Asian Correspondent » Graham Land Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Is Asia’s growth creating a generation of sick people? Fri, 03 Jul 2015 01:52:52 +0000
Delhi smog. Pic: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (Flickr CC)

Delhi smog. Pic: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (Flickr CC)

Recent scientific research on air quality and human health has only underscored how much — and in how many ways — pollution can cause harm and even death. High concentrations of particulate matter in the air result in higher instances of diseases of the heart and lungs, asthma and other respiratory problems.

Asia is most at risk from air pollution

A study at the University of Texas, which singles out China and India as home to places with dangerously poor air quality, estimates that cutting outdoor pollution could save 1.4 million lives.

Air in the Indian city of Delhi is particularly hazardous, with ambient fine particulate matter concentrations 15 times higher than WHO guidelines. Beijing does not fare much better.

About 75 percent of the total number of deaths that could be avoided from cleaner air could come from improving air in some of the most polluted parts of the world like India and China. Those benefits could be as large as many of the other public health things we might like do globally like addressing major diseases like malaria and AIDS.

—Joshua Apte, assistant professor of environmental engineering, University of Texas, Austin (via VOA News)

Principal drivers of deteriorating air quality are coal-burning industry and increased road traffic, which are both causes and symptoms of industrial and economic growth. Somewhat ironically, it is the very pollution caused by growth that may end up stopping growth.

(READ MORE: China’s most polluted province sends its industry overseas)

Such is the argument of former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who now promotes sustainable economic growth focusing on China and the US. Paulson is one of the principal figures responsible for the global financial crisis beginning at the end of the last decade, though he has also been involved in several major projects for nature conservation in both countries.

In his new book, ‘Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower’, Paulson praises the Chinese government for recognizing and confronting the dangers of climate change, but also warns that the country’s explosive growth, urbanization and pollution are part of an extremely unsustainable system.

Pollution in Beijing, pic: Michael Henley (Flickr CC)

Pollution in Beijing. Pic: Michael Henley (Flickr CC)

Alzheimer’s and pollution threaten a new generation

In addition to the already well established health risks of air pollution, new evidence links toxic air to degenerative brain diseases, namely Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It turns out that ultrafine particles of pollution — at least 36 times finer than a grain of sand — can enter through the nostrils and eventually into the brain, resulting in brain trauma.

Studies of domesticated dogs in Mexico City, which show similar symptoms to humans suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, support the link between particulate matter and degenerative brain disease. The head researcher of the studies, Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas of the University of Montana, found the same kind of damage among the dogs as is found in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients.

From an article on the topic in Mother Jones:

Dogs are also one of only a handful of animal species known to naturally develop Alzheimer’s-type dementia. What Calderón-Garcidueñas discovered more than a decade ago may prove to be the missing element in a long-standing theory of neurodegenerative disease origin. For reasons poorly understood, degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s often reveal themselves in humans through early breakdowns in the olfactory system.

Air quality in the United States, while still hazardous in congested cities like Los Angeles, is on the whole better than it has been in 40 years. Asia’s population centers, on the other hand, are experiencing unprecedented levels of particulate matter pollution. Could China and India’s industrial megacities experience high levels of degenerative brain diseases in the coming years? It is a possibility both countries will have to consider and it does not bode well for future concerns about human or economic health.

(READ MORE: Will a tax on pollution help curb China’s deadly smog?)

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Chinese people power gains ground against pollution and politics Wed, 24 Jun 2015 02:35:26 +0000
china smog protest

Advertisement or protest? Either way, it’s very clever. Pic: Xiao Zhu

Images of people wearing masks on the streets of China in a desperate attempt to prevent breathing harmful smog can inspire a variety of reactions: pity that individuals should suffer for the wealth of a few; frustration with an unfair global system; incredulity that no one — whether in government or a private citizen — seems to be doing anything that will put a stop to this madness.

But things are far more complicated than these shocking headlines and images suggest. China — with its reputation for efficiency in government decision-making — is notoriously difficult to regulate. Policies are enacted, but remain poorly enforced due to corruption and other factors. Industrial growth is prioritized over the environment, human health and social justice. Western audiences also may believe that it is too dangerous for private citizens to stand up and speak out.

Yet speak out they do.

  • Modern China is the site of many successful people-power protests against pollution, including the construction of new coal-fired power plants and paper processing plants.
  • Former China Central Television journalist Chai Jing’s documentary Under the Dome, which detailed the problem of air pollution in the PRC, was viewed 150 million times in its first three days on social media site Tencent.
  • A recent court case pits families against a chemical plant in central China. The groundbreaking case, which may rule that the plant is responsible for poisoning the children of 13 families from Hengdong in Hunan province with lead, is probably the first of its kind.
  • Another scandal involving children laborers and lead poisoning in a mining town in Yunnan province has received international attention, partly due to the efforts of photographer Shi Huaiji and Greenpeace. See Shi Huaiji’s photos here.
  • Private industry is even adopting environmental action in an effort to boost the sale of products relating to health and sustainability, as exemplified by green company Xiao Zhu’s brilliant scheme. The firm recently projected images of crying and coughing children onto smoggy emissions exiting factory smoke stacks.

Government efforts to tackle pollution

A woman wearing a mask disembarks from a bus at the Central Business District in Beijing, China Tuesday. Pic: AP.

A woman wearing a mask disembarks from a bus at the Central Business District in Beijing, China Tuesday. Pic: AP.

In addition to the work of ordinary citizens, activist organizations, journalists and green businesses, the government of the PRC has made significant strides in the fight against pollution, even as it encourages rapid industrial growth with its other hand.

  • China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, the state-owned body responsible for defense and space technology, are currently developing a laser radar device capable of detecting airborne particulate matter that is harmful to human health.
  • The country’s new Minister for Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, has spoken out in favor of Chai Jing’s Under the Dome and declared that China’s environment has “reached its limit”. Under Chen’s leadership, China will increase fines and penalties for companies that violate environmental laws and institute a tax on pollution.

These changes and others in Chinese environment policy did not happen in a vacuum, even a very smoggy one. It has been people driving governmental policy change — through protesting against, exposing and refusing to tolerate a reality that puts industrial growth and money-making over social justice, human health, well-being and happiness.

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Will a tax on pollution help curb China’s deadly smog? Fri, 12 Jun 2015 03:04:26 +0000
Shanghai smog. Pic: Leo Fung (Flickr CC)

Shanghai smog. Pic: Leo Fung (Flickr CC)

As both the world’s largest country and a nation of seemingly unstoppable industrial growth, China’s contributions to global climate change and pollution both at home and abroad are gargantuan. At what point does it all become too much?

People-power protests against pollution occasionally make the news, as do efforts by the state to tackle the country’s dangerous levels of smog, but the headlong pursuit of economic growth has so far dwarfed any efforts at environmental sustainability. During 2014 alone, the People’s Republic of China mined an equal amount of coal to what the US, India, Russia and the entire European Union use in a single year — combined.

Coal miners live in an environment of extreme danger to their health and lives, air quality for average citizens is often hazardously poor, and desertification is turning once-arable tracts into useless wasteland. And while much of China’s coal production is driven by foreign demand, the country itself is also a massive consumer of the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Despite major strides in wind, solar and hydropower — some of which have their own issues regarding sustainability — two thirds of China’s energy still comes from coal.

According to Chen Jining, China’s minister for environmental protection, pollution in the country has already reached or exceeded nature’s ability to cope with it. The minister has stated that China is 5 – 10 years from “peak pollution” and some 15 – 20 years from being able to reduce emissions enough to effect any positive change. These are dark numbers to come from a state not known for its transparency.

At the same time China’s per capita emissions of greenhouse gasses are only a third of the United States’ and just half of Russia’s, a statistic that makes it hard to argue on the basis of fairness. Chinese citizens cannot be asked to give up dreams of even modest prosperity any more than citizens of other nations can be asked to relinquish the highly emitting lifestyles they have grown accustomed to. Perhaps this is the wrong argument anyway, as it is industry and corporations that control how much and what kind of energy is produced. It should not be unreasonable to enjoy a decent quality of life both in terms of having a good material standard of prosperity and a healthy environment to live in.

Coal plant in Inner Mongolia. Pic: Gustavo Madico (Flickr CC)

Coal plant in Inner Mongolia. Pic: Gustavo Madico (Flickr CC)

The PRC’s latest plan is to levy a tax on polluters — whether air, water or noise — as well as increase fines and punishments for those who violate relevant pollution laws. In the past many industries simply chose to pay fines as they were considered cheaper than making the requisite changes in order to conform to environmental regulations.

While a step forward, the new policies still may be seen by some as lacking teeth.

From the South China Morning Post:

The taxes will exclude pollutants from agriculture except those from large-scale animal husbandry and mobile pollution sources including motor vehicles, locomotives, non-road mobile machinery, ships and aircraft, as long as the pollutants are within national standards.

Normal emissions by urban sewage and refuse treatment plants will also be exempted.

China is also considering establishing an Emissions Control Area along its coastline, something uncommon in Asian waters, with Hong Kong as a recent notable exception. One source stated that over the course of one day a single container ship on the Chinese coast emits as much diesel pollution as 500,000 of the country’s trucks.

However accurate such figures are, it is clear that the battle against pollution and climate change must be fought on numerous fronts and will require far more political will from producing, consuming and emitting countries the world over.

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What does China’s investment in Latin America mean for the Amazon? Tue, 19 May 2015 01:43:08 +0000
china brazil investment

Amazon deforestation. Pic: Neil Palmer (CIAT).

