Frequent contributor to Fox News Steven Milloy retweeted a Politico story about climate change to suggest that CO2 won’t kill Earth because Venus is made of CO2 — the only trouble is humans don’t live on Venus, as far as we know.
Milloy is no stranger to ignoring accurate and verified scientific truths. A lawyer and frequent commentator for Fox News, he refers to himself as a libertarian thinker and runs a twitter account called @JunkScience through which he ironically, but not facetiously, often peddles what mosts scientists would refer to as junk science. His close financial and organizational ties to tobacco and oil companies have been the subject of criticism from a number of sources going back to the early 2000s, as Milloy has consistently disputed the scientific consensus on climate change and the health risks of second-hand smoke. Having close ties to tobacco and oil, it’s not difficult to understand why.
Among the topics Milloy has addressed are what he believes to be false claims regarding DDT, global warming, Alar, breast implants, second-hand smoke, ozone depletion, and mad cow disease. This time, however, he attempts to equate planet Earth with planet Venus, saying that CO2 won’t destroy the Earth because Venus is largely made up of CO2.
DeFazio on climate: "This is the existential threat to the future of the planet."
For comparison, the atmosphere Venus is 96.5% CO2 — and the planet is still there.
The obvious problem to scientists (and most people with a high school science education) is that humans don’t live on Venus, and couldn’t since it is so darn hot, hailing an average temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s obvious that Milloy is being paid to promote bad science in an effort to persuade Fox News watchers into believing that climate change is a hoax. The trick he uses here is to make it seem like people who believe in man-induced global warming through greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide think the Earth will cease to exist with too much CO2. That isn’t what climate change scientists and activists think at all.
On the contrary, climate change scientists and activists are concerned about human and animal life will cease to exist — the way it doesn’t exist on Venus.
The danger in having to explain this to people is that it’s easier to look at things Milloy’s way. Despite it being wrong, lazy thinkers will read what he tweets and hear what he says on Fox News without doing anymore research or thinking on the matter. When people say convincing things with authority, it usually doesn’t matter if what they’re saying is true or not.
Beijing — China makes a massive move towards a smogless society with its ban of over 500 car models that have been proven to contribute to urban air pollution.
Responding to anti-pollution measures established recently, the Chinese government has halted sales of over 500 models of vehicles that don’t meet fuel-consumption standards.
The halt in production of some 553 models will begin in early January and will include models from Audi, Beijing Benz and Chevrolet, said the China Vehicle Technology Service Center in a statement to the press Thursday.
China’s anti-pollution plan has taken effect in the form of regulating output from steel production, coal usage restrictions, and a never before seen measure to eventually phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels within the next few years. This ban is the first of its kind, according to Wang Liusheng, a Shanghai-based analyst at China Merchants Securities.
Wang said in an email to Bloomberg,
“To emphasize a cut back on energy consumption, such documents will surface frequently in the future. It’s an essential move to ensure the healthy development of the industry in the long run.”
The move sounds and looks sweeping, however Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association, said that the models make up a “very small percentage” of polluting vehicles. Meanwhile, Beijing is set to record its most impressive improvements to its air quality in nine years, with an almost 20 percent drop in pollution over the past year alone.
If humans have enough turbines running in the ocean, we could generate enough electricity to power the entire human race, says new research from the National Academy of Sciences
In a paper titled Geophysical potential for wind energy over the open oceansauthored by two scientists at the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution for Science in Standford, California, the researchers provide strong evidence that there is quite a bit of potential for greater downward transport of kinetic energy in the overlying atmosphere. As a result, they write, “wind power generation over some ocean areas can exceed power generation on land by a factor of three or more.”
Three or more is more than just significant when it comes to searching for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power, both which have had disastrous effects on the environment over the past 100 years, the former contributing to global warming at an alarming rate.
While naysayers might point your attention to the fact that the cost of developing, building and deploying floating turbines is most likely going to be very high, the fact remains that MIT scientists have been working on floating turbines for at least the past 4 years, even floating turbine technology that can produce power when there is no wind.
