Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Throughout history, both real and manufactured issues related to population have often been used to justify racism, exploitation, and worse. This means that any discussion of population issues today must be particularly sensitive and we must always be aware of the potential for such discussions to be misused by those with other agendas. At the same time, however, this is not a topic we can afford to ignore either, especially as human impact on the environment is continuing to accelerate, and the planet's ability to support its human population in being reduced.

There is no question that humans have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, or that our actions are continuing to reduce that carrying capacity even further. That fact alone, however, does not necessarily mean that the planet is overpopulated. It just means that we are consuming renewable resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished and we are generating waste at a faster rate than it can be absorbed by the planet, even as we are rapidly depleting our non-renewable resources. In other words, we are not living sustainably.

If global industrial activity were largely absent, and the average level of consumption was much lower, it is at least theoretically possible that the current human population could live sustainably, below the carrying capacity of the planet. With each passing year, however, this possibility grows ever more remote, as more species go extinct, more land turns to desert, and more carbon gets pumped into the atmosphere. As our population continues to grow, and some parts of this population continues to increase its levels of consumption, the remote must eventually give way to the impossible.

Of course, while many of us in the West are concerned about sustainability, billions of people around the world are more concerned with having enough food to eat, and access to clean drinking water, let alone a good education for their children and decent medical care. It is easy for us to talk about overpopulation, while at the same time some of our pets have a greater impact on the environment than many of these people. The reality is that many discussions about overpopulation are not really about too many people, but about too many of the wrong type of people.

The western nations represent about fifteen percent of the world's population, yet they are responsible for the vast majority of global environmental damage and carbon emissions, both today and historically. So, if we have a population problem, the problem is us. Our per-capita consumption, energy use, and carbon emissions are an order of magnitude higher than the global average. If we want humanity to be able to live within the carrying capacity of the planet, the most effective way to get there is to make drastic changes here at home. This means a dramatic cut in industrial activity, energy use and consumption, as well as extensive conservation efforts.

Perversely, some people and groups that purport to be concerned about the environment use Western excess as an argument for strong anti-immigration policies. Yes, our culture is extremely environmentally destructive, they argue, so we must prevent more people from moving to our countries and integrating into that culture! These are frequently the same people who argue that overpopulation is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.

It is also important to recognize that the West has some degree of responsibility for the rapid population growth of many third world populations. Historical trends clearly show that population growth levels off, and sometimes even turns negative, in developed countries. Yet, the process of development in dozens of countries was interrupted, or brutally reversed, through hundreds of years of colonialism. Local industries were destroyed, and diverse, self-sufficient economies were often eliminated in order to focus production on a single profitable export (the so-called Banana Republics). We should also remember that before the Americas were colonized, many indigenous groups had relatively stable populations for thousands of years.

Education is also a key factor in population growth. As populations, and especially women, become better educated, they generally choose to have fewer children. For example, while India is known for its rapid population growth, the state of Kerala has the lowest growth rate in the country, and it is continuing to fall. As detailed in David Attenborough's recent documentary, How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?, the state has an excellent education system, and women are particularly well educated. It has a very high literacy rate, and women get married 10 years later than the national average. In Kerala, most families have only one or two children, with an average of just 1.5.

Unfortunately, in many cases, public education has been deliberately undermined by Western policies. Aid packages, from the World Bank, for example, often mandate "structural reforms" that require the defunding of public education. If we are truly concerned with reducing population growth, we should, at least, remove such conditions, or better yet, increase education funding, without strings, to countries around the world. We also need to stop political interference in poor countries that already have excellent education systems, or those that are trying to build them.

During the sixties and seventies, concern about population growth, expressed in Paul R. Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb, for example, led to support for some extremely disturbing programs of forced contraception and sterilization (mostly directed towards women). Much of this is well-documented is Betsy Hartmann's book, Reproductive Rights & Wrongs. Later in the eighties, as the religious right gained power in the US, strong anti-abortion and anti-contraception policies were pursued.

