Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The World’s Vanishing Glaciers Put Millions at Risk

By Tim Radford / Climate News Network

    Glaciers are at risk even among the high Himalayan peaks of the Karakoram range in Pakistan. (Guilhem Vellut / Flickr)

In the next 25 years, more than half of all of Switzerland’s small glaciers will disappear, and Canada could lose 70% of the volume of its frozen rivers by 2100.

Some of the 37 glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana, have been reduced by 85%, and of the 37, only 26 remain large enough to warrant the classification of glacier - that is, they have enough mass to flow.

And in high Asia, where 800 million people are at least partly dependent on summer meltwater, there are worries.

Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey, reports in Nature journal that the summer meltwater from the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Pamir and other mountain ranges altogether delivers enough for the basic needs of 136 million people.

During droughts, meltwater is the principal source for the upper Indus and Aral river basins, and any glacial water loss would increase the risk of social instability, conflict, and sudden, uncontrolled migrations of population.

According to Dr Pritchard, in total, the glaciers of high-mountain Asia send 23 cubic kilometres of water downstream each summer. Without these glaciers, summer monthly water inputs in an average year would be down by 38% in the upper Indus basin, and by up to 58% in drought conditions.

In the upper Aral basin, lost summer water inputs would frequently reach 100%. Glacial loss would be bad news for the people of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

All the more reason, says Twila Moon, postdoctoral research associate at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, to systematically monitor the condition of the world’s glaciers and to maintain data.

She argues in Science journal that although glacier melt contributes to sea level rise, it may be even more important to work out when society will start to experience the coastal flooding that could displace millions.

And only careful assessment of the scale of glacier loss worldwide - including in Greenland and the Antarctic - could provide planners with the information they need.

That the glaciers are going is a given. Careful studies over many years suggest that some of Greenland’s glaciers are accelerating on their way to the sea. There have also been alarming losses reported from Bolivia, and even in Canada.

Reports from the high mountains of Asia have been incomplete, but there is enough evidence to suggest that perhaps half of all the ice could be gone in the next 30 years.

Dr Moon says: “The evidence is overwhelming - Earth is losing its ice. Much of this loss is irreversible and the result of human-caused climate change. Unless substantial climate response action is taken, and the trend of global temperature rise is reversed, we will continue to see Miami streets swallowed by sea, and glacier freshwater reservoirs melt into mud".

“And we can expect this pattern to continue for decades, centuries, and indeed millennia. As scientists, we must make this reality clear and help to ensure that action is taken to minimise impacts globally.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

This South Pacific Island of Rubbish Shows Why We Need to Quit Our Plastic Habit

Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

A remote South Pacific island has the highest density of plastic debris reported anywhere on the planet, our new study has found.

Our study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that more than 17 tonnes of plastic debris has washed up on Henderson Island, with more than 3,570 new pieces of litter arriving every day on one beach alone.

Our study probably actually underestimates the extent of plastic pollution on Henderson Island, as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimetres down to a depth of 10 centimetres. We also could not sample along cliffs. Jennifer Lavers, Author provided

It is estimated that there are nearly 38 million pieces of plastic on the island, which is near the centre of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current.

Henderson Island, marked here by the red pin, is in the UK’s Pitcairn Islands territory and is more than 5,000 kilometres from the nearest major population centre. That shows plastic pollution ends up everywhere, even in the most remote parts of the world. Google Maps

A 2014 paper published in the journal PLOS One used data from surface water all over the world. The researchers estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the top 10 centimetres of the world’s oceans.

Plastics pose a major threat to seabirds and other animals, and most don’t ever break down – they just break up. Every piece of petrochemical-derived plastic ever made still exists on the planet.