The downside to these findings is that using all that wind energy means it could drastically alter the climate, since wind has a great effect on how plants and animals live. But considering the high cost, the researchers say the study really only provides enough evidence for those already in the wind turbine tech arena to expand, rather than replace current energy generation.
The paper makes a comparison of a theoretical floating wind farm consisting of almost 2 million square kilometers and situated in the same amount of space on land in the U.S. versus that of the Atlantic ocean, finding that covering much of the central U.S. with wind farms wouldn’t quite be enough energy to power up both the U.S. and China, some 7 terawatts annually, or seven trillion watts of power.
However, floating turbines in the North Atlantic could theoretically power those two countries and a whole lot more, considering the amount of potential energy that can be extracted over the ocean in the same amount of area.
An academic study published Tuesday in the journal of Environmental Research Letters at IOPScience provides more evidence that oil giant ExxonMobil spent millions of dollars misleading the American public on climate change
While it’s not a new revelation that Exxon has intentionally misled the public regarding climate change, a Harvard team of climate scientists prove it beyond a doubt through a peer-reviewed study on Exxon’s role in swaying public opinion on climate change over the past 25 years, a first of its kind.
Although Exxon conducted their own research acknowledging both climate change and the human role in its increasing severity, the oil giant was not public about this internal research program and instead has been on the skeptical side of the climate change debate for decades. In 2015, Exxon issued a challenge on their website urging critics of their stance and communications regarding climate change to “read the documents”
In a study titled Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014), climate scientists Drs. Geoffrey Supranand Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University took Exxon up on their challenge and read the documents, only to find that Exxon did indeed mislead the public about climate change.
Supran painted an intense picture for the energy company, saying,
“The ExxonMobil corporation is under a lot of scrutiny right now, on at least five fronts — we’ve got the Attorneys General of Massachusetts and New York, we’ve got the securities exchange commission, and not to mention some of Exxon’s own shareholders and employees. Basically, they’re all asking roughly the same question and that’s has ExxonMobil in the past, through the way it’s communicated about climate change, misled its customers, its shareholders, or the general public?”
It turns out, they did.
While Exxon promoted skepticism about climate change through advertorials in large publications such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Exxon had its own research team that acknowledged the danger of fossil fuels to the environment and its increasing risk and contribution to inducing global climate change, but kept it behind closed doors.
Editor’s note: The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, catalyzed a wave of laws to protect the environment and natural resources. Here Thomas Straka, a professor of forest economics and management and former industrial forester, answers questions about the current state of U.S. forests.
1. How forested is the United States? Here’s a surprising fact about our increasingly urbanized nation: About one-third of it is forested. Forests have an enormous impact on our water resources, economy, wildlife, recreational activities and cultural fabric. They also are major economic assets: The forest products industry manufactures more than US$200 billion worth of products yearly, and is one of the top 10 manufacturing employers in 47 states.
2. Who owns U.S forests? About 58 percent of the nation’s forestland is privately owned, mostly by families and other individuals. The public owns the rest. About three-quarters of the public forestland is owned by the federal government, mostly in national forests, with the rest controlled by states, counties and local governments. Forests in the eastern United States are mostly private; in the West, they are mostly public.
National forests were created to protect our watersheds and timber supply. Much of the water that ends up in rivers, streams and lakes comes from forested watersheds that filter the water naturally as it flows through. Forests also help control soil erosion by slowing the rate at which water enters streams.
Environmental pressure has caused timber production to become less of a priority in national forests. Since 1960, national forests have been managed under multiple use policy, which calls for balancing timber yield with other values like wildlife, recreation, soil and water conservation, aesthetics, grazing and wilderness protection.
3. How are forests regulated? The U.S. Forest Service is the largest agency within the Department of Agriculture, with a $6 billion budget and 35,000 employees. It manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands – an area equivalent to that of the state of Texas – spread across 44 states and Puerto Rico.
Starting in the 1970s, laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act created a new regulatory environment for forestry. As an example, listing northern spotted owls in the West and red-cockaded woodpeckers in the South as endangered species had major impacts on timber production because the law requires land managers to identify and protect “critical habitat” for listed species.
