February 21, 2012 |
by Ed Struzik
Polar bears have long come ashore in Churchill, Manitoba, the self-styled ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World.’ But as summer sea ice steadily disappears in Hudson Bay, bears are being marooned on land for longer periods of time — and that is generating a lot of work for the Polar Bear Alert Team.
Last Nov. 11, Jerry Cowley was fast asleep when he was wakened by the sound of someone violently banging on the front door of his bungalow in the Hudson Bay port town of Churchill, Manitoba. Thinking that it was his son coming home from a night at the bar, Cowley was going to scold him for losing his keys. Yet when he opened the door, Cowley was greeted not by his son, but by a large polar bear about to enter his living room.
“I told it to bug off!’” Cowley recalled the next day. “That’s the first time anyone has actually bugged off when I told them to.”
In the end, the bear did little damage to Cowley’s house. But he has since boarded up his porch, and his teenage daughter now sleeps in the attic. He’s also vowing never to answer the door again until he looks out the window to see who it is.
For decades, polar bears have been a fact of life in this so-called “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Every year, several hundred animals come ashore when the last of the sea ice melts in July, usually spending four months on land before the sea ice re-forms and the bears can return to the ice to hunt seals, their primary source of food. But swiftly melting Arctic summer sea ice, particularly in the past decade, is forcing an increasing number of bears to swim ashore earlier on the west coast of Hudson Bay and to remain for longer periods of time.
In Churchill, this means that conservation officers from Manitoba’s Polar Bear Alert Team are exceptionally busy, particularly in the fall, as I learned when I spent several days with them in November. The 2005 closing of the town dump, which had been attracting large numbers of polar bears, was supposed to diminish the number of bears loitering in and around Churchill. But sea ice loss has kept the bears coming in large numbers.
Last summer and fall were typical of the new reality in Churchill: With sea ice offshore melting in June — a month earlier than what was typical 30 years ago, when sea ice persisted well into the summer months — more than 300 of the region’s polar bears came early to the town and its environs. Stuck onshore for a longer period, the bears increasingly came into conflict with Churchill’s roughly 1,000 residents.
The population of Western Hudson Bay polar bears has declined from 1,200 in 1987 to roughly 900 today, as the bears lose body mass and produce fewer cubs. Scientists who study the bears are now wondering how long this population of animals will survive if it continues to spend more time on shore, where there is almost nothing to eat.
“The loss of polar bears in western Hudson Bay is a given, from all of the science on sea ice and polar bear ecology that I have seen and been involved in,” says Andrew Derocher, a polar bear biologist with the University of Alberta. “The main question now is when they will disappear from this part of the world. Our analyses suggest that the last bear in western Hudson Bay will die sometime within the next few decades.” Manitoba Conservation, the province’s wildlife agency, agrees that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, “global warming may some day produce conditions in Hudson Bay that could not support a population of polar bears.”
Derocher was in Churchill last November when so many polar bears had wandered into the town that the 28-cell holding facility used to house the bears until ice re-forms on Hudson Bay was already full. The polar bear “jail” is in a refurbished, air-conditioned former airport hangar on the outskirts of town, and when it fills up, the Polar Bear Alert Team must make room for more recent problem bears by tranquilizing and flying some of the inmates to areas far from town.
The residents of Churchill have a love/hate relationship with polar bears, which were originally attracted in large numbers to the town when the Canadian military abandoned its base in phases in the 1960s and ‘70s. (The presence of the military, some of whose members shot the bears, kept the bears away.) Today, the arrival of the bears draws more than 10,000 tourists a year. But when a polar bear becomes a nuisance, residents know by heart the number they can call. Last summer and fall, Manitoba conservation officer Bob Windsor and his colleagues were busy for months.
On July 5, for example, a tall, skinny, 17-year-old male got in between a tourist taking pictures on the seashore and the safety of town. The bear was so aggressive that when Windsor drove up in his pick-up truck and fired a few blank shells, the animal turned on him before taking flight through several backyards.
In pursuit, Windsor heard the sound of someone screaming. Moments later, he found the bear standing in the middle of the road not far from a man who had been surprised — but unharmed — by the close encounter. This time the bear had no intention of taking flight when Windsor drove up hoping to escort the animal out of town, where he and his colleagues could safely tranquilize it.
