Is it getting hot in here?
A new report indicates that the number of species wiped out by global climate change will soon exceed extinctions expected from habitat destruction.
The report, written by a team of scientists led by Dr. Chris D. Thomas of England’s University of Leeds, says that 15 to 37 percent of the 1,103 species they studied will have reached the point of no return by 2050 if current trends in global warming continue.
The report is the first to describe climate change as a full-fledged force for extinction. Until now, the steady conversion of habitat for human use had been considered the prime cause of extinction.
The scientists warned that in addition to preserving ecosystems, we must reduce carbon emissions to slow the rate of species extinction.
The US military and a prestigious insurance company each released chilling reports this spring detailing potential worst-case scenarios from climate change. One of the reports, prepared for the US Defense Department by California firm Global Business Network, describes killer droughts throughout much of Europe, nuclear war between Pakistan and India over drinking water supplies, conflict between China and the US over Saudi oil, and an inland sea in California’s Central Valley. Authors of the report say that “warfare would define human life” as resources such as food, water, and energy dwindle around the globe.
The Pentagon denies covering up the report, citing the availability of the report to journalists requesting copies, and emphasizes that the report is speculative.
Swiss Re, a company that insures other insurers, predicts that the economic cost of disasters exacerbated by global climate change, such as floods, frosts, and famine, could reach $150 billion a year within 10 years.
The logs of war
What do civil conflicts in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia have in common? These wars, among the most brutal in the world, are funded in part by sales of illegal timber.
At stake is “conflict timber,” a term first coined in 2001 and defined by the NGO Global Witness as timber “traded in a way that drives violent armed conflict and threatens national or regional security.” The beleaguered nation of Burma is another area where war increases pressure on forests.
People who live near the logging operations lose access to the forests and have their way of life disrupted, if not entirely destroyed. Locals are often forcibly relocated and thus lose access to non-timber resources as well. Environmental consequences such as flooding and drought have a heavy impact on the lives of people who live in logged areas.
The cycle created by conflict timber is self-perpetuating: the profits from timber sales fund conflict, which in turn creates a demand for more timber.
The solution lies in the creation and enforcement of new shipping laws, and there has been some progress in that realm. The UN Security Council’s ban on all Liberian timber came into effect July 7, 2003. A report by a UN panel of experts has frozen the assets of several logging companies, and resulted in the suspension of some government officials.
Turn down the heat on bushmeat
Some British zoologists say trade in African bushmeat should be regulated rather than banned. The total trade in bushmeat involves millions of tons each year. Scientists at the Zoological Society of London say that a total ban is not realistic.
Instead they plan to encourage hunting of smaller animals with quicker reproductive cycles, such as pigs, small antelopes, and rodents, which they hope would help avert a crisis among some endangered species.
An estimated 60 percent of animals targeted by bushmeat hunters face the risk of extinction, including great apes and other large mammals. Scientists say that if current levels of bushmeat hunting continue, animals and local economies face severe risks.
Don’t eat crow
Avian bird flu hit Japan in late January, adding another country to a list that already includes China, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Thailand and Vietnam the flu has passed to humans and resulted in 22 deaths, while in China and Japan the disease has not yet been detected in humans.
About 100 million birds have been exterminated across Asia. Local populations, nervous about last year’s epidemic of SARS and lured by occasional offers of compensation for the killing of their poultry, have been largely cooperative in efforts to wipe out birds that might be infected.
In Japan the flu was first detected in the town of Tamba, about 230 miles west of Tokyo, on the sprawling Asada Nosan farm. The chief owner of Asada Nosan, Hajimu Asada, and his wife, facing prosecution for a possible cover-up of the outbreak, both committed suicide in early March.
The discovery of five wild crows infected with the disease has prompted new fears, as the free-roaming birds are impossible to contain and could foster an uncontrollable outbreak of the disease.
The southern province that provided China’s first known case of SARS in 2002 plans to reopen markets for the export of wild meat, despite the concerns of some health experts.
Sales of the 54 species of wild meat once traded by Guangdong province were banned, and the markets were closed in January when four SARS cases were discovered. The deadly virus seems to have been contained, prompting the provincial government to announce plans to reopen markets.
A senior official at the Forestry Bureau told Reuters that the province intended to “aggressively develop the farming of wild animals to provide more products to meet market needs.”
A ban on the sale of civet cats will be permanent, according to a senior health official. Some health experts have identified civet cats as the leading source of the virus.
Zhong Nanshan, head of the Guangzhou Respiratory Disease Research, is concerned about the reopening of the wild-meat markets. “There are different kinds of diseases every year, and quite a number of them are spread through wild animals,” he told Cable TV.