Colonization is still big business and in Latin America both foreign and domestic businesses are reaping the awards. Indigenous peoples are typically the principal line of defense against the crimes of globalization and environmental destruction. This is not because they embody some kind of idealized combination of innocence and virtue that the corrupt modern world has forgotten, but rather because they have the most to lose. The ongoing process of colonization of indigenous lands continually threatens these communities with the prospect of becoming increasingly dispossessed.

The new ‘Cold War’ is about resources

While the original Cold War between the Western and Eastern Blocs was considered politically ideological and backed by military threat, the current competition between East and West is more blatantly economic. But who will benefit from and ultimately control the resources of what was once known as the Third World?

While Russia concentrates on oil and natural gas markets in Europe and Asia, China is investing heavily in Africa and Latin America, as both sources of commodities and new frontiers for its massive construction-related industries. The United States of course, continues to have a heavy presence — whether military, diplomatic or economic — throughout the world.

While perhaps China’s involvement is not immediately recognizable as colonization in the traditional sense, in terms of indigenous rights, nature conservation and environmental issues, it matters not which country is funding the destruction of indigenous lands.

An Amazonian railroad runs through it

Chinese loans, investment and trade are warmly welcomed by many Latin American governments. For instance, China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner since 2009, with the value of trade between the two countries increasing 13 fold between 2001 and 2013. However, since 2014 the growth in trade between China and Latin America has nearly stopped (although loans have greatly increased).

China and Brazil are determined to change this slowdown in trade growth. On Monday, as a first stop on an 8-day tour of Latin America, China’s Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Brazil in order to push a $50 million trade and investment deal. Also on the table is a 3,300 mile (5,500 km) trans-Amazonian railway, financed by the China Development Bank and connecting Brazil’s Atlantic coast with Peru’s Pacific coast. Naturally, environmental and indigenous rights groups are concerned about the proposed railway.

indigenous rights china brazil

An indigenous group tries to access the Federal Senate building in Brazil

Christian Poirier of Amazon Watch is quoted in the Guardian:

Past mega-projects suggest that far from consulting the indigenous communities that lay in their path, the government is more likely to steamroll their rights while paying mere lip service to environmental protection. As with road projects, railways open access to previously remote regions, bring a flow of migrant workers inevitably followed by deforestation mafias and cattle ranchers, creating a perfect storm of pressures upon the forest and forest peoples.

Indigenous peoples, as the perennial holders of the short end of the stick when it comes to the development and exploitation of their traditional lands, are on the front lines of global environmental and social justice. When governments and big business fail to protect the Earth and uphold human rights, time and time again indigenous communities are there to remind us, often giving their lives in the process. The least we can do is notice.

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The cautionary “cli-fi” of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Mon, 18 May 2015 03:46:09 +0000
mad max climate change

Hardy and Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Brothers)

As a long-time lover of dystopian science fiction, I am looking forward to seeing the continuation of the Australian classic Mad Max series, which began in 1979. I actually haven’t seen any of the original three installments since the ’80s, but I’m looking forward to going in fresh, without resorting to tedious comparisons between old and new.

A new environment for sci-fi?

While the original Mad Max, starring now-tarnished Hollywood megastar Mel Gibson, took place in an Australia ravaged by energy crisis and lawlessness, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road deals with a not-too-distant future dealing with the effects of climate change. The film stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, who recently, at the film’s gala premier in Cannes, drew the connections between our current inaction on climate change and the horrific future of Fury Road:

It felt very grounded in real events. The idea of globalization and global warming and drought and the value of water, and leadership becoming completely out of hand.

. . . there are images on Google right now of Sahara desert sand being blown, in that state, all through Africa. And that’s frightening. The hair lifted up on the back of my neck. What makes [the film] even scarier is that it is something that is not far off if we don’t pull it together.

(via the Guardian)

Is Australia on track to make Mad Max a reality?

One should not ignore the fact that Mad Max is set in Australia, which may not be in the throes of an energy crisis as the original films envisioned, but is pursuing policies that significantly contribute to climate change. Case in point: Down Under is embracing coal, a particularly dirty form of energy and source of greenhouse gases, more than ever — Aboriginal lands, the Great Barrier Reef and the global climate be damned.

climate change australia

Environmental protest on May Day. Pic: Johan Fantenberg (Flickr CC)

And then you’ve got a government, led by Liberal PM Tony Abbott, which is championing a proposal for a $4m Australia Consensus Centre run by Bjørn Lomborg. A statistician and “skeptical environmentalist”, Lomborg, who while not an outright climate denier like the coal barons who hold great sway over the government, believes the perceived threat of climate change to be exaggerated.

The proposed Consensus Centre would be located at the Australian National University at Canberra, but university students around the country have protested its existence and academics have questioned the appointment of Lomborg to head a center on climate science.

This is quite typical of how the government has handled the environment in general and climate science in particular — don’t deny the science, but don’t take it so seriously; pretend to make a real effort to study and come up with solutions, but only so long as they don’t step on the toes of big business. They basically do what we used to call “let’s not and say we did” when we were kids. Let’s build a center to study climate change and have it run by someone who disagrees with what most climate scientists recommend we do limit it.

Maybe it should be run by Charlize Theron. Can we get a consensus on that?

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Conservation: Pangolins could be gone before the world even knows they exist Fri, 08 May 2015 03:38:25 +0000

Pangolin in Sierra Leone. Pic: Alfred Weidinger (Wikimedia Commons)

There are eight species of pangolin — four in Asia and four in Africa. All Asian pangolin species are either critically endangered or endangered, while their African counterparts are classified as vulnerable. While trade in all eight species is outlawed by international treaty, public consciousness is not in the fight against trafficking, which is quickly leading to the pangolin’s demise.

The numbers are astounding. By the most conservative estimates, 10,000 pangolins are trafficked illegally each year. If you assume only 10% to 20% of the actual trade is reported by the news media, the true number trafficked over a two-year period was 116,990 to 233,980, according to Annamiticus, an advocacy group.

(via CNN)

Why are these shy, solitary mammals the most hunted creatures on the planet?

Like many illegally trafficked animals, pangolin body parts are used in traditional medicine and cuisine. In Indonesia, a single pangolin can fetch around US$45-60.

It is the pangolin’s scales that are in demand. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) holds that when dried and roasted, the scales can cure palsy, drain pus and stimulate lactation. Yet as with most “cures” involving the body parts of exotic animals, there is absolutely no basis to these beliefs. Pangolin scales are nothing more than keratin, the same material in human fingernails — just like rhino horn. Pangolin blood is also considered a healing elixir in China and Vietnam.

Don't eat the pangolins. Pic: Ruslan Rugoals (Flickr CC)

Don’t eat the pangolins. Pic: Ruslan Rugoals (Flickr CC)

The pangolin scales are useful for one thing: protecting pangolins. It’s the main way they guard against attacks by big cats and other predators. They simply roll up into a ball and let their thick scales do the rest. If that isn’t enough, they can also emit a horrible smelling acid, comparable to the stink from a skunk. Humans, on the other hand, are not so easy to deter, especially if there is money to be made.

Why have so many people never even heard of a pangolin?

Pangolins do poorly in captivity. They get stressed out, depressed and tend to die early. Because of this, we know little about the length of their natural lifespans (in fact, even pangolin experts know little about the mysterious scaled mammal). It also makes them poor zoo attractions. That said, they are pretty cool looking, though they lack the excitement of tigers or pandas, and that is probably why pangolin conservation groups receive so little money, whether from the government of private donors. You can’t make tourist dollars with pangolin parks.

Thailand, pangolin

A Thai zoo official feeds pangolin with milk at the Dusit zoo in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

Pangolin conservation requires knowledge and awareness

Despite the lack of awareness and glamor, there are efforts to save the pangolin. Among these are initiatives in Indonesia to prosecute traffickers, destroy seized pangolin meat and scales, as well as release live pangolins that have been recovered from traffickers.

Perhaps some day we will come to love the pangolin, but it would be more effective if people stopped believing in mumbo jumbo TCM cures, which can hurt the patients almost as much as the animals whose bodies they use as medicine.

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Elephant survival is a global problem that needs global and local solutions Mon, 04 May 2015 03:00:38 +0000
Poached elephant carcass, DRC. Pic: ENOUGH Project

Poached elephant carcass, DRC. Pic: ENOUGH Project

In 2012 and 2013, poachers killed 10% of the global population of forest elephants. 100,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks between 2010 and 2012. Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 96 elephants are killed illegally every single day. Another conservation group, iWorry, estimates that an elephant is killed every 15 minutse for its ivory — a total of 36,000 in 2012 alone.

Record-breaking ivory seizures

Thai customs officers recently seized a cache of 511 pieces of ivory that traffickers were attempting to smuggle from Kenya to Asia in containers marked “tea leaves”. The ivory, worth millions of dollars, was on its way to Laos, a centre for the illegal trade of banned exotic animal parts.

This latest seizure in Thailand comes less than a week after a recordfour  tons of African ivory was confiscated by authorities at Bangkok’s main port on April 20. That ivory, originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was also headed towards Laos.

But Laos is not the main market for illegal ivory. According to the conservation organization Traffic, Laos is fast becoming the major point of transit for large shipments of illegal wildlife parts. The ivory that arrives there is then divided and sold on to buyers in China, Vietnam or even back in Thailand, where it could be bought under the impression that it is farmed Thai ivory, which is legal.

The online market for ivory

While many may find the sale of ivory, whether legal or illegal, immoral and distasteful, a burgeoning market exists, largely fueled by the growth of affluent classes in Asia. But it isn’t just an Asian or African problem. A recent investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) into the ivory trade on popular classified advertising site Craigslist found that an estimated $15 million in illegal ivory sales could be flowing through the San Francisco-based website every year. Buyers are located in major and smaller cities spread throughout the US.