“See that big dent in the hood of my truck,” Windsor told me as we conducted an early morning patrol in mid-November to make sure that children and adults could get to school and to work safely. “When I drove up to him the second time, he turned on me again, but I wasn’t able to back up fast enough. When he caught up with me, he reared up and stomped on the hood of the truck. I have never seen a bear act so aggressively.” In the end, the conservation officers had to shoot the bear.
Biologists and conservation officers like Windsor have done a good job over the past 30 years developing ways of detecting and deterring polar bears before it becomes necessary to tranquilize or kill them. In the early days, as many as 29 problem bears were killed in a season. But starting in 1981, the Polar Bear Alert Program began emphasizing conservation of bears, as well as protection of people and property. Remarkably, only one person has been killed by a bear since the program was launched.
The Polar Bear Alert Team’s actions, and the closing of the dump, were intended to reduce the number of human/bear confrontations, minimize damage to homes and businesses, and cut the number of bears that need to be tranquilized or euthanized. Those actions have helped, but the steady disappearance of summer sea ice is complicating such efforts. Windsor and other conservation officers say there is a direct correlation between the time the bears spend on land and conflicts with humans. In 2009 — a warm year with later formation of sea ice — conservation officers documented 326 problems with polar bears in and around Churchill. In 2010, a cool year with more sea ice, the number of reported problems fell to 233.
Recognizing the tourism value of polar bears, the government of Manitoba has resisted proposals to allow sport and subsistence hunting, as both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories do. But many of the animals that live in the Churchill region in summer and fall migrate north into Nunavut Territory in winter, where the Inuit and guided hunters are free to shoot some of them.
Indeed, after slashing polar bear hunting quotas in 2007 out of concern for the declining number of polar bears in western Hudson Bay, the government of Nunavut has reversed course. It now claims, contrary to recent scientific studies, that western Hudson Bay polar bear populations are actually increasing, and Nunavut recently raised the annual quota of polar bear kills from eight to 21.
“In Nunavut, we have seen remarkable recovery of our polar bear populations since their historic lows in the 1970’s,” Daniel Shewchuk, then Nunavut’s environment minister, said in a news release last year, without releasing any details. The Inuit believe there are more bears than before because larger numbers of them are coming into villages and hunting camps. “The bears are not in trouble,” says Lois Suluk-Locke, a resident of the Nunavut town of Arviat. “There’s been so many it’s been scary.”
Scientists counter that this increase in sightings is tied to the delay in ice formation in Hudson Bay, which leads hungry bears to remain onshore in search of food. The bears have always migrated northward in autumn because sea ice used to form earlier up there. Now, the hungry bears are increasingly wandering into Inuit settlements, where local hunters store caribou, seals, and walruses on roofs and in sheds, scientists contend.
The University of Alberta’s Ian Stirling, arguably the world’s foremost expert on polar bears, says there is overwhelming evidence of the decline of polar bear populations in western Hudson Bay. Between 1980 and 2007, he and his colleagues found that pregnant females had lost, on average, more than 50 kilograms (110 pounds) in body mass. This resulted in smaller litters and a reduction in cub survival, leading to a steady drop in population.
“If the climate continues to warm as predicted, and the ice continues to break up at progressively earlier dates, it seems pretty clear that in a few more decades not many adult females will be capable of reproducing in western Hudson Bay, and any cubs that might be born will have difficultly surviving,” he says.
Last Friday, the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of the Interior seeking trade sanctions against Canada for violating conservation agreements on polar bears by allowing the continued hunting of the western Hudson Bay bears. As conditions deteriorate for polar bears there, some scientists say they can foresee a day when calls could arise to begin feeding the bears to keep them from going extinct.
“If the ice is gone, as is clearly predicted, feeding polar bears to sustain a semi-wild population is possible but unlikely to be a meaningful conservation measure for the longer term...,” says Derocher. “Feeding bears is fraught with lots of problems and it would have no real conservation value in the Churchill and western Hudson Bay region — because once the ice is gone, it’s not coming back any time soon.”Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
A series of leaked internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a conservative U.S. think tank, reveal an elaborate, multi-million dollar campaign to undermine the credibility of global warming science. The documents — which were sent anonymously to several bloggers and can be viewed online at DeSmogBlog.com — describe efforts to produce scientific studies that “discredit the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Heartland Institute also allocated $100,000 to create a global warming curriculum for school teachers emphasizing “that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain — two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.” According to the documents, a significant part of the campaign has been funded by a single anonymous donor, who spent more than $8.6 million on “climate change projects” from 2007 to 2011. That individual donated $3.6 million in 2008, the same year that the Heartland Institute began organizing annual climate change conferences. The documents reveal that the Heartland Institute is paying thousands of dollars a month to scientists who publicly question the mainstream view that human activity is causing the planet to warm.
