Adventures in the Anthropocene

Science journalist Gaia Vince left her desk at Nature and spent two years visiting places around the world, some of them very isolated, where people were grappling with the conditions of what is sometimes described as a new epoch, the Anthropocene. It dates from the industrial revolution and represents a different world from the relatively settled Holocene in which human civilisation was able to develop. Adventures in the Anthropocene tells the story of Vince’s encounters with some remarkable individuals and their communities. It also includes lengthy musings on the technologies the future may employ as humanity faces the challenges of climate change, ocean acidification, population growth, resource depletion and more.

Vince goes to the front lines of the human battles. In a remote village in Nepal she describes the extraordinary work of Mahabir Pun who gained a university scholarship in the US and returned years later to bring computers and Wi-Fi to the children of his village. It’s a fascinating story, full of hope for development in his region. But it’s also precarious. Electricity for the computers comes from a small hydro-scheme fed by glacier water. In the same chapter Vince points out that the warming rate in that Himalayan region is five times greater than the global average and the glaciers are melting. Once they are gone there is no meltwater and no power. Levels have already been diminishing in the once-deep stream near the village.

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You’ll see with your own eyes

An interesting piece in the Huffington Post recently reported Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives, warning the United States: “You can’t pick and choose on science.” The Maldives is one of the most threatened nations in the world from the sea level rise accompanying global warming. While he was President, Nasheed worked to make the country carbon-neutral, as reported on Hot Topic a couple of years ago. That won’t save the Maldives, of course, but it will at least show willing to do what other much larger nations must do to keep climate change within manageable limits. With a population of 300,000-plus, he said his country needs to complete around 200 projects to reach that goal, a process he believes would take about 10 years.

He acknowledges the United States has a bigger challenge, but they need to face up to it.

“It’s going to be difficult for the U.S. to be a world leader unless they themselves embrace it.”

The population of the Maldives see all too clearly the effects of climate change, but Nasheed acknowledges that Americans may need the evidence of their own eyes. They’ll be getting it:

“You will probably see many aberrations in climate patterns. You’ll have to see that and you’ll have to experience that for you to take this thing seriously.”

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The verdict on Durban – a major step forward, but not for ten years

In this guest post, Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, High Tide and The God Species, advisor to the president of the Maldives, analyses the outcome of the Durban conference and what it means for the future of international climate negotiations. It’s one the best and most detailed accounts I’ve come across, from someone at the heart of the action. This article was first published at his personal blog.

Following the marathon negotiations session at Durban, all the delegates should now be back home – and if not quite rested, certainly ready to assess the outcome with the benefit of some distance. In this (rather long) post I will look at the key documents agreed in the Durban outcome, and try to offer some sense of what they mean for the climate regime, and for the climate. (Apologies for some jargon, and for unexplained acronyms, which should be familiar to anyone following the negotiations, and without which this post would be even longer still.)

The Durban mandate

During the second week of COP17 the South African presidency operated an ‘Indaba’ system of high-level meetings, where an options paper was gradually whittled down into a decision text on the crucial issue of the future legal form of the UNFCCC regime. Various iterations of this paper produced some rollercoaster ups and downs from the perspective of a small islands state delegate (as advisor to the President, I once again joined the Maldives delegation). The final version, agreed in the small hours on Sunday 11 December — nearly 48 hours after the COP was supposed to have concluded — is titled ‘Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action'(PDF link).

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Island life

The small Pacific Island states are doing their best to keep the developed world aware of what is happening to them and other vulnerable states under the impacts of climate change. Kiribati this week hosted the second session of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a forum initiated by the Republic of the Maldives in 2009 to bring together countries that were particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Nineteen nations, both small island states and larger economies, attended this week’s Tarawa Conference and after what sounded like tough negotiation agreed on the Ambo Declaration, named after the village in Kiribati where parliament sits. It’s not a legally binding agreement, but is intended for presentation at the upcoming Cancun conference.


The text of the Declaration has not at the time of writing been published. It will appear on the climate change website of the Office of the President of Kiribati but in the meantime the news report provided there summarises it:

“The declaration covers the urgency of addressing the immediate effects of climate change, the need for fast funding to combat these concerns in vulnerable nations, and agrees upon an aim to make concrete decisions at the meeting in Mexico kicking off late this month.”

