications for food prices and food security.” – Climate News Network

Warming world makes noses run

Summer is the worst time for many allergies that make noses run and sufferers feel below par. They’re causing widespread misery just now.

LONDON, 29 May, 2018 – Eyes streaming in the warm weather? Does your nose run; does it itch? Do your ears hurt, do you have a general feeling of malaise?

Climate change is likely to be one of the causes of what is considered to be among the most difficult years ever in North America for those who suffer from a range of spring and summertime allergies.

An abundance of pollen in the air – leading to what specialists term an “allergy explosion” in many regions – is causing widespread discomfort and, for some, serious health problems. Severe sinusitis and what’s generally referred to as hay fever are the most common manifestations of pollen allergy.

Areas in the south of the US, in the states of Louisiana and Georgia, and in central regions such as Nebraska and Kansas, are said to be worst affected.

“Warmer temperatures caused by climate change are really causing longer growing seasons and more intense release of pollen”, says Kenny Mendez, president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Pollen from various grasses, plants and trees can all cause big problems for allergy sufferers.

“The influence of climate change on plant behaviour exacerbates or adds an additional factor to the number of people suffering from allergy and asthma”

Pollen from ragweed or Ambrosia artemisiifolia, a weed native to the US and found throughout the country, is considered to be one of the main reasons for a big upsurge in allergies.

US plant specialists say that, mainly because of changes in climate, including warmer, wetter winters, the pollen-producing season of ragweed increased by nearly a month in the 20-year period to 2015.

This is very bad news for allergy sufferers: one ragweed plant can produce a billion grains of pollen in one growing season, and the pollen can be blown on the wind for hundreds of miles.

Other parts of the world are also on ragweed alert. The plant has been spreading across warmer regions of Europe for the past 50 years.

Twelve-fold increase

Researchers at the University of Leicester in the UK found ragweed pollen levels on some days over a recent summer in the English Midlands were enough to cause severe hay fever and asthma attacks.

EU scientists who worked on the Atopica project, examining the relationship between land use, air quality and climate, found that a combination of warmer winters due to climate change and the spread of invasive ragweed could result in a twelve-fold increase in pollen levels in some parts of Europe by mid-century.

A comprehensive Europe-wide ragweed eradication programme – and action to combat climate change – are vital in order to tackle the ragweed problem, say plant specialists.

Increased allergy rates are due not only to changes in climate and the worldwide spread of various plant species.

Too protective

Air pollution – much of it caused by  climate-changing greenhouse gases from power stations and other industrial facilities – is another factor leading to more allergies. Health professionals say a tendency in the developed world to over-protect children and “over-sanitise” their environments is also to blame; such protective behaviour means immune systems fail to be strengthened.

But scientists are becoming increasingly aware of the critical impact climate change is having on the growing cycle of plants – and on health.

“The influence of climate change on plant behaviour exacerbates or adds an additional factor to the number of people suffering from allergy and asthma”, says Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist at the US Department of Agriculture, quoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US.

Left unchecked, says Ziska, rising carbon dioxide levels and further warming pose serious risks for allergy sufferers. – Climate News Network

Global warming grows less nutritious rice

One consequence of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be less nutritious rice, despite growth gains for some other crops.

LONDON, 25 May, 2018 – Global warming could bring a serious problem for the two billion people on the planet who depend on one grain for their staple diet: less nutritious rice to sustain them. Scientists have found that rice grown at higher levels of carbon dioxide has an overall lower nutritional value.

The grain contains lower levels of protein, and iron and zinc – metals vital for health in trace form – and also consistent declines in vitamin B.

This finding is not based on computer simulation of a plant’s response to notionally higher atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas CO2, nor on laboratory studies under glass and in artificial conditions. It is based on open air field trials.

That is, extra carbon dioxide is piped to the plants to mimic the ratios expected at the end of the century as ever more people burn ever greater quantities of fossil fuels. And it has been tested in many locations in rice-growing countries over many years.

The finding remains true – although at different levels of impact – for the 18 varieties or hybrids of rice tested so far.

levels were down 30%.

“People say more CO2 is more plant food – and it is. But how plants respond to that sudden increase in food will impact human health as well”

Ten nations depend upon rice for daily food supplies. The people most likely to feel the consequences of reduced nutritional support – and these include impaired cognitive development, a feebler immune system, obesity and diabetes – are likely to be those who are poorest. The researchers estimate that 600 million people for whom rice provides more than half their daily diet could be affected.

Scientists from China, Japan, the US and Australia report in the journal Science Advances that they began their research, using what they call the technique of free air carbon dioxide enrichment, in 1998, to recreate what they expect to be the conditions under which farmers will grow crops a few decades from now.

They found on average that the test rice had 10% less protein, 8% less iron and 5.1% less zinc compared with rice grown by farmers under existing conditions. There were also declines of 17% in the vitamins B1 (thiamine) and of more than 16% in vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid levels, were down more than 12%. Folate or vitamin B9 levels were down 30%.