Jennifer Lavers, Research Scientist, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, May 8, 2017

How Scientists and Indigenous Groups Can Team Up to Protect Forests and Climate


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It was still morning when Javier Mateo-Vega arrived at the village meeting hall in Ipeti, Panama this past February. But the air was already hot and heavy, and the mood was tense.
The indigenous Emberá townspeople were taking advantage of Mateo-Vega's late arrival to air grievances. A man in the back complained about new houses that the government was building—sterile, zinc-roofed concrete shacks that were quickly wiping out the town’s traditional wood-and-thatched-palm huts. Others cursed the colonos—non-indigenous farmers and ranchers who were invading the community’s land from other parts of Panama. The village chiefs struggled to keep order.
Mateo-Vega, an ecologist with the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute, frowned with worry. The conflicts were worse than he had ever seen here. As he joined the gathering, a few men seemed to shift uncomfortably or look away, a strange occurrence in a village where he had worked for almost a decade—and where he was used to a warmer welcome. “You’re seeing the unraveling of a community,” he told me. 
The people of Ipeti (pronounced ee-pet-TEE) were at a crossroads. The Emberá have long lived in the forests of eastern Panama. They know these forests inside and out: They walk, hunt and fish in them; they harvest fruit and nuts from them; they cut trees for fuel wood and building materials. But ever since a group of Emberá migrated west and founded Ipeti a few decades ago, they have grappled with outside threats to their forest-based livelihoods.
Now they were facing an existential question: Would they hold on to their traditions, or head full-speed into modernity?  
Mateo-Vega hoped to help the villagers turn things around. He had driven three hours east from Panama City to lead a land-use planning workshop for this 700-person community. He knew the workshop wouldn't solve all of the townspeople's problems. But he believed he could help them in one concrete way: by giving them data they needed to make strategic decisions to protect their forests in the coming decades. 
On paper, the work was intended to conserve tropical forests, crucial yet increasingly vulnerable bastions in the fight against global climate change. But Mateo-Vega and his colleagues also hoped it would also do something arguably just as important: empower indigenous communities to take charge of their environmental future, and even reclaim their identity as forest people. 
“Imagine it’s 2055, and you’re in an airplane flying over your territory,” he said, as he took the floor before a group of around 50 community members. Women in brightly colored traditional skirts sat on folding chairs on one side of the pavilion; men in worn jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps sat or stood around the other. “What would you see?”
No response. That wasn't entirely surprising: The townspeople had been arguing for two hours, and it was hot. Plus, with more immediate problems facing them, 2055 felt abstract and far-off. 
Behind Mateo-Vega, community leaders held two large maps that he had brought, based on data that community members had provided in a workshop the previous summer. One depicted a dystopian future in which Ipeti’s forests are almost all cleared for farmland. The other rendered a brighter outlook, in which the community was able to bring the forest back.
“This is your dream,” he said, pointing to the second map. 
Still nothing. Mateo-Vega paced the concrete floor in his Teva sandals, khaki field pants, purple polo shirt and Smithsonian ID badge. Even after years of working here, he was an obvious outsider: a tall, muscular, light-skinned Costa Rican with short, slicked-back hair.  
He tried a different tactic: “What are the Emberá without their forests?”
For a few seconds, the crowd was uncomfortably silent. Then one young man yelled out, “Nothing! Without our forests, we’re not Emberá!”
Mateo-Vega's face relaxed. Now they were starting to make progress.

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In Ipeti, Panama, Sara Omi (left), Cándido Mezúa (center) and Mateo-Vega explore potential futures for the Emberá's forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

To say that the history of scientists working in indigenous territories is fraught would be an understatement. Look through the literature and you'll find stories of researchers setting their own agendas, collecting and publishing data without consent, and failing to include community members as collaborators or coauthors on studies. 
“The dominant narrative is that indigenous people are not co-thinkers,” says Kim TallBear, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta who has studied scientist-indigenous relations.
In the context of this troubled history, Mateo-Vega's work could be the beginnings of a counter-narrative. In 2008, he began working in Ipeti as the director of a project to build communities’ forest restoration capacity. In 2012 he joined the research group of Catherine Potvin, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Institution and McGill University in Montreal who has paved the way for more collaborative research with the Emberá.
Over the years, Mateo-Vega says he and the people of Ipeti have come to consider each other adopted family. As he walks down the town’s main street, the villagers give him hugs and high-fives, and show off hand-carved wooden animals and hand-woven baskets. They ask about his wife, an American whom he lives with in Panama City, and his 12-year-old son, who lives in Costa Rica. “I would come here even if I wasn’t doing research,” Mateo-Vega says.
Such relationships have laid the foundation for a collaboration with the Emberá that goes longer and deeper than almost any other scientist-indigenous community partnership anywhere. In return, Mateo-Vega has gained unprecedented access to nearly unstudied forests—and, perhaps more importantly, to the Emberá themselves. They have opened their homes to him, mediated with community elders and helped design and carry out complex research projects. 
"You have to break bread with them, walk their forests with them, stay in their houses, play with their children and go to their funerals,” he says. “If you don’t like doing this stuff, you’re not going to do well here.”
Mateo-Vega wants to change how science is done, but he's also hoping to do more. He aims to help bring indigenous communities into a climate change conversation that they have mostly watched from the margins. As the world’s governments, conservation organizations and indigenous communities struggle to protect forests and fight climate change, Mateo-Vega hopes to build a powerful model for others to follow.

