Recent sustainable business & environment reports

Here are some reports and opinion pieces that have appeared in recent weeks on important developments in the world environment:

1.  An important, perhaps critical, study published in Nature has estimated that the world will exceed total amount of greenhouse gas emissions beyond which dangerous climate change occurs by 2020.  This contracts still further projections that have put this threshold at 2040 or 2050.

This study is significant in that it focuses on the total amount of emissions, rather than annual rate.  Placed against the total sink capacity of the atmosphere, the picture couldn’t be clear or the choices more stark.

2.  An interesting essay has appeared in Guernica magazine on the competing visions of wilderness of anthropologists and wildlife conservation biologists.  It argues that the vision of wilderness as a pristine environment, free of human influence, is largely a European artefact, and that the reality of these places must include the indigenous peoples who often inhabit them.  The essay further argues that the best strategy for maintaining these increasingly rare environments in a sustainable form may well be to support their occupation and use by the peoples who have acted as stewards for them over millenia.

3.  A new survey has drawn attention to the critical state of the ancient forests of Central Asia.  These forests, in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are the historical source of more than 300 wild fruit and nut species, including, plum, cherry, and many other important food trees from which domesticated varieties are thought to descend. In the last 50 years 90 per cent of these forests have been destroyed and 44 trees species are threatened with extinction. Work is now under way with local communities and government forest to encourage sustainable use and more effective protection for forest resources, including providing training for community groups and grants for eco-friendly small businesses to assist local livelihoods.

4.  I have noted in previous posts the reluctance of the business community in Australia to come to terms with both the risks and the opportunities of climate change, in the inevitable transition to a lower carbon economy. A recent report from an investment group emphasises that this trend continues, even as the country approaches an emissions trading scheme. With respect to carbon strategies, the investment sector in Australia is seen as falling into three groups:

Clean-tech funds are keen for legislation to be enacted to stimulate growth and support the profitability of renewable energy, forest sinks and associated businesses.

Some large superannuation funds that consider themselves “universal investors” are pushing for action to reduce emissions since they see physical climate change as a long-term risk to Australian and international economies.

The third group includes the many mainstream equity funds that seek to outperform the sharemarket average from a few months to a few years, through careful stock selection. These funds are watching the impact of more expensive fossil fuels, and waiting until the economic impacts become clear before adjusting their portfolios. Volatility in exchange rates and the global financial crisis are seen as more important drivers of fund returns in the short to medium term, and investment policies are unlikely to be driven by emissions policies or trading until the trends are well established.

5.  A remarkable piece of laboratory research has recently been reported in the journal Nature. It’s focus is the mechanisms by which life might have emerged in the primitive states of the global environment. Attention has been focused for some decades on the possible role of RNA in forming the chemical base on which life arose. Until now it is not proved possible to synthesise RNA. The UK scientists have achieved a major step by showing how, in the presence the chemicals which are known to have been present in the primitive earth, at least two of the components of RNA can be assembled. This advance was made by combining the chemicals in a different order. There are important implications for a range of puzzles about the prebiotic conditions of life on earth.

Australian government defence & climate confusions

I’ve spoken before about what appears to be an outbreak of split brain among the leaders of the world; that is, their apparently effortless ability to carry on with business as usual, while expressing concern about climate change effects that make business as usual untenable.

The defence White Paper released this week by the Australian Government is more evidence for this. It proposes to spend $100 billion on defence hardware, with submarines the most expensive item, to counter a perceived military threat from China, resulting from that country’s military buildup.

Apart from the questionable assumptions about China’s foreign policy intentions–just possibly China’s build up may have more to do with defensive, rather than aggressive, policy positions–and the rather ludicrous image of a handful of Australian submarines preventing any kind of determined aggression, and the evidence in Australian history of the enormous national damage that is caused by the practice of constructing enemies, one is compelled to ask  just what is this massive defence expenditure intended to secure? Because if the latest scientific evidence on climate change, also released this week in a study published in the Nature journal, is any indication, there may not be much left to defend.

