Category Archives: Health

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

More vegetables, less meat for all our sakes

Researchers are clear: the healthy diet for a healthy planet is more vegetables, less meat. What matters is the food that’s served, and the way it’s produced too.

LONDON, 17 January, 2019 − An international panel of health scientists and climate researchers has prescribed a new diet for the planet: more vegetables, less meat, fresh fruit, wholegrains and pulses, give up sugar, waste less and keep counting the calories.

And if 200 nations accept the diagnosis and follow doctor’s orders, tomorrow’s farmers may be able to feed 10 billion people comfortably by 2050, help contain climate change, and prevent 11 million premature deaths per year.

A commission sponsored by one of the oldest and most distinguished medical journals in the world today provides what it calls the first scientific targets for a healthy diet, from a sustainable food production system, that operates within what its authors term “planetary boundaries.”

The commission is the result of three years’ consultation by 37 experts from 16 countries, among them experts in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, economics and political governance.

Goal within reach

It addresses the twin problems of global food supply: altogether 3 billion people are either under-nourished, or approaching clinical obesity because they are too well-nourished.

And global food production in its present form is helping to drive global warming and climate change, trigger accelerating biodiversity loss, pollute the rivers, lakes and coasts with ever greater levels of nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, and make unsustainable use of both land and fresh water.

“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” said Tim Lang, a food scientist at the City University of London, and one of the authors.

“ We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances. While this is uncharted policy territory and these problems are not easily fixed, this goal is within reach and there are opportunities to adapt international, local and business policies. The scientific targets we have devised for a healthy, sustainable diet are an important foundation which will underpin and drive this change.”

“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet”

The study simultaneously addresses what should be on the global supper table, and how it gets there. It presumes a daily intake for a 70kg active adult male aged 30, or a 60kg woman, of up to 2,500 kilocalories per day, with around 35% of these from wholegrains and tubers.

It recommends a limit of 14 grams of red meat per day, and 500 grams of vegetables and fruits. The global appetite for red meat and sugar must be halved, while consumption of nuts, vegetables, legumes and fruit intake must double.

And it recommends fair shares on a global scale; North Americans chew their way through more than six times the recommended meat portion; people in South Asia right now consume only half what they should.

And across the globe, people depend too much on starchy foods such as potato and cassava: in sub-Saharan Africa, 7.5 times too much. If people adopt a healthy diet and limit the use of processed foods, this would avert between 10.9m and 11.6m premature deaths each year.

Unprecedented change

But the same advice then addresses the global and seemingly intractable problem of managing agriculture so that it serves all and saves the planet for permanent occupation. To make this happen, change is necessary at rates so far without precedent in history.

Somehow, production must be intensified, but without greater destruction of forests and savannah, and while eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

Another of the authors, Johan Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and who now directs the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, calls it “nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution.”

“The good news is that not only is it doable, we have increasing evidence that it can be achieved through sustainable intensification that benefits both farmer, consumer and planet,” he said.

Planetary perspective needed

“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet. Sustainability of the food system must therefore be defined from a planetary perspective.”

The study is the latest and most authoritative iteration of a series of research papers that have argued, over and over again, for a change in planetary diet, a shift towards more efficient but also more sustainable  farming methods, and a greater focus on planetary equity.

The message from most of them is that it is, or should be, technically possible to grow food for a hungry planet without wasting productivity and without devastating wildlife and natural ecosystems any further.

Five-point plan

The Lancet Commission proposes a fivefold strategy. It includes campaigns and pricing policies to promote sustainable sources; a shift from high-volume crops to a greater variety of nutrient-rich plants; appropriate agricultural practices; careful governance of land and ocean use, along with protection of natural areas; and a concerted attempt to at least halve food wastage, an issue in high-income countries and in different ways also in poor and middle-income countries.

This is one of a series of studies published by the Lancet to address global problems related to climate: in December the same journal carried an authoritative assessment of the health costs of heat extremes in the decades to come.

Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet, said the issue of global nutrition was “everyone’s and no-one’s problem. The transformation that this Commission calls for is not superficial or simple, and requires a focus on complex systems, incentives and regulations, with communities and governments at multiple levels having a part to play in redefining how we eat.