So, we have another perverse situation where people in the third world were, at one time or another, either being told that contraception was evil and denied access to it, or it was being literally forced on them. Where was their right to choose? Studies show that when people are well educated, however, and access to contraception is freely available, people will choose to use it. The solution is simply to give people information and make tools available to them, and respect their right to make their own choices.

None of this tragic history, of course, negates the fact that population size is a real issue in much of the third world today. Population pressures were a factor in the recent and ongoing genocides in Africa, although of course many other issues, including colonial legacies, were also involved. Many countries are having trouble producing enough food, although again, this is made worse by climate change and other environmental problems. The increase in urban populations is another serious issue, which has been partly caused by western trade policies (grain so cheap that third world farmers cannot make a living) and by corporations buying up foreign land and pushing local people off it.

It is also clear that many third world countries are also responsible for extensive environmental damage. Populations are growing and many people want to emulate the rest of us, so they are trying to rapidly industrialize and increase their levels of consumption. This has led to massive deforestation, habitat destruction and soaring rates of extinction. Industrial agriculture is expanding, and turning much of their land to desert. Groundwater is being rapidly depleted. Perhaps many of these countries would be in much better shape without centuries of Western colonialism, but that doesn't mean they aren't responsible for their actions today.

If human history had been different, it might have been possible for a population of 7 billion to live in harmony with nature, and for the planet to support an even higher population. Of course, if history had been different, the population may have never grown to such a size in the first place. Today, however, because of the extensive and growing damage to the natural world, the idea that there may now simply be too many of us may indeed be valid. If we continue with business as usual, this will become certain.
So, what's the solution? First and foremost, the West needs to reduce its impact on the environment. This means dramatically cutting consumption and carbon emissions. It also means we need to repay our climate debt. Only once we move to true sustainability, and repay the world for the damage we've caused, will we have the moral high ground from which to criticize the environmental policies of other nations. Such a change would also likely convince many rapidly industrializing nations to take responsibility for their impact on the environment as well, and change their course.

To reduce the rate of population growth, we need to support sustainable development, health and education around the world. Much of the money we owe in terms of climate debt might be used towards this end. This doesn't mean we dictate to countries what they should do, or try to govern them ourselves. We simply need to make the resources available and leave them alone to pursue their goals. Even if they choose a form of government we don't like. Stable, healthy and well-educated societies should naturally see a decline is birth rates.

Concern about the size of the human population is legitimate, but only because we've so badly destroyed our home. For many, overpopulation is a problem because it means we might have to stop using so much more than our share. If we can somehow "reduce" the world's population, that means more resources for us. That kind of thinking leads to a very dark place. If we are genuinely concerned about overpopulation, we need to first deal with the minority of the population that is causing the most damage, and that's us.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Coal Mines and Oil Spills

There's nothing particularly new about oil and coal disasters that cost lives and cause intense environmental damage. What is unusual is for the largest consumer of these products to pay any of these costs itself, let alone even be aware of the costs. The oil rig disaster has also led to questions being asked about why we are going to such extremes to get more oil, and casts doubt on plans to widely expand offshore drilling. There have been many wakeup calls before, but this one was in our backyard.

Every year, thousands of coal miners and oil workers are killed around the world. That's a couple orders of magnitude more than the deaths in the United States. The statistics show that in recent history, from 1990 to 2000, the US has had coal mining casualties in the double digits every year, while China has consistently had casualties in the four digits. The number of annual US mining deaths, from all types of mining, has been falling continually for over 70 years. Clearly, this is a result of better safety standards, as the deaths have decreased even as coal production in the US has continue to rise.

That's not to say that the US has sufficient safety standards, of course, or that companies are properly following the standards in many cases. Recent reports have suggested there were significant safety problems at both the West Virginia coal mine and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Indeed, the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 workers were killed, had been cited for numerous safety violations and the operator of the mine is currently under a criminal probe. In the case of the oil rig, the US does not require the installation of an emergency cut-off switch, which many other countries do mandate, so the rig did not use one. Of course, there is no way to know for certain, at this point, if it would have made a difference.

