This article is clear about urban heat and the impacts of increasing temperatures on city dwellers. It also reports some of the steps cities are taking to moderate temperatures, even if only slightly, for their residents.
-CCCDC Co-Chair Mary Smythe
NEW DELHI — On a sweltering Wednesday in June, a rail-thin woman named Rehmati gripped the doctor’s table with both hands. She could hardly hold herself upright, the pain in her stomach was so intense.
She had traveled for 26 hours in a hot oven of a bus to visit her husband, a migrant worker here in the Indian capital. By the time she got here, the city was an oven, too: 111 degrees Fahrenheit by lunchtime, and Rehmati was in an emergency room.
The doctor, Reena Yadav, didn’t know exactly what had made Rehmati sick, but it was clearly linked to the heat. Dr. Yadav suspected dehydration, possibly aggravated by fasting during Ramadan. Or it could have been food poisoning, common in summer because food spoils quickly.
Dr. Yadav put Rehmati, who is 31 and goes by one name, on a drip. She held her hand and told her she would be fine. Rehmati leaned over and retched.
Extreme heat can kill, as it did by the dozens in Pakistan in May. But as many of South Asia’s already-scorching cities get even hotter, scientists and economists are warning of a quieter, more far-reaching danger: Extreme heat is devastating the health and livelihoods of tens of millions more.
If global greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current pace, they say, heat and humidity levels could become unbearable, especially for the poor.
It is already making them poorer and sicker. Like the Kolkata street vendor who squats on his haunches from fatigue and nausea. Like the woman who sells water to tourists in Delhi and passes out from heatstroke at least once each summer. Like the women and men with fever and headaches who fill emergency rooms. Like the outdoor workers who become so weak or so sick that they routinely miss days of work, and their daily wages.
“These cities are going to become unlivable unless urban governments put in systems of dealing with this phenomenon and make people aware,” said Sujata Saunik, who served as a senior official in the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs and is now a fellow at the Harvard University School of Public Health. “It’s a major public health challenge.”
Indeed, a recent analysis of climate trends in several of South Asia’s biggest cities found that if current warming trends continued, by the end of the century, wet bulb temperatures — a measure of heat and humidity that can indicate the point when the body can no longer cool itself — would be so high that people directly exposed for six hours or more would not survive.
In many places, heat only magnifies the more thorny urban problems, including a shortage of basic services, like electricity and water.
For the country’s National Disaster Management Agency, alarm bells rang after a heat wave struck the normally hot city of Ahmedabad, in western India, in May, 2010, and temperatures soared to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, or 48 Celsius: It resulted in a 43 percent increase in mortality, compared to the same period in previous years, a study by public health researchers found.
Since then, in some places, local governments, aided by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, have put in place simple measures. In Ahmedabad, for instance, city-funded vans distribute free water during the hottest months. In the eastern coastal city of Bhubaneswar, parks are kept open in afternoons so outdoor workers can sit in the shade. Occasionally, elected officials post heat safety tips on social media. Some cities that had felled trees for construction projects are busy trying to plant new ones.
The science is unequivocally worrying. Across the region, a recent World Bank report concluded, rising temperatures could diminish the living standards of 800 million people.
Global Warming in South Asia: 800 Million at Risk Some of the poorest and hungriest people in the world will see their living standards decline sharply if emissions continue to grow at their current pace, a study by the World Bank found.
Rohit Magotra, deputy director of Integrated Research for Action and Development, is trying to help the capital, Delhi, develop a plan to respond to the new danger. The first step is to quantify its human toll.
“Heat goes unreported and underreported. They take it for granted,” Mr. Magotra said. “It’s a silent killer.”
On a blistering Wednesday morning, with the heat index at 111 degrees Fahrenheit, he and a team of survey takers snaked through the lanes of a working-class neighborhood in central Delhi. They measured temperature and humidity inside the brick-and-tin apartments. They spoke to residents about how the heat affects them.
“Only by 4 a.m., when it cools down, can we sleep,” a woman named Kamal told him. Her husband, a day laborer, suffered heatstroke this year, missed a week’s work, and, with it, a week’s pay.
A shopkeeper named Mohammed Naeem said that while he managed to stay cool in his ground-floor space, his father’s blood pressure rose every summer, as he sweltered in their top floor apartment all day.