Photo by Eric James Sarmiento/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
A unique group of fish that has evolved to live in Antarctic waters thanks to “anti-freeze” proteins in their blood and body fluids is threatened by rising temperatures in the Southern Ocean, according to a new study. Yale University researchers say that the more than 100 species of so-called icefish, or notothenioids, evolved 20 million to 40 million years ago to live in waters as low as -2 degrees C, which is the freezing point of saltwater. The notothenioids account for the bulk of fish diversity in the waters around Antarctica and are an important source of food for penguins, seals, and toothed whales. But as water temperatures rise in the Southern Ocean — some Antarctic water temperatures have increased by .5 degrees C in the past several decades — the notothenioids may have trouble adapting to a warmer environment, said the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. “A rise of 2 degrees centigrade of water temperature will likely have a devastating impact on this Antarctic fish lineage,” said Thomas Near, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale.Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
A new analysis of global satellite data has found that the world’s glaciers and ice caps — excluding Antarctica and Greenland — lost about 150 billion tons of ice per year between 2003 and 2010, adding about 0.4 millimeters to global sea rise annually. Using data from the twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder compiled what they say is the most comprehensive data on planetary ice loss. The satellites, which are part of a joint project between NASA and Germany, travel around Earth in tandem 16 times a day and are capable of sensing subtle variations in the planet’s mass and gravitational pull. While the new calculations are significantly lower than earlier land-based studies, the researchers say the findings still show that the planet’s ice is melting and causing sea levels to rise. “The Earth is losing an incredible amount of ice to the oceans annually, and these new results will help us answer important questions in terms of both sea rise and how the planet’s cold regions are responding to global change,” said John Wahr, a physics professor at CU-Boulder physics and lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature. During the same time period, ice loss from Antarctica and Greenland, including their peripheral ice caps and glaciers, was about 385 billion tons of ice annually.
Photo by SNappa2006/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
Climate scientists didn't take the usual climate denying propaganda lying down when they responded to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal,'No Need to Panic About Global Warming,' signed by 16 "scientists."
The opinion piece argues that the passion about addressing climate change is just a way for governments to raise taxes and for green non-profits to raise funding.
39 climate scientists wrote their own op-ed, which the Wall St. Journal published - 'Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate.'
Here are some excerpts from both:
The oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.
The lack of warming for more than a decade-indeed, the smaller-than-predicted warming over the 22 years since the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began issuing projections - suggests that computer models have greatly exaggerated how much warming additional CO2 can cause.
The fact is that CO2 is not a pollutant. Plants do so much better with more CO2 that greenhouse operators often increase concentrations to get better growth.
Although the number of publicly dissenting scientists is growing, many furtively say they are afraid to speak up for fear of not being promoted - or worse.
Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet.
Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.
You published "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" by the climate-science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology. Most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. Those few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert.
This happens in nearly every field of science. For example, there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS. And it is instructive to recall that a few scientists continued to state that smoking did not cause cancer, long after that was settled science.
Climate experts know that the long-term warming trend has not abated in the past decade. In fact, it was the warmest decade on record. Observations show unequivocally that our planet is getting hotter.
And computer models have recently shown that during periods when there is a smaller increase of surface temperatures, warming is occurring elsewhere in the climate system, typically in the deep ocean.
The National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. (set up by President Abraham Lincoln to advise on scientific issues), as well as major national academies of science around the world and every other authoritative body of scientists active in climate research have stated that the science is clear:
The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases.
Research shows that more than 97 percent of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused. It would be an act of recklessness for any political leader to disregard the weight of evidence and ignore the enormous risks that climate change clearly poses.
In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.