Government policies also affect private forests. The federal tax code provides for capital gains treatment for timber, allowing income from timber sales to be taxed at lower rates. Almost all states have a property tax classification program to encourage active forest management. Most of them value forestland based on its current use when they assess it, rather than its potential value if it were developed, as a way to keep trees on land.
4. Are any national forests still in their natural state? Yes. Congress can designate wilderness areas in national forests, national parks and other public lands. Road-building and other development are barred in these areas, but they are open for hiking and camping. There are 37 million acres of wilderness areas in national forests.
Wilderness designation offers a high level of environmental protection, but it also can cause resentment. Barring timber harvesting and mining and restricting recreational activities (for example, prohibiting off-road vehicles) can affect the economies of nearby communities. Debates about wilderness protection are part of a broader, long-standing controversy over federal control of land in the West.
5. What are the most serious stresses on U.S. forests? Climate change, insect infestations and decreased logging in national forests are making wildfires larger and more frequent. The Forest Service currently spends more than half of its budget on controlling wildfires.
In my home state of South Carolina, the forest industry used to own 2.7 million acres of timberland. Today it owns 170,000 acres, controlled mainly by timberland investment groups and real estate investment trusts. They manage it well, but they also tend to buy and sell it on a regular basis, and often chop off parcels that are better suited for development.
6. How may forests fare under the Trump administration? The new administration has a clear utilitarian focus, so I expect it to encourage land use and development. Wilderness areas are also likely to be an area of contention. If Congress amends major laws such as the Endangered Species Act, it could affect forest management.
Changes in the tax code or in cost-share programs that encourage reforestation and forest management could impact private forests, especially family forests. Investing in rural infrastructure, which was one of Trump’s campaign priorities, could benefit private forests.
Conservation groups are worried that Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s nominee for secretary of agriculture, may increase logging in national forests and has questioned mainstream climate science. As governor of Georgia, a major timber state, Perdue supported commercial timber harvesting. At USDA he will choose deputies to oversee the Forest Service.
Getting climate change under control is a formidable, multifaceted challenge. Analysis by my colleagues and me suggests that staying within safe warming levels now requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The technology to do this is in its infancy and will take years, even decades, to develop, but our analysis suggests that this must be a priority. If pushed, operational large-scale systems should be available by 2050.
We created a simple climate model and looked at the implications of different levels of carbon in the ocean and the atmosphere. This lets us make projections about greenhouse warming, and see what we need to do to limit global warming to within 1.5℃ of pre-industrial temperatures – one of the ambitions of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
To put the problem in perspective, here are some of the key numbers.
Humans have emitted 1,540 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide gas since the industrial revolution. To put it another way, that’s equivalent to burning enough coal to form a square tower 22 metres wide that reaches from Earth to the Moon.
Half of these emissions have remained in the atmosphere, causing a rise of CO₂ levels that is at least 10 times faster than any known natural increase during Earth’s long history. Most of the other half has dissolved into the ocean, causing acidification with its own detrimental impacts.
Although nature does remove CO₂, for example through growth and burial of plants and algae, we emit it at least 100 times faster than it’s eliminated. We can’t rely on natural mechanisms to handle this problem: people will need to help as well.
What’s the goal?
The Paris climate agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and ideally no higher than 1.5℃. (Others say that 1℃ is what we should be really aiming for, although the world is already reaching and breaching this milestone.)
In our research, we considered 1℃ a better safe warming limit because any more would take us into the territory of the Eemian period, 125,000 years ago. For natural reasons, during this era the Earth warmed by a little more than 1℃. Looking back, we can see the catastrophic consequences of global temperatures staying this high over an extended period.
So how much CO₂ do we need to remove to prevent global disaster?
Are you a pessimist or an optimist?
Currently, humanity’s net emissions amount to roughly 37 gigatonnes of CO₂ per year, which represents 10 gigatonnes of carbon burned (a gigatonne is a billion tonnes). We need to reduce this drastically. But even with strong emissions reductions, enough carbon will remain in the atmosphere to cause unsafe warming.
The first scenario is pessimistic. It has CO₂ emissions remaining stable after 2020. To keep warming within safe limits, we then need to remove almost 700 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere and ocean, which freely exchange CO₂. To start, reforestation and improved land use can lock up to 100 gigatonnes away into trees and soils. This leaves a further 600 gigatonnes to be extracted via technological means by 2100.