Through the narrow lanes all morning, young men hauled stacks of paper to a printing plant that operated on the ground floor of one house. A tailor sat cross-legged on the floor, stitching lining onto a man’s suit. A curtain of flies hung in the air.
A woman named Abeeda told Mr. Magotra that she helped her husband cope during the summer by stocking glucose tablets in the home at all times. Her husband works as a house painter. Even when he is nauseous and dizzy in the heat, he goes to work, she said. He can’t afford not to.
Across town, workers covered their faces with bandannas as they built a freeway extension for Delhi’s rapidly growing number of cars. The sky was hazy with dust. Skin rash, dry mouth, nausea, headaches: These were their everyday ailments, the construction workers said. So debilitating did it get that every 10 to 15 days, they had to skip a day of work and lose a day’s pay.
Ratnesh Tihari, a 42-year-old electrician, said he felt it getting hotter year by year. And why would that be surprising? He pointed his chin at the freeway extension he was helping to build. “It’s a fact. You build a road, you cut down trees,” he said. “That makes it hotter.”
Some cities are getting hotter at different times of year. The average March-to-May summertime heat index for Hyderabad had risen by 0.69 degrees per decade between 1951 and 2010. In Kolkata, a delta city in the east, where summers are sticky and hot anyway, the monsoon is becoming particularly harsh: The city’s June-September heat index climbed by 0.26 degrees Celsius per decade.
Joyashree Roy, an economist at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, found that already, most days in the summer are too hot and humid to be doing heavy physical labor without protection, with wet-bulb temperatures far exceeding the thresholds of most international occupational health standards.
And yet, walk through the city on a stifling hot day in June, and you’ll find people pedaling bicycle rickshaws, hauling goods on their heads, constructing towers of glass and steel. Only a few people, like herself, Dr. Roy pointed out, are protected in air-conditioned homes and offices. “Those who can are doing this. Those who can’t are becoming worse,” she said. “The social cost is high in that sense.”
Researchers are tinkering with solutions.
In Ahmedabad, city funds have been used to slather white reflective paint over several thousand tin-roofed shanties, bringing down indoor temperatures.
In Hyderabad, a similar effort is being tested. A pilot project by a team of engineers and urban planners covered a handful of tin-roofed shacks with white tarpaulin. It brought down indoor temperatures by at least two degrees, which was enough to make the intolerable tolerable. Now they want to expand their cool-roof experiment to a 1-square-kilometer patch of the city, installing cool roofs, cool walls and cool sidewalks, and planting trees. Their main obstacle now: funding.
Rajkiran Bilolikar, who led the cool-roof experiment, has a personal stake in the project. As a child, he would visit his grandfather in Hyderabad. There were trees all over the city. It was known for its gardens. He could walk, even in summer.
Now a professor at the Administrative Staff College of India in Hyderabad, Mr. Bilolikar can’t walk much. His city is hotter. There are fewer trees. Air-conditioners have proliferated but they spew hot air outside.
Mr. Bilolikar says it’s hard to persuade policymakers, even the public, to take heat risk seriously. It’s always been hot in Hyderabad. It’s getting hotter slowly, almost indiscernibly. Heat, he says, is “a hidden problem.”
At home, he had resolved not to use his air-conditioner. Through his open windows, though, his neighbor’s machine blew hot air into his apartment. His three-year-old daughter became so overheated that her skin was hot to touch. Reluctantly, he shut his windows and turned his machines on.
Samantha Gravina, manager of Ikea’s new store in Oak Creek, said “Ikea strives to create a sustainable life for communities where we operate, and Ikea Oak Creek is adding to this goal with Wisconsin’s largest rooftop solar array.” Ikea has solar panels on top of 90 percent of its American locations. Way to go Ikea!
Solar panels cover most of the roof of the new Ikea store in Oak Creek.(Photo: Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Build-it-yourself home furnishings retailer Ikea has a knack for doing things in a big way: big stores, big selection of merchandise, big Swedish motif — all of which have helped generate a big following among consumers.
It also has a big commitment to solar energy.