“People say more CO2 is more plant food – and it is. But how plants respond to that sudden increase in food will impact human health as well, from nutritional deficits, to ethnopharmacology, to seasonal pollen allergies – in ways we don’t yet understand,” said Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the US Department of Agriculture research service, one of the authors.

Hungry billion

Up to a billion people in the world are what bureaucrats politely call “food insecure.” There has already been concern about the impact of higher levels of carbon dioxide on protein in potatoes, maize and other cereals.

As global temperatures rise in response to ever greater levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, harvests of all the staple cereals could in any case decline – sometimes as a response to ever wilder extremes of heat, rain and windstorm – by between 20 and 40%. But so far, there has been little research on the impact of climate change on the nutritional qualities of each staple.

The study puts the case more coolly: “For those populations that are highly rice-dependent, any CO2-induced change in the integrated nutritional value of rice grains could disproportionately affect human health.” And the scientists end their study by saying:

“Overall, these results indicate that the role of rising CO2 on reducing rice quality may represent a fundamental, but under-appreciated, human health effect associated with anthropogenic climate change.” – Climate News Network

World temperature rise nears danger level

If world temperature rises more than another 0.5°C, the consequences will be catastrophic for millions of the poorest people.

LONDON, 22 May, 2018 – With world temperature rise already 1°C above pre-industrial levels, new research shows that there is only a 0.5°C safety margin left in the system before the most vulnerable groups of people suffer severely.

The current political target, agreed in Paris more than two years ago, of aiming to prevent temperature from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and certainly stopping a rise beyond 2°C, disguises the fact that we are already more than halfway to the danger point.

And scientists have now shown that there is a huge difference in the consequences to the human race if the 1.5°C limit is exceeded and temperatures allowed to reach 2°C.

Research to identify climate vulnerability hotspots has found that if the global temperature does rise by 2°C, then the number of people affected by multiple climate change risks could double the number affected by a rise of 1.5°C.

Because people living in poverty are much more vulnerable to climate change impacts, knowing where and how many of them are at high risk matters for developing policies to improve their lives.

“Few studies have consistently investigated so many overlapping climate and development challenges”

The researchers investigated the overlap between socio-economic development and a range of climate change risks, to try to identify the vulnerability hotspots if the global mean temperature should rise by 1.5°C, 2°C or 3°C by 2050, compared with the pre-industrial baseline.

The researchers are from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the universities of Oxford (UK) and Washington (US).

They report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they developed 14 impact indicators in three main sectors – water, energy, and food and environment. These indicators include a water stress index, water supply seasonality, clean cooking access, heat stress events, habitat degradation, and crop yield changes.

The team compared the potential risks at the three selected temperatures and in a range of socio-economic pathways, to let them compare more equitable and sustainable development with pathways marked by development failures and high inequality.

Intolerable risk

In 2011, an estimated 767 million people were living on less than US$1.90 per day, classed as extreme poverty, and the researchers estimated that 3.5 billion more people were “vulnerable to poverty”, living on less than US$10 per day.

The research was led by Edward Byers of IIASA’s energy programe. He said: “Few studies have consistently investigated so many overlapping climate and development challenges.”

The multi-sector risk he and his colleagues studied is one where the risk goes beyond tolerable in at least two of the three main sectors. At lower temperatures, hotspots occur primarily in south and east Asia, but with higher global temperatures hotspots spread further to Central America, west and east Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

At 1.5°C of warming, 16% of the probable population of the world in 2050, 1.5bn people, will have moderate-to-high levels of multi-sector risk. At 2°C this almost doubles to 29% of the global population, 2.7bn people. And at 3°C, that figure almost doubles again, to 50% of the global population: 4.6bn human beings.

Sustainability hopes

Depending on the scenario, 91-98% of the exposed and vulnerable population live in Asia and Africa. Around half of these live in south Asia alone, but Africa is likely to face greater risks as the least developed region with high social inequality.

The researchers say sustainable development in hotspot areas could reduce the number of people who are exposed and vulnerable by an order of magnitude, from 1.5bn to 100m, compared with the high inequality scenario.

“The research will be most relevant to policymakers and others looking to understand the benefits of keeping the average global temperature rise to 1.5°C rather than 2°C, as well as providing insights into the regions most at risk across different sectors”, said Astrid Hillers, senior environmental specialist at GEF.

Keywan Riahi, IIASA’s energy programme director, said: “The research indicates locations where meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is not only important but also very challenging, and shows the substantial importance of targeted poverty reduction that is required in some regions to reduce vulnerability.” – Climate News Network

More variable climate means a less just world

A more variable climate spells another injustice in a warming world, with the poorest people likely yet again to feel the heat most intensely.

LONDON, 8 May, 2018 – Climate change threatens the world’s poorest people with greater injustice as a more variable climate compounds the effect of the warming itself.

Dramatic variations in temperature – that is, extremes of heat, or cold snaps – will hit the poorest nations hardest. The variability won’t hurt just because in relative terms the poorest are the most vulnerable. The thermometer will swing most wildly where the gross domestic product is lowest.

