Drought, Doubt and Climate Change

So today I’m going to review a news article that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald this morning. The SMH is one of Australia’s biggest newspapers, along with The Age, its Victorian counterpart, and The Australian. This article was writtten by Peter Hannam, who is the papers Environment editor. My comments will be interspersed throughout like this. It’ll be a bit of a long post, so jut hang in there. Climate change is the ultimate sign that we’ve failed to relate to our environment and to natural resources in a healthy and sustainable way and the Abbott Government’s response is just ridiculous …

Tony Abbott downplays role of climate change in current drought

PM vows help is on the way for farmers

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has  played down the role of climate change in the drought ravaging much of inland eastern Australia.

For anyone who may not know, last September Australia voted in a right wing Coalition government. Not a conservative government in the British tradition but a US style ‘climate change is fake because Jesus’ government.

And he has indicated that the coming relief package for farmers will not take into account future increases in extreme weather events predicted in a new report by scientists.

As recently as 2009 the PM is on record saying ‘Climate change is complete crap.’ Now that his Liberal party is in a Coalition government with the Nationals, who have long represented farmers and rural Australia, you’d think they’d do a bit more to tackle climate change. We all know that because of climate change droughts are only going to get longer, more frequnent and more severe so if they really cared about farmers they’d be doing everything they can to take it head on, looking at the long-term effects of climate change on the land.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott met grazier Kym Cramp of “Mount Gipps” station near Broken Hill, NSW, as part of a drought tour with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce on Monday. Photo: Andrew Meares

At the end of a two-day tour taking in Bourke and Broken Hill in NSW and Longreach in Queensland, Mr Abbott said the present period of extreme heat and dry conditions – broken in part during his weekend visit – was not unusual for Australia.

‘‘If you look at the records of Australian agriculture going back 150 years, there have always been good times and bad, tough and lush times,’’ Mr Abbott said.

‘‘This is not a new thing in Australia.”

 The PM is not a climate scientist or a meterologist and here he is dismissing any link between climate change and this drought. While one cannot say ‘This drought is 4 times worse because of climate change’ or ‘This drought is so long because of climate change’ we can say ‘Every drought *may* be linked to climate change and as our GHG emissions go up it’s only going to get worse. This is not normal for Austrlia. This drought is very bad and we’re only going to see them get longer, more frequent and more intense.’

Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the "Mount Gipps" station near Broken Hill on Monday.
Mr Abbott at the “Mount Gipps” station. Photo: Andrew Meares

‘‘As the seasons have changed, climatic variation has been a constant here in Australia,’’ he said.

Yes, it has been. But not to this extent. Never in the history of huamnity the world’s climate changed so rapidly. Our agricultural systems are set up for a very specific climactic envelope – a global average temperature of about 15’c – and with every day we fail to act the climate heats up and weather pattens go haywire. I don’t want to see a 6’c world and it’s doubtful that Australian agriculture as it exists today could survive in that.

Mr Abbott, who has previously dismissed a link between climate change and October’s early-season bushfires in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, ruled out taking the issue of a warming planet into consideration when preparing his drought-aid package for cabinet later this week.

So with one hand he gives farmers some money to deal with this drought while with the other he dismantles climate related policies and istitutions and blindly ignores that there’s a serious problem. That doesn’t create the resilliance and sustainablity that our agriculture sector needs. Australia needs to feed it’s own people and prop up a huge export market yet instead of looking at the long term and acting responsibly, this government wants farmers to be reliant on hand outs as the droughts get ever worse.

‘‘Farmers ought to be able to deal with things expected every few years,’’ Mr Abbott said.

‘‘Once you start getting into very severe events – one-in-20, 50, 100-year events – that’s when I think people need additional assistance because that is … beyond what a sensible business can be expected to plan for.’’

A new report by the Climate Council – formed with public funding from the ashes of the Climate Commission, which the Abbott government abolished – says heatwaves are becoming more frequent, more intense and lasting longer.

It says Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide were already experiencing the number of annual hot days that had been forecast for 2030 in the first decade of the century.

The report, by Professors Will Steffen and Lesley Hughes and UNSW researcher Sarah Perkins, said: ‘‘Record hot days and warm nights are also expected to increase across Australia over the coming decades.

‘‘For both northern and southern Australia, one-in-20-year extreme hot days are expected to occur every two to five years by the middle of the century.’’

Records melt

Those three cities, as it happens, have each broken heat records this summer.

Adelaide has had 13 days of 40 degrees or more, beating the previous record set more than a century ago, of 11 such days. Melbourne has hda seven days above 40 degrees, the most in any calendar year just six weeks in, while Canberra has had 20 days above 35 degrees, the most for any summer, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Emphasis added.

