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It’s like buses
It’s like buses. You wait for climate change activists and then several thousand suddenly turn up at once. I've been banging on about climate change for at least the last 20 years. My friends are very understanding and apologise to me when they buy a plastic bottle or a diesel car. “It's your planet, too,” I tell them, but they just smile and move on. And now from nowhere, as it seems, there is this movement called Extinction Rebellion - you were going to send me some links to that, John - which is aiming to bring the whole issue to the top of the agenda by civil disobedience. Well good luck to them. I really hope they achieve what I’ve been trying to achieve for the last 20 years. More about that in a moment.
Welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 5th April 2019. I'm Anthony Day with a special welcome for my patrons who support this podcast. More details about that and how you too can become a patron are at www.patreon.com/sfr.
Somebody asked me once, “A weekly podcast on sustainability? How can you ever find enough material for that?”
The truth is that I'm just scratching the surface of all the stories. This week for example I'm going to tell you about the future of insects, views on climate change denial, more about glyphosate, some thoughts on population, and a new entry to Europe's top10 polluters.
But first, the climate.
Bare bottom fight
Climate protest took place this week in Parliament. Members of Extinction Rebellion removed most of their clothes and then turned their backs and pressed their buttocks to the glass wall separating them from the chamber of the house. Some actually glued themselves to the glass and one protester dressed as the elephant in the room was carried out. They have been charged with outraging public decency which sounds a bit pathetic when you consider the sorts of things you can see on television.
But this is just a start. On the 15th April the Rebellion begins. The demands are simple:
- The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
- The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
- A national Citizen’s Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.
This idea of a citizen’s assembly is gaining support. It was a method used in Ireland before last year’s abortion referendum. It’s been suggested that it should have been used after the UK’s Brexit referendum to clarify exactly what people wanted.
According to the ER website:
“In the UK, thousands of rebels will peacefully block streets in Central London – where the UK’s politicians, media, people and money are concentrated – until the government agrees to meet and seriously discuss the crisis with us. We invite people of whatever age or background to participate in this rebellion – blocking roads and standing up for our future. This is a community rebellion. United in love for life we will stand together and support each other as we confront the government with our demand for decency and sanity.”
This is just what the government wants at this time of constitutional crisis over Brexit. Of course our parliament has shown itself to be totally incapable of dealing with the issues surrounding an exit from the European Union so any hope that they could do anything sensible about this vastly more important issue may be in vain.
How will the public react? People going about their ordinary business or commuting to work will probably be frustrated and angry. Will that rally them to the Extinction Rebellion cause? Like Brexit, do people fully understand the issues?
According to the instructions to volunteers, people taking part in the Rebellion should bring a tent and book two weeks off work. That means the plan must be to continue the protest right over Easter. People whose Easter holidays are disrupted will certainly not be amused.
Although there are hints that action may take place in other cities, it appears that the major protest will be in London. This could be greeted by schadenfreude from the rest of the country, amused to see that for once London is not getting everything its own way.
The bare-bottom protest in Parliament gained wide publicity and did so without alienating the public. But British society is tense and divided at the moment. Intolerance is becoming widespread. I fear that this action by Extinction Rebellion could just pour petrol on the flames. Still, if they achieve what I’ve been trying to achieve for 20 years, good for them. If they don’t, and they put the debate back by 20 years then so much the worse for us.
Keeping the climate crisis message in the media is key. It is clear that vested interests are equally keen to reinforce and repeat the climate denial message.
Mary Robinson is the former president of Ireland and the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change. She has been awarded the Kew International Medal and in her acceptance speech she says that the denial of climate change is not just ignorant, but “malign and evil”, because it denies the human rights of the most vulnerable people on the planet. According to the Irish Times Mrs Robinson said fossil fuel companies had lost their social licence to explore for more coal, oil and gas and must switch to become part of the transition to clean energy. She said exploration for new reserves must end, given that most existing reserves must be kept in the ground if global warming is to be tackled.
