Inuit early warnings and the human rights of global warming

The Inuits are an indigenous people who have traditionally occupied large areas the Artic Circle in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland. They describe their culture as a ‘hunting culture’: it is inextricably linked to the marine and terrestrial animals of the circum polar region. The Arctic is the first global region to be seriously affected by global warming: the retreat of the polar ice cap has been well documented, and is now thought to be accelerating. The impact of this on the Inuit people is already serious and is likely to be catastrophic. Recently they launched a remarkable action with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the loss of the habitat in which their culture is embedded was a human rights issue–a pioneering idea which the Commission found it difficult to come to terms with.

The plight of the Inuits brings into focus the differential impacts of global warming. Global warming has to do with the physical environment; its impacts are world-wide, and are already affecting vast regions; and it is being caused primarily by the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries (by which is meant, industrialised and industrialising).

Under these conditions, it is clear that the most immediately vulnerable to these impacts are indigenous peoples, whose cultures have kept their life patterns in close connection to the physical environment. They are vulnerable both physically and culturally. The peoples of the Pacific Islands and the tribes of Saharan Africa are facing immediate threats, of sea-level rise and rapidly advancing desertification. Projections from the CSIRO make it clear that the desert Australian Aboriginal peoples will face similar threats, with average temperatures likely to climb up to 5 or 6 degrees centigrade in the inland. Yet indigenous people have contributed almost nothing to the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, because of their small population sizes and their low carbon lifestyles.

The Inuit are therefore entirely correct in characterising this as a human rights issue. Already it has gone far beyond the ability of the emerging international framework in environmental law to deal with. Global warming is not primarily a scientific or an economic issue, although it is still being framed that way. It has to do fundamentally with human values, expressed in modes of living and in the relations between the earth’s peoples. The historical record in these areas has been deplorable. There is no indication at all that the developed nations have any interest in re-evaluating the values that underpin their carbon saturated lifestyles. The acceptance of the differential impact on the poorer countries, particular the indigenous peoples, of the world is the result.

New ways of developing cooperative and collaborative social and political structures, based on fundamental values of a more universal kind, would seem to be a pre-requisite to addressing the global warming threat. One can only state the fact.

Report from The Guardian link here.

Full life-cycle accounting questions bio- and nuclear fuels

Here is the first quantitative study to confirm what has been probable for some time: that the move to biofuels, with the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, may actually increase emissions, relative to the fossil fuel base.

A University of Leeds study by an atmosphere scientist, Dr. Dominic Spracklen, and Dr Renton Righelato of the non-profit organisation The World Land Trust, have undertaken the first full life-cycle analysis of the emissions from biofuel development. They conclude that the switch to biofuels would reduce the carbon sink effect by between two and nine times. This estimate includes the calculation of emission impacts from the clearing of forests in places such as Indonesia for the planting of biofuel crops–impacts which also extend to significant ecological and social disruption, which are not included in these costs.

Moreover, the authors calculate that in order to reach the 10% biofuel by 2020 target recently adopted by the UK government, some 40% of Europe’s arable land would have to be converted to biofuel crops–and that still leaves the 90% taken up by fossil fuels untouched. They note that land conversions of this order can’t be contemplated either in Europe or North America, so that the weight of them will inevitably fall on developing countries, with the negative impacts outlined above.

The promotion of biofuels has come in the absence of full lifecycle accounting, which is absolutely essential to a comprehensive understanding of the environmental impact of new technologies and processes. A similar absence of lifecycle accounting has distorted the nuclear energy debate. Nuclear power stations are being promoted as clean and green–as emitting no greenhouse emissions. However, a full life-cycle analysis takes into account not only what is emitted by the power station, but the combined impacts of mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, decomissioning and waste storage. At the highest grades of ore, nuclear stations produce more energy than they consume. But at the lower grades of ore, which are far more abundant, nuclear power stations become net consumers of energy, all of it from declining fossil fuel sources, with the resulting increase on greenhouse emissions.

These facts are relatively simple to establish, and one wonders why they are not more widely recognised, and incorporated into national and international greenhouse and energy strategic thinking. Increasingly it’s becoming clear that both the biofuel and the nuclear options are more of the strategies being promoted by developed economies in order to avoid facing the economic and social implications of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels.

In their obsession with economic growth, and with maintaining the so-called ‘standards of living’ (a value-laden term, if ever there was one: as noted in previous blogs, this is a highly relative notion) of developed economies seem prepared to promote any degree of greenwash (the proposal that biofuels and nuclear fuels are environmentally advantageous) or to exploit the environments of developing countries to whatever degree is necessary.

In the end this kind of scientific ignorance, and this kind of inequitable action, across countries and generations, must be put firmly rejected by a world polity that is seeking a coherent, just and prudent way forward.

