Sunday, October 7, 2007

"These fires are the suicide note of mankind."

Today was a cooler day out in the high plains than we've seen in a while - downright seasonal in fact. Given that we've been sweating out the first week of October with high temps in the 90s (the norm is in the mid 70s) and lows in the mid 60s (when the norm is in the mid 40s), the slightly overcast sky and gentle breeze reminded me of why autumn is my favorite season.

The last couple years in particular, I've noticed that we've been running our air conditioner units well into October, which would have been laughable when we first moved out to the area. We seem to be entering another dry spell, which has local farming and ranching families concerned, and as I've noted a few times before, when we do get precipitation, it tends to be either unseasonal or unusually intense. We see breeds of insects that we've not seen before, as well as the usual flies and mosquitoes sticking around rather than dying off (or if dying off, doing so for just brief periods before returning). You get the picture. Something's a bit off. Of course we're not the only area, as Chicago was still sweltering in the upper 80s today (leading to the death of a marathon runner). Around the globe, there are all sorts of human-made climate disasters in progress:
South America chokes as Amazon burns

Vast areas of Brazil and Paraguay and much of Bolivia are choking under thick layers of smoke as fires rage out of control in the Amazon rainforest, forcing the cancellation of flights.

Satellite images yesterday showed huge clouds of smoke and much of the Amazon basin burning as fires, originally set by ranchers to clear land, have raged into the forest itself.

[snip]

Roberto Smeraldi, head of Friends of the Earth Brazil, said the situation was out of control: "We have a strong concentration of fires, corresponding to more than 10,000 points of fire across a large area of about two million sq km in the southern Brazilian Amazon and Bolivia."

Each year at the end of the dry season, in anticipation of the first winter rains, farmers and cattle ranchers throughout South America set fires to "renovate" pasture land. But this age-old cycle has spun out of control as deforestation and climate change have created a tinderbox. There has also been a massive expansion of cattle ranching into forested areas, where fires are then set to clear an area after chainsaws have felled the trees.

Mr Smeraldi was clear on who was to blame for this year's fires: "They are mainly, I would say more than 90 per cent, the result of expanding cattle ranching." The first rains have arrived but they are weaker than usual in most areas and have been useless against the fires.

In the past three years Brazil's National Development Bank and the World Bank have poured funds into the southern Amazon, fuelling the expansion of the cattle industry with new slaughterhouses and four million additional head of cattle arriving in exactly the areas where the fires are now. Conservationists have said that while governments insist they are doing their utmost to stop deforestation they have been putting in place incentives for the destruction of the forest. "It is taxpayers' money fuelling these fires," said Mr Smeraldi.

[snip]

"These fires are the suicide note of mankind," said Hylton Murray Philipson, from the London-based charity Rainforest Concern. "While politicians talk about defining moments, destruction will continue until we begin to attribute real value to the standing forest.

"The forces of globalisation will intensify with the construction of two asphalt roads linking the western Brazilian Amazon to the Pacific coast of Peru, dramatically shortening the export route to China," said Mr Murray-Philipson. "If we do not enable local people to gain a livelihood from the standing forest, it will continue to be converted into cattle pasture and soya prairies – and we will only have ourselves to blame."

Brazil and Indonesia do not appear on conventional industrial indices of the world's leading polluters but both countries are among the world's top four carbon emitters when deforestation is factored in.
Climate change disaster is upon us, warns UN

A record number of floods, droughts and storms around the world this year amount to a climate change "mega disaster", the United Nation's emergency relief coordinator, Sir John Holmes, has warned.

Sir John, a British diplomat who is also known as the UN's under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said dire predictions about the impact of global warming on humanity were already coming true.

"We are seeing the effects of climate change. Any year can be a freak but the pattern looks pretty clear to be honest. That's why we're trying ... to say, of course you've got to deal with mitigation of emissions, but this is here and now, this is with us already," he said.

As a measure of the worsening situation, Ocha, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - part of the UN secretariat that employs Sir John - has issued 13 emergency "flash" appeals so far this year. The number is three more than in 2005, which held the previous record.

Two years ago only half the international disasters dealt with by Ocha had anything to do with the climate; this year all but one of the 13 emergency appeals is climate-related. "And 2007 is not finished. We will certainly have more by the end of the year, I fear," added Sir John, who is in charge of channelling international relief efforts to disaster areas.

More appeals were likely in the coming weeks, as floods hit west Africa. "All these events on their own didn't have massive death tolls, but if you add all these little disasters together you get a mega disaster," he said.

The only one of this year's emergency appeals not connected to the climate was an earthquake in Peru, in August. The others arose after an unprecedented string of catastrophic floods across much of Africa, south Asia and North Korea, and followed severe drought in southern Africa, Nicaragua's category-five hurricane, and extreme climate conditions in Bolivia, which brought both drought and floods.

The Ocha appeals represent the tip of an iceberg since they are launched only with the agreement of the affected country. India was badly affected by floods that hit the rest of the Asian region in July. But unlike its neighbour, Pakistan, India did not call on the UN for help.

Ocha believes that 66 million people were made homeless or were otherwise affected across south Asia. The lives of several million more people were turned upside down across Africa. Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia and Uganda experienced disastrous floods, and Swaziland and Lesotho declared emergencies because of severe drought that reduced harvests by half.

The latest appeal from Ocha was launched yesterday, to try to raise emergency relief funds for Ghana, where more than 400,000 people are reported to be homeless as a result of flooding. Appeals may also be started for Togo and Burkina Faso.

"The flooding in Africa just now is the worst anyone can remember," Sir John said, expressing frustration at how little media attention in the west was being devoted to what he terms creeping climatic catastrophe.

Flooding is likely to be common for a warming planet, and climate change has a double effect - causing an increase in the frequency of storms, while higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide curb the ability of plants to draw groundwater.
Hat tip to this post: "Much of the Amazon basin is burning"

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