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Emberá women at a land use planning meeting led by Mateo-Vega in February. (Gabriel Popkin)

The story begins in the mid 1990s, when Potvin, Mateo-Vega's advisor, ventured for the first time to the Darién. She had heard that the remote, roadless Darién region in far eastern Panama—the Emberás’ homeland, and where most of the roughly 30,000 group members still live—nurtured a biologically spectacular forest, and she wanted to see it for herself. Getting there required a flight from Panama City and 14 hours in a dugout canoe.
“You’re very tired at the end. Your butt really hurts,” she says. 
Finally, she arrived at a small village of thatched-roof huts. Villagers still spoke the Emberá language and maintained traditional practices, including adorning themselves from head to toe with paint made from a native fruit called jagua. Potvin immediately knew that she wanted to work with there. But rather than set her own research agenda, she decided to ask community leaders what research projects would help them.
“These people are immensely intelligent,” says Potvin, who is short with straight blonde hair, and whose English is heavily inflected with a French Canadian accent. “They don’t need me to tell them what to do.”
She learned that the community relied on chunga, a spiny palm whose leaves the villagers wove into baskets. As the baskets became increasingly popular with tourists, overharvesting began depleting chunga from the forest. To help the communities learn how to grow the palms themselves, Potvin brought on Rogelio Cansari, an Emberá from the Darién who had received a degree in anthropology from Texas A&M University, as a graduate student.
The pair collected seeds from the few remaining chunga plants they could find, planted them in experimental plots and determined under what conditions they grow best. Then, they worked with community members to establish plantations to supply their growing basket trade.
Crucially, they also included indigenous leaders as coauthors on scientific papers. “Catherine came with the very innovative idea of giving the opportunity to indigenous people to be part of scientific knowledge,” says Cansari, who is now studying for a PhD in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s been very helpful for my people.” The researchers translated their papers into Spanish and presented them at community meetings, so that villagers gained access to the data and learned what was being published about them in the scientific literature.
Though she is not specifically familiar with Potvin’s work, TallBear says that the ecologist’s approach goes beyond what even most collaboration-minded scientists are willing to do. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes time and it slows down your time to publication,” she says. “Most people who bill themselves as doing collaborative research are not going that far.” 

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Traditional thatched-roof huts and drying clothes at an Emberá community in the Darién. (Courtesy Javier Mateo-Vega)

While in Darién, Potvin heard that some Emberá had migrated out of the region and settled in Ipeti. Intrigued, she visited the town herself in 1996. She found a community that was carrying on some traditions, such as living in thatched-roof houses, but that was also assimilating into mainstream Panamanian society. Traditional body painting and music had all but disappeared, and Spanish was replacing the Emberá language. 
It wasn’t every day that a scientist from a prestigious university visited Ipeti, which at that time was a seven-hour drive from Panama City over a largely unpaved road. When Bonarge Pacheco—an Emberá and Ipeti’s chief at the time—heard that Potvin was in town, he put on his best clothes and joined her for dinner.
Despite previous experiences with scientists who had gathered data in Ipeti but never returned results, Bonarge says that he was won over by Potvin. “I perceived that she was a sincere person, and I had heard about her work elsewhere,” he says. They talked until midnight, and by the next day they had a plan to collaborate.
Many of the forests surrounding Ipeti had been cleared both by villagers and invading colonos, and were in rough shape. Villagers had trouble finding not only chunga, but also several types of palm needed to continue building their traditional houses—round, open-sided structures with air-permeable floors and thatched roofs that stay cool even in Panama’s punishing midday heat. As a result, community members were starting to build new houses using non-traditional materials like wood planks and sheet metal.
Potvin worked with the community to study and grow four species of palm: chunga, wagaragiwa and sabal. That work paid off: With palms growing and providing materials, Ipeti was able to continue their traditional house-building. The study also had wider-reaching effects. Villagers went back to playing Emberá music—which relies on flutes made from a bamboo that Potvin also helped them grow—and revived their important cultural tradition of body-painting. 
Potvin even got herself painted. Through her years of collaboration with the Emberá, she says she felt she had earned it. “I know now there are a lot of discourses about reappropriation of these things, and it’s quite controversial,” she says. “I just find it’s beautiful.”