“The system we have at the moment is underpinned by rampant capitalism. The social contract with people is kind of broken. The unions are being trod upon, especially in the United States but also globally to a certain extent,”
Quoted in Green Left Weekly, an Australian paper, Hans Baer asked, “How can she reconcile a desire for environmental sustainability with her membership in the B-Team, a group of business leaders that includes Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactica project promises space tourism for the very wealthy?
“Robinson acknowledges the need to reduce social inequality, but fails to confront the growing concentration of wealth in most countries in the world and the persistence of major social inequalities. Essentially, her book, Climate Justice, domesticates the notion of climate justice, reducing it to a moral problem that can be solved by persuading the rich to do better.”
Mary Robinson underlined her support for climate protests, including the school strikes for climate initiated by Greta Thunberg. There is another school strike planned for next Friday 12th April. That will be the third. How will it compare in turnout with the previous demonstrations?
Greta Thunberg addressed a celebrity audience in Berlin recently. “We live in a strange world, where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future,” she said, “We are failing, but we have not yet failed.”
It’s only 5 minutes. Watch it.
Disturbing news about the world’s insects
An article in the journal Nature Communication by Powney and others reports a widespread decline in pollinating insects across the United Kingdom. Here’s the introduction to their paper:
“Pollination is a critical ecosystem service underpinning the productivity of agricultural systems across the world. Wild insect populations provide a substantial contribution to the productivity of many crops and seed set of wild flowers. … Here we show substantial inter-specific variation in pollinator trends, based on occupancy models for 353 wild bee and hoverfly species in Great Britain between 1980 and 2013. Furthermore, we estimate a net loss of over 2.7 million occupied 1 km2 grid cells across all species. Declines in pollinator evenness suggest that losses were concentrated in rare species. …This contrasts with dominant crop pollinators, which increased by 12%, potentially in response agri-environment measures. The general declines highlight a fundamental deterioration in both wider biodiversity and non-crop pollination services.”
An article in Global Change Biology describes how researchers studied UK data for 269 aphid, bird, butterfly and moth species between 1965 and 2012. They found that global warming had advanced the timing of biological events and that further warming was likely to drive significant future biodiversity loss. The problem is that the lifecycles of plants, animals, insects and birds are getting out of sync with each other. If plants flower at the wrong time there is no food for insects. If there are no insects there is no food for birds. With fewer insects there will be less pollination and fewer productive plants. If there are fewer birds there will be less food for their predators, and so it goes on.
40% under threat
An article in this month’s Biological Conservation journal says that over 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. Habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, while agro-chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes.
WWF says that this is the 'last generation' that can save nature (CNN) It warned that current efforts to protect the natural world are not keeping up with the speed of manmade destruction. The crisis is "unprecedented in its speed, in its scale and because it is single-handed," said Marco Lambertini, the WWF's director general. "It's mindblowing. ... We're talking about 40 years. It's not even a blink of an eye compared to the history of life on Earth."
"Now that we have the power to control and even damage nature, we continue to (use) it as if we were the hunters and gatherers of 20,000 years ago, with the technology of the 21st century," he added. "We're still taking nature for granted, and it has to stop.”
12 months ago, Cristiana Pașca Palmer, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, was already saying that at least half of the world should be made more nature-friendly by 2050 to ensure the wellbeing of humanity. She said that to reach the goal, nature reserves, ocean protected areas, restoration projects and sustainable land use regions should be steadily expanded by 10% every decade.
With this objective in mind, Half-Earth Day is an annual celebration and opportunity for scientists, conservationists, community representatives, decision-makers, and educators to share their progress towards biodiversity conservation and inspire fresh energy and engagement.
They say, “Half-Earth is a call to protect half the land and sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity. Advances in technology now allow us to comprehensively map the geospatial location and distribution of the species of our planet at high enough resolution to drive decision-making about where we have the best opportunity to protect the most species. This is the work of the Half-Earth Project.”
We could just all give up in the face of this bad news, or do something about it like the people at the Half-Earth Project and many other groups of people who are determined to do everything they can to meet these challenges.
Did I mention climate change?