That is: the people who emitted the lowest levels of greenhouse gases because they could not afford the fossil fuels that powered the developed economies will once again be hardest hit by climate change as a consequence of global warming, which will follow the build-up of carbon dioxide in the planetary atmosphere.

For every degree of global warming, new research from European scientists suggests that temperature variability will increase by 15% in southern Africa and Amazonia, and up to 10% in the Sahel, India and south-east Asia. Those countries not in the tropics, many of them wealthy and highly developed, may see a decrease in temperature variability.

“We are highlighting these injustices of climate change to trigger action to avoid the worst and to redress those injustices that cannot be avoided”

The scientists put their conclusion with more than usual clarity in the journal Science Advances: “The countries that have contributed least to climate change, and are most vulnerable to extreme events, are projected to experience the strongest increase in vulnerability.

“These changes would therefore amplify the inequality associated with the impacts of a changing climate.”

The researchers analysed 37 different climate models to pinpoint those “hotspots” where the temperature variations would be the most pronounced, as ever more carbon dioxide reaches the atmosphere and continues to push global average temperatures ever higher.

They then matched their maps of temperature anomalies and soil moisture change against maps of gross domestic product per head of population, and greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, the least developed nations would be the hardest hit.

Intensifying hardship

It has been a commonplace of climate science that the injustice is built-in: the poorest will pay most dearly, as sea levels rise and low-lying atolls and river deltas flood, as increasingly violent windstorms batter the shantytowns and jerry-built housing of the rapidly expanding cities in the developing world, and as poorer farmers are forced off marginal land that will become either increasingly parched as the thermometer goes up, or more vulnerable to flooding as the moisture-carrying capacity of the atmosphere increases with temperature.

The issue of climate justice has been repeatedly raised at international level by campaigners, by religious leaders and by academics.

But the latest study goes beyond the familiar generalities to identify the more precise locations of future tragedy. Climate extremes – droughts, floods, heatwaves and ice storms – can destroy harvests, claim lives and sweep away livelihoods, and the poorest economies take the longest to recover.

“It is not only the fact that they are poor that makes these countries vulnerable, but also the relatively large change in climate variability. This issue of variability is different from the problem of mean warming which is actually much larger in high latitudes than in the tropics,” Sebastian Bathiany, of the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, who led the study, told Climate News Network.

Drying forest

One instance is Amazonia, terrain characterised by rainforest. “The Amazon is predicted to become substantially drier as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and this is the main reason for the increased temperature variability predicted for that region. In the last years we observed developments that also point in that direction – for example there were strong droughts in 2005 and 2010.”

And on the other side of the Atlantic, the injustice continues. “More intense heatwaves in Africa will mean more direct deaths for people and livestock, will promote the spread of key diseases, and will hammer agricultural production,” Tim Lenton, from the University of Exeter in the UK, a co-author, told the Network.

“The general trend of urbanisation is not going to help either, as urban heat islands can exacerbate the problem, and when people are concentrated social tensions can escalate. There’s a very lively academic debate going on over whether hot extremes trigger human conflict at all scales from individual to civil wars – my reading of the evidence is that the effect is real,” he said.

“It’s a pretty bleak story – I want readers in the countries affected to know that we stand with them – we are highlighting these injustices of climate change to trigger action to avoid the worst and to redress those injustices that cannot be avoided.” – Climate News Network

Heart attacks can rise during extremes of heat

Extremes of heat are dangerous. Just how dangerous is still being established. But since heat waves are on the way, city-dwellers need to know.

LONDON, 6 March, 2018 – Extremes of heat can break your heart. Climate change can kill. The risk of heart attack increases by every 5°C leap in temperature differential, according to new research.

That is: on a baking summer day there could be nearly twice as many heart attacks on those days when the temperature swings by 35° to 40°C than on days when there is no such wild fluctuation.

Studies of the link between heat and health matter, because the past decade in North America has now been confirmed as the hottest for 11,000 years.

Climate scientists have repeatedly warned of the dangers of ever more intense and frequent heat extremes as the global average temperatures creep up, and two new studies have identified different ways in which cities themselves can become danger zones for vulnerable people.

One is that, as regional climates change in response to ever-increasing combustion of fossil fuels, which then intensify the greenhouse gas ratios in the global atmosphere, cities in now-arid regions will suffer ever more severe heatwaves, even though their rural hinterlands may enjoy higher rainfall.

And the second is that, in some cities, urban planning may have already provided ways to intensify or mitigate the impact of summer heat waves. It’s a simple but unexpected outcome of atomic physics.

Increasing fluctuation

All four studies are evidence of the subtle and often intricate connections between human civilisation and climate, and of the consequences of the simple question: what happens to communities and landscapes as average temperatures go up?

“Global warming is expected to cause extreme weather events, which may, in turn, result in large day-to-day fluctuations in temperature,” said Hedvig Andersson, a cardiology researcher at the University of Michigan.

“Our study suggests that such fluctuations in outdoor temperature could potentially lead to an increased number of heart attacks and affect global cardiac health in the future.”

She told the American College of Cardiology 67th annual scientific session that she and colleagues looked at data from 30,000 patients treated in 45 Michigan hospitals between 2010 and 2016, and then matched the patients with temperature fluctuations on the day of the attack.