Russian towards extinction
During International Whale Week, February 14-21, environmental activists from 93 different countries sent letters, faxes, and e-mails on behalf of endangered Western Pacific gray whales. There are about a hundred of these whales left, and their only known feeding ground is off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island.
Sakhalin is also the site of one of the largest oil and gas projects in the world, courtesy of Shell and Exxon-Mobil.
According to Russian marine biologist M.E. Vinogradov, “Without designing special measures for gray whale conservation, the continuation of the Sakhalin II project can lead to extinction of this unique population.”
Shell also has plans to build a 500-mile pipeline that would run almost the entire length of Sakhalin Island, crossing more than 1,000 brooks and streams, at least half of which are valuable salmon habitat. Shell plans to lay pipeline in ditches to cross the streams, instead of using the elevated pipelines required for stream crossings in other parts of the world.
The letter-writing campaign, sponsored by Global Response, Pacific Environment, and Whale Day International, encouraged the Europe Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, and the Ex-Im Bank to withhold money for the project until the consortium guarantees zero impact on the whales.
Penguins: patents pending
Researchers at the United Nations University in Tokyo claim that Antarctica is in danger of being exploited by biotechnology companies.
Resource extraction activities are banned or regulated in Antarctica, but bioprospecting activities suffer no such limitation. Ninety-two patents based on Antarctic substances or organisms have already been filed in the US, and 62 in Europe.
Under the Antarctic Treaty, results of scientific research based in Antarctica are supposed to be made widely available. Commercial research relies on confidentiality, which violates the international treaty.
Scientists fear the line between commercial activity and scientific research could become blurred, or that companies may block research on organisms for which they hold patents.
Australia is set to radically increase its production of the world’s fastest-growing energy source—wind. Pacific Hydro plans to build a 195-megawatt wind farm in the southern state of Victoria, which will be the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere. Pacific Hydro’s plant, in combination with a 90-megawatt plant planned by the company Alitna, will reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 1,100,000 tons. The companies expect to complete their plants by the end of 2005. Victoria aims to generate 10 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2006. Worldwide, just over 31,000 megawatts of wind power were generated in 2002.
Dying for fresh air
More Australians die from breathing polluted air than from automobile accidents. Australian air quality has gotten so bad than an average of 2,400 people each year die from related health issues, compared with 1,700 from auto and road accidents.
Air quality scientists, medical researchers, state government officials, and environment ministers from around Australia met in Melbourne in early February to discuss how to manage dangerous air pollutants and address the health problems associated with air pollution.
Not mentioned in press coverage of the proceedings: any discussion of taking steps to reduce air pollution in Australia, such as limiting reliance on private automobiles—which would also reduce traffic injuries.
For whom the truck tolls
Truck drivers in the European Union may be offered an economic incentive to cut vehicle emissions. In March, the EU Parliament’s Transport committee adopted a proposal to enact sliding-scale tolls for trucks based on emission levels. The report, which was the subject of intense lobbying and over 200 tabled amendments, is due to be adopted by the European Parliament during its April plenary session.
Not a carbon copy
The EU will require factories to reduce their pollution levels by 20 percent within seven years, compared to 1990 levels. Member states adopted the Kyoto treaty two years ago but only recently passed legislation forcing governments of the 25-country bloc to check and report emissions.
The goal of a 20 percent reduction far exceeds the 12.5 percent reduction set forth in the Kyoto Protocol, and some manufacturing groups have protested. Margot Wallstroem, the Swedish EU environment commissioner, told Europe.com that “the European Union has a special responsibility to show global leadership and pave the way for other countries to follow suit.” She also criticized the US failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol despite being the largest emitter of carbon in the world.
Going, going, gone
Scientists agree that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting. The question is, how fast? And will it ever recover?
The ice cap is a vast reservoir of fresh water, and were it to melt completely, ocean levels could rise by over 20 feet.
Phillippe Huybrechts, a glaciologist and ice-sheet modeler at the Free University in Brussels, says that Greenland’s temperature could rise 14°F by the year 2100. According to Huybrechts, the worst-case scenario would result in the reduction of Greenland’s ice sheet to a small glaciated inland sea, and a rise in world sea levels of almost 20 feet.
NASA’s Bill Krabill estimates that Greenland is losing about 12 cubic miles of ice a year, currently resulting in an almost imperceptible yearly rise in sea level. Krabill admits his estimate is conservative and that actual ice loss could very well be closer to 24 cubic miles per year.
Research by the Centre for Global Atmospheric Modeling suggests that Greenland may never recover from the current thaw.
John Muir was from where?
The Sierra Club is once again wracked by differing opinions on immigration. At the center of the battle is Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson, current member of the Board of Directors and a vocal backer of three controversial nominees for Board seats.