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Catherine Potvin, right, shows a carbon map to Evelio Jiménez and community members of the Guna Comarca of Madungandi, in eastern Panama in 2013.

Around this time, high-level politicians and environmentalists began eyeing tropical forests like the Darién as part of global efforts to combat climate change. At the 2005 UN climate conference in Montreal, a program emerged for reducing carbon emissions from burning or clearing of standing forests, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The program was christened with the acronym REDD, which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”
The basic idea is simple: Trees are roughly half carbon by mass, and growing trees devour and store carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for most human-caused climate change. To provide an incentive to keep forests standing, climate negotiators envisioned a carbon market through which wealthy countries responsible for most carbon emissions could pay poorer countries to protect forests. While no one thought such a scheme could prevent climate change, it seemed like a good strategy to at least slow it down.
Getting REDD+ (the ‘+’ was added in 2007 to include improved forest management) to work on the ground, however, has been anything but simple. Tropical forests grow in dozens of mostly poor countries, whose governments often lack the will or ability to protect them from the myriad threats they face: illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching, farming and more. A widely cited 2013 analysis of satellite data collected between 2000 and 2012 found that forested areas shrank in nearly every tropical country besides Brazil, often by staggeringly large amounts.
Moreover, few developing-world governments are equipped to make the systematic measurements needed to verify that additional carbon is really being sequestered. “REDD+ is frequently presented as a climate success story, partly because the idea looks so simple and appealing,” wrote economist Arild Angelsen and biologist Louis Verchot of the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia in 2015. But outside of Brazil, “there are few stories of substantial early progress," the authors wrote.
Then there is the fact that indigenous communities often have uneasy relationships with their national governments, and have rarely been included in discussions where the mechanics of REDD+ were developed. As a result, they are wary of carbon-focused schemes that might restrict what they can do in their forests.
This may be starting to change. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris, a coalition of indigenous groups and scientists released a report pointing out that more than a fifth of the world’s tropical forest carbon is in indigenous territories, and calling for stronger land rights and inclusion of indigenous people in climate negotiations. Research supports this argument: A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that recognizing the rights of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon has helped protect forests there.
But rarely have indigenous groups received recognition or compensation for protecting their forests. The 2015 Paris agreement mentions indigenous peoples in several places, but does not guarantee them a role in countries’ climate action plans.
“Governments are like cash machines going click, click, click, click, click—they see this green fund as a great source of new funding,” said Cándido Mezúa, an Emberá leader from the Darién and a coauthor on the 2015 report. “To really achieve the protection of forests, the only way is to recognize the rights of people in the forests and to title our lands.”

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Ipeti's forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