Photo by superwebdeveloper/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from SustainableBusiness.com
Carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activities over the last century have increased the acidity of the world’s oceans far beyond the range of natural variations, which may significantly impair the ability of marine organisms such as corals and mollusks to form their skeletons or shells, a new study says. Using computer modeling to simulate climate and ocean conditions from 21,000 years ago to the end of the 21st century, an international team of researchers calculated that current saturation levels of aragonite — a form of calcium carbonate and key indicator of ocean acidification — have already dropped five times below the pre-industrial range of natural variability in several critical coral reef regions. As the acidity of seawater increases, the saturation level of aragonite drops. If human combustion of fossil fuels continues at current rates, saturation levels can be expected to decrease further, possibly reducing calcification rates of some marine organisms by more than 40 percent within the next century, researchers say. “Our results suggest that severe reductions are likely to occur in coral reef diversity, structural complexity and resilience by the middle of this century,” said Axel Timmermann, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Priti Ambani
It is ironic to me that fighting climate change and employing sustainable energy sources is seen as a major hindrance to jobs and the economy, while there is more evidence every day that rising temperatures have the capability to wipe out entire industries and livelihood for millions. And who is giving us this false notion – politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups for Big Oil who obviously do not want alternatives to fossil fuels. Who do you think climate change affects the most? Small business owners and communities that depend on nature’s bountiful resources – like the tourism industry or fisheries. People like Martha Carlson.
A few years ago, Martha Carlson, a veteran maple farmer, began noticing subtle changes in her 60-acre “sugar bush” in Sandwich, New Hampshire: Maple sap was unusually dark, and leaves were falling too early, never having reached postcard New England color. Her sugar maples, some of them nearly 300 years old, were sick.
At 65, Martha now leads the crusade to save the New Hampshire sugar maples—and the multimillion dollar local syrup and tourism industries they provide—from disastrous climate change. And in the process she’s mobilizing a crack team of researchers: a group of elementary school kids.
The Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact of a climate change has produced this great video on Martha’s story
If the warming trend continues, sugar maples will be gone by 2100. And what happens when natural goodness like Martha’s maple syrup is no longer produced, unhealthy alternatives flood the market further polluting human and environmental health.
No one starts a business for the short-term and fighting climate change is insurance for your business. Natural resources are the backbone for our businesses and livelihood. Being environmentally responsible is not an option. It does end by just reducing your personal footprint but by demanding what is right from your elected representatives. Martha says, “We need lots of citizens to watch nature”. We need action. Do you want your grand kids and great grand kids to enjoy the same goodness you did? Do you want them to enjoy maple syrup with their pancakes?
Photo by liz west/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Ecopreneurist
A new study says that a warming climate is having a more profound effect on the world’s mountain vegetation than previously believed and that some alpine meadows could vanish altogether within a few decades. After comparing vegetation samples from 60 mountain summits in 13 European nations — collected in 2001 and then again in 2008 — a team of scientists found that cold-loving plants are being pushed out by plants that thrive in warmer temperatures. While earlier studies have made this conclusion at regional levels, researchers say this is the first time that the phenomenon has been shown on a continental scale. And they say it is happening more quickly than expected. “Many cold-loving species are literally running out of mountain,” said Michael Gottfried, a researcher with the Austria-based Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, which coordinated the study. “In some of the lower mountains in Europe, we could see alpine meadows disappearing and dwarf shrubs taking over within the next few decades.” The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
A new study says that thinning sea ice in the north Atlantic has caused a catastrophic decline in harp seal populations, a trend animal advocacy groups say should spur an end to commercial hunts of the animal in Canada. According to the study, conducted by scientists at Duke University and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, sea ice cover in all harp seal breeding regions has declined by as much as 6 percent per decade since 1979. Since female seal pups depend on stable winter ice to give birth and nurse their young, these changing conditions have produced a higher seal mortality, said David Johnston of the Duke University Marine Laboratory and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal PLoS ONE. “Entire year classes may be disappearing from the population in low ice years” Johnston said. “Essentially all of the pups die.” According to Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans department, as many as 80 percent of seal pups born in 2011 may have died because of a lack of sea ice.
Photo by Richard Child/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360
by Keith Kloor
Geographer Edward Carr has worked extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change and other environmental threats present a growing challenge. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Carr talks about why any outside aid to the developing world must build on the inherent capability of the local residents.
In the late 1990s, Edward Carr began working as an archaeologist in Ghana, piecing together a recent history of the culture, economy, and environment in several rural villages. His experience led him to rethink his own assumptions about poverty, as he recounts in his recently published book, Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline, and the Road to a Sustainable Future: “People in these villages lived on less than two dollars a day but never seemed to go hungry. They lived in houses that were made of earth and roofed with sheets of tin but managed to maintain a high standard of hygiene; chronic illnesses, such as malaria, were exceedingly rare. Few people in the villages had completed elementary school, but they were able to adjust their farms and livelihoods to address the challenges of an unpredictable climate and economy.”
Carr set out to understand these seeming contradictions, and became convinced that such villagers worldwide are “repositories of information about how to improve the human condition cheaply and with minimal environmental impact.”