The three aspirants are Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, Cornell University entomologist David Pimental, and retired Foreign Service officer Frank Morris, all of whom want the Sierra Club to support stricter control of immigration into the US. Some Club leaders say such a change in policy runs the risk of alienating minorities, and could damage the Club’s reputation.
In 1998, immigration control activists forced a vote of Club members on the issue. They lost, and the Board subsequently reaffirmed its “no position” position on immigration. The candidates all insist that curbing immigration levels will benefit the environment by reducing pressure on resources. Some white supremacist groups have been urging their members to join the Sierra Club so they can support the controversial candidates. Balloting ended on April 15.
Cruisin’ for a bruisin’
Google recently pulled ads for the ocean advocacy group Oceana from its search pages, citing “language advocating against the cruise line industry and cruisers” as the cause. In February, Oceana placed two ads with the popular Web search site, which were removed after two days. Oceana’s CEO Andrew Sharpless pointed out that Google runs ads promoting exotic getaways on Royal Caribbean, and ads advocating against companies such as Nike and Disney.
Eat farmed salmon, buy the farm
A recent study found that farmed fish typically contain seven times the amount of PCBs that wild fish do. PCBs are listed as a “probable carcinogen” by the EPA.
The study revealed farmed fish to have a concentration of 36.63 parts per billion (ppb) of PCBs, which is still well below the 2000 ppb allowed by the FDA.
The authors of the report admit that a clear risk-benefit analysis is complicated, but advise consumers that the potential risk in eating farmed Atlantic salmon is likely to outweigh the health advantages.
The study confirmed the findings of an unpublished 2003 report by the Environmental Working Group on 10 farmed salmon purchased at supermarkets. PCB levels in those fish were so high that the authors recommended people eat farmed salmon no more than once per month.
Staking out the ocean
The Bush administration plans to submit an offshore aquaculture bill to Congress this year that could put an end to public stewardship of the Exclusive Economic Zone, three miles to two hundred miles offshore.
A new report released by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) says that federal agencies and the aquaculture industry are working in concert to privatize parts of the continental shelf for offshore fish farming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, Sea Grant programs, and private companies are actively pursuing open-ocean aquaculture development.
Seafood products, primarily high-end luxury fish, are the third largest import to the US. Homeland Security Secretary Thomas Ridge justifies offshore aquaculture development by saying that the US’s reliance on imported marine products is a threat to national security.
The IATP report calls for a moratorium on offshore aquaculture development until national legislation, including comprehensive and transparent regulations, are adopted. If privatization of the continental shelf for fish farms happens, some scientists fear that oil and gas exploration will not be far behind.
Keep them pearly whitetips
At one time the whitetip shark was the most common large animal in the world, the dominant species in the world’s oceans. Two researchers in the Gulf of Mexico have found that whitetip shark numbers there have declined by 99 percent in the past 50 years.
Whitetips are not the only sharks to be suffering massive disappearances. Silky sharks in the Gulf of Mexico have declined by 90 percent since the 1950s, and the number of hammerhead sharks in the Atlantic has fallen 89 percent in the past 15 years.
“What’s shocking is that nobody noticed until now,” Julia Baum, one of the researchers involved with the whitetip study, told Nature. Her colleague Ransom Myers added that the situation is similar to herds of buffalo disappearing from the Great Plains without being noticed.
Tuna fishing is partially to blame, as sharks are frequently hooked on the long lines used to catch tuna. Perhaps a more serious threat is the fact that shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in many places. Shark fins can fetch hundreds of dollars a kilo in Hong Kong markets, which makes the sharks hard to resist for fishermen. The practice of shark-finning has been outlawed in Canada, the US, and Australia, and a similar law is under consideration in the EU.
Arsenic and old plants
Though the EPA recently agreed to ban the use of pressure-treated wood, such wood already in use will continue to release arsenic into surrounding soil for years to come. Arsenic is a known carcinogen and has been linked to the development of diabetes and immune disorders.
Until now there has been no cost-effective way of cleaning up areas contaminated by arsenic. Current technologies have proven expensive and produce a high volume of leftover toxic sludge and brine.
But now Edenspace, a Dulles, Virginia company, offers a potential cheap solution to the problem of arsenic contamination. Ferns in the genus Pteris, marketed as edenfern, accumulate soil arsenic in aboveground tissues at a rate 200 times higher than any other plant species tested. The plant thrives as a perennial in areas where winter temperatures stay above 20°F. If the plants die, Edenspace will take them back and reclaim the arsenic for industrial purposes. Edenspace warns against composting the plants, which will transfer the arsenic to your vegetable garden.