While Craigslist does not officially allow the sale of illegal ivory, it has obviously not done enough to stop it. IFAW wants Craigslist to follow the examples of other popular only marketplaces like eBay and Etsy, which use special software to identify and remove offending posts.

Seized ivory, Democratic Republic of Congo. Pic: Jonathan Hutson, Enough Project (Flickr CC)

Seized ivory, Democratic Republic of Congo. Pic: Jonathan Hutson, Enough Project (Flickr CC)

On the other extreme, Japan still legally sells ivory, largely on sites like Yahoo and Rakuten, the world’s largest online retailer of ivory, whether legal or illegal. A global coalition of conservation groups recently appealed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to ban the domestic trade in ivory.

From the coalition of groups’ press release:

Since 1970, ivory from more than 250,000 elephants has been imported into Japan—much of it from illegally killed wild elephants. According to the groups, Japan has consistently failed to comply with the ivory controls required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). They point to a Japanese government scheme that allows poached ivory to be registered without sufficient evidence the tusks were legally acquired.

Does crushing ivory stocks work?

In 2013 the US government pulverized 6 tons of confiscated ivory tusks. Last year China, a major market for illegal ivory, crushed another 6 tons of its ivory stocks. The United Arab Emirates, another frequent crossroads for the banned ivory trade, has just followed suit as did a supply-side nation, Congo-Brazzaville, which recently burned 5 tonnes of tusks.

However, some believe that destroying existing stocks just makes ivory a more rare and valued commodity, to be gathered from living animals rather than existing stocks. They have a point, but this is a complex, global problem in which gestures like crushing ivory are largely symbolic.

We need an outright international ivory ban, dedicated control and the enforcement of existing laws on the buying side, along with viable economic opportunities for poachers on the supply side. We also need to respect elephants as intelligent living beings with rights, and not simply as something to exploit for personal wealth or vanity.

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China’s e-waste is a multi-billion dollar toxic goldmine Tue, 28 Apr 2015 07:16:29 +0000
Worker dismantling toner cartridges, covered with toner. Guiyu, China. Pic: Basel Action Network

Worker dismantling toner cartridges, covered with toner. Guiyu, China. Pic: Basel Action Network

As the most populous country on the planet, and one that produces a staggering amount of electronic products, it is natural that China also creates the largest amount of e-waste. Yet the relative poverty of the PRC when compared to the developed world means that China does not yet have the same kind of universal consumer culture as Western Europe, Japan or North America. So naturally, on a per capita basis, China ranks quite low in terms of electronic waste production, alongside poorer South and Southeast Asian countries.

It is also the wealthy countries that are driving the lion’s share of China’s electronics production.

The people of developing countries are victims of a cruel system

According to a new report by the United Nations University, together the US and China produce 32% of the world’s e-waste, followed by Japan, Germany and India. However, the per capita leaders are mainly wealthy European nations, the top 5 being Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Denmark and the United Kingdom.

China not only produces and exports many of the products that turn into e-waste, it also imports the e-waste itself, often illegally. When toxic waste is processed in unregulated, unsafe ways, substances like lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium can enter the groundwater and air, poisoning local populations.


E-waste from the US in a dump in Guiyu, China. Pic: Basel Action Network (Flickr CC)

The problem of toxic electronic waste has grown alongside the growth of the tech industry, creating serious health and environmental problems, especially in poor countries. The phenomenal market penetration of mobile phones, laptops tablets, flat-screen televisions and other electronic devices has meant that methods of recycling and managing the waste are lagging far behind.

Not just iPads

While we usually hear about the above products contributing to e-waste, by volume most of it is kitchen, bathroom and laundry equipment — nearly 60%.

  • 12.8 Mt (metric tons) of small equipment (vacuum cleaners, microwaves, toasters, electric shavers, video cameras, etc.);
  • 11.8 Mt of large equipment (washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves, photovoltaic panels, etc.);
  • 7.0 Mt of cooling and freezing equipment (temperature exchange equipment);
  • 6.3 Mt of screens;
  • 3.0 Mt of small IT (mobile phones, pocket calculators, personal computers, printers, etc.); and
  • 1.0 Mt of lamps


A growing problem of missed potential
The UNU report shows global e-waste levels are increasing by 2 million tons a year, with only 16% recycled or reused. There are metals in that e-waste that are not only toxic, but also valuable. The report also revealed that among the 48.1 million tons of electronic waste thrown away during 2014, is an estimated US$10.5 billion worth of gold. The total value of recyclable e-waste produced in 2014 stands at around US$52 billion US.

E-waste in China, Africa and Latin America — much of it shipped there by US companies — is killing people. So perhaps instead of encouraging the often-dangerous and environmentally destructive practice of mining gold and other metals for electronic devices, the tech industry should be mining landfills or rather extracting both the dangerous and valuable materials from the e-waste before it ends up in a landfill.

While recycling and reuse may not be the cheapest solution in the short term, continuing to poison people and the environment is without a doubt the most expensive long-term course of action.

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Just why do Japanese people live so long? Mon, 13 Apr 2015 22:00:42 +0000

On April 1, Misao Okawa, the oldest living person in the world, died of natural causes at a nursing home in Osaka, Japan. Born in 1898, she was 117 at the time of her death. Okawa held the title of oldest living person for just over 2 years. It was previously owned by Jiroemon Kimura of Kyoto, who died when he was 115.

There is a stereotype about East Asians, particularly Japanese, living long lives, but does it have a basis in fact? While Okawa and Jiroemon certainly support the East Asian longevity hypothesis, it is by no means only Asians who live unusually long lives. Previous to Jiroemon, it was Christian Mortensen of Denmark who was the oldest living person. And we must remember that the oldest documented person in history was France’s Jeanne Calment, who lived to the ripe old age of 122.


Japanese women live the longest. Pic: Mr Hicks46 (Flickr CC)

Of course these impressive individuals are only outliers. It is interesting and perhaps insightful to listen to old peoples’ self professed reasons for living a long time — from daily exercise to never overeating to having religious faith. But the best hope for real answers lies in measurable factors like statistics.

Majid Ezzati, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, said that Asians as a whole have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver disease. Some of the risk factors for those diseases, such as smoking, binge drinking, obesity and high cholesterol, are less prevalent in the Asian community. But exact causes of longevity remain a mystery.

Source: (New York Times)

On Average, the Japanese Live the Longest

2012 data from the World Health Organization ranks Japan as having the highest life expectancy at 86.2 years — 85 for men and 87.3 for women, followed by Andorra (84.2), Singapore (84), Hong Kong (83.8) and San Marino (83.5). So it is in fact wealthy East Asian and Mediterranean countries that lead, though the rest of the top 10 is rounded out by Iceland, Italy, Sweden, Australia and Switzerland, a pretty mixed bag of developed nations.

It is somewhat obvious that diet, an advanced and widely available medical system, as well as peace and stability, are strong factors on the international level. But what is it about Japan in particular that puts it at the top of the list? Could it be as simple as eating healthily, keeping active and even working into old age as some Japanese doctors suggest?

Aren’t we taught that highly stressful, work-focused lifestyles are bad for health?

For years Japan’s retirement age was 55. Now it is usually 60, but many retirees continue to work in some capacity. The difference is the jobs they tend to do are part time or less intensive. So “retirement” in Japan has a different meaning than it does in other countries.

longevity japan

Okinawa — a nice place to grow old

In Japan, children also traditionally support their parents during old age, easing the stressful burden of struggling to make ends meet. This can be in financial terms, but it often comes in the form of personal assistance. Perhaps living out your years at home with frequent familial contact is more conducive for longevity than spending time in institutional care homes and hospitals.

If you’re lonely in this country, it takes about eight years off your life expectancy as compared with the most connected people. In Okinawa, they traditionally don’t have to worry about loneliness because when you’re a child, you’re put by your parents into these moais. It can be defined as a committed social network that lasts a long time: a personal board of directors.

— Dan Buettner, author, The Blue Zones Solution

While perhaps we cannot arrive at any definitive secrets to longevity, a new book by best-selling author Dan Buettner argues that it’s mostly diet, with sex, naps, wine and friendship helping out along the way.

Buettner studied the lifestyles of famous old agers on the Greek island of Ikaria as well as Okinawa, Japan and other, what he calls “blue zones”, where populations tend to live longer. While his answers may not be definitive, they are certainly worth looking into, especially as they link happiness with longevity. After all, who wants to live for a long time if you can’t be happy doing it?

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How gerbils and climate change in Asia caused Europe’s Black Death Wed, 25 Feb 2015 22:12:24 +0000

When I was only six years old I received my first pet. It chewed cedar chips and slept in a bed it made out of cotton balls. It loved to roll around the floor in a clear plastic ball. I called it Barney.

It turns out that Barney’s ancestors may have been responsible for bringing the Black Death to Europe.

For years it’s been believed that rats carried fleas infected with Yersinia pestis bacterium from the plains of Central Asia, along the Silk Road and throughout Europe by the mid-14th century, mostly via merchant shipping routes. The Yersinia pestis bacterium caused the bubonic plague, wiping out 30 – 60 percent of the total population of Europe.

gerbils plague

The guilty party. Pic: benmckune (Flickr CC)

Historically, rats have caught a really bad rap because of the plague, but an team of researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway believes the true causes of the bacteria-carrying fleas moving westward were not rats, but cute little hopping gerbils like my Barney.

What’s more, it was fluctuations in Asia’s climate that caused sudden population explosions, followed by crashes among Central Asian rodents like gerbils, ground squirrels and marmots. The bacteria-carrying fleas would multiply as the numbers of their hosts would multiply, but instead of simply dying off when their hosts did, they’d try to find new ones. Humans and camels travelling westward were opportune targets.

