EHRA – Every Human Requires Adventure (Poppy’s Back!)

Guess who’s back (back, back). Back again, (‘gain, ‘gain).

It’s me, Popizzle – real name, no gimmicks. Throwin’ back to a bit of early 00’s rap. No regrets….

So I’ve been off the radar for waaay too long, but I have an excuse. I’ve been visiting other continents, meeting new people, and doing a whole lot of cool once-in-a-lifetime type things. Not to brag or anything. Remember that you can’t beat a kiwi summer.

There were many moments during my travels that were an environmental challenge or experience. I’m going to be reflecting on these over the coming months, but first I want to talk about a really special project that I was involved in for a fortnight in Namibia.

The Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA) is an award winning conservation project dedicated to conserving desert-adapted elephants by working to reduce the conflicts between humans and elephants in the harsh environment of the Namib Desert. They monitor the movements of the herds, protect and build water points, and educate locals on the best way to peacefully coexist with the giant, glorious, dangerous, clever, and thirsty grey mammals who j-chill in the area. It’s a pretty full on job, and they rely on the help of volunteers who want to lend a hand and have an awesome experience at the same time. Elephants have always been my favourite animals, and seeing them in real life was definitely on my bucket list. Helping contribute to a safer natural environment for them? Even better.

Namibia is one of the sunniest countries in the world, with around 300 days of sun per year. The reality of this is the country is thirsty. I was in the project during September, just as winter is ending and the dry season coming to a close. It is blatantly obvious how precious and rare water is, especially in the rural areas. And of course this isn’t just an issue for people; even small flies constantly dive-bomb your eyes and mouth in search of moisture. I mean I’m all for eating insects, but I’m not so keen on them getting in contact with my eyeballs.

Elephants have also had to adapt to this environment and sometimes this causes issues with locals. In the area where my project was based, elephants had detected water sources by smell and dug up pipes at the local school. EHRA runs in two-week blocks, and our first week was dedicated to building an alternative water point in a dried up riverbed nearby.

The first week was challenging but so fulfilling – digging, collecting rocks, and mixing cement in 40 degree heat on some days! We were a group of fourteen from all over the world, ranging in ages from eighteen to eighty-seven (!!) but we all chipped in and managed to finish the structural wall within the five days. The team leaders really made the job a lot easier, as the actual construction of the wall is much more difficult than it first seems…

We would start our days very early with coffee in bed, delivered by the pair on duty, the gulp down some porridge and get to work. The evenings would be spent chatting, napping, playing games, eating delicious food, freestylin’ some rhymes, and admiring the gorgeous stars from one of the best viewing spots in the Southern Hemisphere. Can’t complain.

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Me smashing rock run

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Our completed water point!

After Build Week finished we enjoyed a weekend at Base Camp, finally grabbing a quick shower, visiting the local town for an afternoon, and sleeping on an open-aired platform in a tree. Elephants would walk right past us in the night, pausing to munch on branches from our tree/bed. Talk about rude awakenings yo.

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The sleeping platform at base camp

The second week is a reward for the hard labour of build week. We go on patrol! Imagine rocking around in sick land cruisers, taking note of the location and activities of various herds, spotting lots of other rad animals, and sleeping under the open sky in the desert. Bad-ass.

We spent lots of time watching the elephants of course, but also saw many different types of antelope, birds, jackal, baboons, ostrich, zebra, giraffe, and even lions!

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Camp set-up one evening

I cannot stress how gorgeous and ever-changing the landscape is, even in a relatively small geographical distance. White sand, red rock, red sand, green and brown grass, scrub, sand, plains, hills, sandy riverbeds. Sand. This is the desert after all. I was very content to just sit in my sleeping bag in the back of the cruiser watching the beauty go by, and this is only partly because I am a lazy sloth-human.

Trip Highlights:

  • Sleeping under the open sky in the desert
  • A scorpion running over my foot while I brushed my teeth one night… Eek
  • Seeing an elephant in real life for the first time
  • Cooking delicious meals over the fire each night
  • Eating, learning, sleeping, and joking with a bunch of awesome folks
  • Having so much while simultaneously living in a simplified way – very little food wasted, very little rubbish, strict conservation of water
  • Sun-downers. The beauty of the country in general really
  • Meeting local farmers, and visiting the local school
  • Learning about elephant/human conflicts, why they occur and how to solve them

I mean, based on my waffling reminiscences it was clearly an incredible experience for me. And it can be for you too! Check out the website and get involved. Yes, it does cost a bit of money, but that goes towards your food and supplies, salary for the employees, and simply keeping an important organisation doing good stuff. I recommend doing the project and also taking time to explore the gorgeous country that is Namibia – it makes the big trip over a bit more justifiable. I spent five weeks there and it was legit.

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Mumma and Bubba

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The team!

Aight OG’s. That’s a (w)RAP for this month. A huge thanks to the team at EHRA for such a life changing experience. And big ups to my cousin Giles for putting up with my company for five weeks – may your life be blessed with many guineafowl moments. As usual, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments!

Peace out, homies.

Poppy

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Me being gangsta and Giles being a dork


header image via http://www.desertelephant.org
all other photos belong to Poppy Stowell

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The Climate Change We Need – Local Body Elections 2016

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-5-21-29-pmBy Matthew Fanselow: published author, maker-of-change, doer-of-things, West Coast Gentleman.


