March 16, 2013, by Alex Kirby
This is a summary of the stories we have published in the week ending Saturday 16 March (all are archived).
9 March – From a distance the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio can look colourful and picturesque, clinging to the steep sides of the mountains which rise above the beaches. But for the millions who live in them, they can also be places of danger, fear and violence, because of the drug cartels which control them. They are also places of insalubrity and disease, with open sewers, precarious water supplies and overcrowding. Among the tiny brick houses, crammed one on top of the other, there is no room for trees, gardens, plants or beauty. As they have advanced ever further up the slopes and into the mountains, any remaining vegetation has been chopped down, paving the way for lethal mudslides when the torrential rains of summer strike. There are an estimated 700 favelas in Rio, home to over a million of the city’s six million people. Global warming is expected to hit the poorest hardest, producing more extreme events like violent rainstorms. The Rio authorities have begun efforts to change this scenario, first with a programme of “pacification” – expelling the drug gangs and their militias and establishing community police bases. The normalization of shantytown life has also permitted the beginning of an ambitious project to turn the cramped favelas with their narrow alleys into “green communities”.
10 March – The Arctic is on the move. The North Pole is in the same place, but Arctic conditions have begun to shift. A study of 30 years of satellite data confirms that the difference in temperatures between the seasons has diminished. Conditions now have shifted the equivalent of four or five degrees of latitude southward. At the same time, vegetation has moved north, colonizing the thawing permafrost. A team of 21 scientists from 17 institutions in seven nations reports in Nature Climate Change that as the cover of snow and ice has diminished and retreated in the Arctic Circle, the temperatures have begun to increase – at differing rates – during the four seasons. Although conditions differ from region to region, overall the growing season is beginning earlier, and the autumn freeze is starting later. Conditions in northern latitudes now increasingly resemble those found several hundred miles further south 30 years ago.
11 March – A few days ago came the news that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from human activities, had reached almost 395 parts per million, close to a significant milestone which shows how far the world is from agreeing resolute measures to tackle climate change. The news last week (see our story of 6 March, Coal triggers carbon level rise) that there has been a significant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the last year should have caused a ripple of fear around the world. Instead, a large stride towards the milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 went almost unremarked. Yet many scientists, environmentalists and journalists who have studied climate change, campaigned to prevent it, or spent years reporting too little action by world leaders to reduce emissions, must have inwardly shuddered. For those who understand the implications of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, this is not a milestone to be passed in such a hurry and with so little attention. If the science is right, then the human race is about to lose control of what happens to our civilization and our future.
12 March – Scientists think they have found some good news for the Amazon and other tropical forests. They say they appear more able to withstand the effects of climate change than previous studies had suggested. The research team, including climate scientists and tropical ecologists from the UK, USA, Australia and Brazil, concluded that the forests are less likely to lose biomass – plants and plant material – in response to greenhouse gas emissions over the rest of this century. In what they say is the most comprehensive assessment yet of the risk of tropical forest dieback caused by climate change, the scientists say their results have important implications for the future evolution of rainforests, including the role they play in the global climate system and carbon cycle. The study is published online in Nature Geoscience… Although this work suggests that the risk of climate-induced damage to tropical forests will be relatively small, the team does list where the considerable uncertainties remain in defining how ecosystems respond to global warming.
14 March – Two US academics have raised a problem that might seem exquisitely academic: who governs research into geoengineering? Deliberate geoengineering of the planet’s systems to reduce the hazards of global warming has been tentatively on the global science horizon for more than a decade – and there have been small-scale trials. The idea has supporters who argue that since there is no serious likelihood that humans will change their ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so there had better be a Plan B, involving perhaps aerosols in the upper atmosphere to screen out sunlight, or spraying to increase low-level ocean cloud cover. There are opponents who argue that the existence of any Plan B could serve as an excuse for not reducing emissions, and thus be self-defeating. Another lobby asks: yes, but why not at least do research to see if such schemes could work at all? But Edward Parson of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles and David Keith of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University use a policy forum in the journal Science to address a different issue: if geoengineering really did reduce climate change risks faster than any other response, it might also have local effects that cause environmental harm, undermine emissions cuts and even trigger international conflict.
15 March – Japan has successfully captured natural gas from deep under the ocean by tapping into methane hydrates, using a new technology that could revolutionize the world’s energy supply. It is the first country to succeed in exploiting the gas. The gas supplies locked into methane hydrates, also known as methane clathrates and “fire ice”, are potentially the largest single source of fossil fuels on the planet and for Japan, a country desperate for its own energy supplies, this could be an economic lifeline. On the other hand, many would regard almost unlimited supplies of a new fossil fuel as bad news in a world where there is already climate change caused by man’s existing excess carbon emissions. The announcement of the successful extraction of methane from underneath the sea floor off the Japanese coast came from the country’s Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry (METI). The tests by the state-owned Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) are continuing. It hopes to exploit the technology commercially in a new phase of drilling between 2016 and 2018.
16 March – “Black ops” is what the military call it – using false radio messages, news releases and newspapers, leaflets, and creating conspiracy theories so the enemy is confused, demoralized and loses the stomach for the fight. It worked so well in World War II that, in every conflict since, all sides have used the dark arts. Many of their methods and secrets are classified, too effective a weapon to allow to fall into the hands of the enemy. In a sophisticated world, however, the military are not alone in using black ops. They have excellent propaganda value in the commercial world too, winning a war without a shot being fired. A classic example has emerged in the last few days. A new leak of hundreds of thousands of emails between climate scientists is revealed. The climate deniers are having a field day. A new Climategate looms (see Watts Up With That?, which describes itself as “The world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate change”).
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.