The Climate Council report highlights the effect that increased heat is expected to have on agriculture, including reduced crop yields and lower livestock productivity.

That is going to push farmers and rural communities further into debt as they have to invest in seed, stock, chemicals and labour but don’t get the return on the product. There are already far too many mental health concerns and suicides in rural and regional farming communites, and decreasing yeilds and productivity will only lend to this.

The three regions  Mr Abbott visited all had their hottest six-month period between August and January, with rainfall as little as one-fifth of normal levels.

Cabinet is expected to consider an extra $280 million in low-interest loans for farmers, among other measures.

Touring the Mount Gipps cattle and sheep station north of Broken Hill on Monday, he said there was  ‘‘a world of difference’’ between companies seeking handouts and farmers needing help to get through the drought.

Graziers have been offloading their livestock throughout much of inland eastern Australia as they battle to cope with drought and declining feedstock.

John Cramp, the owner of  Mount Gipps,  said the recent extreme heat in his region had seen his cattle remain near their water troughs rather than go in search of remaining grass.

‘‘They won’t leave their water, they won’t poke out and get some feed,’’ Mr Cramp said, adding that in his view ‘‘climates have always changed’’.

During a drought farmers often turn to bore water to hydrate stock and water crops. This drought that stretches across NSW and Qld is largely in coal seam gas territory, where the federal government supports putting in gas wells. These wells are known to be risky in that they can contaminate ground water which farmers rely on. Seems as if the farmers are being put to the bottom of the pile in terms of priorities.

It is strange when farmers themselves dismiss the link between climate change and drought. I wonder if it’s because climate change has been branded as this massively left wing thing that only tofu eating, hairy legged lesbians care about? We know that there are many people in this world who profit from climate change and they fund groups such as the Heartland Institute to sow doubt about it. It’s so disenhartening to see that among the people who are most affected – farmers – there is the most denial or dismissiveness. Does that make it up to the rest of us? Do we try and convince them, or just go on doing our best without them?

Link to the orignial article: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbott-downplays-role-of-climate-change-in-current-drought-20140217-32vub.html#ixzz2tcfNuIBN

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Book Review: On Guerrilla Gardening

For interesting and inspiring read, full of humorous anecdotes and useful information, I recommend Richard Reynolds’ On Guerrilla Gardening.

gardening
This is the edition I have. I initially picked it up because of it’s colorful hardcover; I love hardcovers! A positive case of judging a book by its cover?

the book

For a while I couldn’t shake the slightly weird feeling of reading a manual on an activity as whimisical and adventurous as guerrilla gardening, but the book is a useful guide. It has two parts, The Movement and The Manual which neatly divide up the high minded idealism and cold blooded pragmatism, which Reynolds is at pains to stress throughout:

You can dream of a grand transformation, but don’t rush to create it. … In their hearts most guerrilla gardeners are idealists, but we need the measured pulse of a pragmatist too if our gardens are to flourish. (pgs 159-160)

There are lots of quotes from Mao that need only a bit of tweaking to make them appropriate, and it’s strange to think what could be achieved if people used their passion and talents and time and resources to create beautiful things rather than to destroy and dominate.

It’s very inspiring and after finishing it I wanted to go out into the world, seeds in hand, and plant sunflowers absolutely everywhere.

sunflowers
The author himself and some sunflowers. Photo from theguardian.uk

He’s a good, funny writer and there are lots of amusing and relevant anecdotes, but I feel as if the book is slightly too long. It’s a bit like the third Lord of the Rings film; it’s beautiful and entertaining and a great, well told story but you can’t help checking your watch as yet another ‘ending’ plays out. Just chuck the ring in the volcano and be done with it already!

Another problem I have with the book is that the pages are glossy. This makes them hard to read under direct light, such as from a lamp and means that they lack that nice papery feel and smell. It also means that they’ve been treated with bucketloads of chemicals, which is kind of ironic.I dunno, maybe I just got a fail copy.

Lastly, all of the photos in the book are of beautiful, well tended gardens. I wanted some before and after photos to really get inspired, or some photos of a wilting plant to reassure me that not every plant is amazing, or some schematics of possible garden layouts because I freaking love diagrams.

plan
Isn’t that just the most satisfying thing? Image from seedandbean.com

the book and geography

He talks about the kind of problems guerrilla gardening battle – for example neglected land, vacant land, land scarcity – and about the things that it creates: beauty; community; food; shade.

Neglected, rubbish strewn, weedy or just plain ugly land (especially in cities) is such a shame.