Such a study cannot prove that temperature swings actually cause attacks, but there is what scientists call an association: rapid and extreme fluctuations seem to be accompanied by more cases of myocardial infarction, a serious form of heart attack.

Urban vulnerability

That heat is dangerous is not a surprise: heatwaves in the last 30 years have risen three times faster than average temperatures as a whole, and one study has identified 27 different ways in which heat waves can kill. And the greatest concentrations of potential victims will be in the cities.

The crowded urban spaces of America and Europe spread across landscapes warmer than at any time since the end of the Ice Age. US researchers report in the journal Nature that they collected fossil pollens from 642 ponds and lake beds across Europe and North America, to provide a record of local temperature shifts in the last 11,700 years, to conclude that – without global warming as a consequence of profligate human use of fossil fuels – the world ought to be in a cool phase.

“It does show that what has happened in the last 30 years — a warming trend — puts us outside of all but the most extreme single years every 500 years since the Ice Age. The last 10 years have, on average, been as warm as a normal one year in 500 warm spell,” said Bryan Shuman, an earth scientist at the University of Wyoming, and one of the authors.

Whatever the average regional temperature, it’s hotter in the cities, because concentrations of traffic, business, heating, cooking, lighting and air conditioning generate what has become known as the urban heat island effect: what makes this worse is that the asphalt, tarmacadam, stone, brick, glass and tile of which cities are made absorb radiation but prevent ground evaporation as a natural cooling device.

Researchers from Princeton University report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they considered how future heat waves will play into the urban heat island effect in 50 US cities.

“Fluctuations in outdoor temperature could potentially lead to an increased number of heart attacks and affect global cardiac health in the future”

For the rest of this century, cities in the east and southeast of the US will be more severely affected: less so the cities in the arid parts of the American west.

But by 2100, this could change dramatically. Rainfall and heat extremes will increase. Cities such as Phoenix, Arizona will continue to face water shortages – once again, all that impermeable concrete and sealed highway – but climate change could make the surrounding countryside somewhat moister.

The message, once again, is that what keeps a city cool is moisture: the vapour evaporated from canals and rivers or transpired through green parks and treelined boulevards.

“Given that 50% of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that percentage is projected to increase to 70% by year 2050, there is a pressing need to understand how cities and landscapes are affected by heat waves,” said Lei Zhao of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“Our study explains why cities suffer even more during extreme heat events and highlights the heat risks that urban residents face now and in the projected future.”

Seeking mitigation

The researchers say the hunt should be on for heat mitigation strategies. But a surprising study in the journal Physical Review Letters suggests that some of the problems – and the solution – may have already been built into the fabric of the modern metropolis.

A team of materials scientists and engineers simply considered the city as crystalline or glass-like: that is, was the city laid out on a planned, orderly grid system? Or did it just grow up, in an organic, disorderly fashion?

They applied the tools of classical physics normally used to analyse atomic structures. They looked at satellite images of 47 cities in the US and beyond, and graded them according to their order, or disorder. Grid cities absorbed heat compared to their surroundings far faster than the so-called glass-like cities.

Since urban populations are growing, and new cities springing up everywhere, classical physics can help in unexpected ways. “If you’re planning a new section of Phoenix,” said Roland Pellenq of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “you don’t want to build on a grid, since it’s already a very hot place. But somewhere in Canada, a mayor may say no, we’ll choose to use the grid, to keep the city warmer.”

The effects are significant. He and colleagues found, for example, that in the state of Florida alone urban heat island effects cause an estimated $400 million in excess costs for air conditioning. “This gives a strategy for urban planners,” he says. – Climate News Network

Big business ‘threatens planet’s future’

Big business says it’s leading the world to a sustainable future. But a new book says that’s a highly implausible claim.

LONDON, 8 February, 2018 – Transnational corporations, or TNCs, or just plain big business, are everywhere. They have an overwhelming influence and impact on our lives – and on the planet.

They boast they are a force for good – and are helping in the fight against climate change. But Peter Dauvergne, professor of international relations at the University of British Columbia in Canada, begs to differ.

“The earth’s climate is drifting into an ever-deeper crisis as the shadows of mass production, transportation and industrial agriculture continue to intensify”, says Dauvergne.

The buzz word among TNCs is sustainability: TNCs see themselves leading the struggle to build a better world, in which resources will be ever more carefully managed – and climate-changing greenhouse gases reduced.

Leap of faith

“We are entering a very interesting period of history where the responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians”, says Unilever, the giant Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company.

With their global reach and enormous financial resources – which dwarf those of many countries round the world – TNCs say they are ushering in a sustainable future.

But trusting big business to lead sustainability efforts, says Dauvergne, is like trusting arsonists to be our firefighters.

He does point out that TNCs are doing many good things. For example, Walmart – the world’s biggest company by far – uses solar panels on its stores, recycles increasing amounts of its waste and donates millions of dollars to environmental causes, including the fight against climate change.

Sustainable business

Technology giants like Google and Apple have switched to using renewable energy across their operations.