Today, Potvin and Mateo-Vega see their work as a case study in how science could support the kind of protection Mezúa envisions. More than half of the country’s primary forests are in indigenous territories, according to an analysis by Potvin’s group. But before the UN talks, they had never had a reason to think about how much carbon their forests hold. As Cansari puts it: “Carbon is not something that indigenous people can touch.”
Potvin, who attended the climate talks as a negotiator for Panama, told her Emberá contacts about the carbon market discussions. Fearing being left out, community leaders asked her to help them measure how much carbon their forests contained. She agreed. Starting in Ipeti, she trained community members to record the diameters of trees in community-managed forest, agroforestry plots (plantings of fruit- and materials-providing trees) and cow pasture. They then used standardized equations and statistical methods to convert individual tree data into estimates of carbon stored in a given area.
They found that Ipeti’s forests contained about twice as much carbon per area as agroforestry plots, whereas the pastures, unsurprisingly, contained little carbon. Because the study was the first to quantify the carbon stored in Ipeti’s forest, it provided a crucial foundation for the community to explore getting involved in the emerging carbon market.
Equally important was the attention the study brought to Ipeti’s remaining forests, says Pacheco. At the rate Ipeti residents and colonos were clearing trees, half the remaining forest would be gone within a decade, the researchers found. Community members took note and dramatically slowed the rate at which they cleared forests for agriculture. As a result, about half their territory remains forested today—in contrast to Piriati, a neighboring Emberá community where Potvin did not work, and which eventually lost all of its forest.
“We call it the Potvin effect,” Pacheco says.

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Mateo-Vega stands at the base of a cuipo tree in the forests of Ipeti. (Gabriel Popkin)

A few years later, Potvin, Mateo-Vega and Emberá leaders began planning a forest carbon measuring campaign in the Darién, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. The challenges would be much greater than in Ipeti—field teams would need to trek in equipment by foot or canoe for stays lasting weeks, and they would need protection from the guerrilla warfare in neighboring Colombia, which threatened to spill across the border. The mutual trust Potvin and Mateo-Vega had spent years building would be essential. 
Mateo-Vega hired an Emberá assistant, Lupita Omi, whom he knew from working in Ipeti, to arrange meetings with village chiefs. (The two have become so close they now call each other hermanito and hermanita—Spanish for “little brother” and “little sister”.) In 38 separate meetings, the pair explained their project’s goals and how the collected data would benefit communities. Deliberations could last up to five hours, because community members were wary of any initiative that carried even a whiff of REDD+.
“The communities really listened carefully to every word,” Omi says. “They realized it could affect their livelihoods and their territories.” In the end, every community accepted the project.
Mateo-Vega then hired and trained a crew of forest technicians from Darién and Ipeti, and plunged into the forest. They set up camp, sent hunters out after monkey or iguana for the night’s dinner, and got to work staking out square plots 100 meters (slightly longer than a football field) on a side and measuring the height and circumference of every tree larger than 50 centimeters in diameter.
The work was arduous. The heat could be brutal, and rainy season downpours turned forest soil into mud. Trails had to be cut from the dense understory with machetes, pit vipers lurked everywhere and nasty spines that grow on many plants could easily puncture boots and skin. The threat of violence was never far from the team’s thoughts, although they were never attacked. On one outing, a canoe carrying members of the security team and their ammunition capsized in a rapid, and they had to abandon the trip, even though it meant leaving two remote forest types unmeasured.
But for their efforts, Mateo-Vega and his crew got access to forests that virtually no scientists had ever studied. They discovered a tree that shattered the record for the largest in Panama. The crew’s measurements revealed that some of its forests were far more carbon-rich and replete with biological diversity than anyone had documented.
Mateo-Vega has come to believe that the underappreciated Darién—one 19th-century explorer described it as a “green hell”—deserves to be ranked among the world’s great forest regions. “In our opinion it’s the Amazon of Central America,” he says. On the last day of his last field trip, he saw a jaguar swimming across a river—a first for him in his 35 years working in the rainforest. He still dreams of going back.
In addition to collecting valuable data, Mateo-Vega’s team proved a larger point: that community members with proper training but no prior science background could take forest measurements just as well as scientists. And they could do it at a fraction of the cost. Similar success stories from collaborations elsewhere suggest REDD+ could be widely implemented and monitored directly by communities that own much of the world’s forests.
“When trained and when incentivized … they can collect as high-quality data as anybody else,” says Wayne Walker, an ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center who led a community-based carbon measuring project in the Amazon. 
Potvin has published guidelines for such collaborative research on the McGill website. Other hints are also emerging that science may be shedding its colonial heritage. In March, the San people of South Africa issued what is thought to be the first code of research ethics put together by indigenous people in Africa. First Nations peoples of Canada and Aborigines in Australia have developed similar codes. 
Mateo-Vega and his collaborators recently added their own contribution to this growing literature, publishing their methods and results in the journal Ecosphere. Emberá communities are now prepared to collect data to support REDD+ or any other future carbon compensation scheme, they wrote.
“We worked ourselves out of a job—which was the plan,” Mateo-Vega says.
Armed with data, the Emberá communities set about figuring out the next step: how to use it. In Ipeti and Piriati, which only received formal title to their lands in 2015, the consensus was a series of land use planning workshops to map out how land use decisions would affect their forests. 
The workshops have been “an awakening” for the communities, Mateo-Vega says. He recalls one elder in Piriati crying as he realized his daughters had never seen the forest or eaten bush meat—the native game animals Emberá people have traditionally hunted. “They realize they have gotten off track,” he says.
Back at the land use meeting in Ipeti, as Mateo-Vega continued to explain the data visualized by his maps, his audience had begun to open up. Community members were reflecting on what they had lost as the forest had disappeared. “Before, we ate peccary and deer,” one man said. “Now we have to have park rangers.”
Another lamented that they were eating introduced tilapia, rather than native wacuco fish that used to thrive in streams protected by forests. “I’m Emberá; I want to live like an Emberá,” he said.
By the end of the meeting, community members were in agreement: They needed to bring back the forest. But given that farming often brings in quicker—and much-needed—profits, how exactly they would do this remained to be figured out.
After the crowd dispersed, Mateo-Vega huddled with community leaders. They were contemplating a concept they called Emberá-REDD. They would consider participating in the UN program, but on their own terms, not ones cooked up in Panama City or Washington, D.C.
Young people could be employed to measure carbon and patrol the territory to ensure colonos did not destroy their forests, one leader suggested. REDD+ would thus be not just about trees and carbon, but about jobs and education—and about food security and cultural preservation.
“We need to protect the forests for our own reasons,” said Mezúa.
The forest would come back. The communities would go back to eating bush meat and gathering medicinal plants. They would build their traditional houses again.
What about the ugly government-built houses, Mateo-Vega asked.
“Maybe they’ll be used for storage,” said Sara Omi, Lupita’s sister and head of the Emberá’s regional congress.
Mateo-Vega liked what he heard. But he and Potvin are quick to emphasize that their job is not to choose whether or not the communities ultimately accept REDD+, or make any other decision for them. Rather, it is to empower communities to make their own informed choices.
They acknowledge that this is not always the easiest or quickest or most glamorous way to do science. But it’s the right way. “It’s a partnership and a relationship of equality,” Potvin says. “I think of it as decolonization.”