“Our connection with nature holds the answer, and if we can eat in a way that works for the planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet’s resources will be restored. The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival.” − Climate News Network

Researchers are clear: the healthy diet for a healthy planet is more vegetables, less meat. What matters is the food that’s served, and the way it’s produced too.

LONDON, 17 January, 2019 − An international panel of health scientists and climate researchers has prescribed a new diet for the planet: more vegetables, less meat, fresh fruit, wholegrains and pulses, give up sugar, waste less and keep counting the calories.

And if 200 nations accept the diagnosis and follow doctor’s orders, tomorrow’s farmers may be able to feed 10 billion people comfortably by 2050, help contain climate change, and prevent 11 million premature deaths per year.

A commission sponsored by one of the oldest and most distinguished medical journals in the world today provides what it calls the first scientific targets for a healthy diet, from a sustainable food production system, that operates within what its authors term “planetary boundaries.”

The commission is the result of three years’ consultation by 37 experts from 16 countries, among them experts in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, economics and political governance.

Goal within reach

It addresses the twin problems of global food supply: altogether 3 billion people are either under-nourished, or approaching clinical obesity because they are too well-nourished.

And global food production in its present form is helping to drive global warming and climate change, trigger accelerating biodiversity loss, pollute the rivers, lakes and coasts with ever greater levels of nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, and make unsustainable use of both land and fresh water.

“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” said Tim Lang, a food scientist at the City University of London, and one of the authors.

“ We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances. While this is uncharted policy territory and these problems are not easily fixed, this goal is within reach and there are opportunities to adapt international, local and business policies. The scientific targets we have devised for a healthy, sustainable diet are an important foundation which will underpin and drive this change.”

“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet”

The study simultaneously addresses what should be on the global supper table, and how it gets there. It presumes a daily intake for a 70kg active adult male aged 30, or a 60kg woman, of up to 2,500 kilocalories per day, with around 35% of these from wholegrains and tubers.

It recommends a limit of 14 grams of red meat per day, and 500 grams of vegetables and fruits. The global appetite for red meat and sugar must be halved, while consumption of nuts, vegetables, legumes and fruit intake must double.

And it recommends fair shares on a global scale; North Americans chew their way through more than six times the recommended meat portion; people in South Asia right now consume only half what they should.

And across the globe, people depend too much on starchy foods such as potato and cassava: in sub-Saharan Africa, 7.5 times too much. If people adopt a healthy diet and limit the use of processed foods, this would avert between 10.9m and 11.6m premature deaths each year.

Unprecedented change

But the same advice then addresses the global and seemingly intractable problem of managing agriculture so that it serves all and saves the planet for permanent occupation. To make this happen, change is necessary at rates so far without precedent in history.

Somehow, production must be intensified, but without greater destruction of forests and savannah, and while eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

Another of the authors, Johan Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and who now directs the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, calls it “nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution.”

“The good news is that not only is it doable, we have increasing evidence that it can be achieved through sustainable intensification that benefits both farmer, consumer and planet,” he said.

Planetary perspective needed

“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet. Sustainability of the food system must therefore be defined from a planetary perspective.”

The study is the latest and most authoritative iteration of a series of research papers that have argued, over and over again, for a change in planetary diet, a shift towards more efficient but also more sustainable  farming methods, and a greater focus on planetary equity.

The message from most of them is that it is, or should be, technically possible to grow food for a hungry planet without wasting productivity and without devastating wildlife and natural ecosystems any further.

Five-point plan

The Lancet Commission proposes a fivefold strategy. It includes campaigns and pricing policies to promote sustainable sources; a shift from high-volume crops to a greater variety of nutrient-rich plants; appropriate agricultural practices; careful governance of land and ocean use, along with protection of natural areas; and a concerted attempt to at least halve food wastage, an issue in high-income countries and in different ways also in poor and middle-income countries.

This is one of a series of studies published by the Lancet to address global problems related to climate: in December the same journal carried an authoritative assessment of the health costs of heat extremes in the decades to come.

Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet, said the issue of global nutrition was “everyone’s and no-one’s problem. The transformation that this Commission calls for is not superficial or simple, and requires a focus on complex systems, incentives and regulations, with communities and governments at multiple levels having a part to play in redefining how we eat.

“Our connection with nature holds the answer, and if we can eat in a way that works for the planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet’s resources will be restored. The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival.” − Climate News Network

China’s cities face sobering cooling costs

As the Earth warms humans will reach for the air conditioning, meaning more electricity demand and higher household bills in China’s cities.