TNCs spend billions each year on pressing home their sustainability message, stressing their adherence to the code of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

But Dauvergne says that, ultimately, CSR aims to enhance the sustainability of business, not the sustainability of the earth:

“One should not be fooled: when all is said and done, what companies like Walmart, Coca-Cola and BP are doing in the name of sustainability is aiming to advance the prosperity of business, not the integrity of ecosystems or the quality of future life.”

Financial heft

Dauvergne says TNCs have amassed extraordinary financial resources. The top 500 corporations in the US now account for two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product.

“Of the world’s top 100 revenue generators in 2015, 69 were companies and 31 were states.”

Mergers and takeovers, with small businesses being gobbled up, have led to an ever greater concentration of corporate wealth and power. A handful of giant companies has enormous influence on global agriculture – controlling fertiliser and pesticide production and, most importantly, the availability of seeds.

“Any chance of stopping big business from destroying much of the earth will require governments and societies to reorient global environmental policies”

TNCs, says Dauvergne, encourage both overconsumption and rising rates of unequal consumption. They use their financial clout and their teams of accountants and lawyers to avoid taxes – and to reap more profits for their shareholders.

Tax avoidance is severely damaging, especially to developing countries where losses of billions of dollars in revenues result in increased poverty, inadequate social services, and weak environmental enforcement.

Maybe the TNCs have come to believe their own propaganda, but the degree of corporate chutzpah is, at times, amazing to behold.

McDonald’s boasts that it is “helping to lead a global movement on beef sustainability.” BP, responsible for spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, says sustainability is at the heart of its corporate strategy.

Confrontation needed

VW, which installed technology in millions of its cars to shut off pollution controls, says it abides by transparent and responsible corporate governance.

For the good of the future of the planet, the public – and governments – must confront big business, says Dauvergne: the corporate world is never going to be turned into a force for social justice and planetary sustainability.

“Any chance of stopping big business from destroying much of the earth will require governments and societies to reorient global environmental policies to reduce – and then restrain – the power of big business.

“Doing so is increasingly urgent, as the exact opposite is now happening, with the financial, political and cultural power of big business rising at an ever-quickening clip.” – Climate News Network

Will big business destroy our planet?  By Peter Dauvergne  Polity Books

Will Cape Town’s Day Zero arrive?

On 23 January we reported on the water crisis facing the South African city of Cape Town, expected on 11 May to reach Day Zero, when water to homes and businesses will be cut off. A long-time resident reports.

CAPE TOWN, 7 February, 2018 – Day Zero is real. The Day Zero concept means that Cape Town’s utility managers will switch off water to residential buildings and businesses, and continue to supply only critical services such as hospitals, and also the communal taps in slum neighbourhoods where people already collect their water in buckets every day.

This means most people in the suburbs will have to collect their daily 25l (0.88 cubic feet) water ration from 200 new distribution points. People have been warned that the military and police are on standby to manage any civil unrest.

The fear is that the entire economy will grind to a halt, as businesses and schools shut down, lacking water to drink or to flush toilets.

Households are currently asked to stick to a daily limit of 50l, but enforcement is difficult. The city says significant numbers of households, mostly wealthier ones, still massively exceed this figure.

Will Day Zero happen?

If Day Zero does dawn, the taps will be “turned off” for about three months. The Western Cape province, in which Cape Town lies, will head into its annual rainy season in late May (our Mediterranean climate brings rainfall in winter).

An academic close to a local university’s climate modelling team, and also privy to the city’s emergency water task team, says the concern isn’t whether or not Day Zero actually arrives (some well-informed pundits say it won’t).

The issue is what happens next summer: no matter how much rain we get this winter, it won’t be enough to recharge the province’s dams to meet 2019’s needs.

Communications hype?

The claim that this is the “worst crisis to face a city since World War II”, made by the provincial leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, is criticised as hyperbole.

A local newspaper columnist, Tom Eaton, wrote recently that Zille appears to momentarily have forgotten about “major cities called Sarajevo, New Orleans and Aleppo, each of which has faced ‘challenges’ in the last 30 years that, one might argue, rival that faced by Cape Town.”

My source who says the day may not arrive reckons the Day Zero idea is more of an emergency messaging concept to urge behaviour change, than an actual event likely to occur.

True or not, the bottom line is that Cape Town (a city that’s run by the chief opposition party, the Democratic Alliance/DA) is being heavily criticised for mismanaging the crisis, for several reasons.

Political rivalries

The national government (run by the African National Congress) is responsible for bulk water infrastructure, and appears to have been stalling on water delivery in the Western Cape province for the past decade.

The province is run by the ANC’s chief opposition, the DA. But critics say the DA could nevertheless have implemented much tighter water restrictions, sooner, in what now turns out to be a severe three-year drought.

They say the city should also have been exploring underground aquifers and desalination options much earlier, to get the laborious and bureaucratic tender processes passed and the infrastructure in place well before now. The city is also being accused of ignoring projections on population growth

The DA is charged too with blaming the unpredictability of the climate for their failure to plan: climate modellers have long been projecting a hotter, drier climate for the Cape, with longer droughts and more variable rainfall.