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Why Climate Change is About Human Rights, Politics, and Justice
I bet you think of climate change as an environmental issue.
It’s mainly about the atmosphere and polar bears and carbon, right? Well, not really. I mean yes – it is about those things, but mainly it’s about human rights and politics. If that doesn’t make immediate sense to you, then this post is for you. Here’s why climate change is about human rights:
    • Responsibility for climate change, its impacts and the capacity to adapt to it are unequal
    • Climate change deepens every existing social inequality
    • Climate action has huge potential to enhance equality and human rights
Not convinced yet? Let’s explore each of those points…

Responsibility, impacts and capacity are uneven

Responsibility for climate change

The roots of climate change go back to the drawn of the Industrial Revolution, which kicked off in the UK in the late 1700s and quickly spread around North Western Europe and then the world. The discovery of coal, and later oil and gas, changed everything.
These three fossil fuels are fossilised organic matter from millions of years ago, hugely energy-dense, which release their pent up energy when burned. Being made from ancient dead plants and animals, they are full of carbon, and when burnt, that carbon goes into the atmosphere. The extra carbon acts like an insulating blanket, blocking heat from radiating out to space, making the Earth warmer. This is known as the “greenhouse effect” and is vital to life. Without it we’d be absolutely freezing, like a planet sized fridge-freezer. But when it comes to blankets, it’s not just ‘the more the better’ is it? You get too hot. And that’s what’s happening now.
Europe and later the other rich nations were blazing it up for decades before poorer countries came on the fossil-burning scene, and by the time industrialization took off in the rest of the world (which is still ongoing) we had already chucked enough carbon into the sky to start changing the Earth’s entire climate. Until the 1960s the top emitters were all rich industrialized nations (with the UK at the top of that list for roughly a century after kicking off the Industrial Revolution). In the mid 20th century China and Russia joined the big boys of carbon pollution. Today China is the biggest emitter, but it’s important to remember that:
  • They have well over a billion people, roughly one seventh of the world’s population
  • They manufacture a large proportion of the world’s goods
If you put it in per person terms instead, the biggest emitters are all rich countries, with Australia and the USA topping the list.
See this 49 second visualisation of historical emissions around the world to get a sense of it. (and check out this epic interactive version on Carbon Brief).