LONDON, 2 January, 2019 – China’s cities now have a better idea of what global warming is going to cost. New research warns that for every rise of one degree Celsius in global average temperatures, average electricity demand will rise by 9%.

And that’s the average demand. For the same shift in the thermometer reading, peak electricity demand in the Yangtze Valley delta could go up by 36%.

And the global average rise of 1°C so far during the last century is just a start. By 2099, mean surface temperatures on planet Earth could be somewhere between 2°C and 5° hotter. That means that average household electricity use – assuming today’s consumption patterns don’t change – could rise by between 18% and 55%. And peak demand could rise by at least 72%.

“Household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040”

Governments, energy utilities and taxpayers must plan for an uncertain future. The latest study in the needs of the fast-developing economy of China, now one of the world’s great powers, and the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, would be necessary even if there were no climate change: that is because even without the factor of climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels almost everywhere in the world, household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040.

And climate change brings severe additional problems. Chinese scientists already know that climate change within the country is a consequence of human-induced global warming. They know that average warming worldwide means more intense and more frequent extremes of heat and drought. And they have just learned that by the century’s end, levels of heat and humidity could become potentially lethal,  particularly so in the north China plains.

Most responsive

So researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai and Duke University in North Carolina report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they built up a picture of how householders respond to weather shifts by examining data from 800,000 residential customers in the Pudong district of Shanghai between 2014 and 2016, and then tested their findings against various projections of global climate change in this century.

Residential power demand makes up only about a quarter of the total for the Shanghai metropolis, but the scientists focused on individual householders because these were most responsive to fluctuations in temperature.

To nobody’s great surprise, home usage of electricity went up during the days of extreme cold, early in February, and the days of extreme heat, usually around the end of July and early August.

Clear link

They found that for every daily degree of temperature rise above 25°C, electricity use shot up by 14.5%. Compared with demand during the household comfort zone of around 20°C, on those days when temperatures reached 32°C, daily electricity consumption rose by 174%.

The implication is that more investment in air conditioning is going to drive even more global warming: other research teams have already identified the potential costs of heat waves and repeatedly warned that demand for air conditioning will warm the world even further. In the US, there are already signs that power grids may not be able to keep up with demand in long spells of extreme heat.

Shanghai is a bustling commercial powerhouse of a city: other parts of China have yet to catch up. The study found that higher-income households reached for the thermostat in cold weather. But in hot weather – and the Yangtze delta region, which is home to one fifth of the nation’s urban population and produced one fourth of China’s economic output, can get very hot – all income groups turned on the air conditioning.

“If we consider that more provinces would become ‘Shanghai’ as incomes rise, our results may ultimately be more broadly applicable,” said Yatang Li, a PhD student at Duke University, who led the research. – Climate News Network

As the Earth warms humans will reach for the air conditioning, meaning more electricity demand and higher household bills in China’s cities.

LONDON, 2 January, 2019 – China’s cities now have a better idea of what global warming is going to cost. New research warns that for every rise of one degree Celsius in global average temperatures, average electricity demand will rise by 9%.

And that’s the average demand. For the same shift in the thermometer reading, peak electricity demand in the Yangtze Valley delta could go up by 36%.

And the global average rise of 1°C so far during the last century is just a start. By 2099, mean surface temperatures on planet Earth could be somewhere between 2°C and 5° hotter. That means that average household electricity use – assuming today’s consumption patterns don’t change – could rise by between 18% and 55%. And peak demand could rise by at least 72%.

“Household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040”

Governments, energy utilities and taxpayers must plan for an uncertain future. The latest study in the needs of the fast-developing economy of China, now one of the world’s great powers, and the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, would be necessary even if there were no climate change: that is because even without the factor of climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels almost everywhere in the world, household electricity consumption in China is expected to double by 2040.

And climate change brings severe additional problems. Chinese scientists already know that climate change within the country is a consequence of human-induced global warming. They know that average warming worldwide means more intense and more frequent extremes of heat and drought. And they have just learned that by the century’s end, levels of heat and humidity could become potentially lethal,  particularly so in the north China plains.