Out of sight, atop the new 290,000-square-foot Ikea store in Oak Creek, are 4,716 solar panels. Those panels collect sunlight that helps create electricity capable of providing the store with 20 percent to 50 percent of the power it consumes.
At least for now, it’s the largest rooftop solar power project in Wisconsin.
The massive assembly of solar panels on the Oak Creek store is part of the Swedish-founded, Netherlands-based company’s worldwide effort at conservation.
“Ikea strives to create a sustainable life for communities where we operate, and Ikea Oak Creek is adding to this goal with Wisconsin’s largest rooftop solar array,” said Samantha Gravina, manager of the Oak Creek store, which opened in May.
The rows of southern-tilted solar panels cover 225,000 square feet of roof above the blue-and-yellow Ikea walls in the Milwaukee suburb. In all, it’s a 1.6 megawatt system that will produce more than 2 million kilowatts of electricity annually for the store.
The company takes pride in explaining how that number of solar panels reduces almost 1,700 tons of carbon dioxide — about what 326 cars would produce in emissions each year. Or, in another comparison, said Zach Neff, loyalty manager at the Oak Creek Ikea, “The amount of power that we generate would provide power for 228 homes yearly.”
Solar ‘makes financial sense now’
The Oak Creek solar array is the 52nd solar project for Ikea in the U.S., giving the retailer a solar presence on top of 90 percent of its American locations.
Ikea used California-based REC Solar to design and develop its system for Oak Creek. A Plymouth firm — Arch Electric Solar — installed it, said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, a Madison nonprofit that tracks the renewable energy industry.
Solar panels generate electricity when sunlight hits the materials in the panels, typically silicon, and activates electrons that are captured and converted to usable electric current. That electricity supplements the store’s core power system from We Energies, reducing the usage of power made with fossil fuels.
The cost of solar panels has fallen as much as 80 percent during the past decade as technology has improved and production has increased, making them more economically attractive to businesses.
“It makes financial sense now. It’s helping to lower operating expenses, and lock in financial savings for years to come,” Huebner said. “It’s also a big driver for consumers and attracting employees to companies that are looking to the future.”
Tom Content, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board, said among the benefits of solar power is that the fuel itself is free.
“One of the advantages to solar is there’s no fuel cost,” Content said. “When you have a coal plant or a natural gas plant, you’ve got to pay for the fuel and you’ve got to get the fuel from wherever it is. Whether it’s in Wyoming in the case of coal or North Dakota or the Gulf of Mexico or wherever for natural gas, you’ve got to get it here. Solar is here.”
Biggest in Wisconsin
Huebner said the solar project at Ikea surpassed in size a rooftop solar array at American Family Insurance in Madison, but may be outdone yet this year by a project at Madison College in Madison.
Although Wisconsin’s weather isn’t always sunny, those familiar with solar panels say snow melts pretty quickly on the dark, tilted panels.
“Overall our sun exposure is a lot better than most of Europe and other parts of the U.S. as well,” Huebner said. “The panels work with sunlight directly, so when there’s clouds their performance is reduced. But you’re looking at year-round analysis, and Wisconsin has pretty good sun when you take all things into consideration.”
Altogether, Ikea has installed more than 700,000 solar panels on buildings worldwide, and also owns 300 wind turbines, including more than 100 in the U.S.
“We’re always looking for clean and renewable energy,” Neff said.
A plastic juice straw found on the shore of one of the Great Lakes. The pencil was staged for scale. Photo by NOAA.
by Judy Drew
“That’s the last straw!” was a phrase my mother frequently uttered in exasperation. It was often coupled with, or closely followed by, “Go to your room.” Like most children, I took things literally. For years I was confused about why the fact that our household was running out of straws often resulted in my being sequestered for an hour or so.
It was years later – sometime in grade school – that I learned about idioms and came to understand that my mother was invoking a version of an old proverb: It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Or, said in less colorful language, it’s the small repetitive actions that can produce large, dramatic and oft times unbearable results.
Fast forward half a century or thereabouts, and the seemingly minor, routine habits we’ve all indulged in have come home to roost – in our oceans, in our landfills, in our climate. One of the worst offenders on all three fronts is that seemingly harmless utensil, the plastic straw. All plastics contribute to global warming because they are produced with petroleum. Drilling oil and manufacturing plastics causes substantial amounts of methane and carbon dioxide to be leaked into our atmosphere, trapping heat.
