For those who spent this year’s mild winter worrying about how incredibly hot the summer would be, recent damages to crops and homes should come as little surprise. Although the abnormally early spring delivered some benefits—such as one of the best blue crab seasons in a long time—they will be largely outweighed by the costs inflicted by the historic drought that is currently plaguing most of the United States, with particularly dire consequences in agricultural states.

The word “historic” is not an exaggeration: the 12 months running from June 2011 to June 2012 are the warmest on record, and more than two thirds of U.S. farms are in drought conditions, a magnitude that has not been experienced since 1956 and is nearing Dust Bowl-like proportions.  

Amid fluctuating rain patterns and crop price speculation, one trend is already emerging: we can expect higher food prices worldwide starting next year, and perhaps as early as this autumn. The Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration focused on climate change, recently published a helpful estimate of how some basic foods could be affected by 2013. For instance, a 20-ounce loaf of white bread would go from an average price of $1.81 to $1.96; a whole chicken would sell at $4.91, compared to the 2011 average of $4.52.

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agriculture, Climate Change, climate effects, drought, food, food prices

It should come as no surprise that small island developing states (SIDS) are taking the helm and navigating the waters of climate change. Without a binding global agreement that takes their needs into proper consideration, many of them are choosing to act in their own interests rather than go down with the climate ship – not because it’s altruistic, but because it is necessary to help pay the cost of adaptation to climate change, which is a problem to which they contributed little in the first place.

Fortunately, support mechanisms are being established to boost these efforts. Aamong them are the Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps that Worldwatch is currently undertaking for countries like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Haiti.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not. - Dr. Seuss

Of course, island countries must be proactive. As Jon Barnett and John Campbell note in their book, Climate Change and Small Island States, the discussion around climate change and its repercussions has framed island states as “vulnerable,” suggesting that they cannot fend for themselves and are reliant on larger powers to act to help them. But without a binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, particularly one that provides resources to pay for adaptation measures, it is ridiculous to think that the larger powers are going to step in and do much of anything. (The book’s authors also point out that the larger actors should start by changing their consumption patterns and lowering emissions.)

With the hazardous effects of climate change looming, SIDS have no choice but to act. Again, this is more about necessity than it is about being eco-friendly (although it is a nice example to set). These government s cannot afford to be reliant on fossil fuels and will soon have to add “adaptation” to their expenditures. Here’s a small list of what some islands are doing to lower their oil imports bill:

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adaptation, AOSIS, carribean, Climate Change, climate effects, developing countries, energy security, renewable energy, small island developing states

”The work of lobbyists!”, “A government that is a marionette of industry!” Such are the accusations currently being thrown at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose coalition government celebrates its first anniversary this week. And these criticisms may not be undeserved. On October 24, senior members of Germany’s government agreed to raise the nation’s tobacco duty rather than boosting the country’s once-ambitious eco-tax. (See Figure 1.)

Applying Green Scissors to Fossil Fuel Subsidies - Flickr Creative Commons / russelljsmith

What’s all the fuss about? Germany needs to tighten its budget, and as a result the federal government decided this summer to cut tax breaks for energy-intensive industries, as outlined in the nation’s eco-tax. But now minds seem to have changed. As a result, energy-guzzling industries, such as the chemical industry, can continue to profit from privileges in the eco-tax, including tax relief of 20 to 40 percent on the statutory tax rate, or 5.8 billion Euro annually according the Federal Ministry of Finance. The coalition government’s factions (conservatives and liberals) must decide on the matter soon so that Parliament can vote on the proposal on Thursday.

Germany isn’t the only European country with an eco-tax. Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom all introduced eco-taxes much earlier than 1999, when Germany’s was first enacted. Finland began its eco-conscious tax reform 20 years ago. Germany’s European neighbors are also more ambitious than the region’s self-proclaimed environmental leader: according to recent findings, the average share of environmental taxes in the EU-27 is 2.5 percent of GDP, whereas in Germany it is only 2.2 percent.

Much attention has been paid recently to energy subsidies. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that subsidies for fossil fuel consumption totaled US$557 billion in 2008, about 12 times those for renewable energy. This is a scandalous situation nearly 20 years after countries agreed to minimize human interference with the climate system—i.e., to tackle climate change.