Most responsive

So researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai and Duke University in North Carolina report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they built up a picture of how householders respond to weather shifts by examining data from 800,000 residential customers in the Pudong district of Shanghai between 2014 and 2016, and then tested their findings against various projections of global climate change in this century.

Residential power demand makes up only about a quarter of the total for the Shanghai metropolis, but the scientists focused on individual householders because these were most responsive to fluctuations in temperature.

To nobody’s great surprise, home usage of electricity went up during the days of extreme cold, early in February, and the days of extreme heat, usually around the end of July and early August.

Clear link

They found that for every daily degree of temperature rise above 25°C, electricity use shot up by 14.5%. Compared with demand during the household comfort zone of around 20°C, on those days when temperatures reached 32°C, daily electricity consumption rose by 174%.

The implication is that more investment in air conditioning is going to drive even more global warming: other research teams have already identified the potential costs of heat waves and repeatedly warned that demand for air conditioning will warm the world even further. In the US, there are already signs that power grids may not be able to keep up with demand in long spells of extreme heat.

Shanghai is a bustling commercial powerhouse of a city: other parts of China have yet to catch up. The study found that higher-income households reached for the thermostat in cold weather. But in hot weather – and the Yangtze delta region, which is home to one fifth of the nation’s urban population and produced one fourth of China’s economic output, can get very hot – all income groups turned on the air conditioning.

“If we consider that more provinces would become ‘Shanghai’ as incomes rise, our results may ultimately be more broadly applicable,” said Yatang Li, a PhD student at Duke University, who led the research. – Climate News Network

Extremes of heat will hit health and wealth

A new and authoritative study warns of an “overwhelming impact” on public health just from extremes of heat as the world continues to warm.

LONDON, 4 December, 2018 – Vulnerability to extremes of heat has risen in every region of the world. In 2017, an additional 157 million people were exposed in heatwave events, compared with 2000. That means that the average person now experiences 1.4 additional days of heatwaves per year.

This enervating exposure to extended extremes of heat imposes a global cost. National economies – and household budgets – lost 153 billion hours of labour in 2017, because of sweltering days and torrid nights: this is an increase of 62 billion working hours – more than three billion working weeks – since the turn of the century.

The rise in extremes of heat means that more people than ever are potentially at risk of heatwave-related conditions: among them heat stress, cardiovascular illness and kidney disease.

That increasing extremes of heat, driven by ever greater levels of greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming and climate change, are a health hazard is now well established.

More fatalities

Researchers have repeatedly warned that any increase in global average temperatures will be measured in more frequent, more intense and more extended extremes of heat
and in some cases extreme humidity that will in turn claim ever greater numbers of lives.

Scientists have established that, by 2100, around three-quarters of humanity will face episodes of heat extremes, which can kill in any one of 27 different ways.

So the latest detailed study, in the journal The Lancet, brings wider focus and greater authority: it draws from scientists and public health professionals in 27 institutions and tracks 421 indicators across five areas, including climate change vulnerability; adaptation and planning for health; mitigation actions and the benefits these may have; finance and economics; and public and political engagement.

Among the indicators selected were weather-related disasters, food security, clean fuel use, meat consumption, air pollution – and scientific publications on climate and health. And although the report echoes the general alarms voiced in earlier studies, it takes a closer look at the details of human vulnerability to extremes of heat.

“Trends in the impacts of climate change, exposures and vulnerabilities show unacceptably high risk for human health”

One finding is that people in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean may be more vulnerable than people living in Africa and southeast Asia, if only because more than four out of 10 people in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean are aged over 65, compared with 38% in Africa and 34% in southeast Asia.

Hotter weather means more infectious disease: in 2016 alone, what the researchers call the “global vectorial capacity” – in other words, the spread of potentially disease-transmitting mosquitoes – of the dengue fever virus was the highest on record.

In the Baltic region, the coastline area vulnerable to an epidemic of the cholera bacterium grew by 24%. In the highlands of sub-Saharan Africa, the area potentially at risk from malaria rose by more than 26%.

And as the thermometer went up, more than 30 countries reported downward trends in agricultural yields. Agriculture is the field most directly hit by heat extremes, with 80% of the labour losses, or 122 billion hours of work abandoned.

Huge losses

“Vulnerability to extreme heat has steadily increased around the world,” said Joacim Rocklöv, of Umea University in Sweden, one of the more than 70 scientists who put their names to the Lancet study.