The point is, over the last 200-odd years, the vast bulk of the carbon emissions have come from the rich countries – Europe, North America, Australia, Japan. Apart from Japan they happen to be Western and white.

Impacts of climate change

The impacts of climate change are also uneven across the globe, and across each country. The most severe climate impacts are expected across tropical regions – which happen to be in Africa, Asia and South America – as they are already hot and stormy. The more arid parts of Australia and USA will also be seriously affected by heatwaves, droughts, storms and wildfires. Low-lying and coastal areas will be worst hit by rising sea levels – there are small low-lying island states which are literally already disappearing under the sea. Most of the countries hit first and worst by climate change are poor, and all the poorest regions of the world are expected to have very severe impacts.
Map of the Day | Impact of global warming on crop yields | UN Climate Change report released 
It’s worth noting that even at the catastrophic 4 degrees of warming that sees most of the world turn into a desert or a floodplain, the UK remains “habitable”. That doesn’t mean we’d get off scott-free, it would still see floods, droughts, sea level rise, water shortages and food prices rocketing. (And those impacts would be mostly borne by the British poor – who else?) But it would be an oasis of liveability compared to the rest of the world.
It’s also worth noting that even 2 degrees of warming, which politicians have agreed as the line in the sand, would still be an absolute disaster for Africa. Yeah, looks like the West is screwing over Africa yet again. Shameful.
The point is, the countries that have done the absolute least to cause climate change, and benefited the least from industrialization, are expected to be some of the hardest hit. If that isn’t injustice, I don’t know what is. But wait, there’s more…

Capacity to adapt to the impacts

The final in the trio of shit which is climate injustice, is the capacity to adapt.
This is where the stark differences in the most affected countries comes into play. Australia and the USA will both be badly hit, and are actually already seeing impacts, but the difference between them and the others is that they are rich countries. Their governments have budgets for public spending, they have emergency services, they have a welfare state (kind of – I’m looking at you America), they have strong institutions and infrastructure. These tools of survival mean that while impacts may be dire, the government has some capacity to respond and invest in adaptation.
Compare this to, for a random example, Chad. In land-locked northern Africa with a sizeable desert region and a non-desert arid region that runs the risk of becoming desert, they’re one of the many countries that will be seriously impacted, like USA and Australia. The difference in that Chad is one of the poorest and most corrupt in the world. Most people are subsistence herders and farmers, earning their livelihood directly from the land – meaning they’re incredibly sensitive to environmental change. And they don’t have stored wealth or a welfare state to fall back on. Also, they’re biggest export is crude oil, so when that’s no longer a viable industry they’ll likely be even poorer.
The problem for countries like Chad, is that they’re struggling as it is, so literally cannot afford to invest in adaptations for climate change. They simply don’t have the cash, can’t borrow on favourable terms, often don’t even have the policy freedom, they lack the institutions and infrastructure they need, in some cases officials are corrupt and there’s all too often political/religious/ethnic violence to contend with. What a shit-storm. And that’s before you add in the increased risk of actual storms.
So, many of the countries most effected by climate change are not only the ones who’ve done the least to cause it and reap the benefits of carbon-heavy industry, they’re also the least capable of adapting to it.