The study looked at the total amount of CO2 emitted since the onset of the industrial revolution, and compared these to the total capacity of the atmospheric system to carry these emissions before triggering dangerous climate change of beyond 2 degrees C rise in temperature. This is a different approach from that usually taken, in that it focuses not on annual emissions but on the total load the atmosphere can sustain. The study’s conclusions are reported bluntly:

“The world will overshoot its long-term target on greenhouse gas emissions within two decades. A study has found that the average global temperature will rise above the threshold that could cause dangerous climate change during that time.

“Scientists have calculated that the world has already produced about a third of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that could be emitted between 2000 and 2050 and still keep within a 2C rise in global average temperatures.

“At the current rate at which CO2 is emitted globally – which is increasing by 3 per cent a year – countries will have exceeded their total limit of 1,000 billion tons within 20 years, which would be about 20 years earlier than planned under international obligations.”

The authors of the study note that even with currently known fossil fuel reserves the world’s has more than sufficient capacity to exceed these limits:

“The scientists found the total amount of greenhouse gases that could be released over this time would be equivalent to 1,000 billion tons of CO2. This is equivalent to using up about 25 per cent of known reserves of oil, gas and coal.”

Even the most stringent of targets now being discussed by the international community offers only a 25% chance of containment within the required limits:

“The study concluded that the world must agree on a cut in carbon dioxide emissions of more than 50 per cent by 2050 if the probability of exceeding a 2C rise in average temperatures is to be limited to a risk of 1 in 4.”

A one in four chance for the collapse of the planet’s biophysical supports. To bring this into perspective, you might ask yourself if you would you get on a plane, or into a car, if you knew it had a one in four chance of crashing.

I am interested to know how the Australian Government would define a national emergency if this does not constitute one–and an emergency that is here now, because every day of delay reduces the likelihood that these targets will be met. It is a genuine national emergency because it will impact–is already impacting, as the plight of the Murray-Darling shows–every aspect of our national life, and far more profoundly than any war we can contemplate.

Just as in a war the work of the whole population has to be (and has been in the past) directed to the war effort, so in facing climate change there is no other national priority that remotely approaches it. The proposed Australian CPRS (emissions trading scheme), with its absurdly weak targets and abundant free permits to heavy polluters, is fundamentally flawed, as every expert in the country, and most of the general population, knows. It doesn’t begin to do what has to be done.

If the $100 billion now proposed in this White Paper to be spent on military hardware to meet a speculative threat were to be directed to a comprehensive restructuring of the economy to a low carbon economy, and national life to low carbon national living, there may be some chance of doing what we can to achieve these climate targets.  It might be possible to promote the sorts of international initiatives that must be undertaken now to avoid climate change that is beyond dangerous (it’s already dangerous enough, as the people of sub-Saharan Africa in decades long droughts can tell you).

It doesn’t seem to me that this is difficult or complicated to grasp. I think the Australian community in general has a fairly clear view of it. Again I wonder about the split brain syndrome that seem to be plaguing our leaders, in government and in opposition, particularly in Canberra.

Science, scepticism and climate change

Dr Vicky Pope, head of the climate change office at the Hadley Centre (one of the world’s most reputable sources of climate change modelling) recently wrote a thoughtful piece for The Guardian which everyone concerned with climate change should read.

The Hadley Centre has been one of the research organisations consistently alerting the world community to the reality and potential dangers of climate change.  Much of the development of climate change modelling has been carried out at the Hadley Centre.  This modelling has informed the IPCC’s reports over the past decade.

So on the face of it, it may seem surprising to read Dr. Pope’s plea for ‘reining in’ claims about climate change.  It may be taken as support for climate change scepticism.  Not at all.  But it is a plea for scientific care and probity that is well worth reading.

Dr. Pope’s point is that inferring trends from climatic data of all kinds is extraordinarily difficult.  There are no simple leaps of logic to be made.  In particular, it is dangerous to make simplistic inferences from isolated observations.  For example, climate sceptics often argue that the world has cooled over the past ten years.  Dr Pope points out that 1998 had the highest temperature on record because of the superimposition of an El Nino event on the long-term warming trend.  2008 was slightly cooler because of the superimposition of an El Nina event on that trend; but it was still the 15th warmest year on record.

The combination of natural variability and the time-scales needed to observe trends make it very difficult to make valid inferences.  Sophisticated statistical treatment and computer modelling is the only valid way of scientifically extracting such underlying trend information from the statistical noise.  It is now well established that the scientific models cannot account for observed global warming by using only natural factors: anthropogenic factors are required to account for it fully.