October 8th is polling day for the 2016 local body elections, and many of you are surely wondering “why should I care”? Across the country only 42% of New Zealanders cast their vote in the 2013 local elections, with turnout being even lower in the 18-34 demographic. The politics game has a great many perceptions, almost all of which are negative: “politicians don’t listen”, “money-wasting bureaucrats”, “don’t raise my taxes”, “my vote doesn’t have an impact”. But the reality is that elections, from national down to local-level, have a huge impact on our daily lives. At the local level, the Mayors and Councillors we elect next month will set the district and regional agendas for the next three years or more, determining what level of importance and resources should be allocated to issues ranging from roading to buses, event management to rubbish collection, tourism to conservation. As citizens living in a free and democratic country, it is essential to the public good that as many of us as possible engage with the process and cast informed votes on that day.

Through Use Good Stuff we aim to inform and educate Joe Public about the importance of issues like climate change, conservationism and little changes you can make to help reduce your footprint on the environment. And, while social media is an effective vehicle for drawing attention to issues and mobilising individuals to a cause, a Facebook group or a Twitter trend are unlikely to be impactful in engendering the sort of change needed to avert our current disastrous trajectory. And while it can be equally argued that local body politics does not have an impact at that scale, it is the first step for empowering the masses to engage in the political process, reduce the apathy that has taken hold in recent decades, and ultimately force the Government to act on the colossal challenges facing planet as a whole, as well as our little piece of it.

So many people (especially the millennials) feel either excluded from the political process, or that the barriers to entry are too high in terms of developing an informed opinion. But the reality is that in Aotearoa there are so many issues and challenges which can be negated, and opportunities which can be seized, if the voting public tell the candidates that enough is enough and changes need to be made. Every region and town has its own unique landscape of challenges and chances, but our three main urban centres tend to receive the bulk of the media coverage (and not for no mean reason). Christchurch continues to regenerate from the catastrophe which struck it in 2011; Wellington faces challenges ranging from roading and public transport through to housing; and in Auckland the average house price is nearing $1m.

While these are the issues which grab the mainstream public eye, they are discrete issues within an overarching ecosystem of pollution, environmental degradation and overconsumption. Generation Zero have compiled an absolutely awesome scorecard system of Mayoral, local council and regional council candidates in several main centres. Candidates were asked for their views and policies on the issue of climate change, and received an A-through-E ranking based on the scoring guidelines. This is a clear and user-friendly tool to help inform you about the candidates and where they stand on the issues closest to you.

Don’t let apathy be the winner this election. The investment of time and energy in determining your candidates is small, compared to the consequences of a system which continues to ignore the big issues while overplaying the trivial. VOTE!


header image via greatnewsmag.com

Matt’s very professional corporate headshot via martinjenkins.co.nz

Coral Bleaching

It’s happening, and it’s worse than a bleached…You know. But what exactly is it? What causes it? And why should we care?

Coral and algae live a harmonious life together, like butter and bread. But when exposed to pollutants or extended periods of warmer (or cooler) ocean temperatures, the relationship can become toxic. More specifically, the algae produces toxic compounds and instead of sticking through the bumpy times, the coral sends the algae packing. With no algae to cover itself with, the coral is effectively naked. The translucent coral tissue lets us see right to the bones, giving the bleached effect we refer to. This bleaching can leave the coral without its major food source and more susceptible to disease. Like a misunderstood kiss in a rom-com, if the stress is not too severe coral have been known to recover.  But often the story is more like a Shakespearian tragedy; the coral dies and never recovers.

In recorded history (which isn’t very long) we have had three global bleaching events. They occurred in 1998, 2010, and one is currently ongoing (that is July 2016 for those reading in a post-apocalyptic future trying to figure out what the hell went wrong with the world), set to be the longest mass bleaching event yet. Guess what causes it…That’s right, climate change! These events have all been triggered by El Nino weather events, but given the rate of temperature increase we are seeing, it may not be very long before triggers are not needed to cause mass bleaching events. We often focus on the atmospheric consequences of our despicable appetite for burning fossil fuels, but given that the oceans absorb 93% of the heat and approximately half of the carbon dioxide we emit, maybe we should consider how that’s going to effect the thing that covers the vast majority of our planet. Coral bleaching is one of these consequences; they simply cannot cope with the warmer oceans. And if they try to recover, the added carbon dioxide that has been absorbed makes the oceans more acidic and actively dissolves new coral that is trying to grow. In the Great Barrier Reef 93% of corals have been hit by bleaching. And it’s a similar story all across the globe.

But why should I care? I’m not a diver, so I can live without these coral reefs and brightly coloured fish. Except I can’t. While these corals account for 0.1% of the world’s ocean floor, they help keep approximately 25% of marine species alive. This, in turn, means that the livelihood of 500 million people and $30 billion is at stake, because for some reason people only care about the environment when you relate it back to humans. It’s not like we should just stop killing things unnecessarily, right?

So there you have it, a quick article this time. Coral bleaching is occurring all over the globe, it’s caused by human induced climate change, and has severe consequences for the oceans, the planet, and the people that inhabit it. We should probably stop this whole “polluting the planet” thing now; it’s not that funny anymore.

-James


header image courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey via globalcoralbleaching.org

How Do We Power Our People?

We have a problem; a huge, gargantuan problem. It would be easy to paint this problem as insurmountable, but we must not do that.