The current oil spill is also unlikely to be the worst, although it is certainly very bad. It may end up worse than the Exxon Valdez spill, but that spill was far from the worst. What the Exxon and BP spills have in common is that they happened off the US coast, and are primarily impacting US citizens. Of course, the environmental impacts are also terrible, and may have a lasting global impact, and the species affected know nothing about our political boundaries.

We get big headlines when there is a large environmental disaster near the US, or when a relatively large number of US workers are killed in an accident, but is important to remember that the environmental and human impact of everyday oil drilling and coal mining, even when everything is operating completely smoothly, is much worse. The industrial processes involved in extracting all this fossil fuel, processing it, transporting it around the world, and finally burning it, has resulted in the worst environmental devastation in human history.

First, the extraction of fossil fuels has impacts on the local environment and the health of people living near these sites. As these resources are getting harder and harder to find, the extraction process is becoming ever more environmentally destructive, as we see with mountain top coal mining and the tar sands. Offshore drilling is yet another example of where we are going to extremes in order to get more fossil fuels. The Deepwater Horizon rig drilled down over 10 kilometres to find more oil.

Next, once we have these fossil fuels, we refine them, ship them and burn them. We burn them in our cars, our airplanes, our factories, and our power plants. We turn them into plastic, which we quickly discard and blanket the planet with. All these industrial processes have generated pollution, deforested and paved over the land, and pumped massive quantities of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As though the existing environmental problems were not enough, we are now faced with accelerating climate change, which we may be very soon unable to stop.

Given all these problems, why are Earth are we taking such risky and desperate measures to find even more oil from kilometres under the sea? If we were to burn "only" all the fossil fuels we've already found, the planet would become a hell. Several studies have shown that to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we can only afford to burn a fraction of our existing reserves. So why risk lives and even more environmental destruction in an endeavour that can only speed us towards our demise?

Perhaps one reason is that much of the suffering from climate change is taking place in the third world, and that's where the bulk of the impact will be in the near future. Eventually, of course, everyone will suffer, including those in rich nations, but that's something easy to ignore today. We rarely hear about mining deaths in other countries, where sometimes hundreds of miners die at a time. Similarly, we rarely hear about environmental disasters that could affect millions of poor people around the world. So long as they keep giving us the resources we want, and making cheap products for us, we're happy, and we don't care how it happened. But if some of our workers die, or our coasts get covered with oil, then we start to pay attention.

The only good news about the current oil spill is that it might result in at least a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling and the US may be forced to renounce its recently announced expansion plans. Other countries are already reconsidering similar plans. Western countries are clearly unwilling to reduce carbon emissions at anything close to the rate scientists say is necessary. That is a separate battle to be fought. But at the very least, these countries should recognize the madness and futility of more prospecting. Simply drawing down our reserves is already like playing Russian roulette. If we keep prospecting, we are just adding bullets to the chamber.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Nuclear Power

Until recently, most environmental activists and organizations were decidedly opposed to nuclear power. The issue of nuclear waste was considered a major problem, and this remains unresolved today. There was also a significant concern about the potential for accidents, especially in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Today, however, with the threat of climate change upon us, many environmentalists have, often reluctantly, concluded that nuclear may be necessary if we hope to reduce carbon emissions. Does nuclear have a place in a sustainable future, or can it at least help in a transition to such a future?

It should be clearly noted that much of the opposition to nuclear in the past wasn't just about nuclear power. In the eighties there was widespread fear of a nuclear war that could end most life on the planet. Once the cold war ended, much of this fear went away, although some of this has been returning as nuclear proliferation has been expanding. Still, while the threat of a nuclear attack may have increased, the possibility of a nuclear armageddon remains much less likely.

Nuclear waste, on the other hand, is as big a problem as ever. This waste is extremely toxic and dangerous and it needs to be stored safely for thousands of years. Despite decades of work on a safer central storage facility (Yucca Mountain), the project now appears unlikely to go ahead. Wherever the waste is stored, it needs to be monitored, facilities need to be maintained and guarded, and response teams need to be available to quickly respond to accidents or breaches due to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake.
All of this presupposes political and economic stability for thousands of years. In the case of turmoil, wars, revolutions, depressions and changes in borders and political entities, inevitable over such time periods, sites may be abandoned or even forgotten. Economic crises could mean that funding is not available to properly monitor or secure the facilities, or to clean them up in case of an accident. This is a tremendous burden we are leaving for our descendants.