Single-use plastics, like straws, are the worst. Worldwide, this familiar, oil-based little polluter is the sixth most common type of litter and among the top 10 marine debris items. Americans alone throw away 500 million of them a day! The estimated time for a straw to breakdown when landfilled is 500 years, and putting them in your recycling bin can cost your community recycler lots of money over time to remove them.
When confronted with the reality of climate change, people always ask: What can I do? Not using plastic straws is an easy way we can all take action. The key is strength in numbers. We can each help by simply not using plastic straws whenever possible. And we can work to get our communities and Wisconsin to join states like California and Washington, cities like Austin and Brownsville, Texas and Portland, Maine, and countries like Rwanda, to enact plastic bag bans or impose costs for using them, with plastic straws as the next target.
Given the clear detrimental impact of plastic straws on our climate, oceans and landfills, it should be no surprise that there is already a targeted movement to reduce their use. Instead, the surprise is how rapidly this campaign has gathered a lot of momentum here and across Europe. Why? Perhaps because the plastic straw, with its easy and omnipresent familiarity in everyday life, is a perfect example of the price we are paying for countless casual, minor, thoughtless actions. Another contributing factor to success is that we have alternatives – accessible, environmentally friendly, cost-effective solutions – paper straws, pasta straws, even reusable straws, or just not using a straw.
A number of restaurants, including some in Door County, are taking important steps today to address this issue responsibly, like not including a straw with a beverage unless requested and using paper straws. Thank them. And if your favorite restaurants are not yet on board, talk to them. Not offering plastic straws automatically will save money and demonstrate environmental responsibility.
So the new symbolism of “the last straw” may be a much more hopeful one than that of our beleaguered camel. It may, at long last, come to signify that small, repetitive changes will, over time, lead to massive, meaningful transformation. The last straw can help break the back of the climate change camel. And with a little luck, it may get us all thinking about tackling the use of other harmful single-use plastics like water bottles, plastic grocery bags, toiletry bottles and coffee cups and lids.
What’s the last straw for you? Using much less plastic in your life takes attention and commitment, but it’s not that hard. Lots of people starting small can make a huge difference!
Judy Drew is the former Assistant Director of The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor. She currently serves on the Climate Change Coalition’s Steering Committee and chairs its fundraising committee.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at email@example.com.
Instead of restoring the past, ecologists are increasingly focused on the future.
Carianne Campbell remembers the exact moment she fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. As a botany major in college, she joined a class field trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the southern border of Arizona, arriving and setting up camp in the dark. Emerging from her tent the next morning, Campbell, who grew up on the East Coast, caught her first glimpse of enormous saguaros, clustered organ pipes and bright desert wildflowers. She knew immediately that she wanted to work in this kind of landscape.
Today, Campbell is the restoration director for Sky Island Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona. She leads efforts to re-establish native plant communities in “sky islands” — isolated, ecologically rich mountain ranges that dot southeastern Arizona and New Mexico and northern Sonora, Mexico, and serve as home to some 7,000 species of plants and animals. Under Campbell’s guidance, Sky Island Alliance restores riparian habitat that’s been overrun by invasive species, such as fountaingrass, which crowds out local species and transforms the desert into fire-prone grassland.
The point of Campbell’s job used to be relatively straightforward: She attempted to conserve local biodiversity by re-establishing the wild spaces where native plant and animal species once lived. But given the planet’s rapid climate shifts, the connections between wild organisms and their ecosystems are fraying, forcing restoration biologists, including Campbell, to rethink the purpose of their work. It no longer helps to remember what a site looked like 20 years ago. “We need to be thinking about what it’s going to be like 20 years into the future,” she said.
In the early 1980s, ecological restoration was much like cleaning up after a rowdy house party: trying to return a degraded habitat to its former pristine condition. Project managers focused on returning the right numbers and species of plants — and by extension, animals — to places that had been logged, mined, invaded by nonnative species or otherwise altered by people. “I’ve always been taught that restoration is about taking a degraded site and restoring it back to what it was before the disturbance,” Campbell said.