Technological extraction currently costs at least US$150 per tonne. At this price, over the rest of the century, the cost would add up to US$90 trillion. This is similar in scale to current global military spending, which – if it holds steady at around US$1.6 trillion a year – will add up to roughly US$132 trillion over the same period.
The second scenario is optimistic. It assumes that we reduce emissions by 6% each year starting in 2020. We then still need to remove about 150 gigatonnes of carbon.
As before, reforestation and improved land use can account for 100 gigatonnes, leaving 50 gigatonnes to be technologically extracted by 2100. The cost for that would be US$7.5 trillion by 2100 – only 6% of the global military spend.
Of course, these numbers are a rough guide. But they do illustrate the crossroads at which we find ourselves.
The job to be done
Right now is the time to choose: without action, we’ll be locked into the pessimistic scenario within a decade. Nothing can justify burdening future generations with this enormous cost.
Releasing large amounts of iron or mineral dust into the oceans could remove CO₂ by changing environmental chemistry and ecology. But doing so requires revision of international legal structures that currently forbid such activities.
Similarly, certain minerals can help remove CO₂ by increasing the weathering of rocks and enriching soils. But large-scale mining for such minerals will impact on landscapes and communities, which also requires legal and regulatory revisions.
Without new legal, policy, and ethical frameworks, no significant advances will be possible, no matter how great the technological developments. Progressive nations may forge ahead toward delivering the combined package.
The costs of this are high. But countries that take the lead stand to gain technology, jobs, energy independence, better health, and international gravitas.
Wet weather at the end of the last ice age appears to have helped drive the ecosystems of large grazing animals, such as mammoths and giant sloths, extinct across vast swathes of Eurasia and the Americas, according to our new research.
The study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution today, shows that landscapes in many regions became suddenly wetter between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago, turning grasslands into peat bogs and forest, and ushering in the demise of many megafaunal species.
By examining the bone chemistry of megafauna fossils from Eurasia, North America and South America over the time leading up to the extinction, we found that all three continents experienced the same dramatic increase in moisture. This would have rapidly altered the grassland ecosystems that once covered a third of the globe.
The period after the world thawed from the most recent ice age is already very well studied, thanks largely to the tonnes of animal bones preserved in permafrost. The period is a goldmine for researchers – literally, given that many fossils were first found during gold prospecting operations.
Our work at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA usually concerns genetic material from long-dead organisms. As a result, we have accrued a vast collection of bones from around the world during this period.
But we made our latest discovery by shifting our attention away from DNA and towards the nitrogen atoms preserved the fossils’ bone collagen.
Nitrogen has two stable isotopes (atoms with the same number of protons but differing number of neutrons), called nitrogen-14 and nitrogen-15. Changes in environmental conditions can alter the ratio of these two isotopes in the soil. That, in turn, is reflected in the tissues of growing plants, and ultimately in the bones of the animals that eat those plants. In arid conditions, processes like evaporation preferentially remove the lighter nitrogen-14 from the soil. This contributes to a useful correlation seen in many grassland mammals: less nitrogen-14 in the bones means more moisture in the environment.
We studied 511 accurately dated bones, from species including bison, horses and llamas, and found that a pronounced spike in moisture occurred between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago, affecting grasslands in Europe, Siberia, North America, and South America.
At the time of this moisture spike, dramatic changes were occurring on the landscapes. Giant, continent-sized ice sheets were collapsing and retreating, leaving lakes and rivers in their wake. Sea levels were rising, and altered wind and water currents were bringing rains to once-dry continental interiors.
As a result, forests and peatlands were forming where grass, which specialises in dry environments, once dominated. Grasses are also specially adapted to tolerate grazing – in fact, they depend upon grazers to distribute nutrients and clear dead litter from the ground each season. Forest plants, on the other hand, produce toxic compounds specifically to deter herbivores. For decades, researchers have discussed the idea that the invading forests drove the grassland communities into collapse.
Our new study provides the crime scene’s smoking gun. Not only was moisture affecting the grassland mammals during the forest invasion and the subsequent extinctions, but this was happening right around the globe.