It’s important to bear in mind this kind of careful investigation and interpretation when evaluating new data.  For example, it is at present being widely reported that researchers have found increasing ice in Antarctica, not decreasing; this, some sceptics have immediately argued, shows that climate change is not occurring.  Not so.  When you look at the research in details, you find that what is being reported is increasing ice in East Antarctica and increased melting in West Antarctica.  Moreover, the increase in ice in the east is coming about from increased snowfall, one of the long-held predictions of climate change models for that region.  Hence the findings are supporting the predictions of current climate change models.

Similar claims are being made with respect to Greenland’s ice-cap, from both sides of the equation.  Dr Pope points out that both positions are unsupported:  the natural variability of Greenland ice makes them scientifically untenable.  She argues that overplaying natural variations as demonstrating climate change is as damaging as underplaying it: both are distortions, and entirely unhelpful to the complex task of seeing the underlying facts.

Dr Pope’s main plea is for careful, conservative science, to ensure that the scientific facts on climate change are able to speak for themselves, without being diverted by this kind of frivolous attack.  These kinds of diversions “undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.”

The facts, Dr Pope notes, don’t need to be exaggerated in order to have their effect: they are already beyond serious in their implications.  Her sober conclusion is worth hearing by people of all climate change persuasions:

“When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”.  Quite simply it is not a matter of belief.  Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate.  The scientific evidence is overwhelming.”

Wendell Berry in modern times

Wendell Berry is a native of Kentucky who has written, elegantly and powerfully, for more than four decades on themes relating to sustainable agriculture.  He is, as a commentator recently said, the most passionate advocate for the family farm and homestead.  The principles he developed, however, go beyond agriculture: they bear on the whole question of sustainable living and sustainable societies.  In previous posts I’ve argued that an effective approach to climate change is not primarily a matter of technology, but of changing ways of thinking about life and living across all all cultures and societies.  Wendell Berry has much to teach the present generation about these things, and this essay on his work has been written in that spirit of appreciation.

Please click below to open the complete essay in your preferred format:

Wendell Berry in modern times (Adobe .pdf)

Wendell Berry in modern times (Open Office .odt)

Wendell Berry in modern times (Microsoft Word .doc)

Wendell Berry in modern times (part 3)

Although Wendell Berry was writing here some decades ago, the central principles he establishes have continued to be his main themes in more or less unaltered form. At the time of writing global warming was just beginning to be spoken of in public scientific discourse. Wendell Berry seems to have had early intuitions of the dangers. He is deeply suspicious of fossil fuels because of the local pollution effects of power plants and because (more crucially for him) they power industrial agriculture and embed dependence. Global warming as such wasn’t, however, part of his critique. Even his recent New York Times article on the extreme storm events induced by climate change focused on a long-established concern of his–which sits, one might say, at the practical and emotional heart of his vision: the loss of soil. Nevertheless, the principles of sustainable farming and living as they have evolved in his writing over forty years can offer guidance to what is rapidly emerging, surely, as the age of climate change.

We can begin with the question of what constitutes sustainability. There is no term more widely used and less defined in modern public discourse. We have a general sense of its being connected to an open-ended future; to a dynamic stability, in which extraction and renewal, or recharge, are in balance; to the limits of natural resource use required to secure that stability; and to a wider system in which both natural and human elements are included.

But what, exactly, is to be sustained? Is it some general measure of productivity in which technology and human capital can substitute for natural capital in preserving the level of some output? Is it the preservation of natural capital alone, and if so of what is it comprised? Does it extend to social and cultural capital? And is capital the right metaphor anyway (capital for what?). Is it better defined in terms of environmental services (but again, services for what?). How far out does the analysis run?–to our children and grandchildren? To the seven generations of Native American lore? To the timeless present, embracing past and future, of the Australian Aboriginal people? Do notions of stewardship capture such visions? And what about the ethical questions in considering the rights of the present (particularly poor) generation against future generations? And so on. The questions which centre on the idea of sustainability reach to most of the questions with which we, as a world civilisation, are engaged.