Last month, as a continuation of the climate change mitigation theme I have been considering of late, I started to research and write about the potential for nuclear energy to be the best transition fuel we have, because all too often I heard the term ‘transition fuel’ used in relation to natural gas. Supposedly natural gas has the potential to be a transitional step into a renewable energy system. It is cleaner burning than coal or oil, and produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy when burnt. The infrastructure it sets up could also be used in a hydrogen powered future where it may be necessary to pump hydrogen around the planet. It could potentially help us achieve the two degree limit we set for ourselves in Paris recently, but the problem is (as I wrote in an article a few months ago) that this target is by no means a safe limit. So my idea was that if a transition fuel was necessary, why not make it nuclear energy?

I can feel the recoil from many people already, especially here in New Zealand. But we are not talking about nuclear weapons here, we’re talking about nuclear energy. It is efficient, produces no greenhouse gases, and is safe. In the wake of Fukishima many people find that statement hard to believe, understandably. But in over 50 years of nuclear energy there have only been three catastrophic incidents. These gain more attention for their spectacle, yet other energy sources silently kill far more people every year. As energy expert at the Centre for American Progress Joseph Romm states “nothing is worse than fossil fuels for killing people”. Most deaths from nuclear energy stem from mining uranium, but even then, the fatality rate is far lower than all other energy sources.

So I was going well, the urgency of climate change requires us to switch from carbon dioxide emitting fuels as soon as possible, and as a transition fuel option, nuclear was coming out far better than natural gas. But then I started to question the need for a transition fuel at all. The only reason we subscribe to this idea of a transition fuel at all is because of a tacit acceptance of the status quo. That is; the market is best at determining what our sources of energy should be. Why we ever allowed ourselves to be convinced that the marketplace, motivated only by profit, is better at determining our energy sources than our own human intelligence, informed by data and logic, I cannot fathom. But this is when I decided to change my tack and investigate whether it is possible to power our planet from renewables alone, whether we need a combination of renewables and nuclear, or whether it is simply not feasible to replace fossil fuel with renewables and nuclear.

And this is when I encountered the massive problem: while reliable data on renewables and nuclear capability energy is difficult to come by and conflicting, fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) still account for approximately 80% of our total energy consumption worldwide. We still have an insatiable appetite for them, and only recently Antarctica hit the 400 parts per million milestone of carbon dioxide atmospheric levels for the first time in four million years; a sign that there is no slowdown in the amount of carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere. Nuclear energy has increased nearly ten-fold in about forty years; perhaps a sign that this may be a saviour, given the huge problem facing renewable proliferation that is storage. Solar and wind do require large amounts of land and there are potential toxic side-effects in the production of photovoltaics, but I do not understand why we cannot make energy production an integral part of every new building. Solar panels on roofs should be as commonplace as insulation. We should be retrofitting all buildings with power production capabilities. This obviously costs money, but with government support it could be done, all that is required is the displacement of a fraction of the money we spend on wars, or an increase in taxes. It is a small price to pay for the salvation of our planet.

In the meantime, we need an independent body to investigate the capabilities of renewable energy. Whether nuclear energy is necessary to be used in conjunction with renewables or whether we can achieve our energy goals by renewables alone. Because while there are tales of Germany’s success in increasing renewable energy sources so much that electricity prices actually went negative, this is undercut by the fact that they are closing nuclear power plants before coal power plants and that they still rely on nuclear energy from France, a claim which is then refuted by other sources. If I had the time, I could trawl through each governments energy data, expert scientific analysis of wind and solar capabilities, and independent studies of renewable energy, and I may still do that, but this will take hours upon hours of work. But I cannot make a solid, practical case for renewables with the limited knowledge I currently have access to. All I can do is point to the catastrophic consequences that will occur and are already occurring because of the climate change that is driven by our ravenous consumption of fossil fuels and hope upon hope that we abandon fossil fuels as soon as possible because right now, we don’t even have a plan to abandon them. That is the definition of madness.

It may be time for me to become a full-time independent journalist…

-James


image via shutterstock.com

What’s Wrong With Genetically Modified Organisms?

Are you bored with your ordinary goldfish? Is your fish tank feeling bland and boring? Then you need GloFish; a new and improved fish that comes in your choice of six exciting colours. Choose from galactic purple, electric green, and more! Buy the first genetically modified pet available for sale and liven up your fish tank today!


When people think of genetically modified organisms, they often conceive of radioactive and fluorescent mutants. People commonly think the work scientists are doing by experimenting with genetic modification is unnecessary, creepy, and potentially dangerous; but is that fair?

While I did make up the above spiel myself, GloFish are a real thing and were indeed the first genetically modified pet made available for sale commercially, entering the market in 2003. At first glance they do seem unnecessary, but when you learn that these fish were originally developed to change colour in the presence of pollutants you begin to understand the wider context – there is method to this madness.

Creating fluorescent animals for our own amusement may seem unnecessary to many, and some would even question doing so to help detect polluted waterways given the other technologies available to us. We also use genetic modification to develop fish that grow faster, like the AquAdavantage salmon, which is an Atlantic salmon that has been modified to grow all year round, instead of just in spring and summer. The result is that it is ready for consumption in half the time as conventional salmon. This could potentially reduce pressure on wild stocks in our overfished oceans but again, some may claim better regulation and simply eating less fish would solve this issue. However, when you learn that scientists were able to develop a lethal gene that eradicated 80% of the Aedes aegypti mosquito population in the Cayman Islands in a 2010 trial, it becomes more difficult to argue against the use of genetic modification technology in the same way (the Aedes aegypti mosquito is the single most important carrier of dengue fever. Two and a half billion people are now at risk of infection with 390 million infections and 25,000 deaths occurring annually). In addtition, the malaria-resistant mosquitos created in the lab in 2010 are hugely important given the World Health Organisation estimated that there were 214 million new cases and 483,000 deaths from malaria in 2015. The potential to fight the spread of disease alone makes genetic modification vital, but an equally urgent catastrophe demands the consideration of the technology; and that is climate change.