But increasingly, scientists who study ecosystems, as well as land managers who do restoration work, are questioning that model of ecological restoration, which relies on the idea of a stable “climax community,” even though many ecosystems are always changing.
The West’s forests, for one, are much more dynamic than many people realize. Notwithstanding individual tree outliers, such as millennia-old redwoods and bristlecone pines, most North American forest ecosystems are, at most, 400 or 500 years old, according to Don Falk, a forest ecologist at the University of Arizona. Reasons vary, from a severe drought in the late 1500s, to 1800s tree harvesting by Euro-Americans. Today, forests continue to undergo constant change. “Many of the forests we look at are in post-fire recovery, we just don’t see it,” Falk said. Outbreaks of insects such as bark beetles, which can decimate forests, add to the constant change. “We want to think of the primeval old-growth forest as having this stable characteristic, until we come along and introduce disturbance … but the idea of forests in equilibrium is probably wrong.” Indeed, events ranging from volcanic eruptions to the Pleistocene ice age have left their mark on the West’s forests.
But with climate change, landscape-level transformations are happening faster and becoming more extreme. As the West becomes warmer and drier, the idea of “recovery” becomes increasingly unrealistic. Instead, ecosystems transform, such as in northern New Mexico, where Gambel oaks may replace pine forest after a fire. “This is really a vexing problem for the field of restoration ecology, because our first instinct — and it’s not wrong — is always to want to put it back to the way it was before we screwed things up,” Falk said.
Restoration ecologists, in other words, no longer know how to define success. “The dilemma for the field of restoration is, it’s almost damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Falk said. “If you try to go back to 1850, it’s just going to be a nonstarter, because the climate has moved on, and lots of other things have moved on. But if you’re not restoring to a reference condition, then are you just sort of playing God and inventing new landscapes?”
This identity crisis is global: This year, at conferences from Iceland to Washington state, the Society for Ecological Restoration is grappling with the question of restoration during climate change.
Instead of trying to re-establish a checklist of plants and animals, as they might have in the past, some restoration practitioners are now focusing on ecosystem functions. For Campbell, that means worrying about pollinators, including birds, bats and insects, in the sky islands. Across the West, spring is thawing earlier and broiling into summer faster, and the region is getting hotter and drier overall, creating a mismatch between periods when pollinators need flowers and the times and places where those flowers are available. “How can I use various plant species in ways to ease that?” Campbell said.
Campbell keeps climate change and pollinators in mind when she’s selecting native vegetation to plant. A low-elevation site might have red, tubular flowers in the spring, for example, and then again in September, but none during the hottest summer months. “I could plug in a species like desert honeysuckle, which would be blooming in that interim time, and providing a more constant source of nectar,” she said.
Research on the timing of flowers and pollinator arrivals supports Campbell’s concerns, although scientists don’t yet know the consequences of these mismatches. Nicole Rafferty, a University of California, Riverside ecologist, studied the flowering schedule of manzanita, a mountain shrub with wine-red stems and glossy leaves, in the sky islands. The timing of the winter rains determines the appearance of manzanita blossoms, which are among the first mountain flowers each spring. But with winter rains arriving later, manzanitas are not flowering in time to feed the earliest native bees. Those later-flowering manzanitas also end up growing less fruit, which mule deer, black bears and other animals eat. Most plants have a wide enough variety of pollinators so that they won’t disappear entirely, Rafferty said, but the fate of those pollinators is harder to predict.
Overall, Campbell’s goal is still to conserve as much biodiversity as possible in the sky islands, where each mountain range has its own unique combination of plants and animals. But she knows she can’t simply reassemble historic plant communities. “Certainly now, we (take) a forward view,” Campbell said. “How is this (species) going to be durable into an uncertain future, where there’s going to be larger, more intense wildfires, and more erosion, flooding, drought, all of those things?”
She’s had to adapt how she uses native species, because of the changing rainfall patterns. For many years, Sky Island Alliance planted native vegetation in the spring, following the winter rains. But two years ago, Campbell noticed that most of the plants died. With spring arriving earlier and becoming hotter, “there’s not enough time for those new plants to become established, and then be able to go dormant to make it through to monsoon season, and become good members of their vegetation society,” Campbell said. She has stopped spring planting altogether at restoration sites, waiting instead until after the summer monsoon rains.