From the Associated Press:

The researchers identified 16 possible instances between 1346 and 1837 in which plague might have arrived at a European port from Asia. These events were consistently preceded by climate fluctuations in Asia, as recorded by tree rings from Pakistan, with a lag of about 15 years.

Other scientists maintain that rats still had a hand in spreading the plague at different times, for example to America at the start of the 20th century, but more evidence is piling up suggesting that it was Asian rodents that caused it to spread from Asia to Europe.

black death gerbils

Ill Morbetto from 1515/16

According to the World Health Organization, the bubonic plague still affects humans today, with 1,000 – 3,000 cases each year, mostly in African countries as well as in the Middle East. Outbreaks in those regions have also been found to follow climate fluctuations in Central Asia.

Boris Schmid, the first author on the study, is quoted in the Guardian:

We find plague to have been repeatedly re-imported along the same route as the Black Death was imported, triggered by large-scale climate events in Central Asia. If the plague that arrived with the Black Death was the ancestor of all the strains of plague in Europe in the centuries afterwards, you will find a different pattern of relatedness than when plague in Europe was repeatedly re-imported from plague reservoirs in Asia.

Scientists are still trying to figure out just why the plague stopped spreading through Europe even when it continued to travel from Asia to the Mediterranean. As for future outbreaks, it may be that Europe doesn’t have the right small rodent species to support another major outbreak of plague.

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Climate change: Leaders dally while Australia heats up Mon, 09 Feb 2015 00:23:23 +0000

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has just survived a rare motion for a leadership spill — a call by his party to re-elect its leader. The controversy that led to the vote had more to do with the PM’s independence than the looming climate crisis facing the country. While a possible replacement leader for the Liberal Party was current Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has shown more of a commitment to climate change than the PM, opposition parties were naturally skeptical as to whether Turnbull could have offered any significant change.

But real change is needed if we are to believe recent studies on Australia’s rising temperatures and vulnerability to climate change. Findings from the country’s national science agency CSIRO and its Bureau of Meteorology, based on 40 global climate models, predict a continual rising of temperatures for the remainder of the century with as much as a 1.3C increase by 2030 compared to averages between 1986 and 2005. Predicted increases for 2090 range from 2.8C to as much as 5.1C depending on the extent or absence of global emissions cuts.

From the Guardian:

According to the report, this “business-as-usual” approach to burning fossil fuels is set to cook Australia more than the rest of the world, which will average a temperature increase of 2.6C to 4.8C by 2090.

Rising temperatures and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and El Niño and La Niña events mean more drought, more bush fires and more floods — all with worrying consequences. Besides the direct human dangers from fire and floods, various industries will be hit hard by these developments.

(MORE: New study says Great Barrier Reef could be dead by end of century)

Dry lake in Victoria. Pic: Tim J Keegan (Flickr CC)

Dry lake in Victoria. Pic: Tim J Keegan (Flickr CC)

The farming sector can suffer from damaged crops due to heat waves, waterlogged fields and sustained extreme dry conditions in agricultural zones. Heat waves also shut down transport infrastructure, such as urban metro lines, while mines have already been closed for long stretches.

Extreme heat can affect outdoor workers, reducing their productivity and endangering their health. Extreme rainfall can flood mines and close them down for long periods of time.

—Professor Will Steffen, climate change expert and researcher, Australian National University in Canberra (via Vice)

Last year was Australia’s third hottest year on record, while 2013 provide the country’s hottest year, season, month and year. A study by Australia’s Climate Council determined that in the absence of human-generated emissions, those kinds of events would only happen once every 12,300 years.

Another Australian study, this one from the Climate Group, warns that popular national sports such as cricket, tennis, football and skiing may not be viable in the future due to climate change and extreme weather events. If conditions continue to develop as they are, it is the vast amount of small, local clubs that will suffer most, as they lack the funds of large profitable teams and organizations to adapt to challenging climactic changes.

Unfortunately, the Australian government has continued to pursue policies that favor emission-heavy industry while functionally ignoring the perils of climate change, even as state-funded organizations produce research warning it to do the exact opposite.

climate change australia

Brisbane flooding. Pic: Martin Howard (Flickr CC)

Climate change “skepticism” is also still high among the Australian public, no doubt fuelled by those in government and the fossil fuel companies that influence policy-making. But there’s no point in arguing the science of climate change with the skeptics, according to yet another Australian study. Researchers suggest that it might be more effective to find common ground and work together towards climate change action based on highlighting its other benefits, such as clean air, improved waste management, reforestation and lowering power consumption.

Meanwhile, Down Under just keeps heating up…

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US, India fail to make real progress on climate change Thu, 29 Jan 2015 22:00:41 +0000
U.S. President Barack Obama, left and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake  hands after a meeting in New Delhi, Sunday. Pic: AP.

U.S. President Barack Obama, left and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands after a meeting in New Delhi, Sunday. Pic: AP.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India occurred in the hopes that the two giant countries would thrash out some kind of binding deal on pollution and climate change. However, when compared to the kind of agreement the US reached with China back in November, results were meager. Highlights of the US-India negotiations include a phasing out of the potent, short-lived greenhouse gases known as hydroflourocarbons, investment in Indian solar projects, plus “co-operation” on air quality and nuclear power generation. So while not entirely fruitless, there was no agreement for India to cap its ghg emissions. The resistance comes in the wake of India moving into third place in global emissions behind China and the US.

Is this what President Obama gets for shaving “6 hours off his life” by hanging around in the New Delhi smog? The air in India’s capital area has the infamous distinction of being the world’s highest in particulate matter (PM 2.5), 15 times over the annual exposure recommended by the World Health Organization. Furthermore, over half of the world’s 20 worst cities for air quality are located in India. Even for non-smokers, breathing New Delhi’s air is equivalent to smoking eight cigarettes a day, according to University of Cambridge Statistician David Spiegelhalter. It is a good thing President Obama quit smoking back in 2011.

Delhi smog. Pic: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (Flickr CC)

Delhi smog. Pic: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (Flickr CC)

So why did the leaders fail to reach a deal to limit emissions in India? As with the rest of the rapidly industrializing world, India puts industry-based economic growth ahead of environmental concerns, despite its atrocious urban air quality and the fact that is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Much of that industrial growth comes from factories fueled by coal, and according to the Indian government, any limits to energy or industry must have a viable green alternative, such as solar power.

From BBC News:

The world does not expect India to make a similar announcement (like the US-China one). And yet, just one major plan to install 100,000 MW (megaWatts) of solar power will mean we will be delivering more than others in the global fight against climate change.

—Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to achieve 100 GW of solar power by 2022 were welcomed by the Obama administration, though India’s plans to double coal production to 1 billion tons annually cannot be seen as sustainable in any way. Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels and is already used to produce 80% of India’s electricity. Yet India’s per capita emissions are still very low, at 1.4 tons compared to the US’s 18.1 (2010 numbers, source: US Energy Administration). For this reason, another climate ally, Germany, has agreed to back India’s position on ongoing international climate negotiations, in which India would receive a portion of a proposed $10 billion Green Climate Fund to spend on climate change adaptation and the curbing of emissions.

From the Deccan Herald:

We were first opposed to it (Indian proposal), but we are now convinced. Since India’s per capita emission was very low, it is difficult to impose the mitigation measures. But we are now convinced. The money should be spent in 50:50 ratio on adaptation and mitigation measures.

—Barbara Hendricks, German environment minister

With countries as large as China and India, all measures have resounding effects. It is therefore easy to see how significant both investment in renewables and efforts for curbing emissions could be, even as those emissions soar past sustainable levels and into the realm of severe risk.

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China’s most polluted province sends its industry overseas Wed, 21 Jan 2015 03:01:58 +0000
Miners shovel coal at a mine in China's Hebei province. Pic: AP.

Miners shovel coal at a mine in China’s Hebei province. Pic: AP.

Hebei province in North China is the PRC’s steel belt, with a production capacity that exceeds all of Japan. But Hebei’s steel industry has a high price. The province is home to 7 of China’s 10 most polluted cities, including the industrial centers of Qian’an and Handan, where toxic smog, contaminated soil and poisoned groundwater are commonplace. The pollution in Hebei has made the province a focal point for government efforts to improve China’s air quality.

One such effort is a plan to relocate some of Hebei’s heavy industry abroad to countries like South Africa, which will soon become home to China’s largest overseas iron and steel project. But the project in South Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. Plans are in the works to shift production of steel, glass and cement to Eastern Europe, South America and other parts of Asia.

From Global Times:

Many projects are already underway. In the following two years, Hebei’s State-run companies will help set up a 600,000 ton steel project in Thailand, a 350,000 ton capacity steel facility in Indonesia and a 1.5 million ton iron powder factory in Chile. On the cement front, two one-million ton capacity projects, one in South Africa and one in Myanmar [Burma], will be established with investments from the Tangshan-based Jidong Development Group and its local partners.

While moving factories abroad has the benefit of reducing pollution at home, it does not necessarily address aggregate global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, though newly built factories should be less polluting than old ones. Furthermore, the driving factor to relocate to other countries is largely economic as opposed to environmental. Half the world’s steel is produced by China — and most of that comes from Hebei — yet production has surpassed demand for years, causing prices to fall.

But the central government’s environmental clean-up plans have teeth, having already forced the closure of 8,000 companies and 35,000 furnaces in the province. Last year’s environmental regulations, which require hefty cuts in steel, coal, cement and glass by 2017, are already significantly impacting jobs and revenue in Hebei. Though GDP growth was 6.5% in the province for 2014, this fell short of projections as well as last year’s overall growth. Yet according to the governor of Hebei, air quality improved over 2013, pointing to a clear trade off between economic growth and environmental health.