As I mentioned in my previous article, catastrophic climate change is not only inevitable, it is already occurring. We must be dedicating as much of our efforts towards mitigation as we are towards halting temperature increase. In this light, genetic modification is an important tool we have to ensure our survival. Genetically engineered crops have the potential to produce higher yields, grow in dry and salty lands, withstand extreme temperatures, and have improved resistance to insects, disease, and herbicides. All of these traits are incredibly desirable when you couple the challenge of growing 70% more food by 2050 to keep up with population growth (as estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) with the reduction of the world’s arable land that will occur because of climate change.

All of these facts withstanding, many people (myself included) find altering the genetic material of a living species slightly disconcerting. But we have been altering the genes of species for millennia. Breeding through artificial selection, something humans begun around 12,000 years ago, is a precursor to the modern concept of genetic modification. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture includes the statement “genetic engineering or other more traditional methods” in their definition of genetic modification. Therefore, genetic engineering – the deliberate, controlled, and direct manipulation of the genes in an organism using biotechnology – is the more precise term for what we are discussing. The fact that biotechnology is used ensures stringent safety requirements are in place, whereas through genetic manipulation via selective breeding we have created dogs with breathing issues and wheat with seeds that do not scatter (meaning it could not exist outside a farm) for cuteness and convenience – reasons no less trivial than the motivation behind the existence of GloFish.

We have also been using mutagenic techniques to scramble the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals for 60 years now, producing many strains of crops that have become agricultural mainstays (including wheat, rice, and peanuts) and this has met little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health issues.

The process for getting genetically engineered crops to market is long and fraught with regulatory and safety checks. It could be argued that many conventional crops and animals developed through selective breeding would never have made it to market if they had to undergo the same stringent safety checking process as genetically engineered organisms. More than 17,000 genetically engineered releases have been approved and globally one tenth of the world’s cropland includes genetically modified plants. Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations and by now trillions of meals containing genetically modified ingredients have been consumed. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have all concluded that genetically modified crops pose no unique health risks. Dozens of academic reviews have all backed that view and those few studies that have found health risks have almost all been discredited.

And yet, there remains fierce resistance to genetically modified crops – sometimes in countries that would benefit most from them. Only two genetically modified crops are accepted in the European Union currently, with eight EU nations banning them outright. India, China, and much of the rest of Asia is yet to approve most genetically modified crops, including an insect resistant rice that produces higher yields with less pesticide. No country has plans to grow golden rice which has more vitamin A than spinach, unlike conventional rice which has none (vitamin A deficiency is responsible for an estimated 250,000-500,000 children going blind in the developing world every year, with half of them dying within 12 months of going blind). Several nations in Africa have refused to import genetically modified food and Kenya has banned them altogether. The US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina collectively grow 90% of all genetically modified crops.

However, there are credible concerns with the attempted proliferation of genetically modified organisms. These are not to do with the safety of genetically modified foods themselves, but the economic and legal implications of the technology. Being able to patent life has immense consequences and is worthy of many academic papers, articles, and debates itself. Many fear the control of the seed market by a few chemical companies. Monsanto itself has a page on their website explaining why they sue farmers who save seeds. This means that farmers are forced to buy new seeds every season. And with a new round of industry consolidation underway that could put more than half the global seed market into the hands of three companies, it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to avoid these patented seeds. Furthermore, the exclusive use of herbicide-tolerant crops also makes farmers dependent on the same companies’ chemicals, further adding to these companies’ control over the agriculture industry. This is problematic for another reason; evolution. Herbicide tolerance is the most widely used application of genetic modification, but weeds can quickly develop a tolerance to these same herbicides, as was the case with Palmer Amaranth; a weed found to be resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide, in 2006. This was less than 10 years after the genetically modified cotton designed to be resistant to glyphosate was introduced, thus rendering its alterations inconsequential. This leads to another real concern, loss of biodiversity. This is the antithesis of sustainability and control of the agricultural market by a few companies could significantly impact on crop biodiversity as use of a few genetically modified crops become more prevalent. This greatly increases the susceptibility of the world’s food basket to disease, endangering food security for all of us.

All of these issues and more are worthy of further investigation, but in the context of a changing climate, it is imperative we move past our vague unease at genetic engineering and realise the profound potential genetically modified organisms have to ensure the survival of our species’ from ourselves as we attempt to deal with the consequences of a rapidly warming planet. If we can become educated of the fact that scientists have failed to find a unique health risk from genetically modified organisms after decades of trying hard to do so, we can deal with the more complex, and more urgent, issues pertaining to regulation and patenting of living organisms. Climate change is here, it demands our attention, and genetic modification is a crucial tool we can use to mitigate its effects. It is time for the world to face this fact.

