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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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.

5 Things I have Learnt from studying Environmental Science

I’m currently doing a BSc at the Australian National University, double majoring in Environmental and Landscape System Science and Geography. Internet was asking me what I’ve learnt so far, so I made a list!

Although I still have a semester to go (and Honours!), here the five most important things to know about environmental science, brought to you by the Fenner School of Environment and Society and Internet’s questions.

5. Environmental Science is a Fashion Victim

There are fashion trends in everything and environmental science is no different. Back in the 90s the Big Thing in international environmental talks was sustainable development, with all all-star cast of the Brutland Report, Limits to Growth and the 1992 Earth Summit – the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Agenda 21 was born, nations who were at war with each other sat down and talked about sustainable development, Severn Suzuki was the *coolest person ever* and the triple bottom line was the new creed;

sustainable

But today we all know that the Big Thing is climate change. Divest! Emissions trading schemes! Carbon dioxide! Fossil fuels! REDD+! Ice caps! More buzzwords!

One of my lecturers often laments this dramatic shift in focus; she argues that just looking at climate change is too simplistic as it doesn’t fully capture our degraded relationship with our home planet. How do we solve this problem? We study geography! Yay!

In a more physical geography sense, back in the 90s and early 2000s the Big Thing in land management in SE Australia was salinity. Salinity was set to become the Armageddon, the end of days, the Battle of Hogwarts. Salinity was It. However, the drought broke in the late 2000s and salinity never became the disaster it was meant to be. Lucky!

Now the big thing that everyone is researching and talking about and pulling their hair out about is overgrazing.

roos
In Australia roos contribute to the overgrazing problem, necessitating culls. Picture: the ABC

See Internet? Fashion victims.

4. Environmental Science will shift your World View

Especially if you study the more ‘society’side of it; human geography, human ecology,  stakeholder based qualitative things, sustainable development etc. You will see our society in a new and increasingly complex way that will force you to realise the incredible inter-connectedness of it and, ultimately, the fragility of our inter-dependant gloabalised Western hegemony. Nowhere is this more evident than when considering the global food market.

In short, this will happen to you:

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Picture courtesy of the Fenner School Society.

3. Stakeholders

You can boost your marks by about 5 points by having a version of this paragraph in an assignment;

“There needs to be a strong emphasis on stakeholder collaboration and resilience building in light of a rapidly growing population and increasing threats from climate change.”
2. People don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their worldview
This makes point four harder to accept. The obvious example here is climate change; Australia being the intellectual backwater that we are, the media and politicians still talk like climate change is a debated idea, and still act as if it’s just a quite theory of little real world impact.
I experienced this first hand a few weeks ago when I was talking to a third year economics student whose father is a contractor. We were on an hour long bus trip and she was telling me how her father is contracted by farmers to put fertilisers on pasture and crops. I said something about paddock trees and how there aren’t enough of them to stop erosion and do all the great things they do and she launched into a tirade about those ‘bloody greenies’ who ‘don’t know anything about agriculture’ and are trying to ‘driver farmers into the ground’.
Yep, totally. Sorry if my three years of studying environmental science doesn’t quite fit in with your economics world view of ‘Cut down all trees, ???, profit!’.
‘Bloody greenies’? Seriously? Yes, I absolutely want to drive farmers into the ground. Because, you know, I find food overrated and I don’t actually want employment when I graduate after doing HONOURS IN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE. (At this point Internet would like you to know that she hates those people. She said it, not me.)
treessalt

Turns out trees do help with salinity! Picture: The Australian Academy of Science (but what would those bloody greenies know? They don’t study economics; their dads aren’t contractors!)

1. Goats and Fire

The most important thing I have learnt in the last three years is that if you have a problem – any problem – it can’t be solved by grazing it with goats, setting fire to it then grazing it with goats again.

Any problem. Ever.

goat1fire

Poor Pitt the Younger

Poor Pitt the Younger.
He must have had a rough time with geography at school, having to learn useless things like capital cities instead of awesome things like about methane clathrates, which are solid chunks of methane (a bit like ice) that sit on the ocean floor and in the permafrost that can be found in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere.

How are they related to geography? Well as we know, humans are massively changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, which is causing the permafrost to melt, releasing all this methane. That’s pretty bad as methane has a global warming potential (GWP) of 72 over 20 years, making it exactly 72 times worse as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the same time period.

The tricky thing with the methane in the permafrost is that the more it melts the more methane will be released so it will get warmer so it will melt more so more methane will be released so it will get warmer so it will melt more … this could go on for a while. That’s what we call a positive feedback loop. They are bastards to model, so we don’t have a great understanding of them and climate change science is full of them.

methane
Methane release is wack. PHOTO: sandiegofreepress.org

So maybe Pitt the Younger was happy with his crappy geography classes, safe from the knowledge of methane and over grazing and erosion and land clearing and water pollution?

I think what I’m trying to say is that while a solid understanding of geography (or science in general) can be depressing (see discussion of methane, above), it is important have that knowledge and be excited about it (as PtY clearly wasn’t) so we can start solving those problems. The permafrost would still be melting even if we didn’t know about it, knowing about it helps as you need to identify a problem before you try to solve it.

Actually, really what I’m trying to say is that we should all watch Black Addder.

Climate Change Week

Afternoon all!

I have officially and arbitrarily decided that this week on GiA will be Climate Change Week.

fox
“Stop melting my home!” PHOTO: National Geographic

 

I’m assuming that everyone has a pretty good understanding of the science, so I’ll skim over that before delving into the depths of international climate change talks, where it gets seriously complicated.

The science is easy; it’s the politics of it that’s nuts.

First off though, we’ll start with this, a counter that shows you the atmosphere’s current and past carbon dioxide concentration in parts per million (ppm).

It’s a crazy graph and as you can see, we cracked 400ppm earlier this year. The international community has agreed that we need to stay below 2’C of warming above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid a climate that most societies won’t be able to function in.  To stay below this 2’C, we’d need to get carbon dioxide levels down to or below 350ppm.

The 2’C is in itself a bit arbitrary (I’ll explain that in a bit), but it provides a good indicator of how we’re going.

I realise this is pretty sad, so to cheer you up, here’s a video of a baby panda sneezing.