Here I think Wendell Berry’s principle of ‘health’ in agriculture has much to offer. Health is not primarily a quantitative measure, although we do recognise degrees of health. Rather, it is a state, generated by a system whose parts and relationships are working to their full capability. The state of health is that whole which more than the sum of the parts , which are themselves healthy (and of which, as systems in their own right, the small parts are healthy, both individually and in their relationships to other smaller parts.) The system Wendell Berry has in mind spans land, soil, communities, knowledge, species and natural systems, in place. As he remarks, “nothing less will do”: inclusion is non-negotiable. His principle is certainly prescriptive: it goes beyond what is there (the basis of most sustainability definitions) to what should be there, if health in this sense is to be attained. And in this normative thrust it becomes a matter of “moral law”: ethical imperatives of the kind which deep ecologists argue apply both to people and their communities and to the animals, plants–Wendell Berry would add, land, landscapes and soil–with which they share the planet.

How is this ideal of health to be accomplished, as a practical matter? Clearly the system of agriculture defined by Wendell Berry is of immense scope and complexity. It consists of innumerable elements and their exponentially expanding relationships. The behaviour of these elements in those relationships is governed by the full–and ultimately unknowable–panoply of natural laws. The inclusion of farmers and their communities extends that complexity to the extraordinary richness of individual and collective human life and ways of living. It is self-evidently impossible to stand in some way outside such a system and design it to deliver the holistic outcome of what Wendell Berry defines as ‘health’. Is it, then, an intellectual indulgence incapable of implementation?

The challenge is a serious one, and, as one might expect, Wendell Berry doesn’t shy away from it. Part of the answer he finds in traditional farming practice. In the innumerable trials that constitute farming practice, over generations; in the patient gathering of information and insight across uncountable seasons; in the intimacy of these farmers with their land; in the close interdependency of social life and farming life; in the sober appreciation of risk, to self, others and their environment, and the just valuation of reward; in the codification and transmission of this accumulated knowledge and experience from one generation to the next; in all this Wendell Berry finds the practical wisdom needed to build the health of agriculture as he has defined it. It is certain not, in his view, found exclusively through ‘agriscience’, where the objects of research are isolated from the complexities that form its real-world substrate, the farm with which the farmer works every day. In traditional farming the knowledge is found and shared in the collective working enterprise of men and woman (and children) in the past, the present and the future.

Underpinning all this is a particular way of thinking about the nature and purposes of life, and about ways of making a living in farming. It values, first, quality over quantity; or, to put in reverse, will not appeal to quantity as the primary, often sole, measure of agricultural success. How produce is grown; the side-effects of that process; what it leaves behind; these are as important as the produce itself, across the whole natural and human landscape Wendell Berry has defined as agriculture. That quality is secured by specific virtues of thought and action: care; respect; prudence; thrift; diligence; intimacy; reflection; and the courage of honesty, with respect one’s own and others’ farming practice.

Fundamentally these values are connected with how one thinks about one’s life and its purposes. Valuing quality over quantity, and aware of one’s stewardship responsibilities, good farming brings satisfaction and fulfillment as an activity in its own right. It is work a man or a woman can be proud of, building health across the full span of agricultural life, and leaving it as a proper inheritance to future generations. Anything less is simply less; not enough; and will not do.

The central proposal of this essay is that the solution to climate change lies in the constellation of just such principles as these, applied across global societies and communities, and in international institutions. Climate change can only be effectively met by eliminating the annual emissions of greenhouse gases and by extracting and neutralising carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere. This cannot be achieved with our high carbon economies. Under current assumptions about the link between economic growth and the quality of life even a low carbon economy is likely to continue inflicting environmental damage; for example, from nuclear waste. Economic instruments, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme or a carbon tax, are manifestly inadequate, based on self-evidently false assumptions; and, in diverting precious resources, part of the problem, not the solution.

It is not technology or economic instruments we need but fearless thinking. As a global society we have no alternative but to change the way we think about the purposes of our life; about our responsibilities to others in this and future generations; and about the kind of knowledge we want to bring to bear on how we live. Wendell Berry, as few other writers on agriculture have done, asks the critical questions, however hard they are–he is before everything else a brave writer–and suggests at least some of the answers. It is a start.

(For complete essay with all parts included, please follow this link)