A geography professor at the University of South Carolina, Carr now works at the intersection of development, globalization, and environmental change. He is currently a Science and Technology Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, serving as a climate change coordinator at the United States Agency for International Development. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Keith Kloor, Carr discussed the resiliency of many in the developed world in the face of daunting challenges and cautioned against making facile links between ecological problems and political conflict.
Yale Environment 360: In your book you write that much of what is accepted as “mainstream understanding” of climate change really underestimates the scope of the challenge before us. What do you mean by that?
Edward Carr: What I’m worried about is that when we look at where people think a lot of future climate change is going to come from, many are looking at the global South, the developing world. But they’re thinking about it in terms of economic growth, which increases consumption, which increases energy use, and which they predict will equal increased emissions. I don’t necessarily see it the same way, from my experience working in rural villages. Now that doesn’t speak to urban areas and certainly there will be some emissions growth there. But out in rural areas I don’t think that’s what you’re looking at. I suspect that in rural areas the bigger challenge is actually going to be environmental degradation and the sorts of challenges climate change brings to those folks and the decisions they’ll then have to make.
e360: Do you feel that focusing the debate monolithically on carbon emissions distracts from some of the underlying environmental and sustainability issues in Africa today?
Carr: I think it can. I mean, we know what the cause of anthropogenic climate change is. It’s greenhouse gases. We know that. But I think we then immediately start thinking about emissions, and people dial in on big emitters like industry and things like that, maybe in part because those are the easiest things to manage with policy tools.
But how do you deal with potentially millions of farmers across sub-Saharan Africa making decisions they need to make to maintain their livelihoods, that individually don’t have a major impact but in aggregate do? We don’t have the tools to deal with or even measure that. And I think that to me is one of those lurking issues that we’re going to have to start wrestling with going forward, no matter what decisions we come to on climate agreements.
e360: At the same time, though, in your book you talk about how the community in Ghana you worked in has already been adapting for decades, if not hundreds of years, to environmental change.
Carr: Absolutely. To me, one of the most important and fascinating things that comes out of my experience is that people are enormously capable. More remarkably, they’re really capable with access to very limited resources, while managing serious economic and environmental instability, and have been doing so for quite some time. The example I give in the book is their crops. About 80 percent of the crops in a year are not African domesticates. These folks have managed to integrate crops from all other parts of the world slowly but steadily and have been able to work without soil or crop science the way we understand it, and still have functional ecosystems that provide them with food and seem to be somewhat sustainable.
e360: In your book, you write that, “the single greatest misconception shaping contemporary views of development and globalization is the idea that the problems of poverty in the developing world are the result of the absence of development.” Can you explain?
Carr: When we look at the global poor, when we look at people living on a dollar a day, there’s this assumption that development does no harm. That is to say, we couldn’t make things worse for these people so we ought to be trying everything all the time. That’s sort of the Jeffrey Sachs logic, that we have to be doing something and not just sit here. But this fails to grasp the ways in which people are already doing great things to make a living and in fact a nonproductive intervention could undermine those things and do real damage.
e360: Over the summer various commentators talking about the famine in Somalia and the drought in the Horn of Africa were making a connection to global warming. You criticized this as simplistic.
Carr: What you’re referring to is my argument that drought does not equal famine, and it doesn’t. Famine is a situation of extreme food insecurity, and there’s a very technical definition for it. Drought is a meteorological event: Does it rain or does it not rain? How much under the norm does it not rain? How much water is not available? The problem is that the correlation between weather and famine is actually pretty low, historically. The correlation between markets and things like food prices and famine is actually extraordinarily high.
So the problem is, when we start looking at a situation anywhere in the world where we see famine kicking off, people immediately start pointing to the weather. But that’s one of many things that have to come together to get us to that situation. In almost every case that I’ve ever seen, the weather is a trigger, another stressor on top of a set of stressors. That was my concern there, not to oversimplify a very complex situation.
e360: What about the debate over food riots, climate change and uprisings? This came up earlier in the year, during the Arab Spring, when some folks were making linkages between global warming, rising food prices, and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Carr: I think this a very fascinating area of research right now. I do worry that there are some efforts to grab headlines with much more simplistic studies that look at things like El Niño and conflict, that don’t take into account some really important factors, such as the fact that, one, an El Niño or La Niña year plays out differently in different places. So not all conflicts could possibly be related in the same kind of way, and even in places where we see a drought emerging as a result of that, it happens across a broad area. And it’s a broad area with different livelihoods, different crops, different politics, different economic setups — again, all things absolutely crucial in determining whether we get some form of conflict. So we’re in a very nascent stage of understanding this stuff, and yet sometimes we see people making what sound like really firm statements, and that’s very risky.
e360: It sounds similar to all the talk about water wars.