“This has led to vast losses for national economies and household budgets. At a time when national health budgets and health services face a growing epidemic of lifestyle diseases, continued delay in unlocking the potential health benefits of climate change mitigation is shortsighted and damaging for human health.”

The report emphasises that heat extremes also intensify urban pollution: now 97% of cities in low and middle-income countries no longer meet World Health Organisation air quality guidelines.

“Heat stress is hitting hard – particularly amongst the urban elderly, and those with underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease,” said Hugh Montgomery, co-chairman of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, who also directs the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London.

Risky outdoors

“In high temperatures, outdoor work, especially in agriculture, is hazardous. Areas from northern England and California to Australia are seeing savage fires with direct deaths, displacement and loss of housing as well as respiratory impacts from smoke inhalation.”

And Hilary Graham, of the University of York in the UK, another of the authors, warned that the way governments responded to climate change would shape the health of nations for centuries to come.

“Present-day changes in heat waves and labour capacity provide early warning of the compounded and overwhelming impact on public health that is expected if temperatures continue to rise,” she said.

“Trends in the impacts of climate change, exposures and vulnerabilities show unacceptably high risk for human health now and in the future.” – Climate News Network

A new and authoritative study warns of an “overwhelming impact” on public health just from extremes of heat as the world continues to warm.

LONDON, 4 December, 2018 – Vulnerability to extremes of heat has risen in every region of the world. In 2017, an additional 157 million people were exposed in heatwave events, compared with 2000. That means that the average person now experiences 1.4 additional days of heatwaves per year.

This enervating exposure to extended extremes of heat imposes a global cost. National economies – and household budgets – lost 153 billion hours of labour in 2017, because of sweltering days and torrid nights: this is an increase of 62 billion working hours – more than three billion working weeks – since the turn of the century.

The rise in extremes of heat means that more people than ever are potentially at risk of heatwave-related conditions: among them heat stress, cardiovascular illness and kidney disease.

That increasing extremes of heat, driven by ever greater levels of greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming and climate change, are a health hazard is now well established.

More fatalities

Researchers have repeatedly warned that any increase in global average temperatures will be measured in more frequent, more intense and more extended extremes of heat
and in some cases extreme humidity that will in turn claim ever greater numbers of lives.

Scientists have established that, by 2100, around three-quarters of humanity will face episodes of heat extremes, which can kill in any one of 27 different ways.

So the latest detailed study, in the journal The Lancet, brings wider focus and greater authority: it draws from scientists and public health professionals in 27 institutions and tracks 421 indicators across five areas, including climate change vulnerability; adaptation and planning for health; mitigation actions and the benefits these may have; finance and economics; and public and political engagement.

Among the indicators selected were weather-related disasters, food security, clean fuel use, meat consumption, air pollution – and scientific publications on climate and health. And although the report echoes the general alarms voiced in earlier studies, it takes a closer look at the details of human vulnerability to extremes of heat.

“Trends in the impacts of climate change, exposures and vulnerabilities show unacceptably high risk for human health”

One finding is that people in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean may be more vulnerable than people living in Africa and southeast Asia, if only because more than four out of 10 people in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean are aged over 65, compared with 38% in Africa and 34% in southeast Asia.

Hotter weather means more infectious disease: in 2016 alone, what the researchers call the “global vectorial capacity” – in other words, the spread of potentially disease-transmitting mosquitoes – of the dengue fever virus was the highest on record.

In the Baltic region, the coastline area vulnerable to an epidemic of the cholera bacterium grew by 24%. In the highlands of sub-Saharan Africa, the area potentially at risk from malaria rose by more than 26%.

And as the thermometer went up, more than 30 countries reported downward trends in agricultural yields. Agriculture is the field most directly hit by heat extremes, with 80% of the labour losses, or 122 billion hours of work abandoned.

Huge losses

“Vulnerability to extreme heat has steadily increased around the world,” said Joacim Rocklöv, of Umea University in Sweden, one of the more than 70 scientists who put their names to the Lancet study.

“This has led to vast losses for national economies and household budgets. At a time when national health budgets and health services face a growing epidemic of lifestyle diseases, continued delay in unlocking the potential health benefits of climate change mitigation is shortsighted and damaging for human health.”