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climate effects, Costs, economic analysis, federal budget, green economy

Between 0.2 and 0.5 percent of the  European Union’s GDP – that is the projected annual cost of climate change in 2080 if no preventive policies are set up. This is the equivalent of 20–65 billion Euros of climate costs annually. These estimates are part of a study on Climate Change Impacts in Europe conducted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) and presented by the organization’s head, Juan-Carlos Ciscar, at an October 6 event in Washington, D.C.

Calculating the Costs of Climate Change - Flickr Creative Commons / ansik

Ciscar stressed that welfare losses related to climate change would be even higher, between 0.2 and 1 percent of the EU’s GDP. A loss in terms of welfare means, for example, that after a flood, the repairing of buildings would increase production but reduce the consumption potential of households, and thus their welfare. Taking into account the EU’s normal annual welfare growth of about 2 percent, the welfare rate would be reduced to 1.8 or 1 percent, respectively.

The study shows that Southern Europe is particularly vulnerable to climate change, in large part because the associated damages tend to increase exponentially as temperature rises. (See Figure 1.) Northern Europe, on the other hand, is the only region that shows welfare gains in all scenarios. This is due mainly to positive climate impacts in the agricultural sector, lower river flooding damages, and higher tourism revenues. However, coastal systems could be harmed significantly, with serious changes to “life as we know it.” In general, the most significant economic damages from climate change occur in the agricultural sector (mainly through losses in production), from the flooding of rivers, in coastal systems affected by flooding, and from migration.

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adaptation, Climate Change, climate effects, Costs, economic analysis, Europe, European Union, mitigation
September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times

September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times

The security concerns around the Arctic are quickly becoming hot topics in Washington but it was still a little jarring to hear Dr. Robert Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, speak so bluntly about the military implications of melting ice in one of the few truly placid regions remaining on the planet.

“We are already in an Arctic arms race,” said Huebert, during a panel discussion at the Center for National Policy on February 2. “We’re just not aware of it.”

Even more ominously, Huebert compared the current situation in the Arctic to Europe in 1935, implying that it is a powder keg ready to explode with dire implications for the entire world.  “Everybody is preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Huebert says.

By “everybody,” Huebert is mainly referring to the nations ringing the Arctic—the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. Norway and Denmark have focused their security efforts on the Arctic, Russia famously planted a flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007 and has been more assertive in its Arctic policy, the United States is increasing its presence in Alaska, and Canada, Huebert said, is “talking a lot, but not doing anything.”

China, Japan, and South Korea also have interests in the Arctic, though these nations do not border the region. China and Japan have their eyes on the Arctic’s resources while South Korea has recently emerged as the world’s leading developer of Arctic commercial vessels.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Dr. Scott Borgerson, who moderated the panel, said the Arctic has been losing 1,000 kilometers in ice volume each year since 1995. The ocean could be ice free during the summer months at some point between 2016 and 2030 and this would open up many new shipping routes and increase the military significance of the region.

Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator from Colorado, echoed Huebert’s concern about security concerns in the Arctic. Hart compared the Northwest Passage, which could become a major shipping passage in the next decade or so, to some of the most militarized areas of the last 60 years. He likened the Passage to the Fulda Gap, which, during the Cold War, was a strategic corridor separating East and West Germany, and the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway between Iran and Oman, which today is a major choke point for the oil trade and a focus for the world’s military planners.

“Quite often geography symbolizes how we see our security,” said Hart.

One of the main issues surrounding the Northwest Passage and a strong point of contention between Canada and the U.S. is under whose jurisdiction does the waterway fall. Canada says it is their water, while the U.S. maintains that it is an international passage.

Still, United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, who has served in Alaska, said the Canadian and American militaries share intelligence in the Arctic and the forces have worked together seamlessly. The larger problem is simply getting the average American to realize that the U.S. is, indeed, an Arctic nation. This goes beyond military security, he said, and extends to issues of culture and economics.