Fengnan city, Hebei. Pic: LanguageTeaching (Flickr CC)

Fengnan city, Hebei. Pic: LanguageTeaching (Flickr CC)

Perhaps part of the solution to Hebei’s economic and pollution woes may come in the form of solar power. A 10-megawatt solar farm in a mountainous region of western Hebei was completed less than a month ago. The manufacturer, Yingli Solar, has projects all over China as well as ambitions in Latin America, Europe and Japan.

Potato power?

Another simple tactic for reducing energy and water use, cutting pollution, conserving land and increasing food security is propagating potato production. China’s Ministry of Agriculture is doing just that. By switching from water-, land- and energy-intensive foods like rice, wheat and corn to the humble spud, China hopes to improve sustainability and reduce pollution while creating more jobs and increasing profitability. It’s a major project, but the benefits are manifold.

Potatoes are also suited to the climate of China’s north, so could rural Hebei be a place for a new potato boom, precipitating even a bit of de-urbanization in the process? Only time will tell.

Check out photographer Lu Guang’s images of Hebei’s most polluted industrial landscapes.

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India: The challenge of living with leopards Tue, 13 Jan 2015 22:00:12 +0000

Last week I asked the question, “What is the price of a tiger’s life?” in reference to the ongoing challenge of humans living together with tigers in India. Tigers are both prized by poachers and feared by villagers whose neighborhoods and farms sometimes overlap with the range of a tiger. That combination cannot work out in the tigers’ favor.

India’s leopards, while far less endangered — as well as less feared by humans — still face similar problems. Their pelts are prized and sold in the illegal wildlife trade, while farmers, villagers and even urban dwellers fear a leopard’s nocturnal presence. Road accidents also contribute significantly to leopard losses. Last week a leopard was even killed by a Mumbai-bound train in Maharashtra state. Other causes of death include accidental electrocutions and so-called “revenge killings”.

From the Hindustan Times:

Leopards enjoy protection in India under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 as they are listed in Schedule I of the Act. Permission to kill leopards is given in the case of man-eaters only. But they still get killed in significant numbers, prompting the wildlife activists to stress for a Project Leopard for saving leopards.

In populated areas residents complain about the presence of leopards, often demanding that authorities remove them or they organize hunts themselves in order to rid the area of the big cats. Sometimes locals turn against the forestry department, blaming them for the leopards’ disturbing presence. In Madhya Pradesh, human-leopard conflict led to 140 recorded leopard deaths between 2008 and 2013. At this rate there soon won’t be any leopards left in the central Indian state.

A leopard relaxes in Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve, Nagarhole, Kabini, Karnataka, India. Pic: Srikaanth Sekar (Flickr CC)

A leopard relaxes in Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve, Nagarhole, Kabini, Karnataka, India. Pic: Srikaanth Sekar (Flickr CC)

But there are some positive success stories of humans learning to live alongside leopard populations. In the Jawal region of Rajastan in western India, a local community has set up a council to protect a large group of leopards that live near their villages. Here the leopards are seen as sacred and have become a local attraction. A total of 24 leopards live in close proximity to a private sanctuary/eco-camp, a luxury campground where the big cats can be observed.

Despite their large size, leopards are quiet and illusive, generally keeping out of sight and avoiding humans even in populated areas. Their reputation among the uneducated is quite negative and to be fair, they do have a penchant for stealing the occasional calf or goat. Human kills are much more rare, but do occasionally happen, usually by sick or injured leopards.

In greater Mumbai, a volunteer educational initiative has been met with success. Residents around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is surrounded by slum tenements and apartment complexes, was a hotbed of “leopard anxiety” until the park director joined forces with a volunteer group of students and professionals to educate the local inhabitants on leopard behavior.

From the Guardian:

We explain to residents that it’s really easy to take away a leopard but the costs are high. Mothers can be separated from their cubs. There is nowhere else to release the animals. The reason for leopards venturing out of the park is because they have plenty of stray dogs to prey on. The reason there are numerous stray dogs is because of rubbish. Once we explain the situation to them, they understand.

—Vidya Venkatesh, IT professional and volunteer coordinator

Perhaps more importantly, a seminar aimed at journalists to promote the responsible reporting of leopard incidents attracted around 30 reporters. It is often media that inflames fears and panic concerning leopards. Plainly, it is education that is the answer to the survival of this beautiful big cat — and it’s not just poor villagers that need to be educated on the subject.

A leopard in Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve, Nagarhole, Kabini, Karnataka, India. Pic: Srikaanth Sekar (Flickr CC)

A leopard in Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve, Nagarhole, Kabini, Karnataka, India. Pic: Srikaanth Sekar (Flickr CC)

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What is the price of a tiger’s life? Wed, 07 Jan 2015 08:00:25 +0000

The largest of the big cats, the tiger is a critically endangered species — its numbers having dropped from circa 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to less than 4,000 wild individuals today. Tigers once lived across Asia, but have been wiped out from nearly all of their original habitats, remaining only in small pockets of South and Southeast Asia, Siberia and China. Their range spans 13 countries in total. Habitat destruction, competition with humans, trophy hunting and traditional medicine have all contributed to the tiger’s steep decline.

In India, where at least half of the world’s wild tigers live and enjoy greater protection than anywhere else, economic development an ever-growing human population is still a large threat to the big cat’s survival. A tiger was recently killed in a wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka after it killed two women. The tiger killed the first woman in a village 300km from the sanctuary, after which authorities captured and relocated it. Yet nervous locals spotted the tiger several times and one biologist expressed concern that it had lost its fear of humans. On December 24 the tiger killed again, this time a pregnant woman who was gathering water from a stream. After a massive four-day hunt involving hundreds of officials and tribal trackers, the tiger was shot dead.

Siberian tigers at Zürich zoo in Switzerland. Pic: Tambako The Jaguar (Flickr CC)

Siberian tigers at Zürich zoo in Switzerland. Pic: Tambako The Jaguar (Flickr CC)

Meanwhile, far to the north, a Siberian tiger released by Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to have killed at least 15 goats in northeastern China, while another raided a farm, eating five chickens. Another Siberian tiger reportedly killed a horse in the city of Mudanjiang.

What is a tiger’s life worth? One person’s? Two? Many people whose land overlaps tiger habitat would sooner see the tigers disappear than live in fear of losing livestock and even their own lives.

Yet tigers are hardly a menace on any significant scale and as a species have certainly come up short in their struggle to survive on a planet dominated by humanity. People have not learned how to live alongside large and dangerous predators. These animals need their space and their prey. India has reserved significant amounts of land as tiger sanctuaries, even going so far as to only allow tourism on 20% of this territory. Nonetheless, conflicts still arise between tiger and human. Some instances, like the above tragedies, are simple brutal facts of life: Poor rural villagers crossed the path of a desensitized tiger and paid with their lives. In fact, technology meant to keep track of the tiger’s whereabouts failed to do its job — the radio collar the tiger in Karnataka was wearing stopped working. Normally, however, the conflict between man and beast is one sided, with humans as the clear and ruthless aggressors.

A tiger sanctuary in India's Kerala state. Pic: Prashanth dotcompals (Flickr CC)

A tiger sanctuary in India’s Kerala state. Pic: Prashanth dotcompals (Flickr CC)

In a global system that commodifies everything in order to make maximum profit, it’s not so strange that tigers are more valued for their potential exploitation than for their contribution to biodiversity. This is a dog-eat-dog world and capitalism likes it that way.

Thousands of tigers are kept in cramped and often cruel conditions as pets or lucrative attractions. In the US alone, there are more tigers kept in backyards than live in the wild worldwide. But even more sinister are Asia’s tiger farms, which legally raise the big cats for their pelts and sometimes illegally for use in traditional medicines. For those involved in the breeding of tigers for commercial purposes, for those who poach tigers from wildlife sanctuaries, sell their pelts or body parts for bogus remedies, a tiger’s life can be worth quite a lot — both alive and dead.

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Remembering Aceh: 10 years since the Indian Ocean tsunami Thu, 25 Dec 2014 23:45:33 +0000

Today ambassadors, officials and NGOs from the international community are attending a 10-year anniversary commemoration of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province. Of the near 230,000 deaths caused by the tsunami, around 167,000 were in Indonesia, by far the largest share of the 14 countries hit by the deadliest disaster of its kind in known history. 10 years later, how has Indonesia, especially Aceh, moved on? How are the victims being remembered?

READ MORE: Remembering Aceh: 10 years since the Indian Ocean tsunami

Aceh is where the tsunami caused the most death and destruction. It is also the center of so-called “memory tourism”. While what is sometimes known as disaster tourism can feed off people’s fascination with social and physical collapse of a location — holidays in Chernobyl, tours of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans or similar visits to various toxic wastelands — the main concept of memory tourism are to preserve the stories of both survivors and those who perished. It also serves to bring economic recovery to affected areas. The Aceh Tsunami Museum — along with landmarks like a massive barge that was stranded 5 km inland and a fishing boat that has sat atop a house since powerful waves hoisted it there some 10 years ago — are major spots of memory tourism in the province. The fishing boat is significant not only for its current curious location, but because it was used as an unlikely shelter for people fleeing the rapidly encroaching sea.

New houses in Aceh. Pic:  Julien Harneis (Flickr CC)

New houses in Aceh. Pic: Julien Harneis (Flickr CC)

From Global News:

The wooden vessel was washed inland on a wave believed to be about 15 metres high, pushed about one kilometre from where it was docked. Be it luck or fate, 59 lives were saved because of that boat slamming into that building and coming to a halt. Those survivors escaped the rising waters by climbing to the roof of the concrete building, today just a shell of what it was, and onto the boat.