It doesn’t sound startling. Kiribati President, Anote Tong, said the meeting tried to focus on where delegates would find agreement “rather than fight and debate over our different positions”. The Maldives Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Naseem, facilitated the meeting and spoke of the need to negotiate when a clause gives even marginal reference to a sensitive issue.  He instanced the sensitivity of such questions as how emissions are limited and how they are monitored without infringing a country’s sovereignty.

One has to feel for the predicament of the vulnerable states. What they most need, and must strongly call for, is a legally binding international agreement which will drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they also need help from the countries most responsible for emissions to enable them to cope with the changes they have begun to experience and are set to get worse.

This double bind is reflected in the somewhat convoluted comments of President Tong to reporters at the conference:

Tong told reporters he was still pushing for a legally binding agreement treaty to promote long-term action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a bid that was snubbed at last year’s summit in Mexico in favour of the Copenhagen Accord.

However, he knows this is a big call and would settle on short-term solutions and dedicated funding boosts.

“It’s unrealistic to think that we can resolve these issues in a couple of sessions; it’s going to take the next few decades,” Tong said.

“There are certain issues which must not take that long.

“The longer we wait the more costly it’s going to be.”

However there was more to the conference than the Declaration. The President said in a Radio Australia interview before the conference opened:

“I think this will be the first opportunity for the large countries to actually see first hand what it is we have to contend with. To actually experience the high tides and the very marginal rise in elevation and land when the tide is coming in at the very highest level. And so this is an experience which not many people truly understand, and hopefully this will be an opportunity for, particularly the countries which are making the largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions to truly appreciate what it is we are talking about.”

Asked by the interviewer to enlarge on the differences which he was hoping the conference might find a way round he replied:

“Well we continue to argue, vulnerable countries, about our survival. The developing countries, the large developed countries continue to argue about economic growth, the poverty and what have you. I think we must believe that there are common grounds, we must believe that there is a way forward.”

The interviewer noted that in Kiribati people are having to move further and further inland because of the inundation of water on their produce gardens. She asked how much further inland they can keep going before there’s nowhere else for them to go. Tong replied:

“Well that’s precisely the point, there is no inland for us. But I think this is also something that we want to demonstrate, that in some parts of the island you throw a stone and you actually hit the other side of the island. So there is no inland. And these are the issues and these are things that we want people to be able to appreciate.”

The interviewer asked whether this means there’s now is a need for more talk about environmental refugees, suggesting that what he’s saying is that the people on Kiribati will have to move eventually.

“Well I always make the point that I reject the notion of environmental refugees. I think what we want to be able to be prepared for is all possible eventualities, one of which may be the need to relocate our people. And in order to relocate we must begin to address these issues now, and part of the process of addressing them is referring for that process. And so it requires a very well planned and a long-term process. If we know it’s going to happen, we have the time to plan it, then there is no reason why we should not begin planning it now.”

That’s the ultimate in adaptation. But if we won’t listen to the call for no more than a 1.5 degree global temperature rise or 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere justice will demand that we at least enable such relocation as proves necessary.

[Divine Comedy]

Climate Refugees

Climate Refugees

Eleven French journalists – writers and photographers of Collectif Argos – visited some of the people who live on the front line of climate change. Their report was first published in France in 2007, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has now published an English version: Climate Refugees. It invites reading. The written narratives are engaging and immediately informative. The related photographic sections are strikingly alive and stir the imagination. But it’s not lightly done -– the journalists spent time staying with the people whose lives they describe and there’s satisfying depth to the stories and the pictures.

Nine places were visited: Alaska and New Orleans in the US, the low-lying halligen on the North Sea coast of Germany, Lake Chad in Africa, the village of Longbaoshan near Beijing in China, Himalayan Nepal, the small town of Mushiganj in the south west corner of Bangladesh, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu in the Pacific.

Shishmaref is a village of 600 people on the small island of Sarichef off the coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean. As their village slowly crumbles into the sea and the whole island moves towards becoming inhabitable by 2050 the issue is not whether they will have to relocate. It’s where they will go. On offer is a move to towns 200 miles away to take advantage of the urban infrastructure. But the Shishmaref Inupiaq are convinced that relocating to a city would be tantamount to “burying their culture, soul, uniqueness and future”. What many would prefer is to recreate the village on a mainland site only 12 miles away. But it would be double the cost – $200 million as against $100 million – and the fear is that the state will not pay the extra.