The city is selling this three-year drought as “unprecedented”, while some critics are calling it “the new normal”. Either way, the DA regularly points out that the climate models gave no warning of a drought this severe.

The issue is what happens next summer: no matter how much rain we get this winter, it won’t be enough to recharge the province’s dams

The city regularly says it will crack down on its top 100 most wasteful water users, through fines, temporary water cut-offs, or by installing devices letting it throttle back on household supplies to high users. Unfortunately it lacks the resources to install the devices fast enough.

Behavioural economists at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have done some preliminary research with city utility managers to see how short carefully crafted messages in people’s monthly utility bills can bring about voluntary adoption of water-wise behaviour.

Professor Martine Visser from the Environmental Policy Research Unit at UCT found that wealthy water consumers are more likely to cut their use if they know they will be praised publicly (for instance, on the city’s website) as “water wise”.

But they’re less likely to respond to threats of increased tariffs or fines for high usage, because their water bills constitute such a small part of their overall budget.

My water rationing

I have been surviving on about 40l of water a week for the past five months. I switched off my hot water cylinder in September because I found that even if I collected all the cold water that ran through the shower in a bucket, before hot water came through, it still collected twice as much water as I’d use to shower, once the hot was running. It is much more efficient to simply boil a kettle and then bucket-bath in about 3l of water.

From this month I’m now down to a daily water ration of about 26l:

Bucket bath: 3l (goes to first load of laundry, which then goes to flushing)
Dishes: 2l
Flushing: 20l (x 2 daily, about 12.8 l of which is grey water)
Cooking: 1l
Brushing teeth/washing hands: 1l
Drinking (water, tea etc): 2l
Laundry: 12.8l (2 x loads per week = 90l divided by 7 days = 12.8l, which goes to flushing)
TOTAL: ±26l dailyClimate News Network

Leonie Joubert is a freelance science writer and author, whose books include Scorched: South Africa’s changing climate, and Boiling Point: people in a changing climate.

Ozone layer recovery falters unexpectedly

The recovery of the damaged ozone layer which protects life on Earth from harmful solar radiation is no longer happening worldwide.

LONDON, 6 February, 2018 – The Earth’s protective ozone layer is not recovering uniformly from the damage caused to it by industry and other human activities. And scientists are not sure why it isn’t.

An international research team says the ozone, which protects humans and other species from harmful ultraviolet radiation, is continuing to recover at the poles. But recovery at lower latitudes, where far more people live, is not.

The layer has been declining since the 1970s because of the effect of man-made chemicals, chiefly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and similar gases, used mainly in refrigerants and aerosols.

There is a link between the CFCs and global warming, though they are different and neither is the main cause of the other. Some suggested CFC replacements themselves proved to be powerful greenhouse gases.

CFCs and the other gases were banned under an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, and since then parts of the layer have been recovering, particularly at the poles.

But the latest research, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, finds that the bottom part of the ozone layer at more populated latitudes is not recovering, for reasons so far unidentified.

Radiation blocker

Ozone forms in the stratosphere, between about 10 and 50 km above the Earth and above the troposphere where terrestrial species live. Much of it is in the lower part of the stratosphere, where it absorbs UV radiation from the Sun which can damage DNA in plants, animals and humans if it reaches the Earth’s surface.

So the discovery in the 1970s that CFCs were destroying the ozone and causing the Antarctic ozone “hole” sparked rare international co-operation to solve the problem.

The outcome was the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the phase-out of CFCs, and, recently, the first signs of recovery in the Antarctic. The upper stratosphere at lower latitudes is also showing clear signs of recovery.

But scientists have now found that stratospheric ozone is probably not recovering at lower latitudes, between 60⁰N and 60⁰S (London lies at 51⁰N), because of unexpected decreases in ozone in the lower part of the stratosphere.

Jonathan Shanklin, one of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists who discovered the ozone hole in 1985, told the Climate News Network from the BAS Halley research station where he is working now:

“The problem and consequences of ozone depletion are not yet over”

“…This new research is interesting and provides a novel perspective on changes in the ozone layer. It shows that even in an area of science that is fairly well understood there are still surprises in the fine detail.

“It is clear from Antarctic data that the ozone layer is beginning to recover where it was worst affected, though it will take many more decades before it is back to its condition of the 1970s.

“Although significant ozone depletion mostly affects the Antarctic, conditions in the ozone layer over the Arctic are sometimes sufficient to create substantial depletion. That is the case this year and at the moment there is significant ozone depletion over northern Ireland and Scotland.  The problem and consequences of ozone depletion are not yet over.”

Dr Anna Jones, senior tropospheric chemist at BAS, said: “We do not yet understand what’s causing the decline. To enable predictions of future ozone amounts, and to identify whether (and what) action might be needed to prevent further decreases, it is extremely important to understand what is causing the observed downward trend.”

Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, is co-author of the study. She said ozone had been declining seriously since the 1980s, but while the banning of CFCs was leading to a recovery at the poles, this did not appear to be true for the lower latitudes.