Report from The Guardian link here.

Problematic decline in Amazonian logging

As everybody knows, the Amazon rainforest is one of the most important global ecosystems for the environmental health of the earth. As is also well known, over the past two decades it has been logged at an increasing rate: 20% of the rainforest has now been cleared. It’s therefore good news, on the face of it, that the rate of clearing has begun to clear, down to 5400 square miles between August 2005 and July 2006, a reduction of 25% on the previous 12 months. It is likely that the 2006-2007 year will show a further reduction to about 4000 square miles.

However, the result is far from all good news. These are still very large areas of forest clearing, and still rank among the highest national figures. Moreover, since most forest clearing is driven by the push to plant cash crops, notably soyabean, it is perhaps no accident that soyabean prices have been depressed over the recent period.

Most importantly, there are indications that the Brazilian government of Mr. Luiz da Silva, despite increased action against illegal logging, is planning large development projects, including new highway networks and hydroelectric plants in the Amazon region. As this government has presided over the greatest Amazonian rain-forest clearance rates in history, environmental groups, while pleased with the current trend, are understandably cautious about the medium and longer-term trends, particularly when soyabean prices rise.

Report from The Guardian link here.

Social sustainability impacts in India and North America

Social factors continue to present themselves as increasingly central factors in sustainable business. Here are two recent reports of significant projects, one a mining project, the other industrial, which have been subjected to close scrutiny from local populations.

The first comes from Orissa, in northern India, where the UK-based mining company, Vedanta Resources, has established a bauxite mine and alumina refinery. The local Dongria Kondh tribe, a people with an ancient history of occupancy in these forested hills, has taken its fight against these constructions to the Indian Supreme Court, alleging irreversible damage to wildlife and the environment, in direct contravention of planning and environmental regulations, and interference with their traditional way of life in the environment. A ruling is expected shortly.

Link to The Independent report here.

The New York Times has reported on the fight by the Quechan Indian tribe in Yuman, Arizona, to stop a refinery which is proposed for a site 40 miles east of its reservation. The Quechan tribe is claiming in the courts that the site is likely to contain ancient sites, such as religious circles, burial grounds and mountaintops that Native Americans hold sacred and that are protected by federal legislation. They are demanding an exhaustive archaelogical and cultural inventory be undertaken before the company wanting to build the refinery, Arizona Clean Fuels, be authorised to proceed with its project.

This action follows similar actions undertaken recently. The Navajos and Hopis have prevented the development of a ski resort 50 miles from the nearest reservation, on the grounds that using wastewater to make artificial snow would desecrate sacred peaks. The Cheyenne people have used a similar approach to block drilling for coal-bed methane near their reservation in Montana, as interfering with sacred springs and streams.

Link to The New York Times Report here.

What we can see here is a strengthening of the rights of indigenous peoples world-wide to their living cultures which are often embedded in beliefs of the indivisibility of human population and its environment, both animate and inanimate. This represents a direct challenge to the ethnocentric assumptions which, although largely unrecognised, underpin modern business enterprise. Modern corporations are increasingly required to recognise that the natural resources they depend on for their raw materials, and the environments in which their manufacturing plants are located, are already part of the lives of other peoples, and that this ownership, both legal and cultural, can’t be ridden over roughshod.

In strategic terms, the requirement is for corporations not only to develop expertise in the technical discipline of Social Impact Assessment, but to implement education and culture change initiatives to embed this new understanding in the fabric of their organisations.

ASX rewriting risk disclosure

The ASX is contemplating new rules which will require companies to disclose far more of their business risks than they currently do. Among the risks being looked at are: environmental and sustainability issues, compliance, strategy, ethics, reputation and brands, technology, product or service quality and workforce training and recruitment issues.

Now there is no question that disclosures of this kind will benefit existing and potential shareholders. Companies currently reveal relatively little of their business risks, except where required to by regulation, which is not demanding. But there is real doubt that companies are in a position deliver this kind of reporting, as in many areas most companies don’t have robust risk frameworks in place. The risk disciplines of business currently incorporate relatively little of the technical knowledge that has been developed in uncertainty analysis. The insurance sector is an exception, but its actuarial disciplines are relatively tightly focused, and don’t move out far into the wider business environment, as this initiative is proposing.

Moreover, it’s going to be extremely challenging to distinguish real from speculative risks, to determine their ordinal and cardinal rankings, and to establish rules which guide reporting. Competitive issues will loom large.

It can be confidently predicted, however, that regulations of this kind will generate a significant demand for technical services in risk evaluation across a wide range of business dimensions, and of a much higher order than is currently the case.

Report from The Age link here.