This discovery prompts a rethink on some of the key mysteries in the extinction event, such as the curious case of Africa. Many of Africa’s megafauna — elephants, wildebeest, hippopotamus, and so on — escaped the extinction events, and unlike their counterparts on other continents have survived to this day.
It has been argued that this is because African megafauna evolved alongside humans, and were naturally wary of human hunters. However, this argument cannot explain the pronounced phase of extinctions in Europe. Neanderthals have existed there for at least 200,000 years, while anatomically modern humans arrive around 43,000 years ago.
We suggest instead that the moisture-driven extinction hypothesis provides a much better explanation. Africa’s position astride the Equator means that its central forested monsoon belt has always been surrounded by continuous stretches of grassland, which graded into the deserts of the north and south. It was the persistence of these grasslands that allowed the local megafauna to survive relatively intact.
Our study may also offers insights into the question of how the current climate change might affect today’s ecosystems.
Understanding how climate changes affected ecosystems in the past is imperative to making informed predictions about how climate changes may influence ecosystems in the future. The consequences of human-induced global warming are often depicted using images of droughts and famines. But our discovery is a reminder that all rapid environmental changes — wet as well as dry — can cause dramatic changes in biological communities and ecosystems.
In this case, warming expressed itself not through parched drought but through centuries of persistent English drizzle, with rain, slush and grey skies. It seems like a rather unpleasant way to go.
Most of us don’t think much about soil, let alone its health. But as Earth Day approaches, it’s time to recommend some skin care for Mother Nature. Restoring soil fertility is one of humanity’s best options for making progress on three daunting challenges: Feeding everyone, weathering climate change and conserving biodiversity.
Widespread mechanization and adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides revolutionized agriculture. But it took a hidden toll on the soil. Farmers around the world have already degraded and abandoned one-third of the world’s cropland. In the United States, our soils have already lost about half of the organic matter content that helped make them fertile.
What is at stake if we don’t reverse this trend? Impoverished trouble spots like Syria, Libya and Iraq are among the societies living with a legacy of degraded soil. And if the world keeps losing productive farmland, it will only make it harder to feed a growing global population.
But it is possible to restore soil fertility, as I learned traveling the world to meet farmers who had adopted regenerative practices on large commercial and small subsistence farms while researching my new book, Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. From Pennsylvania to the Dakotas and from Africa to Latin America, I saw compelling evidence of how a new way of farming can restore health to the soil, and do so remarkably fast.
These farmers adopted practices that cultivate beneficial soil life. They stopped plowing and minimized ground disturbance. They planted cover crops, especially legumes, as well as commercial crops. And they didn’t just plant the same thing over and over again. Instead they planted a greater diversity of crops in more complex rotations. Combining these techniques cultivates a diversity of beneficial microbial and soil life that enhances nutrient cycling, increases soil organic matter, and improves soil structure and thereby reduces erosive runoff.
Farmers who implemented all three techniques began regenerating fertile soil and after several years ended up with more money in their pocket. Crop yields and soil organic matter increased while their fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide use fell. Their fields consistently had more pollinators — butterflies and bees — than neighboring conventional farms. Using less insecticide and retaining native plants around their fields translated into more predatory species that managed insect pests.
Innovative ranchers likewise showed me methods that left their soil better off. Cows on their farms grazed the way buffalo once did, concentrating in a small area for a short period followed by a long recovery time. This pattern stimulates plants to push sugary substances out of their roots. And this feeds soil life that in return provides the plants with things like growth-promoting hormones and mineral nutrients. Letting cows graze also builds soil organic matter by dispersing manure across the land, rather than concentrating it in feedlot sewage lagoons.
Soil organic matter is the foundation of the soil food web, and the consensus among scientists I talked with was that soil organic matter is the single best indicator of soil health. How much carbon could the world’s farmers and ranchers park underground through soil building practices that incorporate plant residue and stimulate microbial activity? Estimates vary widely, but farmers I visited had more than doubled the carbon content of their soil over a decade or two. If farmers around the world did this, it could help partially offset fossil fuel emissions for decades to come.