-James


Header image via washingtonpost.com

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

A tragedy of the commons is a situation where many people have access to a common, limited resource, which is slowly depleted as individuals use it. This leads to an incentive system where every individual uses the resource as quickly as possible, mindless of the long term consequences of overexploitation and depletion, as anything unused by themselves will be used by someone else. In this way, individuals acting independently and rationally according to their self interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group. It is a common pattern studied in economics, which appears in some very diverse real world settings, a well known and well studied failure of a free market. A more thorough description of this phenomenon is supplied by La Wique.

Global warming is caused by humans emitting greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, concentrations of which are reaching levels unprecedented in recent geological history. Although debate continues over the exact nature of the relationship between atmospheric pollution, climate change, and how this will manifest in terms of changing weather patterns, the broad pattern is well established. More carbon dioxide means a warming planet, and this means bad news for us.

An important reason meaningful attempts to limit carbon dioxide emissions have been unsuccessful is because of the nature of this incentive structure. The benefits of industry are local, immediate, and individual. They are the comfort and convenience of modern cars, homes which are cool in summer and warm in winter, cheap bulk transport which allows us to take advantage of the efficiency gains afforded by global trade. At the nation state level, the wealthy, comfortable, industrialized lives we have grown accustomed to always mean pollution. Make no mistake; despite what some people say, it is impossible to meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions without big drops in our standard of living. The plight of people in poor countries is even worse, being able to burn fossil fuels, and thus pollute, could be the difference between living a life of abject poverty and misery and having some measure of assurance that their life is not as precarious as the quality of the next harvest. The damage caused by this sort of pollution is dispersed, it has an insignificant effect on the individual polluter but, added up, is bad news for humanity and bad news for the planet.

This analysis applies at three levels – individually, nationally and internationally. At the individual level, being able to use fossil fuels, and thus pollute, is the difference between living warm, comfortable, convenient lives and living in poverty for many, many people. And while the benefits of being able to pollute in this way are immediate, tangible, and individual, the adverse consequences are delayed, hard to measure and dispersed. Individuals acting independently and rationally, according to their own self interest, pollute – to the detriment of humanity as a whole.

At a national level, being able to use fossil fuels in a country’s development can be the difference between industrializing and being able to offer a nation’s citizens some hope of material well being, and resigning them to the same grinding poverty that their ancestors were forced to endure for generations. Free market economic reforms over the last 30 to 40 years have lifted vast numbers out of poverty, in China alone, Deng Xiaoping’s market liberalisation efforts have lifted over 500 million from extremely precarious existences as subsistence farmers to having some measure of wealth and security. These reforms have been perhaps the most successful antipoverty efforts in history; yet they come at the cost of increased atmospheric pollution which threatens the whole planet. Nations such as China are right to argue for the benefit of their citizens and thus that they should be allowed to pollute, however this concentrated benefit comes at the cost of all the nations of the world.

A further complication is that, even if national leaders are motivated to take steps to reduce their nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, in democracies they are beholden to their voters. Those voters are often reluctant to make large sacrifices to their standard of living when the benefits that accrue as a result of those sacrifices; less global warming, are dispersed across the entire world. Voters in places like New Zealand or Australia look to China and are reluctant to substantially reduce emissions, as even large reductions are rendered moot by pollution produced by the rest of the world. The incentives faced by national leaders compel them not to drastically reduce their nation’s climate emissions, to do so would be to risk the wrath of their constituents reluctant to commit to large, unilateral emissions cuts.

The single thread running through this essay has been that people and nations don’t commit to meaningful emissions cuts not because they’re ‘evil’ or willfully ignorant of the consequences of climate change, but because of the nature of the incentive structure they face. They are behaving perfectly rationally given the nature of those incentives. This problem of coordination between different parties, the difficulty of getting diverse groups of people to agree to sacrifice their standards of living when that is contrary to their individual self interest, lies at the root of the politics and debate around global warming and how best to approach it. These sorts of problems are difficult to solve, but the first step is a sober understanding of what is going on, of different people and institutions’ incentive structures and how this motivates them to behave. Only given a thorough understanding of these constraints can solutions be proposed that have a realistic chance of actually succeeding. An in depth and fascinating discussion on this class of coordination problem is given here. SlateStarCodex is a blog I cannot recommend more highly.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect a coherent international response to the problem of climate change given these constraints. Although the recent Paris agreement displays some promise, only time will tell if it has teeth. Probably the best any individual can do is reduce their own emissions as much as possible, as well as lobby their government and try to convince other voters of the importance of emissions cuts. I think it’s important to try and avoid politicizing climate change; it’s something that affects us all. If it becomes an inherently ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ thing, effort to address it will be doomed to failure. Too many people use it as a vehicle to try and push their own, unrelated, political viewpoints, about inequality and so forth. Although these are often important issues in their own right, associating them with global warming emissions reductions automatically makes large segments of the population suspect emissions reductions are a figleaf for a political agenda they disagree with. I hope you agree that emissions reductions are far too important to be allowed to fail because of that! Convincing people that reducing climate emissions is important involves listening to them, taking their opinions and values seriously and understanding what motivates them to hold the opinions they have – even if you find many of their other positions abhorrent, climate change is too important not to talk respectfully to other people about. Remember, people don’t feel motivated to make serious efforts to reduce their emissions not because they’re stupid, or evil or willfully ignorant, but because of the incentive structures they face. It’s up to all of us to understand this and try to convince others on the basis of that understanding.