The new focus of ecological restoration is “less about identifying the particular species, and more about the traits,” Elise Gornish, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of Arizona, said. Gornish surveyed almost 200 California managers, including master gardeners, ranchers, nonprofits, federal employees and others, about nonnative species. Close to half of her respondents, including most of the federal employees she interviewed, already used nonnative plants in restoration projects, often for erosion control. One reason was that they were less expensive. But almost 40 percent of the managers also contemplated using nonnatives because of climate change.
“It’s clear that folks are really, really concerned about climate change and restoration,” she said. “A lot of folks wouldn’t use the term ‘climate change’ to describe their challenges; they would say things like ‘drought,’ ‘changing environmental conditions.’ ” But the bottom line is the same: “Practices people have been using historically, and probably pretty successfully, and things that are now policies among the federal agencies … are not successful anymore,” she said.
Some plant populations, for example, are responding to climate change by moving up in elevation and in latitude. “What this suggests is that if you’re in your site that needs restoration, the plants from that area are probably no longer well-adapted to the new conditions of that area,” Gornish said. This raises prickly questions about whether or not to start using plants from farther south and lower elevations, or even from entirely different regions. “People get extremely nervous, and with good reason, when you start talking about moving plants around,” Gornish said. The U.S. has not had a good track record with introduced species. “Some of our most noxious invasives, like tamarisk or buffelgrass, are things we planted 80 years ago,” she said.
Not that long ago, the inclusion of nonnative plants species in restoration projects “was heretical,” Falk agreed. Now, however, those species may be the best-adapted flora for a region’s changing climate. But for Falk, managing for functions more than for species is still ecological restoration. It’s always been true that, ultimately, “you’re trying to maintain the ability of a system to adapt,” he said.
For her part, Campbell is learning to reconsider the role of exotic species on the landscape. For example, she sometimes spares bird-of-paradise, an evergreen shrub in the pea family that is native to Uruguay and Argentina, in her restoration planning. A fast-growing ornamental with feathery leaves and bright red and orange flowers, bird-of-paradise thrives in the Southwest’s disturbed landscapes, where it can crowd out native species. But removing the plant now may actually rob hummingbirds and other pollinators of meals. “It flowers opportunistically with rain,” Campbell said, “so in summer months, it can be the only flowers available.”
A meaningful step but no doubt a difficult one for most people. Are any of us willing to take on this challenge? Perhaps we heed Dr. Peter Alexander’s comment: “My personal opinion is we should interpret these results not as the need to become vegan overnight, but rather to moderate our [meat] consumption.”
Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.
The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.
The study, published in the journal Science, created a huge dataset based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of all that is eaten. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” he said. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
The analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.
The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, Poore said, without needing the global population to become vegan. If the most harmful half of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based food, this still delivers about two-thirds of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production.
Cutting the environmental impact of farming is not easy, Poore warned: “There are over 570m farms all of which need slightly different ways to reduce their impact. It is an [environmental] challenge like no other sector of the economy.” But he said at least $500bn is spent every year on agricultural subsidies, and probably much more: “There is a lot of money there to do something really good with.”
Labels that reveal the impact of products would be a good start, so consumers could choose the least damaging options, he said, but subsidies for sustainable and healthy foods and taxes on meat and dairy will probably also be necessary.
One surprise from the work was the large impact of freshwater fish farming, which provides two-thirds of such fish in Asia and 96% in Europe, and was thought to be relatively environmentally friendly. “You get all these fish depositing excreta and unconsumed feed down to the bottom of the pond, where there is barely any oxygen, making it the perfect environment for methane production,” a potent greenhouse gas, Poore said.
The research also found grass-fed beef, thought to be relatively low impact, was still responsible for much higher impacts than plant-based food. “Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions,” Poore said.
The new research has received strong praise from other food experts. Prof Gidon Eshel, at Bard College, US, said: “I was awestruck. It is really important, sound, ambitious, revealing and beautifully done.”
He said previous work on quantifying farming’s impacts, including his own, had taken a top-down approach using national level data, but the new work used a bottom-up approach, with farm-by-farm data. “It is very reassuring to see they yield essentially the same results. But the new work has very many important details that are profoundly revealing.”
