The title piqued my curiosity: Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Christian Parenti’s book is about what he calls “the catastrophic convergence”, when the dislocations of climate change collide with already-existing crises of poverty and violence. He points to evidence, often in tropical countries, that political, economic and environmental disasters are compounding and amplifying each other, to the great detriment of some populations. In other words, climate change is intertwining itself with the existing difficulties faced by those populations and making them worse.
We (or at least some of us) rightly feel apprehension and alarm at the prospect of melting glacial and polar ice. There are new reminders that we should be equally alarmed at the prospect of Amazonian drought. Joe Romm has written a lengthy post on Climate Progress drawing attention to the 2010 drought which may prove more widespread and severe than the 2005 drought, itself identified as a 1-in-100-year type event. He quotes an email to that effect from forest scientist and Amazon expert Simon Lewis (he of the Sunday Times fightback and subsequently granted apology).
Lewis recommends an article in the Global Post which is well worth reading. It refers to three scientists. Oliver Phillips, a tropical ecology professor at the University of Leeds, speaks of his concern that parts of the Amazon may be approaching a threshold point beyond which the eco-system can’t go. He led a team of researchers who studied the damage caused by the 2005 drought which caused a massive die-off of trees and led to the forest expelling carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it. He’s worried that another severe drought is following so soon after the last one. Greg Asner, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, points out that some tropical forests in the world now are starting to be exposed to temperatures they’ve never experienced. His studies show that higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall could leave as much as 37 percent of the Amazon so radically altered that the plants and animals living there now would be forced to adapt, move or die. Foster Brown, an environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre, comments that drought has made ecosystems so dry that instead of a being a barrier to fire, the forest became kindling.
Nikolas Kozloff’s book No Rain in the Amazon which I reviewed earlier this year refers to much-cited scientist Philip Fearnside of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, who for some years has observed the connection between drought and El Niño-like conditions which are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming. He too is concerned that the Amazon might dry out and be placed in jeopardy as a result of climate change. Kozloff also reports the belief of some researchers that warming sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean are linked to Amazon drought.
In an October press release Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) comments:
“The drought of 2010 still hasn’t ended in the Amazon and could surpass that of 2005 as the region’s worst during the past four decades… Even if this doesn’t occur, the forest will have already experienced three extreme dry spells in just 12 years, two of which occurred during the past five years: 1998, 2005 and 2010. And this is not including the drought of 2007, which affected only the Southeastern Amazon and left 10 thousand sq. km. of forest scorched in the region…`The Amazon that had wet seasons so well-defined that you could set your calendar to them – that Amazon is gone,’ says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of IPAM…”
Deforestation of the Amazon by humans has long been a major international concern, and Simon Lewis’s communication with Jo Romm indicates that there is a degree of good news on that front in that since 2005 deforestation rates have been radically reduced. But the droughts are bad news. They kill trees and promote damaging fires, “potentially leading to a drought-fire-carbon emissions feedback and widespread forest collapse”. Lewis expresses particular concern that while two unusual droughts clearly don’t make a trend, they are consistent with some model projections made well before 2005: “that higher sea surface temperatures increase drought frequency and intensity, leading later this century to substantial Amazon forest die-back.”
Hot Topic commenter Tony on a previous post linked to an Al Jazeera video clip (which I’ve posted below), with the observation that if anything should motivate a sense of urgency in Cancun, what it portrayed should. Simon Lewis also linked what may be happening in the Amazon to the Cancun conference. Not with any great expectation, but with a dry reminder that the risks to which we are exposing humanity don’t diminish because we ignore them. “While little is expected of the climate change talks in Cancun next week, the stakes, in terms of the fate of the Amazon are much higher than they were a year ago in Copenhagen.”
I hope it doesn’t appear as incidental if I note before concluding that the droughts affect not only the forest and through it the welfare of the whole planet but also the local populations whose livelihood and wellbeing is jeopardised. The Global Post article reports the anxiety of village chief Mariazinha Yawanawa. Her people are sustained by the forest. They hunt in the woods, fish the rivers and grow crops in the clearings where they live. “Everything has changed. We don’t know when we can plant. We plant and then the sun kills everything. If it continues like this, we expect a tragedy
U.S. writer Nikolas Kozloff aims to give a voice to the peoples of the Global South in his new book No Rain in the Amazon. At the same time, as indicated by the sub-title How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, he warns that what happens in the Amazon affects us all, wherever we live.
In this book the South is mainly Peru and Brazil. For the purposes of the book Kozloff traveled throughout the two countries, speaking with government officials, experts, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples. A specialist in Latin American affairs, Kozloff is not a scientist but is well acquainted with current climate science.
He has a lot to tell as he develops his major themes. Among them: climate change is already being experienced in the region and taking effect on poorer people’s lives; it poses further threats for them in the future; the Amazon forests are threatened by climate change, particularly drought; they are also severely threatened by the deforestation caused by humans; loss of Amazon forest is global in its impact because of the vital part it plays in the global environment; the Global North is complicit in deforestation and must help stop it.