The report emphasises that heat extremes also intensify urban pollution: now 97% of cities in low and middle-income countries no longer meet World Health Organisation air quality guidelines.

“Heat stress is hitting hard – particularly amongst the urban elderly, and those with underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease,” said Hugh Montgomery, co-chairman of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, who also directs the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London.

Risky outdoors

“In high temperatures, outdoor work, especially in agriculture, is hazardous. Areas from northern England and California to Australia are seeing savage fires with direct deaths, displacement and loss of housing as well as respiratory impacts from smoke inhalation.”

And Hilary Graham, of the University of York in the UK, another of the authors, warned that the way governments responded to climate change would shape the health of nations for centuries to come.

“Present-day changes in heat waves and labour capacity provide early warning of the compounded and overwhelming impact on public health that is expected if temperatures continue to rise,” she said.

“Trends in the impacts of climate change, exposures and vulnerabilities show unacceptably high risk for human health now and in the future.” – Climate News Network

Wild plant ancestors need more protection

Everything that humans eat or drink comes directly or indirectly from plants. Many wild plant ancestors, of even the most precious species, could be at risk.

LONDON, 27 November, 2018 – Only a small percentage of the wild plant ancestors vital to human life can be considered safe from extinction.

Botanists who have monitored the conservation status of almost 7,000 species – the wild forerunners of plants that humans use for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and livestock feed – found that most could be counted as not properly conserved and protected.

And another wild plant – perhaps the most valuable of all at price per measured weight – could be eliminated for ever by climate change driven by profligate human combustion of fossil fuels. The prized Mediterranean truffle may have disappeared from the woodlands of France, Spain and Italy by 2100, according to a separate study.

All the world’s most important crops are selected, bred and cultivated from wild ancestors: these original forerunners remain a significant reservoir of genes that could be important to a species’ survival.

But when researchers came to measure progress in global conservation goals, they found that only three species in 100 could be counted as “sufficiently conserved.”

“If we want to get serious about protecting these species … we have a long way to go before they are fully protected”

Many of these wild originals are of global commercial importance. They include the wild relatives of billion-dollar crops such as coffee, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon and even the little fir most favoured in Europe as a Christmas tree.

Colin Khoury, a specialist in biodiversity at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, and colleagues report in the journal Ecological Indicators that they drew on some of the 43 million records of 6,941 plants of socio-economic importance or cultural value – in effect, plants that make money for people – in 220 countries.

Under UN sustainable development guidelines, and as targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, the nations of the world agreed to meet a series of ambitious conservation goals by 2020.

The scientists devised a Useful Plants Indicator which sorted wild crop ancestors into their status as conserved species in national parks or protected forests, and as specimens in gene banks, botanical gardens and so on.

Coffee in peril

They found that the wild coffee plants Coffea liberica and Coffea arabica were far from safe, and 32 other coffee species were also rated as nowhere near sufficiently protected: two thirds of the coffee species were not recorded in gene banks at all.

Coffee is a crop sensitive to temperature, and as the global thermometer rises, coffee producers in both Ethiopia and Latin America face an uncertain economic future.

Much the same was true for Theobroma cacao, the wild ancestor of the chocolate of the tropical Americas, the flavouring bean Vanilla planiofolia and the wild spice cinnamon, or Cinnamomum verra. Unexpectedly, the fir Abies nordmanniana, alias the Nordmann fir or Christmas tree is, in the wild, in an even more precarious situation: the researchers rate it as one of the high priority species for conservation.

Some of the species were – for the time being – protected in national parks but not collected safely in gene banks and botanic gardens. But as the world warms, and climates change, the species may have to shift their range, into landscapes at hazard from ecosystem disruption.

“The indicator shows that the network of protected areas around the world is doing something significant for useful plants,” Dr Khoury said. “But if we want to get serious about protecting these species, especially the ones that are vulnerable, we have a long way to go before they are fully protected.”

Truffle threat

Meanwhile, the truffle species Tuber melanosporum – trading at more than £1,000 (US$1,300) per kilogram – could be lost to commerce within a generation or two: a new study in the journal Science of the Total Environment finds that under the most likely global warming scenarios the climate of its native habitat will become warmer and drier, and production of the wild and farmed species could dwindle by between 78% and 100% between 2071 and 2100.

Paul Thomas, of the University of Stirling, who has already tested black truffle plantations in Scotland, studied 36 years of truffle harvest records to reach his bleak conclusion.