The practical economic windfalls of memory tourism should not overshadow the potential psychological benefits it provides for tsunami survivors who had their lives ripped from them in an instant, without opportunity to bid farewell to loved ones, homes, jobs and possessions.

READ MORE: In pictures: Remembering the Asian tsunami

Besides memory tourism, other legacies of the tsunami in Aceh include a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement and a higher degree of self-government. Yet besides some physical and emotional reminders of the disaster, Banda Aceh has been almost totally rebuilt. New construction has also changed the countryside and mangroves have been planted to help guard against future tsunamis. The heaps of rubbish have largely disappeared, washed out to sea or sometimes recycled.

From the Weather Channel:

Three months after the tsunami, the UNDP started a $40.5 million recycling program that employed 400,000 temporary workers to pluck wood and stone from the rubble and use the materials to rebuild roads and houses as well as to make furniture. The recycled waste was used to reconstruct 62 miles of roads and manufacture 12,000 pieces of wooden furniture […]

Thanks to help from the United Nations Development Program, locals received specialized training in overseeing waste disposal and recycling. Some 1.3 million cubic yards of debris were cleared in Banda Aceh alone, with an impressive 67,000 tons of it recycled and repurposed for sale in local markets.

Despite dramatic recovery, deep wounds such as those caused by such a major disaster, take a long time to heal. Countless livelihoods were lost and families torn apart. Some of them never gave up hope. The tale of a family reunited after nearly a decade after the tsunami struck, as told in the New Statesman, makes for an inspiring read. If only all such stories had a similar happy ending.

Post tsunami destruction in Banda Aceh. Pic: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Alan D. Monyelle

Post tsunami destruction in Banda Aceh. Pic: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Alan D. Monyelle

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Indonesia: Report highlights link between palm oil and illegal logging Thu, 18 Dec 2014 22:00:51 +0000

Palm oil — that nearly ubiquitous ingredient found in processed foods, hygiene products and cosmetics — fuels air and water pollution, climate change, extinction and human rights violations. A multi-billion-dollar industry, “big palm” has the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, where around 80% of the world’s palm oil is produced, in its pocket. This means there has been little enforcement of laws that protect the environment and people from a destructive sector that is both incredibly powerful and poorly regulated.

I’ve ranted about palm oil and crony capitalism in the past and offered tips on how to avoid unsustainable palm products, but this is an ongoing crisis with new developments that demand our attention. Orangutans are going extinct, the continued survival of Sumatran elephants and tigers is threatened, indigenous people are being pushed off their land and pollution from land-clearing forest fires periodically causes hazardous air quality levels in places like Singapore. And then there is climate change. Massive deforestation and peatland CO2 emissions from the palm oil industry are driving what many scientists believe to be the major environmental and humanitarian crisis of our times.

Recently planted palm oil plantation on rainforest peatland, Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Pic: Glenn Hurowitz (Flickr CC)

Recently planted palm oil plantation on rainforest peatland, Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Pic: Glenn Hurowitz (Flickr CC)

A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) explains how corruption and a lack of law enforcement are facilitating rampant illegal deforestation in Indonesia. The report, titled, “Permitting Crime: How Palm Oil Expansion Drives Illegal Logging in Indonesia” explores how regulations on palm oil cultivation, such as the granting of licenses, are routinely ignored in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan, resulting in the wanton destruction of some of the country’s richest and most biodiverse rainforest land. Crimes include government buyouts and police bribes by palm oil firms, as well as local governments transferring millions of dollars in resources from local communities to private companies.

From the report:

The unprecedented growth of plantations has been characterised by illegality. Successive attempts to bring some semblance of order to land acquisition practices and deforestation have been undermined by a combination of corruption and incompetence, resulting in the exploitation of forest dwellers and driving rates of deforestation to the highest in the world.

While we hope such reports will affect change on governmental, consumer and corporate levels, sometimes such facts and figures as detailed in the report fail to touch the hearts of those who feel removed from what is essentially happening half a world away. Therefore, stories such as what happened to one female orangutan earlier this month might serve to shock and sicken some of us into caring and perhaps even acting on the palm oil issue. The female orangutan was found on a palm plantation owned by Makin Group in Central Kalimantan and taken in by the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation. She was starving, all of her limbs were broken and over 40 shotgun pellets were found in her body. Unsurprisingly, the orangutan did not survive.

Despite the fact that orangutans are protected by Indonesian law, such events are widespread.

From the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation:

The BOS Foundation already has a long list of orangutans they have rescued from various oil palm plantations owned by Makin Group. Until the time this news was released, the total number of orangutans rescued from Makin Group plantations is 166. A total of 100 individuals have been successfully translocated into protected forests in the surrounding areas. Nineteen individuals eventually died including this last victim. While 47 are still being cared for by BOS Foundation in Nyaru Menteng, 44 of which are releasable and awaiting their turn to return to the wild, and 3 will not be able to be released and must remain in Nyaru Menteng for the rest of their lives.

We hope that Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, puts “peat before palm oil” and that multinationals like Unilever and Cargill “green their palm oil chain”, but forgive us if we are skeptical of actions within a system that places profit over people, the present over the future and treats nature as a disposable commodity to be used and abused without consequence.

Pic: Victor Ulijn (Flickr CC)

Pic: Victor Ulijn (Flickr CC)

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In light of Lima: China and Latin America’s climate conundrum Thu, 11 Dec 2014 22:00:31 +0000

As China asserts itself as an increasingly dominant global power, its government, businesses and individuals are forging stronger relationships throughout the world. As pointed out in a new book by U.S. scholar Evan Ellis, this increasing international interdependence signals a new direction for China, which has traditionally tended towards economic independence and political non-intervention. This change is generally driven by economic growth, particularly the thirst for resources. Chinese presence has been increasing significantly in Latin America, especially in terms of oil, farming and mineral extraction.

While Ellis offers plenty of insight into the developing relationship, an article in China Dialogue points out his book’s lack of focus on human rights and environmental issues. There is often the risk in developing countries of domestic national and local governments ignoring indigenous rights — including the ecological health of their lands — for the purpose foreign investment. Whereas Ellis does not believe that China will involve itself politically to the extent of supporting coups in Latin America as the US did with Operation Condor, China Dialogue points out that not taking advantage of illegal behavior vis-à-vis indigenous rights presents one of the most important challenges in Sino-Latin American relations.

Pic: UNclimatechange (Flickr CC)

Pic: UNclimatechange (Flickr CC)

An article by Responding to Climate Change focuses on the largely fossil fuel- and mineral-based relationship as central to the current UN climate talks in Lima. Since this relationship is based on the least climate friendly of industries, it’s easy to take a cynical view of the Lima conference. This is especially so in light of upcoming meetings like China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum will probably ramp up the current agro-oil-mineral trend.

With slower economic growth forecasts worrying finance and trade ministries in China and Latin America, the Forum’s discussions will probably focus on boosting growth which puts climate change at risk of falling off of the agenda completely.

— Responding to Climate Change

On the other hand, increased development in renewable energy in Latin America, with investment from China, has huge growth potential, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Whether the players step up is another matter altogether.

It is important to measure the climate-based alliances at the talks as well. The largest player, Brazil, is part of the BASIC group of negotiators, which along with South Africa and India, also includes China. Peru, the host country, while in favor of expanding oil and gas operations in the Amazon, is contrastingly part of the Association of Independent Latin American and Caribbean states negotiating group.

From the Guardian:

Peru is a member of the AILAC bloc of six Latin American nations who are pushing for aggressive emission cuts not only by rich countries, but by big emerging economies such as China and Brazil. The member states – also including Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama – are neither very rich, nor very poor and most sit close to the equator, hence their claim to represent the “beautiful middle” in the talks, between the extremes of north and south.

At times China’s behavior goes both ways at once. It leads in the development and sheer scale of renewable energy technology, but also on carbon intensive energy production. Furthermore, China’s recent emissions-limiting agreement with the US is heartening, but some experts doubt that it’s even achievable. One thing is for sure, the country that Napoleon once called a “sleeping giant” is still in the process of awakening from its long slumber.

Mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Pic: Geoff Gallice (Flickr CC)

Mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Pic: Geoff Gallice (Flickr CC)

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Climate change: Is Asia’s growing meat consumption the elephant in the room? Thu, 04 Dec 2014 22:00:04 +0000

While most people are aware of the environmental impact of fossil fuels, far fewer make the connection between climate change and diet. A new report from London-based NGO Chatham House seeks to shed a light on how a global increase in meat consumption is creating a sharp rise in the production of greenhouse gases and how this is directly facilitated by a lack of public awareness about the connection between the two. As I wrote earlier this year, the growth of Western-style industrial livestock farming in Asia — particularly China and India — poses significant risks in terms of human health, deforestation and climate change. According to the German publication Meat Atlas, 80% of the global growth in meat consumption over the next few years will take place in Asia.

The Chatham House report points out that the global livestock industry produces as much greenhouse gas emissions as all transport — airplanes, ships, automobiles and trains — put together, yet a survey showed that twice as many respondents believed transport to be more powerful climate driver than animal farming.

Via the Guardian:

Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little. A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.