Carr: The big problem with the water wars argument, in terms of interstate war between countries, is that there’s actually way more negative cases than positive cases. So there’s not any good explanation for why it doesn’t happen in the places where it doesn’t happen. And that has been really the big knock on that. But unfortunately what happens is that a study comes out, people don’t necessarily pick up on that big caveat, and they start talking about how water shortage means war’s going to happen. It’s the same sort of thing happening here, where climate change means war’s going to happen.
e360: As you note, there is this notion building that climate change is going to trigger civil conflict and/or war. It’s not coming from the media, either. Think tanks and university researchers are the ones making this argument.
Carr: I am not a conflict expert, but what I know about conflict is that it has really complex causation, and when we see those studies they’re reducing it. They say they’re controlling for all these other variables but they aren’t really, they just aren’t operating at a fine enough scale to do it. So right now I don’t feel like there’s a really strong literature supporting the connection. That isn’t to say that climate change won’t have some impact on conflict in the future. In fact I think this is something we ought to be paying attention to. This is just me saying, let’s do this really rigorously, let’s be very careful about how we set up these research projects and studies so when the findings come back they’re actually robust, as opposed to headline-grabbing.
e360: Can you clarify the difference “climate security” and “environmental security”? They seem to mean different things: impacts from climate change and impacts from, say, overexploitation of the environment. But they get often get bundled together.
Carr: They are being conflated. Climate change — climate unto itself — barring the heat wave argument that some people make, a few degrees is not a direct biophysical danger to human beings. It’s the radiating impacts of those changes in precipitation and temperature on ecosystems. I don’t tend to focus entirely on climate change, I tend to think of global environmental change because climate change impacts human beings typically through indirect pathways in which it hits all parts of the environment. Which goes back to my point about why I’m worried about these oversimplified and over-generalized studies that are starting to come out on climate change and conflict, because in fact they’re not looking at all the different pathways through which a drought or flooding has to work through to get to human impact.
e360: On the development end, you write that “our misunderstandings and failings are not only causing problems for people who live far away, but also have left everyone on the planet extraordinarily vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks.” What do you mean by that?
Carr: This is for me a really important argument to make: Development done right is in our self-interest here in the developed world. I firmly believe that when we’re not enabling people to make innovative decisions and solve a lot of these problems — and I firmly believe that there a lot of local solutions out there that we need to go find — things like climate change come back to get us.
You have to think about the drivers of climate change right now, which are many and very broad. But the ones that development most clearly addresses are things like land use, agriculture, energy use. That’s the kind of stuff that we need to be focused on that would then have huge benefits back to us over time... I would argue that the climate benefit is a collateral benefit that would come out of a better understanding of what people are already doing on the ground, or could be doing.
e360: Can you give me some examples?
Carr: It’s things that allow people to manage land more sustainably. If the land cover is healthier, it takes up more carbon, and that’s something we [can] help people catalyze across a broad swath of sub-Saharan Africa. And global carbon emissions as a result drop a certain percentage over time. And we’d be doing that not because we’re thinking about the carbon emissions. Rather, we’re actually thinking about people’s agricultural production.
We’re innovative people, we’re smart people – there are a lot of different things we will do. But there will be huge challenges too, and the point is, how many of these challenges can we just not have to deal with? How many can we keep off the table by doing good things in other places?
e360: It almost seems like the equivalent of energy efficiency. Not a splashy thing but the benefits are tremendous.
Carr: Exactly. I mean, it’s really hard to sell the counterfactual. It’s really hard to sell, “This is the bad thing you avoided because the really bad thing never happened.” We’re doing, say, good practices for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. We’re learning from them, we’re doing what works for them. They’re able to better manage their land. As a result, land use-related emissions drop and the rate of climate change decreases. So we don’t end up dealing with some of the problems we might have dealt with. Let’s work on what farmers are already doing and learn from that. And, hey, it’s great that all these other benefits happen.
I think it’s our job to really get out there and start listening to what people know. I guess what I’m in the end begging for is just the need for humility in the face of what we’re doing.
Photo by Jeff Attaway/flickr/Creative CommonsReprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360