-Simon Holdsworth

An Inconvenient Inevitability

The Paris Climate Change Conference has drawn to a close and it seems that everyone has been talking about climate change. There was the news that carbon dioxide emissions fell during a period of economic growth for the first time. There were marches across the world in the lead up to the conference calling on world leaders to actually do something this time. Even our leaders themselves seemed to be joining in this global call to action.

Our very own Prime Minister John Key announced a $20 million contribution to the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. He even said “countries subsidised fossil fuels to the tune of US$500 billion in 2014. Removing these subsidies frees up money, which would be better spent on low-carbon energy, health or education” which is incredible! This is excellent news if meaningful action results. But given that it’s less than a week after he signed the Paris agreement and his government has already granted nine new permits for oil and gas exploration, you will forgive me for doubting his commitment to these words. Not to mention his government has already marked out 20 times the amount of money for fossil fuel promotion over renewable energy promotion this year.  Oh, and the Tangaroa, a NIWA deep water research vessel was given $24 million from our government to upgrade it for oil and gas exploration in our waters. But enough about that, while Key may only be just catching up with the idea that something has to be done about climate change, others are pushing governments to commit to more ambitious goals in the face of the huge challenges climate change is already presenting to us. The talk is very much focused on “stopping climate change”, but the reality is that we are past that point. Climate change is inevitable.

We need to start planning for a future of more frequent weather extremes, rising seas, spreading diseases, increased food insecurity, and many other consequences we are already observing. Melting land ice and warming oceans (causing expansion) have led to a 200mm rise in sea levels from 1870-2000. NASA satellites have shown a rise of 66.91mm since 1997. Some atoll nations are already under threat from rising seas, and already there are people seeking asylum as climate refugees.

Globally we are seeing hot regions experience more frequent and lengthy heat waves, forest fires, and droughts, while cooler regions are experiencing more frequent flooding. While there was much celebration at the agreed upon 2°C limit this week, it is by no means a safe limit, and under current plans is unachievable. This 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide threatens Arctic permafrost, which would release up to three times the amount of carbon currently in our atmosphere. It threatens the Greenland ice sheet which, if melted, would raise sea levels by approximately seven metres. The West Antarctic ice sheet is the most vulnerable and would add approximately 5 metres. According to Obama’s own science advisor, John Holdren, we are already passing the point, if not already past it, where the loss of these ice sheets is inevitable. Yet the target agreed upon in Paris allows for a further doubling of average temperature rise.

Many prominent climate scientists agree that the 2°C limit is certainly not a safe level. James Hansen wrote a paper ten years ago stating this and as recently as a few weeks ago reasserted that contention. Kevin Anderson has said that the 2°C limit represents a threshold not between “acceptable” and “dangerous”, but “dangerous” and “highly dangerous”. Under the current pledges, we would still increase global average temperatures by up to 2.7°C. We are already 0.9°C above pre-industrial levels and even if we were to stop releasing greenhouse gases today, the global temperature would continue to rise towards 1.5°C before stopping, according to a paper published in Nature in May. Most scientists agree that to keep the increase below 1.5°C (which itself is not a safe level) we need to not only sharply curb greenhouse gas emissions, but we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

This is our future. I hate to be pessimistic, but there is nothing to signify that we will stop climate change from occurring. The language of the Paris agreement is devoid of any actionable commitments, the current plans, while aiming for a 2°C limit, currently project a rise closer to 3°C, and there were last minute changes of the wording of the agreement to softer language (changing “shall” to “should” for example). These facts do not inspire confidence in even the most optimistic observers.

We are already feeling the consequences of a changing climate. There are more floods, droughts, forest fires, heat waves, and the seas are rising. All of this leads to decreased food security, increases in invasive species, the spread of disease vectors, loss of entire nations, climate refugees, and many more effects. Developing nations are particularly vulnerable, and developed nations are largely responsible for climate change, so there is an inherent injustice to all of this.

We must continue to try to reduce carbon emissions, but also must begin to plan on mitigating the effects of climate change. This means we must consider other technological alternatives for our energy consumption, including nuclear energy, and we must begin to plan for an insecure future which means considering GM crops, lab grown meat (or maybe even vegan diets), high rise complexes dedicated to food production, and many more technologies. I will consider all of these technologies in my 2016 articles.

There is much to be pessimistic about, but we must continue to fight anyway. In the face of apathetic leaders, powerful corporations, and a populace with other priorities (such as feeding their families), it seems like an impossible fight. But we have all the capabilities necessary for a fossil fuel free future. We have all the capabilities for a food secure future. We have all the capabilities for a stable and safe future. We just have to keep fighting for them.

-James


Header image from http://oneworldhouse.net/2014/08/03/right-where-they-want-us/

 

Do Science!

We need scientists. Proper scientists. People who will look at the world and wonder. People who will want to know, want to understand, want to find out. These are the people who have always dragged society along, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a new age of enlightenment and endeavour.

Just go onto any news site, look at the science section, and try not to find yourself amazed and bamboozled by discoveries and stories stranger than anything imagined. You’ll find stories about Pluto having cryovolcanoes that erupt an “icy slush”. You’ll find stories of scientists creating beams of neutrinos aimed at helping forensic investigators and archaeologists find the molecular changes that occur when bones burn. You’ll see photos of the oldest stars in the known universe; some that were born when the universe was just 300 million years old, making them older than our milky way at 13 billion years old. You’ll see how researchers have linked a particular fold in the brain to hallucinations in schizophrenia. Then there’s solar winds eradicating the atmosphere on Mars, a tsunami lab, and plans to send humans to Mars. There are so many interesting things going on, everybody should be interested in learning about it! And if you’re still not interested, watch The Martian by Ridley Scott and tell me you weren’t entertained by a two hour movie about someone using science to stay alive.