In Peru the melting of glaciers carries serious implications on many levels, from irrigation for farming and water for pack animals through to the long term threat to the water supply to Lima, a city of 7 million built on a desert. Unpredictable and testing weather patterns are emerging in some regions. The Andean cloud forests, which carry out a vital hydrological function as well as maintaining extraordinary biodiversity, are under threat from climatic change as clouds condense at higher altitudes. Kozloff considers the drastic effects of El Nino events on Peru, including outbreaks of cholera and dengue, and points to the IPCC expectation that El Nino-like conditions are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming.
Kozloff doesn’t constantly enter scientific caveats when assigning the effects of climate change on the lives of poorer people. It’s reasonable that he doesn’t: the cumulative picture is strong, and he’s not arguing the scientific case but giving a voice to people whose plight is being ignored. He comments on the extreme inequalities whereby, in general, the people who are most at risk from global warming live in the nations that have contributed the least to the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They also, like Peru, tend to be among the poorest and hence ill-equipped to deal with the changes they are facing.
Turning to the Amazon Kozloff points out that it contains about one-tenth of the total carbon stored in land eco-systems and recycles a large fraction of its rainfall. Drawing on the expertise of much-cited Brazilian scientist Philip Fearnside he explains how El Nino-driven drought is threatening the forest. The warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic may also be linked to Amazonian droughts. Climate change is responsible for these enhanced threats. And of course the effects are not just local. Tropical rainforest literally drives world weather systems. The billions of dollars needing to be provided by the rich nations to tropical countries to sustain forests are an important and necessary insurance policy.
But the Amazon is threatened by more than climate change. Deforestation as a result of human activity is the focus of a major section of the book. Kozloff sets the scene for his survey by pointing out that the relentless slashing and burning of tropical forests is now second only to the energy sector globally as a source of greenhouse gases. Powerful political and economic forces within Brazil are pushing deforestation, but the Global North is complicit in the destruction. The affluent nations, acting through large financial institutions, fund destructive tropical industries and buy up the tropical commodities that are hastening the day of our climate reckoning.
The cattle industry accounts for 60 to 70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon. Kozloff recounts some of the brutal realities of ranching and its “insidious alliance” with politicians. Land ownership is often unclear and plagued by corruption. Poor workers can labour in conditions amounting to virtual slavery. An activist like Sister Dorothy Strang who worked on behalf of landless farmers and advocated for sustainable development projects was eventually simply assassinated. She was an “agitator” who had only herself to blame for her death, said a local cattle ranchers’ leader. The Brazilian state seems hopelessly compromised by powerful agricultural interests and finds it hard to police the Amazon and control deforestation. But financial institutions in the Global North, like the World Bank, provide key investment backing to the ranching explosion. Northern companies purchase leather, beef and other products and consumers buy them. Blame is shared.
The depressing news doesn’t end with cattle. Kozloff moves on to soy and its reach into the Amazon and the Brazilian cerrado, which covers one-fifth of the country and is the world’s most biologically rich savannah. Soy monoculture liberates carbon from the soil of the cerrado and its advance also displaces cattle farming into new forest development.
Kozloff acknowledges that there are problems with the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation progamme (REDD), not helped by the blocking by the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of moves to incorporate protections for indigenous peoples into the programme. But he sees it as “the only game in town right now that makes preserving forests more economically valuable than cutting them down”. Which is the nub of the matter.
Kozloff is not impressed by the “clean energy” initiatives being pursued in Brazil, hydro-electric dams for electricity and biofuels from sugar cane for transport. Apart from the population displacement and road building associated with dam-building, the dams in forest areas lead to vast emissions of methane from the decaying vegetation. Ethanol from sugar cane has been one of Brazil’s apparent success stories, but it involves destruction of the coastal Atlantic rainforest, one of the world’s top five biological hotspots. The nasty hell of debt-slavery operates in many sugar cane plantations. American agribusiness giants are now rushing to set up shop in Brazil to help greatly expand the industry. Much of the growth may be outside the rainforest, as officials claim, but it is planned to be within the cerrado.
If the Global North wants to avert yet further climate change, Kozloff says, it needs to get serious about the transfer of truly green technologies, particularly wind, solar, and waves. He points to the need for a “Manhattan Project” scale development of alternative clean energies, and the sharing of the new technologies with tropical nations such as Brazil. There’s little sign of such transfer taking place. Indeed before Copenhagen the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to ensure that the negotiations would not “weaken” US intellectual property rights on wind, solar, and other green technologies.
Full of interesting accounts though it is, the book is hardly a cheering read. Not because nothing can be done for Peru and Brazil by way of mitigation and adaptation but because it is by no means clear that the Global North is ready and willing to provide the necessary assistance. Nevertheless Kozloff presses the case for action convincingly.
Note: There’s a Democracy Now interview with Nikolas Kozloff relating to his book here on YouTube. (It’s in two parts.)