Land is bloody scarce (especially in cities) and this utter waste is unfriendly to look at and makes people sad as they see their community and urban environment in disrepair. I don’t know about you, but things such as planter boxes that are filled with cigarette butts or bare dirt alongside foot paths make me sad.

doing it wrong
Planter boxes: you’re doing it wrong. Clearly, this society has failed to correctly utilise this resource and therefore geography is broken and people are sad.

This all displays a bad relationship between society and it’s immediate space; the built environment. It’s the kind of thing that makes we geographers sad, especially when people are crying out for healthy food and a place to build communities, as experienced by Ron Finley.

This book offers a lovely, fun idea to combat these problems and create better relationships, both between society and the urban environment* and between groups and individuals within society. (Any statisticians out there will be hearing ‘ANOVA’ at this stage.)

On Guerrilla Gardening offers many exciting and uplifting stories about little impulsive actions becoming community gardens, award winning spaces and beautiful environs.

ccg
The Clinton Community Gardens in New York tend to come up a fair bit. Photo: Anne Bremer

So read the book! It’s great.

metadata

Title: On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook For Gardening Without Boundaries

Author: Richard Reynolds

Date Published: 2008

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Rating: I give it seven out of ten sunflowers.

*Oh man, I love that phrase. It’s totally the nexus of all the interesting things.

Poverty, Agroecology and Gobalised Food

If current population trends increase, global production of food will have to increase by 70-100% by 2050.

With current food production practice, meeting this demand is highly unlikely and yet the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN MDG) seek end poverty and extreme hunger. The  humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa (in July 2011 the UN declared a state of famine in Somalia, the first in the 21st century) is testament to three things:

  • Poverty reduction is currently one of the most pressing global issues;
  • Food production systems need to be overhauled in order to promote equal distribution of food; and
  • Food sovereignty should be strongly encouraged in all countries.
poverty
The first UN MDG is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. It’s currently 2014.

A possible way to address the above points is encouraging the growth of agroecology.

If there are any doubts regarding the need for countries around the world to independently source their food, one story from the 2007-2009 global recession will remedy this.

In late 2007 food prices rose dramatically around the world and the price of staple foods such as maize and rice almost doubled, causing food riots in more than 20 countries. This wasn’t because of drought or poor crop yields – there was plenty of food for sale – but because food has become a product on the global market and so is subject to fluctuations in the world economy.

prices
In 2007 global food prices rose dramatically…
oil and food
… but not because of a lack of food.

So although there was enough food available few could afford it due to the collapse of the worldmarkets. The food sovereignty offered by agroecology would go a long way buffer this by the strengthening of local markets; food prices in Africa and Asia would no longer be intrinsically linked to the prosperity of banks in America.

Agroecology is a more sustainable agricultural system than conventional ones as positively it address three big drivers of change: climate change; biodiversity; and food security. The system is also more resilient to change, needs less human input, has more stable net productivity, and are better equipped to take full advantage of the ecological services in place.

no text
The triple bottom line is the point of agroecology. I really could just picture this one photo and do away with all the hundreds of words of explanatory text.

The best examples of working agroecology systems can be found in Latin America and the practices there can be used as examples of how to implement this system.

Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (MCAC)(Farmer to Farmer Movement) is a movement that has established itself in Central America over the last three decades. It promotes farmers learning from other farmers, sharing information between them in order to find the best possible ways to produce food. This has been found to be the most effective way of communicating sustainable practice quickly and on a large scale, and it offers good results small landholders are more likely to listen to and connect with their peers.

work
Flowcharts are nice. Information flows in conventional vs campesino systems.

For example, when soil conservation practices were introduced into Honduras through MCAC yields for hillside farms rose from 400kg per hectare to 1,200 – 1,600kg per hectare due to healthier soils. This easily accessible network of information is a central part of agroecology as currently one of the biggest barriers to food production in developing countries is a lack of available knowledge/technology.

As an agricultural system, agroecology should be broadly implemented on a global scale to stabilise food security, use natural resources sustainably, protect biodiversity, and alleviate poverty through the formation of stable markets.

To do this, governments must take responsibility in engaging with farmers, research facilities, NGOs and industry to ensure that the system works in the most efficient way possible. Several recommendations have been made on the subject;

  • Governments must put in place mechanisms to empower small farmers (such as partnerships and financial aid). This also ties in with article 1(B)(6) of the International Food Security Agenda (1993).
  • Current subsidies on conventional agriculture must be dismantled so agroecology becomes more economically rational on an industrial scale than conventional systems
  • Equitable markets should be developed, emphasising fair trade to create both income for farmers and sustainable food supplies for their regions.
fair trade
Of course, it’s not all up to governments. As a consumer, you can chose what you buy and therefore what kind of industry and philosophy you are supporting.