Still, the argument could be made that while nuclear waste is a serious problem, if we permit global warming to accelerate out of control, the consequences will be much worse for those who follow us. Nuclear waste is a burden, but catastrophic climate change could mean mass extinction and population collapse. Millions or even billions could suffer and die. If nuclear power could help to avert global warming, then I believe the cost, both financial and human, of dealing with nuclear waste would be justified.

The threat of a nuclear meltdown is also frequently raised as a concern. Nuclear proponents have argued that this threat is overstated and sensationalized. The Chernobyl plant, for example, was a first generation nuclear power plant, poorly maintained, and very unsafely managed. The Three Mile Island accident was serious, but safety features did work as designed and there was no meltdown. There were few deaths, although studies do show some significant health impacts on the local population.

New generation nuclear plants are designed to be even safer than older plants, most of which are due to be decommissioned in the near future. But even if we consider the record of current plants, how do they compare to other types of energy production? Every year, thousands of coal miners are killed around the world, several orders of magnitude higher than the casualties of nuclear workers. Even worse, the pollution generated from coal mining and power plants is causing massive environmental devastation, and impacting the health of millions and millions of people. Coal is also, of course, one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. The record clearly shows nuclear power to be much safer and less environmentally damaging than coal-based power.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we should ignore the environmental impacts of nuclear power. Nuclear plants consume vast quantities of water for cooling. The release of warmer water back into lakes and rivers can disrupt ecosystems and negatively affect many species. Many nuclear reactors are built close to the coastline, meaning they are at risk from rising sea levels. Global warming is also leading to more droughts, which can dry up the water supplies needed for cooling.

While nuclear clearly isn't clean energy, it's certainly much better than some of the alternatives. The question is whether it can truly help us to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and save the planet from climate change. This is where we run into problems. It is true that nuclear is not carbon free. The construction of a nuclear plant is very resource intensive, and it generates a lot of waste and carbon emissions. Over the lifetime of a plant, though, the emissions per energy unit are much lower than fossil-fuel based plants.
Unfortunately, in most cases, nuclear plants are being proposed to supply new energy in order to allow for a growth in consumption. Or, at best, they are intended to replace the current supply from older plants that need to be decommissioned. If we truly want to reduce carbon emissions, we need to be dramatically reducing our total energy use. Serious conservation efforts can help us do this and can reduce the power requirements needed by industry and residential homes by a very large degree. This would obviate the need for new plants, while also allowing dirty coal plants to be shut down.

One problem with nuclear power is that the process of approval, planning, and construction can take decades. Despite all the talk about a nuclear renaissance, very little is happening, and almost no new plants have actually been approved in the US. Even when a plant is approved, it can take up to 20 years or longer before it is actually up and operating and ready to delivery power. This is time we simply don't have to wait. We need to reduce emissions immediately. Conservation is something we can do today.

Nuclear power is also very expensive, and businesses are unwilling to invest in nuclear without large government subsidies. Many nuclear proposals have been rejected because the high cost. Ontario, last year, for example, abandoned plans to build new reactors because of a bid that was three times higher than the expected cost. There have been similar problems in the US and other countries. Of course, some countries may choose to pay this cost. France, for example, gets three quarters of its power from nuclear. However, they view this as a matter of strategic energy security, so the cost is viewed as justifiable.

WIth nuclear being so expensive, conservation begins to look more and more appealing. Not only can conservation achieve much more than nuclear power, it can do so for much less money. Indeed, in many cases, conservation can save significant amounts of money, both for governments and individuals. While alternative energy is also often more expensive than fossil fuel-based energy, it can often be cheaper than nuclear, and it can be deployed much more rapidly. If used on the small-scale, and combined with conservation, the costs can be reduced further, yet enough power can still be generated to meet our needs.