Climate change deepens existing inequality

The second key reason why climate change is about human rights, is because due to the uneven nature of its cause, impacts and adaptability, it tends to deepen existing inequalities.
I have already alluded to the raced nature of climate change. Zoomed out, it looks awfully like a case of white people screwing over everyone else. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. As discussed above, the (mostly) white rich nations have by far the most historical responsibility for causing climate change, have benefited the most from carbon-heavy industrialization, and yet it is the mostly black, Asian and Latino countries that will see the most catastrophic climate impacts, despite being poorer and less able to cope with them. Pretty damn racist, when you put it like that.
But there’s more: obviously many countries are now very multicultural, so race is relevant within countries, too. Case in point of course is the USA: due to the history of racism, black and Latino people are more likely to live in polluted areas and less likely to be protected by the state. Remember Hurricane Katrina. A much higher proportion of the people who were stranded, lost their home or lost their lives happened to be black. Also, sometimes crisis can push people into crime. It’s well known that American police and courts are massively harsher to black criminals than white.
Of course, you could say it’s not really a case of race, but class. That’s kind of true, although you can’t ignore the reality that people of colour tend to be poorer on average. (I wonder why that is? Hmm… *Cough* history of massive racism *cough*). The two are entwined. Anyway, arguably the clearest reason climate change is political is because it’s all about class and power. Like usual, the poor are most at risk simply because they are poor so don’t have the required capacity to adapt. They also have less political power so governments are prone to policymaking that serves the richer classes instead. Whenever a crisis hits, it’s usually the poor who bear the brunt of it.
Climate change can also deepen gender inequality. This isn’t too relevant in the West, but many poor and rural societies have a very gendered division of labour that sees women doing work that is hit by climate change first and worst. For example, women may be gathering water, growing vegetables and gathering firewood, while men of the community are travelling to do paid work in the city or working on an industrial cash-crop farm. In these cases women will have their work more badly hit. Depending on how much understanding of climate change there is in the community, they could potentially be blamed for their lower yields and be seen as less capable, leading to a loss of power and worse prejudice against them. Also existing issues like women having less access to land, less legal rights and social inequality could see single and widowed women finding it harder to cope with climate impacts.
Basically, without a huge concerted effort to ‘level the playing field’, climate impacts are likely to deepen existing inequalities.

Climate action has huge potential to enhance equality and human rights

Lastly, climate change is political because it doesn’t necessarily need to deepen inequalities; it has the potential to do the opposite. The movements for climate justice and environmental justice are about healing deep wounds of injustice and oppression via environmental action. Climate action can, if done right, be a powerful force for making a society more equal and advancing human rights. It can be a catalyst for positive social change.
Take my native UK as an example. A climate strategy could include bringing high-tech green industries to the North of England that has never recovered from the deindustrialization of the 1980s; it could see parks, urban farms and green spaces bought to inner city areas; it could see run-down coastal towns becoming hubs for off-shore wind and marine energy; it could see struggling farms reinvigorated with an increased demand for local food and extra income streams from ecotourism and renewable energy; it could see public transport improve and also become more affordable. Such schemes wouldn’t only lower carbon emissions, they’d also create millions of good jobs, spread wealth more equally across the country, improve public health, regenerate poor neighbourhoods and improve quality of life for everyone – especially those on lower incomes.
Paris Mayor @Anne_Hidalgo plans to restrict traffic, create more spaces for cyclists, pedestrians & clean transport: 
Also look at the global scale. Climate action has the potential to reduce the sickeningly-enormous gap in living standards, wealth and power between the rich and poor nations via transfers of money and tech. Such actions would not be charity. They would be a good start to paying off the huge debt of injustice discussed earlier. We’re already seeing a glimpse of this: there is an agreement for rich countries to send $100 billion a year in climate funding to poorer countries. Unfortunately this hasn’t been done yet, but it has been signed into the Paris Agreement as a key target. Concerted climate action has the potential to make the world a much fairer place. This is what the climate justice movement is all about.
Sooner or later, we will be moving to a post-carbon world. It could be one in which the rich huddle in their guarded air-conditioned mansions while starving environmental refugees clamour at the gates. Or it could be a brighter more beautiful world, one where we deal with the impacts of climate change with solidarity, cooperation and compassion. What that would look like is uncertain, there are so many possibilities. Personally I see a world of egalitarian high-density high-tech globally-connected eco-cities surrounded by newly planted forests.
So, climate change is about way more than carbon. It’s about who lives and dies, who survives and thrives, who has power and who is powerless. Change is coming whether we like it or not, but that change can be harnessed in dramatically different ways. And what determines what path we take, is politics.

Featured image: People being rescued after being stranded by Hurricane Katrina. (US Navy / Public Domain).