Greater risk

“The potential for harm in lower latitudes may actually be worse than at the poles,” she said. “The decreases in ozone are less than we saw at the poles before the Montreal Protocol was enacted, but UV radiation is more intense in these regions and more people live there.”

Although they’re not certain what’s causing this decline, the authors suggest two possibilities. One is that climate change is altering the pattern of atmospheric circulation, causing more ozone to be carried away from the tropics.

The other is that very short-lived substances (VSLSs), which contain chlorine and bromine, could be destroying ozone in the lower stratosphere. VSLSs include chemicals used as solvents, paint strippers, and as degreasing agents. One is even used in the production of an ozone-friendly replacement for CFCs.

Scientists had thought that VSLSs would not persist long enough in the atmosphere to reach the stratosphere and affect ozone. But Dr William Ball from ETH Zurich, who led the analysis, said: “The finding of declining low-latitude ozone is surprising, since our current best atmospheric circulation models do not predict this effect. Very short-lived substances could be the missing factor in these models.”

The study was the work of researchers from Switzerland, the UK, the US, Sweden, Canada and Finland, and included data from satellite missions, including by NASA. – Climate News Network

Water scarcity threat to India and South Africa

More than a third of India’s electricity supply is at risk from water scarcity, which also threatens urban life in parts of South Africa.

LONDON, 23 January, 2018 – Water scarcity is now a real threat in two developing countries at the forefront of efforts to reduce climate change, India and South Africa.

This is not the tragically familiar story of extreme weather, stunted crops and foreshortened lives. It is a different sort of threat: to urban life, to industrial development, and to attempts to end poverty.

More than 80% of India’s electricity comes from thermal power stations, burning coal, oil, gas and nuclear fuel. Now researchers from the US-based World Resources Institute, after analysing all of India’s 400+ thermal power plants, report that its power supply is increasingly in jeopardy from water shortages.

The researchers found that 90% of these thermal power plants are cooled by freshwater, and nearly 40% of them experience high water stress. The plants are increasingly vulnerable, while India remains committed to providing electricity to every household by 2019.

Between 2015 and 2050 the Indian power sector’s share of national water consumption is projected to grow from 1.4 to nine per cent, and by 2030, 70% of the country’s thermal power plants are likely to experience increased competition for water from agriculture, industry and municipalities.

Power sector choking

“Water shortages shut down power plants across India every year,” said O P Agarwal of WRI India. “When power plants rely on water sourced from scarce regions, they put electricity generation at risk and leave less water for cities, farms and families. Without urgent action, water will become a chokepoint for India’s power sector.”

Between 2013 and 2016 14 of India’s 20 largest thermal utility companies experienced one or more shutdowns because of water shortages. WRI calculates that shutdowns cost these companies over INR 91 billion ($1.4 billion) in potential revenue from the sale of power.

It says water shortages cancelled out more than 20% of the country’s growth in electricity generation in 2015 and 2016.

The report offers solutions, including notably a move towards solar and wind energy. India already has a target for 40% of its power to come from renewables by 2030, under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Renewable energy is a viable solution to India’s water-energy crisis,” said Deepak Krishnan, co-author of the report. “Solar PV and wind power can thrive in the same water-stressed areas where thermal plants struggle…”

A policy brief produced by WRI and the International Renewable Energy Agency details ways for India’s power sector to reduce water usage and carbon emissions by 2030.

“The challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/ll”

In Africa the dangers of water scarcity for one of the continent’s best-known cities, Cape Town, are imminent and, some believe, almost apocalyptic.

The city faces the prospect within three months of becoming the world’s first major city to run out of water, al-Jazeera reports.

It says the city’s water supplies are now so low that in late April it will declare “Day Zero”, the day when its reservoirs fall below a combined capacity of 13.5%.

This will mean Cape Town turning off the taps, except in the poorest neighbourhoods, and installing around 200 water collection sites across the city.

Water usage in the Western Cape province, which includes Cape Town,  is now limited to a daily ration of 87 litres per person. If Day Zero dawns, that will drop to about 25 litres. The World Health Organisation says about 20 litres should be enough “to take care of basic hygiene needs and basic food hygiene”.

Rains start later

The province has had three years of drought. Kevin Winter, a senior lecturer in environmental science at the University of Cape Town, told al-Jazeera that as a winter rainfall region, people would normally expect rainfall to start somewhere around April.

“But that’s no longer the case, it comes a whole lot later at the end of June, or in early July, if we are lucky,” he said. “We are experiencing a rapid change in our weather patterns, which is increasingly evident of a climate change…”

Bridgetti Lim Bandi, who has lived in the city all her life, said Cape Town’s rainfall pattern had changed dramatically within the last two decades. “We don’t have a traditional Cape Town winter any more,” she told al-Jazeera.

Helen Zille is premier of the Western Cape province. She wrote on 22 January in the Daily Maverick: “The question that dominates my waking hours now is: When Day Zero arrives‚ how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?