Many of the arguments made by proponents of nuclear power are valid. It is safer and less polluting than some of the alternatives. Some risks have been exaggerated. Despite this, nuclear power remains a dirty, expensive option, that takes far too long to bring online. If it were the only option we had to reduce carbon emissions, we might have to turn to it. But other options exist that are proven and available today, and can be implemented in short order. These should be the priority, and once they are implemented, the need for nuclear power will disappear.

Monday, 19 April 2010


I recently wrote about animal rights issues as they relate to the environment, but I left out any discussion of pets. In the West, we expend a vast amount of resources on our pets. Energy, land and other natural resources are needed to produce their food, their toys and, in some cases, even their clothes. In fact, more money is spent on the average pet in the US than many people in the world live on. The carbon emissions related to pet ownership are also much higher than the emissions of many people in the world.

It has been calculated that the average dog has an ecological footprint about twice that of an average SUV. That is, twice the amount of land is needed to produce the resources required for the dog, as compared to the SUV. The average dog also produces about the same carbon emissions as a large car. There are over 70 million dogs in the US, and over 80 million cats. That's a massive environmental impact. The land use required to support our pets is contributing to deforestation and global warming.

Our use of unsustainable agricultural methods is degrading much of the land around the world, and even leading to desertification. This means we are decreasing the carrying capacity of the planet, and making it harder to feed ourselves in the future. With so many people already starving around the world, it seems hard to justify a massive allocation of resources for our pets. Of course, if we had fewer pets, that doesn't necessarily mean those resources would be redirected to the poor, but at least it would limit environmental damage and decrease carbon emissions, which would benefit everyone.

One alternative to common pets like dogs and cats would be to instead raise "pets" that could provide both environmental benefits as well as food. Animals such as cows and chickens can produce eggs and milk, as well as meat. If raised within a pasture, or in a permaculture setting, they can also help to replenish soil and fertilize plants. These animals don't require any external resources, and they can actually help to store more carbon. We end up with environmental restoration, instead of destruction, and we increase sustainable food production at the same time.

Unfortunately, we are also in a situation today where many people treat their pets with more respect and kindness than they treat other people, especially people of a different colour or ethnicity. With over a million dead in Iraq, and tens of thousands in Afghanistan, we see more stories like this one, about a lost dog recovered in Afghanistan, than about the suffering of the human beings in these countries, much of which we are responsible for.

Of course, I am not suggesting anyone get rid of their pets, but we need to consider reducing their numbers. The best way to do this is to decide not to acquire a new pet after your current pets die. We also need to ensure that the vast majority of cats and dogs are spayed or neutered in order to reduce their population size. This will free up resources for other purposes, or simply allow them to be conserved.

Most of us love our cats and dogs and other pets, and would hate to give them up. If we all lived sustainably, in balance with nature, and weren't under the threat of global warming and ecological collapse, we could continue to do things as before. Perhaps someday, we will reach that point, and we can all have as many pets as we want. Until then, however, we need to ask if our pets are more important than the lives of millions of people around the world today, and the lives of all our grandchildren tomorrow.

Sunday, 11 April 2010


Humans have used dams for several different purposes throughout our history. They have been used to stabilize water levels, protect land, and divert water for irrigation or into reservoirs. In more recent times, dams have been used to provide power, initially through the use of water wheels, and later through hydroelectric generators. Unfortunately, dams have also caused significant environmental damage, especially as the rate of construction grew exponentially throughout the twentieth century, and as the size of the projects grew.

One of the most obvious problems with dams involves water diversion. When water is diverted, whether for crop irrigation or to store drinking water in a reservoir, that means water is being removed from one area and sent to another. If a major river is being diverted, this could mean the entire downstream ecosystem could dry out, leading to the death of countless individual plants and animals, and in many cases, the extinction of unique species. As agriculture has continued to expand, this has required more and more irrigation, and industrial farming methods have demanded even more quantities of water. This has meant more dams, and bigger dams, diverting more and more water, leading to the destruction of greater numbers of ecosystems and higher rates of extinction.