Prof Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, UK, said: “This is an immensely useful study. It brings together a huge amount of data and that makes its conclusions much more robust. The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective. Given the global obesity crisis, changing diets – eating less livestock produce and more vegetables and fruit – has the potential to make both us and the planet healthier.”
Dr Peter Alexander, at the University of Edinburgh, UK, was also impressed but noted: “There may be environmental benefits, eg for biodiversity, from sustainably managed grazing and increasing animal product consumption may improve nutrition for some of the poorest globally. My personal opinion is we should interpret these results not as the need to become vegan overnight, but rather to moderate our [meat] consumption.”
Poore said: “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”
In recent years, though, researchers have begun to realize that the extra carbon dioxide that humanity is pumping into the atmosphere isn’t just warming the planet, it’s also making some of our most important crops less nutritious by changing their chemical makeup and diluting vitamins and minerals.
Now, a new study has found that rice exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide contains lower amounts of several important nutrients.
The potential health consequences are large, given that there are already billions of people around the world who don’t get enough protein, vitamins or other nutrients in their daily diet.
“When we study food security, we’ve often focused on how climate change might affect the production of crops,” said Lewis H. Ziska, a plant physiologist at the United States Department of Agriculture and a co-author of the new study. “But the quality of those crops and their nutritional content can be just as important, and that hasn’t always gotten the close scrutiny it deserves.”
In the study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, Dr. Ziska and his colleagues exposed experimental rice fields in China and Japan to the same elevated levels of carbon dioxide that are expected to occur worldwide later this century as a result of fossil-fuel burning and other human activities.
Most of the 18 varieties of rice that were grown and harvested contained significantly less protein, iron and zinc than rice that is grown today. All of the rice varieties saw dramatic declines in vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B9, though they contained higher levels of vitamin E.
The researchers focused on rice because more than 2 billion people worldwide rely on it as a primary food source.
For people in wealthy countries who enjoy a diverse, healthy diet, it may not matter much if rice becomes less nutritious in the years ahead. “But in a country like Bangladesh, rice provides 70 percent of the calories and there aren’t a lot of other opportunities to get those nutrients,” said Kristie L. Ebi, a professor of public health at the University of Washington and a co-author of the study.
The finding that extra carbon dioxide can make crops less nutritious may sound counterintuitive. Plants, after all, rely on carbon dioxide as an ingredient for photosynthesis, so it seems like more CO2 should be beneficial, helping them grow. But what scientists have also found is that the chemical composition of a plant depends on the balance of the carbon dioxide it takes in from the air and the nutrients it absorbs from the soil. Upset this balance, and the plant can change in unexpected ways.
In plants like rice and wheat that undergo what is known as C3 photosynthesis, higher levels of carbon dioxide may spur plants to produce more carbohydrates, which dilute some of the more nutritious components. But scientists are still trying to understand exactly why some compounds, like vitamin B, get diluted and others don’t, or why some varieties of rice see sharper declines in vitamin B than others.
With further research, scientists might try to breed or genetically engineer new crop varieties that preserve much of their nutritional value in the face of rising carbon dioxide. But this could prove challenging, Dr. Ziska said, given that all of the tested rice lines in their study showed significant declines in vitamin B.
“We still don’t understand why some plant genotypes show a bigger response to higher levels of carbon dioxide,” said Andrew Leakey, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois who was not involved in the latest study. “And that’s important if we want to move from understanding the problem to solving it.”
If crop scientists can’t solve the problem, larger changes may be needed to blunt the negative effect on nutrition worldwide. “The bottom line is that people will need more diverse diets with a range of quality food sources,” Dr. Ebi said. “That’s already a major challenge.”
Another possible solution would be to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that humanity emits. Currently, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere average around 410 parts per million, up from 350 parts per million in the 1980s, largely from the burning of fossil fuels. In the rice study, the researchers looked at how crops responded to levels of around 580 parts per million, which could prove tough to avoid this century without drastic changes.
Samuel S. Myers, a research scientist at the Harvard University Center for the Environment who worked on the 2014 Nature study, said that this latest paper underscored the need for more research on how our changing atmosphere will affect the wide variety of plants we rely on to feed ourselves.