“We need a national debate on what to do as an Arctic nation,” said Brooks.

arctic, Canada, Climate Change, climate effects, denmark, japan, norway, Russia, security, south korea
Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House

Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House

I was in Lafayette Square—the park in front of the White House—and the rain seemed to be hitting me from every angle. A couple of event organizers from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and I were setting up a stage and a sound system, preparing for the arrival of demonstrators who were marching from the Climate Action concert and rally up the road.

Although the weather had been clear and warm for most of the day’s events, the rains swept in just as the march to the White House was beginning. The CCAN folks worried that much of the crowd would disperse back to their warm, dry homes rather than join the march. But lo and behold, as the police escort arrived at Lafayette Square, followed by a big green Solar Bus, we could see an impressive mass of umbrellas following behind a banner that read: “Stop pollution and poverty – 350 now!!”

The demonstrators rolled into the park, chanting and waving rain-soaked banners. The inclement weather had clearly united them beyond their common cause: to bring public attention to the climate goal of a 350 parts-per-million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rally chants ranged from “Three, Five, O!” to “We’re here, we’re wet, it’s no sweat!” The demonstration culminated in the forming of a big “0” in front of the White House.

Across the world on October 24, demonstrators formed the numbers ”3,” “5,” and “0” in settings that included the pyramids in Egypt, the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and the face of a cliff in New York. These actions have been in the works for more than a year, coordinated by the international group 350.org and implemented by millions of local activists.

In Washington, D.C., the events of the International Day of Climate Action were spearheaded by a special partnership between CCAN and the Hip Hop Caucus. The rally banner reflected the partnership’s dynamic: “Pollution and Poverty.” Thus, the D.C. action focused especially on the linkages between climate change and environmental justice. The mission of the Hip Hop Caucus is: “to organize young people in urban communities to be active in elections, policymaking, and service projects, as a means to address and end urban poverty for future generations. Many of their rallies include performances by popular hip hop artists, bringing their messages to large, urban, and sometimes unengaged crowds.

Climate activists, too, can be disengaged in their own ways, focusing on broad global goals such as 350 ppm and forgetting that climate resiliency also means building the capacities of local communities—especially the urban poor—to adapt to changes that are already unavoidable. Michele Roberts, with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, was met with cheers when she spoke in front of the White House saying “Mr. Obama, we must remember that we have our own communities right here at home that are vulnerable to climate change.”

The Hip Hop Caucus brought a stellar lineup of D.C. musicians to the stage on Saturday. A CCAN organizer commented that it was some of the best music that has ever accompanied a climate rally in the nation’s capital. One rapper performed songs with explicitly environmental lyrics and had the crowd chanting “There’s no such thing as waste” and “reduce, reuse, recycle!”

This elaborate fusion of media and messages reminded me that getting to 350 will require a movement much more robust than one of high-level professionals working to reduce carbon emissions. It will require the engagement of all sectors of society. And for many of those sectors, especially the wealthiest, it will require a transformation of culture. The rally in D.C. showed me that we’re on our way—and that even in bad weather, we can’t be stopped.

350.org, Climate Change, climate effects, climate justice, demonstrations, environmental justice, equity, Obama, washington dc

Increasing scientific evidence, urgent calls to action, heated debates over burden-sharing and financial mechanisms…  Sounds familiar? Actually, these words best describe the proceedings of the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) which recently finished in Buenos Aires with mixed results. But of course, they could also sum up recent gatherings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Consider iisd reporting services’ recap: “Despite expectations that a COP 9 decision might lead to a new shared understanding of the structure and mandate of the Convention’s bodies, polarized positions on these issues resulted in a late night impasse and decisions that largely left resolution on this issue to a future COP.”

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification recently wrapped up their ninth Conference of the Parties

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification recently wrapped up their ninth Conference of the Parties

Not all decisions were delayed however.  The parties to the convention agreed on a set of indicators that all countries would monitor in order to build a solid understanding of drought and desertification across the world.  In an interview with us last month, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja expressed the importance of establishing such indicators, especially for financing efforts at combating desertification.  As he put it, “Well-designed indicators allow you to know what you’re measuring and can direct investment to areas of need.”  Beginning in 2012 all affected countries will now be required to report on at least two minimum statistics: First, the proportion of the population in affected areas living above the poverty line – chosen because land degradation can be both a cause and effect of high poverty levels – and second, land cover status – rated in terms of changes to net primary productivity (a measure of vegetation levels). Even if the methodological details and data-gathering procedures for this required information have yet to be worked out, the agreement was touted as a major accomplishment.