Even when water isn't being diverted, a dam can become a barrier in the middle of an ecosystem, preventing the normal migration of animals within that ecosystem. Many fish need to migrate in order to find food sources, to mate, or to spawn their eggs. By placing barriers to migration, this activity is reduced, which can result in a reduction in various species population sizes. A species already under threat from other factors, such as pollution, can be pushed to extinction. Salmon, for example, have been severely affected by such barriers, both in the US and in Europe.

Dams can also harm the environment either by increasing or reducing flooding. Floodplains, for example, experience regular seasonal flooding that supports diverse ecosystems. The creatures and plants that exist in these areas have evolved and adapted to this seasonal cycle, and many may not survive when this process is interrupted. The Aswan Dam built in Egypt, for example, interrupted the regular Nile flooding that had taken place for thousands of years, causing significant environmental damage. Dams can also increase flooding in other areas as the rivers being held back spill out into areas that were previously dry land, often destroying or damaging those habitats.

Likewise, dams can also alter the normal process of sedimentation. A reservoir behind a dam will slowly build up sedimentation, since this can no longer be carried downstream. As this continues to build up, the capacity of the reservoir is lowered, eventually to the point where it is no longer useful. Downstream, the lack of new sediment can lead to the erosion of the sides of rivers, and of the coastline. Erosion is a natural process, which is normally balanced by a buildup of new sediment, but this is prevented by the dam. This erosion can have a negative impact of ecosystems centred around the shore or coast, and can also impact human settlements located there.

Some dam projects can also have significant negative social and health impacts on human population. The Three Gorges Dam being built by China will submerge a large part of land, requiring the relocation of over a million people, often against their will. The reservoirs, or artificial lakes, created by dams, can often become breeding grounds for disease, which can affect the health of local populations.

There are currently approximately 2 million dams in the United States, with 75,000 over 2 metres in height, and there are 8,100 major dams, over 15 metres in height. That's a massive infrastructure which not only has an enormous environmental impact, but also requires a great deal of money and resources to maintain. Some of these fail from time to time because of inadequate resources available for this maintenance. This is similar to the problem of the maintenance of the vast road and bridge infrastructure.

Since we can't maintain the infrastructure we already have, like with roads, we need to impose a moratorium on the construction of new dams. Those at risk of collapse should be dismantled safely, with attempts made to limit the environmental impact and to try to restore natural habitats as much as possible. In fact, many scientific studies have supported the idea of removing dams, and the data shows that the long term environmental benefit outweighs any short term damage. Fortunately, this process has already started, though it is not proceeding at a fast enough pace.

If we are going to reduce the number of dams, and try to restore the environment, however, what alternatives do we have to the services they provide? There are several possibilities here. We can increase efforts to collect rainwater, both on the large scale and at the household level. This can provide drinking water and some water for irrigation. However, we can also reduce the total amount of irrigation needed by limiting our use of agriculture and instead getting more of our food from natural habitats or pastures, which require no external inputs of water or energy from fossil fuels.

Hydroelectricity is not really a renewable resource because of the sedimentation problem described above. Within 50 to 100 years, many installations become unproductive. They also cause significant environmental damage. However, if we reduce our total energy use through conservation, efficiency, and other means, we should then be able to rely solely on alternative energy systems that are truly renewable. We probably shouldn't dismantle existing plants, however, because much of the damage is already done, and the large initial investment has already been made. They are still much cleaner than fossil fuels, so we should use them as a stopgap until significant progress is made in conservation.

Like many other human projects, the construction of dams has had significant unintended consequences. They helped to improve human health and reduce starvation, and made life easier for many. When the population was smaller and dams were few, the impact on the global environment was negligible. However, when we began to build millions of them, on an ever larger scale, we caused widespread environmental damage, and the extinction of many species. Now, we need to reduce this impact, and employ healthier and greener alternatives as much as possible. In the past, we had the virtue of ignorance. Today, we no longer have that excuse.