As you may tell, I love science. I love the world and the universe, and so naturally science excites me. But I am writing this because we have some gargantuan challenges ahead of us as a species. While I do find science inherently interesting and there needs to be no further reason to study it than that, it is also our greatest tool in our fight for survival.

Nearly a billion people are malnourished on this planet; and food security is a huge issue that needs to be addressed. With an increase in extreme weather conditions predicted (and already being observed) due to climate change, more droughts and floods makes feeding the world a whole lot tougher. Climate change itself is acidifying oceans, spreading diseases, allowing invasive species to flourish, swallowing islands, and killing people. Our 100 year love affair with antibiotics, which has saved countless lives and allowed our population to explode, may be drawing to an end as antibiotic resistance is reaching “dangerously high levels” according to the World Health Organisation. We will eventually run out of fossil fuels and have to find new ways to fuel our lifestyles (or completely change how we live). Clean and fresh drinking water is becoming desperately hard to come by in some parts of the world – These are just some of the huge issues facing us today.

All of this may seem like a huge cause for pessimism, but it also is a huge call to arms. The people who will fight this seemingly impossible battle will be the scientists. They are the ones who will create new technologies, research new medicines, develop new crops, or stumble across a solution to a perplexing problem completely unwittingly, not because they were actively looking in that particular field, but simply because they were looking.

We need to take science out of the classroom. We need to talk about it, think about it, wonder about it. All it takes to be a scientist is an active imagination and a curious outlook. Anyone can do it. So why not start?

-James

More Than Meats The Eye – Environmental Vegetarianism

This month, I turned over a new leaf. A leaf that, prior to my going green journey, I genuinely never thought I would turn.

Growing up in a typical small-town NZ household, there was no such thing as a vegetarian meal. We were meat and 3 veg most nights of the week, with a fish and chip dinner every Friday. We would get a lot of meat from family and friends who had farms, and my dad used to do a fair bit of hunting and fishing of his own. I don’t know when or how I first came across the concept of vegetarianism, but I’m sure I probably thought it was just a load of hooey.

Just to be clear, I am a big fan of meat. I enjoy the taste of it and I do miss it. Especially bacon. Oh, sweet bacon. But, unfortunately, life can’t always be about me and I what I want. I needed to start looking at the bigger picture if I really wanted to be able to call myself an environmentalist, and so that’s exactly what I did. A tiny bit of research was all it took to confirm my worst fears – eating meat just isn’t a sustainable thing to do and I had to cut it out. Simple as that.

Environmental vegetarianism is based on the premise that animal agriculture is not environmentally sustainable. Commercial and subsistence farming is detrimental to the planet in a whole bunch of ways, including pollution, emissions, water consumption and deforestation. I’m going to put a bunch of handy links at the bottom of this post so you can read more about all of this stuff, by people who can write about it a lot better than I can. But, something that I would very much recommend you do is track down the documentary Cowspiracy and give it a bit of a watch. It highlights some pretty unbelievable stuff:

  • Up to 137 plant, animal and insect species are lost every day due to rainforest destruction.
  • Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20%-33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
  • Agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. 
  • Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.

These and a whole bunch of other statistics can be found on the Cowspiracy facts summary page. This doco is full of very interesting and important information, and while it was a bit tough to watch in places, it was the final kick in the butt that I needed to put down the Beef Bourguignon.

My first step, which I began about 6 months ago, was to stop purchasing meat from supermarkets. This was to serve the dual purpose of reducing the amount of non-recyclable packaging I was using, while easing me into not cooking with or consuming meat quite as much. This meant that, for most of this year, I was pretty much only eating meat when going out to restaurants or dinner parties, etc. I think this was a really good place to start, as it has made the first few weeks of being a “proper” vegetarian pretty easy thus far. Something that has probably also been super helpful for me is the fact that I do really enjoy vegetarian food. For the last few years it has been a pretty regular feature of my diet anyway, which mostly came from being on a tight budget and just not always having money to spend on meat. So, while I’ve really only just begun, it’s going okay so far!

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons that going vege is a pretty solid idea. Not supporting the growing and slaughtering of animals for food is a reasonably big one, but I’m not really here to preach. Arguing for vegetarianism and veganism seems super controversial because people LOVE to eat animals and animal products, and really don’t like to be told not to. There is also the fact that so much of our economy, especially in New Zealand, is based on these industries. The dairy industry is a big one for us but is also very problematic for the environment, and so veganism might be in my future as well… I’m really going to miss cheese.

So, please have a look at the links below, check out Cowspiracy and just have a little bit of a think for yourself. I’ll be sure to provide some updates now and then and let you know how I’m going with it all! Please comment below or find us on Facebook if you have something to add on this topic! Thanks for reading 🙂

-Blick


More good info here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_vegetarianism

http://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/infographic-veganism-and-the-environment/

http://www.cowspiracy.com/blog/

https://www.downtoearth.org/go-veggie/environment/top-10-reasons

https://usegoodstuff.co.nz/2015/10/14/deforested/

https://usegoodstuff.co.nz/2015/09/12/overfished/

Deforested

They are the lungs of the world, the repositories of life, and among the most wondrously beautiful places on the Earth, and we are cutting them down. Like most people, I knew deforestation was a major problem without knowing any substantial facts about it. So this is my attempt to rectify that.