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reports that the State of the Climate in 2018 shows accelerating climate change impacts. The report says that the physical signs and socio-economic impacts of climate change are accelerating as record greenhouse gas concentrations drive global temperatures towards increasingly dangerous levels. It also highlights record sea level rise, as well as exceptionally high land and ocean temperatures over the past four years. This warming trend has lasted since the start of this century and is expected to continue. “Extreme weather has continued in early 2019,” they say, “most recently with Tropical Cyclone Idai, which caused devastating floods and tragic loss of life in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. It may turn out to be one of the deadliest weather-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere.”
Do you remember Cyclone Idai? It’s gone off the news stories now, but the devastation and the relief effort continues. And don’t forget Madagascar. That country was hit as well.
The report records that in 2018, most of the natural hazards which affected nearly 62 million people were associated with extreme weather and climate events. Hurricanes Florence and Michael, for example, were two of fourteen “billion dollar disasters” in 2018 in the United States of America (USA). They triggered around US$49 billion in damages and over 100 deaths. Super typhoon Mangkhut affected more than 2.4 million people and killed at least 134 people, mainly in the Philippines. The report goes on to examine food security, displacement and refugees, heat, air quality and health, coral bleaching, warming oceans, sea level rise, ocean acidification, diminishing sea ice, and retreating glaciers.
Turning to other news in this roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide Roundup, otherwise known as glyphosate, has been identified as a substantial cancer factor in a recent court case. This was the opinion of a jury in the case of a Mr Hardeman, who treated his property in California regularly with the herbicide from 1980 to 2012 and was eventually diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This follows an earlier case where another California man was awarded $289m in August after a state court jury found Roundup caused his cancer. That award was later reduced to $78m and is on appeal. There are more than 11,000 similar cases awaiting trial in the US.
Roundup has been available since 1974 and the manufacturers insist that it is a safe product. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organisation's cancer agency, concluded that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic to humans", but the US Environmental Protection Agency insists it is safe when used carefully. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also says glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and in November 2017 the counries of the EU voted to renew its licence.
Roundup has been the focus of controversy for years. The concern is that Roundup-resistant crops can be sprayed with the chemical. The crop survives, but all other plant life is destroyed. In turn, this removes the habitat of a wide range of creatures and organisms. Monsanto argues that clearing the ground with a weedkiller instead of ploughing it means that the soil structure is not disturbed, it is not compressed by heavy machinery and no diesel powered tractors are used, avoiding their carbon footprint.
No doubt the debate will go on. We need to feed the world’s growing population and the way we do it needs to be sustainable. Maybe regenerative farming is the answer. I’ve started looking into that and I’ll tell you more about it in a future episode.
Population rising - or not?
And what about this population that needs feeding?
A recent article in The Guardian explains how a number of researchers are expressing doubts about the United Nations estimates of future population. According to the UN Global population will reach 11 billion by the end of the century. On the other hand Jørgen Randers, believes that it will reach 8 billion by 2040 and then decline. Other researchers agree.
The key issue is the fertility rate, the number of children born to each mother. 2.1 is the average rate believed to be necessary to keep a population stable. In the UK it is 1.7 and population growth is due to immigration. In China it is 1.5 while in India it is 2.1 and falling. In parts of Africa it is 7 or 8, but even this is a decline in comparison with previous years. The factors which change the picture include reduced infant mortality, but a major driver is the urbanisation of society. Women moving into towns seek jobs and careers, postponing marriage and childbirth and having fewer children. If these trends continue and the UN estimate proves to be way ahead of reality, a world with fewer mouths to feed than expected must be good news for us all.
As you jet off on your Easter break, reflect that Ryanair is now in Europe’s top 10 polluters. This is the first time that any company in the top 10 has not owned a coal-fired power station. We’ve talked before about electric aircraft. As batteries get lighter they are a real possibility for shrt-haul routes. Watch this space.
And that’s it…
…for this week. There’s so much more I could write, but if I did I’d never get anything recorded and you’d never hear it. Some things I’ve held over until next time. I hope what I have included is interesting and useful. I’m in your hands and I’m grateful to those of you who write with suggestions and ideas. You can always contact me via email@example.com
And that’s it for now.
This has been the Sustainable Futures Report.
And I’m still Anthony Day.
Till next time.