There is an important lesson to be learned for the December climate summit in Copenhagen from UNCCD’s insistence on developing a range of consistent indicators: The range of indicators that the UNFCCC deals with includes the findings of the IPCC as well as the specifics of how carbon emissions are reported. There are major questions such as: What’s a more just measurement, per capita emissions or total emissions? And where are carbon emissions allocated, in the country importing or exporting a particular commodity?  Answering these questions definitively will be essential to the global governance on climate change.  As Gnacadja put it in his closing speech of the conference, “to describe an elephant, you have to agree on what an elephant looks like.”

climate effects, land use, negotiations

From 21 September to 2 October, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will hold its Ninth Conference of the Parties (COP-9) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. UNCCD was one of three major multilateral environmental agreements created at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This interview with Luc Gnacadja, UNCCD Executive Secretary, addresses the many linkages between land degradation and climate change and between COP-9 and the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Interview conducted by John Mulrow, MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow with the Worldwatch Institute.

Luc Gnacadja is the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification

Luc Gnacadja is the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertificat

What proposals have the [UNCCD-commissioned] Independent Body of Scientists made [concerning measures to monitor and assess changes in desertification, land degradation, and drought]? Do their proposals include financing for developing countries?

It is not the role of the Body of Scientists to call for more funding. Their concern is how to monitor indicators—ecological and economic—of desertification. This will have a major impact on investment because well-designed indicators allow you to know what you’re measuring and can direct investment to areas of need. There are currently eleven impact indicators that have been through an almost two-year process with a group of scientists.

At this stage and at this time, the science allows us to agree on indicators. Given that common ground of indicators, we [can] discuss [potential solutions]. Not every indicator has to be reinvented, as we share many concerns with other issues that have their own indicators. For example, poverty indicators are shared with the [Millennium Development Goals] process.

Are there countries that are championing the effort to combat desertification?

We have successful stories on almost every continent. You have heard about the greening of the Sahel. We have noticed the improvement of land cover in the Sahel thanks to a combined effort of improved investment and policy. We have also noticed in China and in India, in their stimulus packages, room has been made for land management. These decisions were made especially out of concern for national security.

The issue is how to scale up and scale out these successes. By compiling satellite data from 1991 to 2006, we found that 16 percent of the land has been improved, mainly in the dryland, and 35 percent has been degraded, mainly in tropical zones.

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climate effects, desertification, land use

Ama Dablam rises 6,812 meters to the southeast of Mount Everest. Its name, literally, means “the mother’s pendant,” describing a glacier that for thousands of years has hung from the rugged peak like a pearl from an ancient mother’s neck.

Revered as one of the most beautiful and sacred mountains in the Himalayas, Ama Dablam was until recently off limits to climbing expeditions. In 2006, however, the majority of the glacier broke off, crashing to the valley below and killing six climbers who were camping at the mountain’s base.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Union of Asian Alpine Associations, believes that aside from being a tragic and isolated incident, the event symbolizes more disturbing changes that are hitting the region. And he is not alone.

Mr. Sherpa comes from a long line of mountain people; his great-grandfather was one of the leading Himalayan guides for the first Mount Everest expedition in 1922. Earlier this month, Sherpa described the changes occurring in his homeland when we met at the Kathmandu-to-Copenhagen conference in Nepal, the first formal meeting of Himalayan nations on climate change.

As I noted in a recent article for Worldwatch’s Eye on Earth news service, Sherpa explained that in 1960, Nepal was home to 3,000 glaciers and no high-altitude lakes, some of which threaten to burst and flood downstream areas. Now, he says, “every glacier is melting and we have between 2,000 and 3,000 lakes.”

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climate effects, glacial melt, Nepal, Southeast Asia, vulnerability, water