He warns that the collapse of the truffle harvest could happen even earlier, thanks to the heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, pests and diseases that come with climate change. Europe risks losing an industry worth hundreds of millions along with an iconic species and a regional way of life.

“This is a wake-up call to the impacts of climate change in the not-too-distant future,” Dr Thomas said. “These findings indicate that conservational initiatives are required to form some protection of this important and iconic species.” – Climate News Network

Everything that humans eat or drink comes directly or indirectly from plants. Many wild plant ancestors, of even the most precious species, could be at risk.

LONDON, 27 November, 2018 – Only a small percentage of the wild plant ancestors vital to human life can be considered safe from extinction.

Botanists who have monitored the conservation status of almost 7,000 species – the wild forerunners of plants that humans use for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and livestock feed – found that most could be counted as not properly conserved and protected.

And another wild plant – perhaps the most valuable of all at price per measured weight – could be eliminated for ever by climate change driven by profligate human combustion of fossil fuels. The prized Mediterranean truffle may have disappeared from the woodlands of France, Spain and Italy by 2100, according to a separate study.

All the world’s most important crops are selected, bred and cultivated from wild ancestors: these original forerunners remain a significant reservoir of genes that could be important to a species’ survival.

But when researchers came to measure progress in global conservation goals, they found that only three species in 100 could be counted as “sufficiently conserved.”

“If we want to get serious about protecting these species … we have a long way to go before they are fully protected”

Many of these wild originals are of global commercial importance. They include the wild relatives of billion-dollar crops such as coffee, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon and even the little fir most favoured in Europe as a Christmas tree.

Colin Khoury, a specialist in biodiversity at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, and colleagues report in the journal Ecological Indicators that they drew on some of the 43 million records of 6,941 plants of socio-economic importance or cultural value – in effect, plants that make money for people – in 220 countries.

Under UN sustainable development guidelines, and as targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, the nations of the world agreed to meet a series of ambitious conservation goals by 2020.

The scientists devised a Useful Plants Indicator which sorted wild crop ancestors into their status as conserved species in national parks or protected forests, and as specimens in gene banks, botanical gardens and so on.

Coffee in peril

They found that the wild coffee plants Coffea liberica and Coffea arabica were far from safe, and 32 other coffee species were also rated as nowhere near sufficiently protected: two thirds of the coffee species were not recorded in gene banks at all.

Coffee is a crop sensitive to temperature, and as the global thermometer rises, coffee producers in both Ethiopia and Latin America face an uncertain economic future.

Much the same was true for Theobroma cacao, the wild ancestor of the chocolate of the tropical Americas, the flavouring bean Vanilla planiofolia and the wild spice cinnamon, or Cinnamomum verra. Unexpectedly, the fir Abies nordmanniana, alias the Nordmann fir or Christmas tree is, in the wild, in an even more precarious situation: the researchers rate it as one of the high priority species for conservation.

Some of the species were – for the time being – protected in national parks but not collected safely in gene banks and botanic gardens. But as the world warms, and climates change, the species may have to shift their range, into landscapes at hazard from ecosystem disruption.

“The indicator shows that the network of protected areas around the world is doing something significant for useful plants,” Dr Khoury said. “But if we want to get serious about protecting these species, especially the ones that are vulnerable, we have a long way to go before they are fully protected.”

Truffle threat

Meanwhile, the truffle species Tuber melanosporum – trading at more than £1,000 (US$1,300) per kilogram – could be lost to commerce within a generation or two: a new study in the journal Science of the Total Environment finds that under the most likely global warming scenarios the climate of its native habitat will become warmer and drier, and production of the wild and farmed species could dwindle by between 78% and 100% between 2071 and 2100.

Paul Thomas, of the University of Stirling, who has already tested black truffle plantations in Scotland, studied 36 years of truffle harvest records to reach his bleak conclusion.

He warns that the collapse of the truffle harvest could happen even earlier, thanks to the heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, pests and diseases that come with climate change. Europe risks losing an industry worth hundreds of millions along with an iconic species and a regional way of life.

“This is a wake-up call to the impacts of climate change in the not-too-distant future,” Dr Thomas said. “These findings indicate that conservational initiatives are required to form some protection of this important and iconic species.” – Climate News Network