First of all, forests are not the lungs of the world; they are more like a single lung (notwithstanding the fact that lungs perform the opposite process to photosynthesis in that they use oxygen instead of producing it). It is estimated that at least half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by phytoplankton in the ocean. Though, this number is difficult to accurately calculate and estimates range from 33% to 85%. Either way, forests do play a role in producing the oxygen we breathe. We certainly could not live without them.

The forests of this world are home to 70% of all the Earth’s land animals according to National Geographic. There are even humans that still live in them. And further to this, tropical rainforests harbour half of all plant and animal species. Despite the immense importance of this biodiversity in and of itself, and while we should not be so arrogant and self-important as to justify the importance of forests solely in relation to our own species’ existence, they are a valuable source of a huge variety of products we use. Whether that be the wood, the bountiful crop in the form of fruit, nuts, and berries, fibres, latexes, oils, pulp for paper and boxes and sponges, we have found many things in forests that we have fashioned to our own desires. They have always provided our species and others with food, fresh water, and shelter.

They also have the potential to provide important medicinal treatments. They are an irreplaceable source of new drugs, many of which are used in cancer treatment. And yet, we have screened less than 1% of tropical plants for possible uses in medicine. Plants have unique abilities to synthesize compounds that are used to perform important biological functions and to do so in the lab may present major difficulties. Deforestation results in the extinction of species, meaning we are losing potential medicines.

We are losing dozens of plant, animal, and insect species every day. While we do not know just how many species there are out there, making it difficult to estimate the exact rate of extinction, we can calculate that the current rate of extinction is up to 1,000 times higher than it would be if humans did not exist. This has resulted in many calling this the Holcene extinction period. This is the sixth mass extinction period that has occurred on Earth, but rather than being caused by an asteroid or volcanic activity, humans are the culprit. It is easy to believe when you learn that humans have wiped out nearly 80% of the world’s original old-growth forests, most of which is found in North America, Russia, and Brazil. Today, forests cover a quarter of the world’s total land area thanks to regrowth or secondary forest. About half of this is found in the tropics and in the past few decades, this is where the majority of deforestation has occurred – and the rate of deforestation is only increasing.

One of the most important aspects of forests is their impact on the water cycle. Forest cover intercepts precipitation which then percolates to groundwater systems. Their litter, stems, and trunks slow down surface run-off. Their roots systems increase the infiltration of water. Terrestrial evaporation and transpiration processes control the humidity of the surrounding environment. And of all the fresh water in the world, rainforests produce approximately 30% of it. They also are hugely important to the health of the soil. Once removed, the soil quickly becomes arid rendering it useless, even for agriculture.

Deforestation impacts all of these things. It reduces soil cohesion so that erosion, flooding, and landslides become more common. It results in more surface run-off and less water being trapped in the ground and air. As a result the water runs into rivers creating many problems; the Amazon River has seen an increase in its annual crest, despite there being no increase in rainfall. The disruption to the water cycle can also cause a decrease in rainfall, as was documented in Northwest China where precipitation decreased by a third between the 1950s and 1980s in deforested areas. Tropical deforestation is estimated to contribute to 20-30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, rivalling that of burning fossil fuels. Furthermore, it also causes carbon stores held in the soil to be released. These are some of the consequences, but what of the causes? And how can we fight it?

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the overwhelming cause of deforestation is agriculture. Subsistence farming accounts for 48% of all deforestation, commercial agriculture 32%, logging 14%, and fuel wood 5%. 100,000 square kilometres of forest are removed every year, and a further 100,000 square kilometres are degraded. Much of the illegal logging can be difficult to detect even from satellite, as loggers often select specialty wood like mahogany below the canopy. Tropical rainforests once occupied 16 million square kilometres, now they occupy 8 million square kilometres. It is estimated that Latin America and Asia have already lost 40% of their original forest, and Africa little more than half. Up to 90% of West Africa’s coastal rainforests have disappeared since 1990. In Southeast Asia, about 90% has been lost also. Much of what remains globally is in the Amazon. Several countries, most notably Brazil (which has most of its forest intact relatively speaking), have declared their deforestation a national emergency. Despite all of this dire news, much is being done to combat this global problem.

China has established a national tree planting day and since its inception, forest coverage has increased from 12% to 16.55% of China’s land area. Brazil recorded its second lowest rate of deforestation in 25 years this year, although that number is not without dispute. Certification schemes such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification and the Forest Stewardship Council encourage market demand for timber from sustainable managed forests. Using fuel from bamboo is being encouraged as it burns cleaner, and it matures much faster meaning the resource can be replenished much faster than conventional fuel wood. Reforestation is becoming increasingly common and in 22 of the worlds 50 most forested nations, the amount of woodland has increased in recent years. With regards to the fight against climate change, the ability of forests to sequester carbon is still a matter for debate. There is good evidence that the regrowth of previously deforested areas in Europe and North America during the 20th Century has sequestered considerable amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It has been suggested that high yielding forest plantations are suitable to meet the worlds’ demand for wood. Calculations show that we could supply all the timber required for international trade on 5% of the world’s existing forestland, five to ten times less than would be required from natural forests. These are things that need to be encouraged on a global scale, but it is a daunting task.

Deforestation is a horrifying reality that reminds us of the incredible negative impact our species can have on this planet, but if we are informed we can begin to encourage change.

-James