There has been no work done to date, for instance, on how crops planted in impoverished soils in Africa might respond to rising CO2 levels. And studies to date have focused on staple crops such as wheat and rice rather than fruits or vegetables. And, while Dr. Ziska has published a paper on how changes in plant protein content might affect bee colonies, little is known about how other parts of the food chain might be affected.
“The idea that food might become less nutritious was a surprise, it’s not intuitive,” said Dr. Myers. “But I think we should continue to expect surprises. We are completely altering the biophysical conditions that underpin our food system, and we still have very little understanding of how those disruptions will ripple through ecosystems and affect human health.”
Click Here for Original Article posted in the New York Times
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Warm current that has historically caused dramatic changes in climate is experiencing an unprecedented slowdown and may be less stable than thought – with potentially severe consequences
The warm Atlantic current linked to severe and abrupt changes in the climate in the past is now at its weakest in at least 1,600 years, new research shows. The findings, based on multiple lines of scientific evidence, throw into question previous predictions that a catastrophic collapse of the Gulf Stream would take centuries to occur.
Such a collapse would see western Europe suffer far more extreme winters, sea levels rise fast on the eastern seaboard of the US and would disrupt vital tropical rains. The new research shows the current is now 15% weaker than around 400AD, an exceptionally large deviation, and that human-caused global warming is responsible for at least a significant part of the weakening.
The current, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc), carries warm water northwards towards the north pole. There it cools, becomes denser and sinks, and then flows back southwards. But global warming hampers the cooling of the water, while melting ice in the Arctic, particularly from Greenland, floods the area with less dense freshwater, weakening the Amoc current.
Scientists know that Amoc has slowed since 2004, when instruments were deployed at sea to measure it. But now two new studies have provided comprehensive ocean-based evidence that the weakening is unprecedented in at least 1,600 years, which is as far back as the new research stretches.
“Amoc is a really important part of the Earth’s climate system and it has played an important part in abrupt climate change in the past,” said Dr David Thornalley, from University College London who led one of the new studies. He said current climate models do not replicate the observed slowdown, suggesting that Amoc is less stable that thought.
During the last ice age, some big changes in Amoc led to winter temperatures changing by 5-10C in as short a time as one to three years, with major consequences for the weather over the land masses bordering the Atlantic. “The [current] climate models don’t predict [an Amoc shutdown] is going to happen in the future – the problem is how certain are we it is not going to happen? It is one of these tipping points that is relatively low probability, but high impact.”
The study by Thornalley and colleagues, published in Nature, used cores of sediments from a key site off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina to examine Amoc over the last 1600 years. Larger grains of sediment reflect faster Amoc currents and vice versa.
They also used the shells of tiny marine creatures from sites across the Atlantic to measure a characteristic pattern of temperatures that indicate the strength of Amoc. When it weakens, a large area of ocean around Iceland cools, as less warm water is brought north, and the waters off the east coast of the US get warmer.
The second study, also published in Nature, also used the characteristic pattern of temperatures, but assessed this using thermometer data collected over the last 120 years or so.
Both studies found that Amoc today is about 15% weaker than 1,600 years ago, but there were also differences in their conclusions. The first study found significant Amoc weakening after the end of the little ice age in about 1850, the result of natural climate variability, with further weakening caused later by global warming.
The second study suggests most of the weakening came later, and can be squarely blamed on the burning of fossil fuels. Further research is now being undertaken to understand the reasons for the differences.
However, it is already clear that human-caused climate change will continue to slow Amoc, with potentially severe consequences. “If we do not rapidly stop global warming, we must expect a further long-term slowdown of the Atlantic overturning,” said Alexander Robinson, at the University of Madrid, and one of the team that conducted the second study. He warned: “We are only beginning to understand the consequences of this unprecedented process – but they might be disruptive.”
A 2004 disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, envisaged a rapid shutdown of Amoc and a devastating freeze. The basics of the science were portrayed correctly, said Thornalley: “Obviously it was exaggerated – the changes happened in a few days or weeks and were much more extreme. But it is true that in the past this weakening of Amoc happened very rapidly and caused big changes.”
Click Here for original article posted on The Guardian
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