—Rob Bailey, lead author of Chatham House’s “Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption”

Non-industrialized cattle farming in Inner Mongolia, China. Pic: Herry Lawford (Flickr CC)

Non-industrialized cattle farming in Inner Mongolia, China. Pic: Herry Lawford (Flickr CC)

So why is the public so unaware of the environmental impact of raising livestock? Apparently, consumers are perceived to be far more protective and sensitive about what they eat than how they travel or how things are sent from A to B. This is not surprising, since diet is more personal and linked to identity than transport, in all its variety of forms and purposes. Governments, Green groups and of course companies are aware of this sensitivity and fear a backlash if they were to use facts about the connection between meat and the climate to further any sort of Green agenda. In other words, if a political party were to recommend a reduction in meat consumption, they might receive fewer votes, not to mention financial support from the agricultural industry. Similarly, environmental groups, often the target of public ire for pointing out “inconvenient truths”, have largely chosen to focus on less personal lifestyle habits and political mechanisms than those related to diet.

Yet if the public doesn’t know that what they eat may be hurting the future of the planet, there is precious little chance they will do anything to affect change in terms of their diet or political activity.

From the report:

Consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives. Closing the awareness gap is therefore likely to be an important precondition for behaviour change.

While the Chatham House report focuses on how those responsible for informing public opinion are not living up to their responsibilities, which in turn results in a “remarkable lack” of public policies designed to cut down on the demand for meat consumption, it does not — as Meat Atlas does — name Asia as a meat production and consumption hot spot for growth. Of course, as is the case with carbon emissions from other industries, it is not simply about an increase in meat eating in developing nations. Rich, industrialized countries must also curb established societal, industrial and political behaviors and policies.

McDonald's in Noida, India. Pic: Subbu Arumugam (Flickr CC)

McDonald’s in Noida, India. Pic: Subbu Arumugam (Flickr CC)

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China lake: ‘If you jumped into this water, you’d shed a layer of skin’ Thu, 27 Nov 2014 04:27:41 +0000
A fisherman fetches water affected by blue-green algae in Lake Tai, in China's Jiangsu province. Pic: AP.

A fisherman fetches water affected by blue-green algae in Lake Tai, in China’s Jiangsu province. Pic: AP.

So says Wu Lihong, the unofficial guardian of China’s Lake Tai, a polluted body of water in Jiansu province. Long stigmatized due its algae-induced green hue, Lake Tai (or Taihu), is a testament to the government not delivering on promises of environmental clean-up. Seven years ago a toxic algal bloom forced residents to find alternatives to their tap water for drinking and prompted the government to undertake an expensive cleaning of the lake. However, the sources of pollution, such as chemical plants and textile factories, have seemingly continued virtually unabated, shining a stark light on local government’s inefficacy at tackling such problems at their source.

Normally, Taihu’s algae-choked waters clear up after the summer heat subsides, but plastic waste now chokes the lake, with dead fish and algal blooms creating a foul smell that plagues China’s third-largest body of ‘fresh’ water.

While the national government of China has come down hard on pollution and has written relatively strict regulations for industry, local government often circumvents or blocks the environmental efforts of the ruling Communist Party. The National People’s Congress named Wu Lihong an “environmental warrior” back in 2005, but Wu’s confrontations with local polluters have earned him some powerful local enemies. Local officials have routinely harassed and followed Wu, even going so far as to detain and torture the clean water activist.

A dead fish is seen next to the blue-green algae bloom affecting Lake Tai. Pic: AP.

A dead fish is seen next to the blue-green algae bloom affecting Lake Tai. Pic: AP.

Wu’s experience exemplifies the problem of China’s national government, which is often depicted as having deep pockets and acting efficiently autocratic, but in reality struggles to enforce rule of law, especially on a local level.

If with all their wealth, the Communist Party can’t clean up this lake, it tells you the problem is much bigger. I’ve come to realize the root of the problem is the system itself.

—Wu Lihong (via the New York Times)

A 2011 piece from Yale Environment 360 confirms the commitment of China’s national government to cleaning up Taihu, a symbol of the ecological consequences of the country’s rapid economic and industrial growth. The report states that in order to save the lake, many polluting factories were forced to close.

Restoring Taihu to a truly healthy state, however, will be a steeper challenge. Money is not an issue:

The central government, through its Ministry of Environmental Protection, plans to allot $155 million over the next 5 years to clean up Taihu. The ministry is now drafting a work plan. But the challenge, says Qin, will be to pinpoint sources of nitrogen and phosphorous to better stem their flow into the lake.

—Yale Environment 360

The kinds of algal blooms that plague Lake Tai are by no means limited to the People’s Republic of China. Lakes on all continents have experienced similar crises, from Japan’s major lakes to Africa’s famed Lake Victoria. According to University of North Carolina marine biologist Hans Paerl, cyanobacteria cause $2bn in water pollution-related damages per year in the United States alone.

Other efforts to clean up Taihu have included the reintroduction of marcophytes such as water chesnuts and lotus plants, which inhibit algal growth, but do not grow well in polluted water. Furthermore, back in 2010, 10 million green and silver algae-eating green and silver carp were also released into the water, although some forms of algae, such as Mycrocystis, are not hindered by silver carp.

Fortunately, there are dedicated activists like Wu Lihong to continue the fight for clean water in China, which millions depend upon for their health and livelihoods.

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Reactions to Japan’s new whaling target Wed, 19 Nov 2014 00:50:59 +0000

In hopes of resuming its controversial Antarctic whale hunt, the Japanese government has announced that it will slash its yearly quota for minke whales by nearly two thirds, down to 333. Last year the Japanese Fisheries Agency had a goal of harpooning 855 minke whales, 50 humpback whales and 10 fin whales, though their efforts fell far short, at least partly due to the efforts of anti-whaling activist group Sea Shepherd.

Still operating under the guise of “scientific research”, the new proposal would aim to kill nearly 4,000 whales in Antarctic waters over the next 12 years. The scaled back plan is apparently a move to restart what was ruled illegal by an international court back in March. The case against Japan was brought by Australia to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and was supported by New Zealand.

A Sea Shepherd boat is water cannoned while attempting to disrupt the whaling activities of the Japanese Yushin Maru. Pic: Steve Roest/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

A Sea Shepherd boat is water cannoned while attempting to disrupt the whaling activities of the Japanese Yushin Maru. Pic: Steve Roest/Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Australia’s center-right Liberal-led coalition government has been notoriously poor on environmental issues since taking power over a year ago, though it still pays lip service to the anti-whaling position. However, Environment Minister Greg Hunt had trouble putting his money where his mouth is regarding the customs ship slated to monitor Japan’s whaling efforts in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary. It may be unlikely that strong political pressure will come from the Australian government in light of Japan’s new “research proposal” and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent anti-environmental crusade.

The onus is on our prime minister to tell his Japanese counterpart that Australia won’t stand idly by and watch whalers return to the Southern Ocean. We need to tell Japan we are deeply unhappy they have put forward a so-called scientific plan so soon after such a damning judgment against them.

—Darren Kindleysides, director, Australian Marine Conservation Society (via the Guardian)

Australia’s Green Party, with support from other parties, is putting pressure on the government to get more involved in the Southern Ocean whaling issue by spearheading a recent Senate report, including bringing up that all-but-abandoned election promise of Tony Abbott to send a ship to monitor the region. The report also warned against cuts in non-lethal whale research and encouraged lifting diplomatic engagement with Japan.

In the new proposal, Japan itself has added non-lethal whale research, though Greenpeace Japan activists are skeptical of any real change. They communicated their objections in a press release (via Science Insider):

Even though the new research plan announced today emphasizes the addition of non-lethal research, the previous survey’s main objective of continuing whaling is not changed in any way. It is widely understood that this project uses large amounts of tax monies to protect the interests of the whaling industry.

—Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan

Japan will present its proposal to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a body which Japan belongs to, but is without actual legal authority to stop the country’s scientific whaling program.

Whale meat on sale in Tokyo. Pic: Jessica Spengler (Flickr CC)

Whale meat on sale in Tokyo. Pic: Jessica Spengler (Flickr CC)

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Analysis: China-US climate deal is groundbreaking, but is it enough? Thu, 13 Nov 2014 03:36:54 +0000

The two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, China and the United States, have reached an unprecedented agreement to limit their emissions. The “secret” meetings between representatives of the two economic and industrial giants resulted in U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jingping to sign a deal for the following:

  • The U.S. will cut its emissions by 26-28% compared to 2005 levels by 2025.
  • China, for the first time, will cap its emissions and raise its proportion of zero-emission energy to 20% by no later than 2030.

More details on the deal and the establishment of several joint efforts between China and the U.S. can be seen in a press release on the official Whitehouse website. Efforts will include increased tech exchange and more trade in “green goods”.

What will the deal mean in real terms?

However, as unprecedented and welcome the China-U.S. agreement may be, it is not urgent or sufficient enough to stop the “severe, widespread and irreversible” impacts of climate change, as detailed by the latest and most comprehensive report by the IPCC. Yes, leaders are acting, as U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon urged following the report’s release, and this should be welcomed. But are even these relatively modest moves (the European Union endorses a 40% emissions cut by 2030) achievable in countries which are notorious for not enforcing existing emissions rules (China) and largely under the political influence of corporations who actively fight the science behind climate change as well as any regulations based on that science (US)?

Coal plant in Inner Mongolia, PRC. Pic: Gustavo Madico (Flickr CC)

Coal plant in Inner Mongolia. Pic: Gustavo Madico (Flickr CC)

From Vox:

It’s also debatable whether either pledge is sufficient to avoid drastic levels of global warming — particularly if China lets its emissions keep rising until 2030. Some analyses have suggested that China’s emissions would need to peak in 2025 or earlier for the world to meet its goal of preventing more than 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming. (The White House said it thinks China can peak earlier, particularly if it meets that ambitious clean-energy target. But that’s not certain.)