Never fly wolf
As many as 100 wolves in Alaska’s Nelchina Basin near McGrath have been killed in a resumed aerial hunt. Republican governor Frank Murkowski signed a bill in June 2003 overturning a ban on shooting wolves from aircraft. Friends of Animals asked for an injunction, which was refused by Judge Sharon L. Gleason in early December. Her decision clears the way for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to issue permits to private hunters to kill all wolves in a 3,500-square-mile area.
Alaskans have repeatedly voted to ban shooting wolves from the air, as well as chasing them with airplanes and then landing to shoot them from the ground.
Alaska has the largest population of gray wolves in the US, with up to 9,000 roaming the state. Alaskan wolves don’t enjoy the protection of the Endangered Species Act, unlike their dwindling counterparts in the rest of the US. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that between 1996 and 2001 more than 7,000 wolves were legally hunted and trapped. Unreported killings may exceed the number of wolves killed legally.
Filet of slimehead
Orange roughy, a deep-sea fish popular with US consumers, is in rapid decline worldwide. A study by the World Wildlife Federation and TRAFFIC warns that the orange roughy could become “commercially extinct” if immediate measures are not taken to protect the species.
Rising worldwide demand for seafood and the rapid depletion of coastal fish stocks have led to increased pressure on deep-sea species. Orange roughy live to be 150 years old and do not reach sexual maturity until 25 years of age. They are thus quickly depleted and slow to recover.
Orange roughy often live close to seamounts, sensitive underwater mountains that are scraped and disrupted by deep-sea trawlers.
The US is by far the largest importer of orange roughy, and New Zealand supplied about 60 percent of US imports in 2002.
These fish were once commonly known as “slimeheads,” but New Zealanders renamed them in an effort to attract consumers.
Forests fight back
Timber thieves have struck with a vengeance across Indonesia since President Suharto was forced to step down in 1998. Environment Minister Nabiel Makarim estimates that 75 percent of all Indonesian logging is illegal. Loggers have helped turn huge swaths of forest into farms and palm oil plantations.
And the forest is striking back. Elephants and Sumatran tigers, driven from their homes by habitat destruction, are trampling and eating people, many of them illegal loggers whose deaths are not officially reported.
The number of elephant attacks on humans has skyrocketed, from 16 between 1998 and 2002, to 48 in the first five months of 2003. Since 2001, tigers have killed as many as 30 people around one coastal village in Sumatra.
Floods and landslides caused by logging accounted for the deaths of over 140 people in 2003. Makarim said that where floods and landslides occur, a visit uphill of the disaster will invariably reveal that locals have been logging.
Large companies working with government officials carry out much of the illegal logging.
Running out of ramin?
A report released by the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency and Telepak, an Indonesian environment group, calls Malaysia the center of a multi-million-dollar web of illegal trading in ramin, a rare blond tropical hardwood listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The report provides evidence of Indonesia’s failure to bring illegal timber companies to justice and Malaysia’s complicity in protecting its ramin industry.
Ramin has been determined by the World Conservation Union to be vulnerable to extinction in the wild. The lowland peat rainforests where illegal logging is concentrated include Indonesia’s national parks, home to endangered orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceros, and Malayan sun bears.
Indonesia is losing 3.8 million hectares of forest each year to logging, the fastest rate of forest destruction in the world. A recent study indicates that if habitat destruction continues at its present rate, orangutans will be extinct within 20 years.
A coalition of US environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, EarthJustice, and the Orangutan Foundation, have called on the government of Malaysia to take meaningful steps to address this issue or face possible trade sanctions under the US Pelly Amendment.
Since 2000, nearly $3 billion of US tax money has been funneled into a Colombian herbicide spraying program intended to reduce cocaine availability in the US. The US Congress recently announced that for the first time, these funds may be used to spray coca and poppy fields located in national parks and other protected areas in Colombia.
Astrid Puentes, legal director for Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA), an international environmental attorney group, says, “The policy of using aerial spraying to eradicate illicit crops poses significant threats to human health and the environment.” In 2001, environmental authorities in Columbia specifically banned the use of aerial spraying within parks and natural preserves, and in significant buffer zones around such protected areas. Yet the spraying program continues unabated.
A report released by the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), available at lawg.org/docs/extremes.pdf, concludes that the fumigation policy has had no effect on the price, availability, or purity of cocaine available in the US. LAWG also reports an increase in coca cultivation in other areas.
Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands woke to a surprise when militant fishermen seized their offices in mid-February. During the 14-day protest, the fishermen also took control of the offices of Ecuador’s Galapagos National Park, barricaded the park entrances, blocked roads, and burned tires.
The fishermen demanded an end to regulations that protect the park’s endangered and endemic species. Such regulations, they insist, threaten their livelihoods.
Local authorities offered no resistance to the fishermen.
The fishermen took three scientists and 30 researchers hostage and released them only after the government agreed to review the fishing regulations.
Around the world was compiled by Léonie Sherman.
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