Sustainable agriculture should be developed with emphasis on local knowledge and involving farmers directly in formulating research agendas and technological innovation. Solutions must be site-specific be focused on information systems rather than capital.

For this, systems thinking must be used in order to ‘work smarter, not harder’ using practices like agroforestry and polycropping in order to boost yield with minimum input. Most recommendations focus on policy change  which could be difficult to implement in capital focused countries like Australia. This is because of three things;

  • Agroecology has often be branded as anti-capitalist by supporters of an entirely unregulated market
  • Implementation would require an overhaul of current food production systems in Australia
  • Demand for food that cannot be produced locally is high; would require a large social shift in ways of thinking.

Agroecology should be encouraged and supported in developing/more socialist countries with current knowledge and understanding while more research is needed to develop a viable way for industrialised/neo-liberal countries to do the same.

Book Review: The Declaration of Interdependence

This tiny little ink-green and pastel-yellow book is one of the best things I have ever read in my life.

Image
Such book. Excite.

Written by Tara Cullis and David Suzuki, and with help from Raffi Cavoukian, Wade Davis and Guujaaw, it is yet another wonderful publication from the David Suzuki Foundation.

the book

Basically, in the lead up to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 Cullis and Suzuki et al. wrote the beautiful, poetic Declaration that espouses the need for creating “a new politics of hope” of interdependence between humans and our natural home, i.e. Earth and all her systems, including other species.

The Deceleration is set out in three parts that your high school English teacher would be proud of: it has a clear beginning which sets the context (This We Know), the middle which presents a problem (This We Believe), and an end which sets out a solution (This We Resolve). All in all, it’s less than three pages long but the complexity, subtlety and emotion set therein seems to extend not only to the time of “the firstborn cell” from which we are descended, but also reaches toward “all those who walk after us”.

The book also contains a short essay by Suzuki explaining the history and meaning of the Deceleration and another by Cullis which describes the David Suzuki Foundation and it’s inspiring history. It contains beautiful ink illustrations by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas which successfully represent the flowing yet solid tone of the text. It’s the kind of writing that catches in your throat, speaks to something in you that you’d forgotten, and Yahgulanaas’ Haida inspired drawings express this perfectly.

Image
“We are the breath of the forests of the land, and the plants of the sea.” One of the book’s illustrations.

the book and geography

So how does this wonderful little book relate to geography?

Well, in every way possible really. It discusses pretty much all of the themes most relevant to the study of geography. Remember that we take geography to be the study of how society (human geography) relates to the Earth system (natural geography). A traditional, cartographic understanding of geography is the ultimate expression of this as it literally is the study of how society sees the Earth’s landscape; the interface of the society/environment nexus.

The book’s central thesis is that we need to stop thinking of the environment as ‘the environment’; something that exists externally to us, that’s outside or in a National Park or is somehow apart from society. We need to stop thinking that we need to control, subdue, contain, dominate, economise, or stand apart from it. We need to stop thinking that we can extract and extract and extract in order to consume consume consume with no heed to the toxic and horrendous waste and destruction that that creates.

Image
We need to stop thinking that we can extract and extract and extract. A coalmine in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria in 2009. For a sense of scale, see the 4WD in the bottom left. Picture: Paul Crock.

Here’s an excerpt from Suzuki’s essay:

“There is no separation; there is no environment ‘out there’ that we have to regulate our interaction with. Air is in us and circulates throughout our bodies at all times, we are made up of more than 60 per cent water by weight, we are built of the molecules of food we consume – most of which has come from the earth – and every bit of the energy that we need to grow, move, and reproduce is the fire of the sun captured by plants through photosynthesis. We are the earth, and so whatever we do to it, we do directly to ourselves.”

Basically, it’s calling for a re-assessment of how we as a society relate to the Earth system and all her squirrels and sea cucumbers and trees and ice bergs and creeks and so on. That’s geography, dude.

As a student of geography at the Fenner School of Environment and Society reading this book I felt as if my entire university education had been summarised in three pages.

tldr: Very insight, such wonderful. Wow.

metadata*

Name: The Declaration of Interdependence: A Pledge to Planet Earth

Authors: Tara Cullis, David Suzuki, Raffi Cavoukian, Wade Davis and Guujaaw

Illustrations: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Date: (first ed.) 2010

Publishers: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation

Website: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about/declaration/

Rating: I give it ten out of ten Earth systems

*I just love metadata! Even saying it is fun. Metadata. Meta. Data. Meh-tah. Dah-tah. Aw, yiss.