Soil restoration will not solve world hunger, stop climate change, or prevent further loss of biodiversity. No single thing can solve these problems. But the innovative farmers I met showed me that adopting the full suite of conservation agriculture practices can provide a better livelihood and significant environmental benefits on conventional and organic farms alike.
Restoring fertility to degraded agricultural soils is one of humanity’s most pressing and under-recognized natural infrastructure projects, and would pay dividends for generations to come. It’s time for a moonshot-like effort to restore the root of all prosperous civilizations: Our soil, the skin of the Earth.
Since the 1980s, deaths related to volcanic eruptions have been rather limited, but this is not entirely a result of increased preparedness or investment in hazard management – it is significantly a matter of chance.
Research shows that volcanic activity has shown no let up since the turn of the 21st century – it just hasn’t been around population centres. Indeed, there remain a number of volcanoes poised to blow which pose a major threat to life and livelihood.
Known for its 79AD eruption, which destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Vesuvius is still a significant hazard given that it overshadows the city of Naples and its surrounds, which are home to over 3m people.
It is also known for a particularly intense form of eruption. Plinian (after Pliny the Younger who was the first to describe the 79AD event) eruptions are characterised by the ejection of a vast column of gas and ash which extends into the stratosphere, far higher than commercial airliners fly.
Were such an eruption to occur at Vesuvius today, it is likely that much of the population would already have been evacuated as a precursory swarm of earthquakes would likely herald its imminent approach. But those who remained would initially be showered with huge pumice rocks too large to be kept aloft by the column of gas.
Then, as the volcano began to run out of energy, the column itself would collapse, causing smaller particles of rock (from fine ash to small boulders) to fall from the sky and back to Earth at high velocity. Asphyxiating clouds of gas and pulverised rock – pyroclastic density currents – would then flood down the slopes of the volcano, annihilating anything in their path. Such gas-ash features have been known to travel tens of kilometres and at terrifying speeds, potentially turning modern Naples into a new Pompeii.
Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo
This central African volcano has erupted several times over the last few decades and while its eruptions aren’t particularly explosive, it produces a particularly runny – and dangerous – form of lava. Once effused, this lava can rapidly move down the flanks of the volcano and inundate areas with little or no warning.
In 2002, the lava lake at the volcano’s summit was breached, resulting in streams of lava hurtling towards the nearby city of Goma at 60km/h, engulfing parts of it to a depth of two metres.
Fortunately, warnings had been issued as the volcano’s unrest has made it the focus of intense research – and over 300,000 people were evacuated in time. Should such an event occur again, we have to hope that the authorities are equally prepared, but this is a politically unstable area and it remains seriously vulnerable.
“Popo”, as the locals call it, is just 70km south-west of the one of the largest cities in the world: Mexico City, home to 20m people. Popo is regularly active and its most recent bout of activity in 2016 sent a plume of ash to an altitude of five kilometres.
In recent times, and indeed throughout much of its history, eruptive events at Popo have consisted of similarly isolated ash plumes. But these plumes coat the mountain in a thick blanket of ash which, when mixed with water, can form a dense muddy mixture which has the potential to flow for many kilometres and at relatively high speeds.
Such phenomena, known as “lahars”, can be extremely deadly, as exemplified by the Nevado del Ruiz disaster of 1985 when around 26,000 people were killed in the town of Armero, Colombia, by a lahar with a volcanic source that was 60km away.
The Nevado del Ruiz tragedy was the direct result of volcanic activity melting ice at the volcano’s summit, but a large volume of rainfall or snowmelt could feasibly generate a similar lahar on Popo. This could flow down-slope towards nearby settlements with little or no warning.
Otherwise named Krakatau, Krakatoa’s name is infamous; 36,000 people were killed by the tsunami triggered by its 1886 eruption, which released more energy than 13,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The eruption destroyed the volcanic island completely, but within 50 years, a new island had appeared in its place.
The new island is named Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa) and since the 1920s, it has been growing in episodic phases, reaching about 300 metres in height today. New and significant activity commenced in 2007 and since this time, further episodes of activity were noted at the volcano, most recently in March 2017.