As this piece in Time Magazine sets out, many experts see the U.S.-China goals as extremely difficult to achieve with the above-mentioned obstacles in place. According to one source, it will mean the U.S. doubling its speed of CO2 reduction and China deploying “zero-emission” power generation that exceeds that of its current massive coal plant arsenal.

The politics

Both the upper and lower houses of the U.S. congress are now controlled by a party that is chock full of politicians who either profess not to believe in climate change, minimize humanity’s role or are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry — usually a combination of at least two of these. China, on the other hand, can sometimes make things happen when it needs to, as exemplified by the recent, albeit temporary, de-smogging of Beijing. However, a long-term and countrywide reduction of emissions depends on a lot less corruption and a lot more compliance with rules than what exists in China today.

Forgive me for being cynical of both China and the U.S. when I side with the skeptics.

Port of Tacoma, Washington, USA. Pic: Ingrid Taylar (Flickr CC)

Port of Tacoma, Washington, USA. Pic: Ingrid Taylar (Flickr CC)

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Climate change report: What are Asia’s risks? Wed, 05 Nov 2014 22:00:12 +0000

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a synthesis report on the findings of over 800 scientists regarding the impacts of climate change. The report, which was released on November 3 in Copenhagen, uses strong language to describe risks deriving from hazards, vulnerability and exposure. It also explores the benefits of mitigation and adaptation policies, such as reforestation, water management, planning for sea level rises and public health measures.

Since the document is a summary of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, the synthesis report refers to more general information rather than location- or region-specific findings. But what do these latest and most definitive findings mean for the Asia-Pacific region, according to the source material for the report?

Sand traps in the Tibetan Desert. Pic: Bernt Rostad (Flickr CC)

Sand traps in the Tibetan Desert. Pic: Bernt Rostad (Flickr CC)

Here are some highlights gleaned from the IPCC’s research:

  • Within the next 50 years temperatures are predicted to increase significantly (by 2-4°C) across much of Asia, including China, Mongolia. Nepal, Bhutan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran, with disrupting changes in precipitation.
  • Much of Southeast Asia will see a reduction in rainfall by 10-20% during the month of March, while parts of China and South, Central and Western Asia will see increases of 30% during September. These changes will affect soil moisture, which is predicted to decrease in most areas, disrupting farming, while rivers are expected to carry less water. Decreased precipitation will lead to increased water scarcity in Northern China.
  • Permafrost in Northern Asia will thaw by up to 90% by the end of the century, eroding and changing the landscape.
  • South and Southeast Asia will bear the brunt of fish stock reductions. Rice crop losses due to rising temperatures will affect the same area along with western Japan and eastern China.
  • Flood risks are expected to rise significantly in Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai, three of the world’s five larges cities.
  • Tropical diseases like dengue fever and schistosomiasis are expected to increase in range.

(source: China Dialogue)

Purnamita Dasgupta, an environmental economist and member of the core writing team for the IPCC’s synthesis report, was interviewed by India Today about the effects of climate change on India and Asia, where she says up to 80% more of the population could be at risk from sea level rise by 2050.

There are observed adverse impacts on food production in India that are attributable to climate change. Among the projected future risks for Asia, are increased flood damage to infrastructure, livelihood and settlements; heat related human mortality, increased drought related water and food shortage.

—Purnamita Dasgupta

Meanwhile, as Australia feeds Asia’s increasing appetite for cheap energy with its burgeoning coal exports, carbon emissions continue to rise dramatically. The IPCC stresses that emissions from fossil fuels, mainly from coal, gas and oil, must be drastically cut in order to avoid the risks mentioned above.

Monsoon floods in Kanchipuram, India. Pic: McKay Savage (Flickr CC)

Monsoon floods in Kanchipuram, India. Pic: McKay Savage (Flickr CC)

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Australia and climate change: When voting fails, divest Thu, 30 Oct 2014 22:00:00 +0000

Last week’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher featured an interview with Harvard University Student and activist Chloe Maxmin on the power of student-led divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Divestment is not simply “giving up on voting”, but rather using another tool in the array of options for democratic influence on what is a) happening to our planet and b) what our own money is being used for. The goals of Divest Harvard are for the “number one” university in the world to stop any further investments in fossil fuel companies, to divest their $11.8 million in holdings from the top 200 public traded fossil fuel companies, as well as their indirect holdings within a span of five years, which would be reinvested in socially responsible funds.

When governments fail to act in the interest of a country’s residents — whom they are meant to be beholden to — it falls upon citizens to find alternative ways to exercise their democratic rights. When the real influence on government policy comes from business interests — who finance campaigns, participate in back room deals and effectively own the “democratic” process — voting unfortunately has little impact. Nonetheless, many people consider the vote to be the be-all end-all of the democratic process. This is an extremely limited view and one that is very useful to those who hold the real reins of power.

Anglesea coal mine. Pic: John Englart (Flickr CC)

Anglesea coal mine. Pic: John Englart (Flickr CC)

Throughout history it has often been students who have had the energy, idealism and thinking to challenge the status quo. They are not yet bogged down by jobs, family responsibilities and cynicism, nor have their hopes been crushed by a system that suppresses the influence of the common people. Time and time again, progressive movements rely on solidarity between students and other people-power groups, such as trade unionists.

In Australia, where the warnings of the scientific community are ignored and the interests of the natural world and the country’s human inhabitants are routinely shafted by the government in favor of wealthy fossil fuel industries, divestment is increasingly becoming the tool of preference for democratic action on climate change.

From the Guardian:

In response to the fossil fuel free divestment campaign, the pride of the Australian education system, the Australian National University (ANU), finally caved to pressure and decided to engage the services of a socially responsible investment analyst firm to look at climate change issues.

This analysis resulted in ANU divesting from seven resource companies — a modest removal of $16m out of a $1.1bn AUD portfolio. But what was really telling was not the small victory of divestment, but the harsh reaction of the government to the move, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott calling it “stupid”. But is it stupid? It’s certainly more democratic than anything he’s ever done. After all, 82% of the ANU student body supports divestment from fossil fuels.

Abbott’s “stupid” comment referred to what he “believes” to be a financially irresponsible move to pension holders, whose portfolios are on average very entrenched in carbon-exposed investments. In the eyes of the coal-happy Liberal-led coalition government, even in light of a 40% decline in coal prices since 2011, a move away from fossil fuels to environmentally and socially responsible investments is “stupid”. Even when investment in low-carbon alternatives makes up only 2% of portfolios?

No one believes this mild concession by ANU to the widely supported divestment movement is stupid. Abbott and his coal industry masters just want more money and they don’t care about anything else, including democracy and the environment, which — judging solely on their policies — they must really hate.

Pic: John Englart (Flickr CC)

Pic: John Englart (Flickr CC)

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Research: Asia most vulnerable to climate change Mon, 27 Oct 2014 22:00:51 +0000

Populations living in low-lying, coastal Asian cities are at most risk from the effects of climate change, according to a report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” presented last March at the climate talks in Yokohama Japan. The report warns that Asia’s coastline is the region of the globe most vulnerable to future flooding, famine and rising sea levels. These threats — associated with rising temperatures accelerated by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels — will put hundreds of millions of people in peril.

Other threats in the region associated with climate change include exacerbated food security, hunger, poverty and economic stagnation.

The report clarifies:

The majority of it will be in east, south-east and south Asia. Some small island states are expected to face very high impacts.

Heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, as well as drought and water scarcity, pose risks in urban areas with risks amplified for those lacking essential infrastructure and services or living in exposed areas.

— Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

2013 flooding in northern India. Pic: Diario Critico Venezuela

2013 flooding in northern India. Pic: Diario Critico Venezuela

Since March’s climate summit, further research has highlighted Asia’s vulnerability to climate change. A new report published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 from a Climate Perspective”, found that while all extreme weather events cannot be linked to human activity, the 2013 heat waves in Australia and Asia were made more severe by human-caused climate change. Research compiled in the report linked both the likelihood and seriousness of the Asia-Pacific region’s extreme temperatures to climate change, but had more difficulty measuring human influence on droughts, storms and heavy rains. However, the study examined four extreme weather events of last year in Asia and found that while natural variability was the prime cause of each event, human activity had influenced its strength or increased its likelihood. This included increased stronger rains in northern India along with extreme hot spells in Japan, Korea and Eastern China.

A lead editor of the report and principal scientist at NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center, Thomas Peterson, was interviewed by Deutsche Welle on the subject:

The report found that long duration heat waves during the summer and prevailing warmth for annual conditions are becoming increasingly likely due to a warming planet, as much as 10 times more likely due to the current cumulative effects of human-induced climate change, as found for the Korean heat wave of summer 2013.

Another recent report warns that climate change may affect Asian rice yields. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, which came out earlier this month, names western Japan, eastern China, south Indochina and northern South Asia as the regions with rice yields most vulnerable to climate change. On the other hand, wheat and maize farmers in the mountainous parts of Pakistan may experience bumper crops from changing climactic patterns. The report furthermore stated that Asia was the region with the largest amount of weather- and climate-related disasters during the years of 2000-2008, with high levels of economic loss and flood-related mortality.

Finally, research from the University of Tokyo found that the decline of Arctic sea ice had doubled the risk of harsh winters in both Asia and Europe over the past 10 years. The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience and led by researcher Masato Mori, may lead some to believe that global warming has stopped because it seems counter intuitive to link cold winters with warming temperatures, but scientists warn against this kind of overly simplistic assumption. While the rise in average surface temperatures has slowed since 2000, Arctic temperatures have continued to warm rapidly.

Rice fields in the shadow of Mt. Iwaki, Aomori, Japan. Pic: (Flickr CC)

Rice fields in the shadow of Mt. Iwaki, Aomori, Japan. Pic: Japanexperterna (Flickr CC)


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