Monday, 5 April 2010

New Strategies

After almost 20 years of action on climate change, the common strategies have proven to be insufficient, ineffective or even counter-productive. This is despite the dedicated, principled and relentless work by countless individuals and numerous organizations. By every conceivable benchmark, it is hard to view this as anything but failure. The only real success has been in raising awareness, but this has not translated into any concrete action. It is time to consider new strategies that have the potential to lead to the kind of real change desperately needed.

The problem is not that we don't have solutions, but that many of the solutions being proposed and implemented are false solutions, and those that are effective are being ignored. The false solutions include things like personal lifestyle changes, electric cars, biofuels, and carbon storage. Things that could make a real difference include conservation, more rail, car free cities, the limited use of alternative energy, and sustainable farming methods, among others. There is limited political will to implement many of these solutions, however, especially in North America.

Most of the action in the past has been in the form of large demonstrations and protests. Campaigns such as Earth Hour and 350 are good examples of this. They have done excellent work raising awareness, and involved millions around the world, but at least so far, have failed to induce real action. The problem is that these movements do not put a price on the status quo. Despite the fact that we know that global warming and the general destruction of the environment will have devastating long term consequences, there is little cost in the present to corporations and nations who are continuing this destruction.

Consider the case of Apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid did not end because of demonstrations and protests, or because of moral arguments. It ended because of both internal resistance and the broad support of individuals and organizations around the world. This support took concrete form in the application of boycotts, divestment and sanctions. This started at the individual level, was then taken up by colleges and unions, then municipalities and corporations, and finally by nations imposing international sanctions and an arms embargo. South Africa became a pariah state, and the cost of Apartheid finally became too high. Only then did it end.

Of course, we cannot expect the same strategy to work in the fight against climate change, with one exception I will discuss below. The point, however, is that the global movement against Apartheid stopped asking for change, and starting demanding it, and failure to comply with those demands had a real cost. Today, corporate executives, the media and politicians feel free to ignore protesters, because there is no cost or penalty for doing so.

So, how do we attach a price to climate change and damage to the environment? Naomi Klein has discussed the idea of climate debt, and she makes the point that the worst consequences of climate change will be borne by those who least contributed to it. Currently, the victims are paying the cost, and the perpetrators are profiting from it. How can we reverse this equation?

The strategies required will be different depending on which countries we are dealing with, but this can be simplified into three general situations, with one special case. The majority of third world countries will be most severely impacted from climate change, and they have the greatest interest in avoiding it. We also have the rich Western nations that are responsible for the majority of historical carbon emissions, and also have the highest per capita impact on the environment.

There's also a number of large countries in the middle. These are countries that are rapidly industrializing in an attempt to raise living standards, while also increasing carbon emissions and the local destruction of their environment. This includes countries such as India, China, Pakistan and Brazil which are doing this despite the fact that they will be among the worst hit by climate change. Some former second world countries such as Russia can also be included in this category.

The special case is Canada. Unlike other Western countries, which have depleted much of their natural resources, and are largely dependant on imports, Canada remains rich in resources, and, at least theoretically, largely self-sufficient. It is the only net exporter of energy resources in the West, and it also has one of the worst climate policies in the world. This means a different strategy will be required in this case.
So, what strategy is likely to be most effective in putting a real cost on climate change for the Western countries (other than Canada)? The excessive levels of overconsumption, waste and energy use in these countries is dependant on the importation of resources. The most effective strategy then, would be to deny these resources to the West, and especially the US. With limited resources, countries will be forced to conserve and reduce carbon emissions. If they are unwilling to do this voluntarily, the price will be a general resource embargo.

This is a fight that must be organized and fought from the third world. Together, these countries can agree to stop selling resources to the West, and can expel foreign corporations. They have the most to lose from climate change, and it is they who will have to lead this fight. Individually, they might be weak compared to the US, and easily pressured, but if dozens of countries stand together, the West will be powerless. The US cannot bomb, invade and occupy everyone. Those of us in the West have a duty to support this action, and do what we can to prevent any military retaliation.