No one knows for sure whether or not the spectacular growth of Anak Krakatau means it may one day repeat the catastrophe its “father” unleashed, but its location between Indonesia’s two most populated islands, Java and Sumatra, means it poses a grave threat to life.
Few have heard of this volcano in a remote part of Asia – and its last eruption was in 1903. However, its history tells a rather scarier story. In around 969AD, the volcano produced one of the largest eruptions of the last 10,000 years, releasing three times more material than Krakatoa did in 1886.
One of the chief hazards is posed by the massive crater lake at its peak (with a volume of about nine cubic kilometres). If breached, this lake could generate lahars that would pose a significant threat to the 100,000 people that live in the vicinity.
In the early 2000s, scientists began monitoring the hitherto under-monitored volcano, and determined that its activity was increasing, that its magma chamber dormancy was coming to an end, and that it could pose a hazard in the following decades.
Further complicating things is the fact that Changbaishan straddles the border of China and North Korea. Given such a geo-politically sensitive location, the effects of any volcanic activity here would likely be very hard to manage.
So why hasn’t the world become much more environmentally sustainable despite decades of international agreements, national policies, state laws and local plans? This is the question that a team of researchers and I have tried to answer in a recent article.
We reviewed 94 studies of how sustainability policies had failed across every continent. These included case studies from both developed and developing countries, and ranged in scope from international to local initiatives.
Consider the following key environmental indicators. Since 1970:
Humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded the Earth’s capacity and has risen to the point where 1.6 planets would be needed to provide resources sustainably.
The biodiversity index has fallen by more than 50% as the populations of other species continue to decline.
Greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change have almost doubled while the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent.
The world has lost more than 48% of tropical and sub-tropical forests.
The rate at which these indicators deteriorated was largely unchanged over the two decades either side of the Rio summit. Furthermore, humanity is fast approaching several environmental tipping points. If crossed, these could lead to irreversible changes.
If we allow average global temperatures to rise 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, for example, feedback mechanisms will kick in that lead to runaway climate change. We’re already halfway to this limit and could pass it in the next few decades.
What’s going wrong?
So what’s going wrong with sustainability initiatives? We found that three types of failure kept recurring: economic, political and communication.
The economic failures stem from the basic problem that environmentally damaging activities are financially rewarded. A forest is usually worth more money after it’s cut down – which is a particular problem for countries transitioning to a market-based economy.
Political failures happen when governments can’t or won’t implement effective policies. This is often because large extractive industries, like mining, are dominant players in an economy and see themselves as having the most to lose. This occurs in developed and developing countries, but the latter can face extra difficulties enforcing policies once they’re put in place.
Communication failures centre on poor consultation or community involvement in the policy process. Opposition then flourishes, sometimes based on a misunderstanding of the severity of the issue. It can also be fed by mistrust when communities see their concerns being overlooked.
Again, this happens around the world. A good example would be community resistance to changing water allocation systems in rural areas of Australia. In this situation, farmers were so opposed to the government buying back some of their water permits that copies of the policy were burned in the street.
These types of failure are mutually reinforcing. Poor communication of the benefits of sustainable development creates the belief that it always costs jobs and money. Businesses and communities then pressure politicians to avoid or water down environmentally friendly legislation.
The point of our paper was to discover why policies that promote sustainability have failed in order to improve future efforts. The challenge is immense and there’s a great deal at stake. Based on my previous research into the way economic, social and environmental goals can co-exist, I would go beyond our most recent paper to make the following proposals.
First, governments need to provide financial incentives to switch to eco-efficient production. Politicians need to have the courage to go well beyond current standards. Well-targeted interventions can create both carrot and stick, rewarding eco-friendly behaviour and imposing a cost on unsustainable activities.
Second, governments need to provide a viable transition pathway for industries that are doing the most damage. New environmental tax breaks and grants, for example, could allow businesses to remain profitable while changing their business model.
Finally, leaders from all sectors need to be convinced of both the seriousness of the declining state of the environment and that sustainable development is possible. Promoting positive case studies of successful green businesses would be a start.
There will of course be resistance to these changes. The policy battles will be hard fought, particularly in the current international political climate. We live in a world where the US president is rolling back climate policies while the Australian prime minister attacks renewable energy.