“And if there is any chance of still preventing it‚ what is it we can do? …the challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/ll.” – Climate News Network

Humidity is the real heatwave threat

It’s not just the extreme temperature a heatwave brings that’s the problem, but the humidity from its burden of water vapour.

LONDON, 24 December, 2017 – When the mercury climbs to extreme levels, it’s the dangerous humidity produced by heat reacting with water-sodden air that can spell death, not just the heat alone.

US researchers have warned yet again of the need to beware the risks of this combination. With fierce heat waves expected to become more  common as the climate warms, they say humidity can greatly intensify the effects of the heat by itself.

They report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that during this century the drastic effects of high humidity in many areas will increase significantly. At times, they may overtake people’s ability to work outdoors or, in some cases, even to survive.

Health and economies would suffer, especially in regions where people work outside and have little access to air conditioning. Potentially affected regions include large swathes of the already muggy south-eastern United States; the Amazon; western and central Africa; southern areas of the Middle East, including the Arabian peninsula; northern India; and eastern China.

“The conditions we’re talking about basically never occur now – people in most places have never experienced them”, said lead author Ethan Coffel, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “But they’re projected to occur close to the end of the century.”

The warming climate is projected to make many now-dry areas dryer, in part by changing precipitation patterns. But, as global temperatures rise, the atmosphere can hold more water vapour. That means chronically humid areas may only get more humid.

“We move toward a world where heat stress is a vastly greater problem than it has been in the rest of human history”

Muggy heat is more oppressive than the “dry” kind, because humans and other mammals cool down by sweating; sweat evaporates off the skin into the air, taking the excess heat with it. That works well in a desert. But when the air is already laden with moisture, evaporation off the skin slows down, and eventually becomes impossible.

When this cooling process stops, a creature’s core body temperature rises beyond the narrow tolerable range. Without air conditioning, organs strain and then start to fail, leading to lethargy, sickness and possibly death.

Using global climate models, the researchers mapped current and projected future “wet-bulb” temperatures, which reflect the combined effects of heat and humidity (the measurement is made by draping a water-saturated cloth over the bulb of a conventional thermometer; it does not correspond directly to air temperature alone).

The study found that by the 2070s, high wet-bulb readings that now occur perhaps only once a year could stretch to 100 to 250 days annually in some parts of the tropics. In the south-east US, wet-bulb temperatures now sometimes reach 29 or 30°C; by the 2070s or 2080s, such weather could occur 25 to 40 days each year, say the researchers.

Laboratory experiments have shown wet-bulb readings of 32°C are the threshold beyond which many people would have trouble functioning outside. This level is rarely reached anywhere today.

Risk to India

But the study projects that in 50 or 60 years the limit could be reached one or two days a year in the US southeast, and three to five days in parts of South America, Africa, India and China. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people would suffer.

The hardest-hit area in terms of human impact, the researchers say, will probably be densely populated north-eastern India.

“Lots of people would crumble well before you reach wet-bulb temperatures of 32°C, or anything close”, said co-author Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty. “They’d run into terrible problems.”

The study projects that some parts of the southern Middle East and northern India may even hit 35 wet-bulb degrees Celsius by late this century – equal to the human skin temperature, and the theoretical limit at which people will die within hours without artificial cooling.

Using a related combined heat/humidity measure, the so-called heat index, this would be the equivalent of nearly 170° Fahrenheit of “dry” heat. But the heat index, invented in the 1970s to measure the real feel of moist summer weather, actually ends at 136; anything above that is literally off the chart.

Avoiding the worst

On the bright side, the paper says that if nations can substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades, the worst effects could be avoided.

Only a few weather events like those projected have ever been recorded. The most recent was in Iran’s Bandar Mahshahr in July 2015. That day the “dry” air temperature alone was 115°; saturated with moisture, the air’s wet bulb reading neared the 35 °C fatal limit, translating to a heat index of 165°F.

Bandar Mahshahr’s infrastructure is good and electricity cheap, so residents adapted by staying in air-conditioned buildings and vehicles, and showering after brief excursions outside. But this is not an option in other vulnerable places, where many people cannot afford such remedies.

“It’s not just about the heat, or the number of people. It’s about how many people are poor, how many are old, who has to go outside to work, who has air conditioning”, said the study co-author Alex deSherbinin of Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

He said that even if the weather does not kill people outright or stop all activity, the necessity of working on farms or elsewhere outdoors in such conditions can bring chronic kidney problems and other damaging health effects.

Previous warnings

Other researchers have sounded the alarm about the risks dangerous humidity levels can pose. A 2015 study said parts of the Gulf region, where Bandar Mahshahr lies, could, on present trends, become uninhabitable for humans by 2100.

The following year another study extended the warning to include North Africa. Earlier this year sports chiefs even reported that humidity could affect the behaviour of cricket balls.

Climate scientist Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who proposed the 35°C survivability limit, said he was sceptical that this threshold could be reached as soon as the researchers say. All the same, he said, “the basic point stands.”

Unless greenhouse emissions are cut, “we move toward a world where heat stress is a vastly greater problem than it has been in the rest of human history. The effects will fall hardest on hot and humid regions.” – Climate News Network