The village of Longbaoshan, just 38 kilometres north-west of the Beijing suburbs, is not falling into the sea but being slowly buried by advancing sand. Only 700 people now remain. In recent years 200 have already left for the capital.

“My fields are nothing but stones and sand, sand and stones. Where’s the soil? Where’s the rain? The sky is my only hope, the only way we are able to eat. After the big storm in the spring of 2000, my son had to leave. He became a cook at a restaurant in a Beijing suburb. We don’t see him any more.”

The journalists went to the city to track down a couple who made the move, leaving their young son with his grandfather. They found them working very long hours and living in a nine-square-metre single room.

Around the town of Mushiganj in Bangladesh it’s too much water which is driving people away from their homes. Bangladeshis are accustomed to flooding and have learned to use it to their benefit. But global warming has added a scope and duration to floods which are destroying that balance. In the area the journalists visited the salinity of the soil has increased and crops have been replaced by shrimp farms, which bring far fewer jobs than rice paddies. Drinking water has to be fetched in exhausting trips. The nearby mangrove forests of the Sundarbans offer some fishing and other resources but are infested with pirates and are the refuge of the dangerous Bengal tiger. So for many it’s Dhaka for employment and income, albeit in demanding and exhausting work such as rickshaw driving.

The climate change pressures on Bangladesh will only increase and Dhaka will simply be unable to absorb the large-scale rural exodus anticipated. Where will people go? The journalists spoke with a geography professor who rules out neighbouring India and Myanmar as destinations for political and climate change reasons. He looks for cooperation outside southern Asia in preparing for the massive migrations anticipated.

“I think that countries with larger land areas will have to change their immigration policies. If we believe climate change is a global problem. then we must look for global solutions. Trying to solve it at national level is a mistake.”

Another researcher put it this way:

“For a long time now, I’ve been proposing the following solution. Each country must take responsibility for – in other words transport and accommodate – a quota of climate refugees proportional to its past and present greenhouse gas emissions.”

The water problem in Lake Chad is quite a different one. The lake is disappearing and taking life with it. Over the past 40 years it has lost 90% of its area, shrinking from 25,000 to 2500 square kilometres. A UNESCO statement describes the gradual drying up of the lake as the most spectacular example of the effects of climate change in tropical Africa, attributing it to low amounts of rainfall, evapotranspiration from high temperatures and a series of severe droughts. The effects on the surrounding populations are harsh. “God needs to send us a miracle because there’s too much suffering involved in living on the lake.”

When the journalists began their stay in Tuvalu they record that they couldn’t help feeling some irritation at what they saw as the carefree attitude and love of the easy life of the Tuvaluans. However further acquaintance revealed a pragmatic people fully aware of their inevitable fate and wanting to do everything in their power to stay on their land as long as possible, though involved in a global struggle to negotiate their relocation under optimal conditions. The Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“We asked the governments of Australia and New Zealand to acknowledge the concept of climate refugees.  They refused, saying that, according to international law, refugees can only be people subject to persecution or political, ideological, ethnic or religious pressure – a narrow definition that suits them just fine.”

The journalists, however, wonder whether, based on current scientific knowledge, the existence of climate refugees may give rise to the concept of ‘environmental persecution’ of the most vulnerable populations by the major greenhouse-gas emitters. This could be, they suggest, the beginning of climate justice in which the biggest polluters per inhabitant would not be able to turn away Tuvaluans forced to flee their land.

The Maldives face a similar prospect to the Tuvaluans. The valley residents of Nepal are seriously threatened by growing number of glacial lakes high above them that are becoming engorged with water from receding glaciers and may explode in outburst floods. Many former residents of New Orleans have been relocated in Houston and elsewhere in the US. The sparse population of the halligen in the meantime have a great deal of government money spent on keeping them in their threatened enironment because protecting the halligen means helping protect the mainland.

What is the rest of the world going to do if under the pressures of climate change it becomes apparent that large numbers of people must move from where they now live and work?  The book puts that question squarely in front of us. Some of the migration will be within national borders. That will be demanding enough. But some will have to be beyond those borders. Will the rich nations face up to the responsibility they have incurred?  Will ethical imperatives survive the crunch times ahead?  It would be a hard heart which looked at the photographs in this book and didn’t hope so.

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