Internally, the poorest third world countries need to recognize that trying to follow the path of India or China can only lead to disaster in the future. Instead, they should focus on sustainability, self-sufficiency, and limited development. Rather than building roads and refineries and coal-fired factories, they can build schools, hospitals, railroads and small-scale alternative energy facilities. They have a right to raise their standard of living, and they should pursue this, but if it is not done in a sustainable way, the result will be a lower quality of life, poorer health, and a higher death rate. Learn from our mistakes and do not repeat them.

Countries in the middle, such as India and China, are going to have a much harder time. They have already committed to massive industrialization and the paving over of their countries. At the same time, their water supplies are drying up or being polluted, and their land is turning to desert. They are investing in an elaborate infrastructure that will soon be obsolete, destroying themselves in the process.

What strategy can stop this? Clearly, these countries need to immediately reverse course, but this will only happen if there is a change in leadership. This is a struggle that must be waged internally in these countries. The people are being sold out by their leaders, and they must lead the fight to force them to change course, or to remove them from power. For those of us in the West, this is not our fight. However, we must do what we can to prevent our countries from interfering, and especially from supporting corrupt leaders, or even engaging in coups. With a change in leadership, some of these countries might join the wider bloc of third world nations in denying resources to the West.

In the case of Canada, a South African style strategy might actually be useful. Third world nations should also deny resources to Canada, as with other Western nations, but it is unlikely to have as large an effect because of Canada's rich resource deposits. However, as part of a larger BDS campaign (boycotts, divestment and sanctions), it could be very effective. We already see the beginning of campaigns to boycott Canadian companies and to force banks to divest from tar sands projects. If this were to grow, and target Canadian institutions as well, this would put a significant price tag on Canada's climate policy. This is likely the only approach that will provide an incentive for real change in Canada.

Previous strategies to combat climate change and to protect the environment have been successful in getting the message out, but they have failed to accomplish little more than that. Is it now time for these strategies to evolve. New strategies, such as those discussed here, can put a real price on the status quo, and can ensure that those in power will really listen to, and take seriously, the demands being made. We've tried the carrot, now it's time for the stick.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Carbon dioxide is just one of several greenhouse gases, but it is the largest and most important contributor to climate change. The growing concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, as well as deforestation and the clearing of other natural habitats. As the world warms, however, another greenhouse gas, methane, is being released at ever faster rates. There is much less methane in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but it is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, and if large quantities are released, the impacts of climate change could become much worse, and it could become much harder to stop.

Vast amounts of methane are stored in the frozen tundra of the arctic, in places such as Russia and Northern Canada. Until recently, this was considered to be a stable and relatively permanent geologic feature, hence the name permafrost. However, as temperatures have started to rise, some of the permafrost has begun to melt, releasing methane into the atmosphere. The methane then helps contribute to more warming, causing more melting and the release of more methane, in a feedback cycle.

Recent scientific studies have shown that in the past few years, the rate of release of methane has been accelerating rapidly. Methane is also stored in ice on the ocean floor in the arctic. Unfortunately, other studies now show that this frozen methane is beginning to melt and is being vented into the atmosphere. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is large area, over 2 million square kilometres in size, and contains vast amounts of methane. This was also considered to be a permanent barrier to the release of methane, but the new data shows that as much methane is being released from the ice shelf as from the rest of the world's oceans combined. Most global warming models show that temperature increase will happen much faster at the poles, which means that the melting of this ice, and the release of methane, could also accelerate.

The good news is that methane breaks down much faster than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While carbon dioxide might remain in the atmosphere for over a century, methane has a half-life of just seven years. This means that if we manage to drastically cut carbon emissions, and allow carbon dioxide concentrations to fall, the release of methane should drop, because temperatures will begin to stabilize, and the methane in the atmosphere will decompose. If carbon emissions continue to rise, however, or even remain constant, the amount of methane released will continue to increase, at a much faster rate than it can break down.

Methane is clearly an important greenhouse gas, and one that has the potential to make climate change much harder to stop. But any attempts at mitigation need to remain focused on carbon dioxide. It is human carbon emissions that have raised temperatures and caused the problem in the first place. They are the reason more and more methane is being released, and the solution is the same one scientists and activists have already told us about. We need to cut carbon emissions and reduce the carbon concentration in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million.