The humble coca shrub has survived decades of efforts to eradicate it and global warming will not pose a greater challenge than that. Few cry for the cocaleros, isn’t it?
Cocaine is the bane of law enforcement across the Americas. But both the drug and the coca farmers – known in Spanish as cocaleros – who cultivate the drug’s source face the same threats as any other crop or product in our warming climate. Except that cocaine appears ready for the challenges.
The coca bush is the raw material for a lucrative and often-violent drug trade and the target of change, as cocaleros cut down forests in the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to plant more of the shrubs.
But, while scientists have raised alarms about the potential threats climate change may pose to other tropical commodities like chocolate and coffee, little effort has been spent exploring what an era of rising temperatures could mean for coca. Most research in the past few decades has been aimed at finding new ways to kill it.
“There’s the beginnings of a more open debate about drug policy in the Western Hemisphere and Latin America, but the question of coca cultivation remains very prickly,” said John Walsh, a drug policy analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based think tank. “Obviously, because it’s the raw material for cocaine, and cocaine remains if not pubic enemy No. 1, then pretty high on the list in most people’s point of view.”
In general, the coca belt is expected to be hotter and drier in the coming century. Average temperatures could rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius (7.2º Fahrenheit) by 2100, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in late March. Areas closer to the equator are expected to get more rainfall, while those to the north and south are expected to get less. The glaciers of the tropical Andes are receding, and the ranges of many plants are shifting upward toward cooler, higher elevations, the IPCC noted.
But the coca bush is a tough plant, one that’s likely to adapt to the expected changes, say several scientists who’ve studied cocaine.
“Coca is kind of unique, because it’s got a very heavy wax cuticle, a layer on the leaves,” said Charles Helling, a former soil chemist at U.S. Department of Agriculture who took part in American anti-drug efforts. “So that tends to protect it from water loss. It’s a pretty hardy shrub. It’s actually a lot hardier than a typical crop plant.”
Neither the Drug Enforcement Agency nor the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime nor the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, an arm of the Organization of American States, have examined the potential effects of climate change on the crop, representatives of those agencies said. UNODC spokeswoman Preeta Bannerjee said her agency uses satellites to monitor coca-growing areas, “but we don’t measure the impact on the environment,” she said.
Observers are already seeing a longer dry season in places like subtropical Peru, said Kenneth Young, a University of Texas geographer who has studied the country for more than 20 years. But he said coca already has adapted to as little as 500 mm, or 20 inches, of rainfall a year – about the same as Boulder, Colo. Mostly coca grows in areas that today receive between three and four times that amount.
“It’s a wet, tropical forest plant, and making it a little bit drier is not going to dramatically change it,” he said. And if coca bushes do dry up, the cocaleros are likely to seek out a variety “that’s a little more robust.”
And Helling said warming may not only do little to hurt the crop, it might open up more space to grow it at higher elevations. But on the whole, he predicted that climate change will be a wash when it comes to cocaine, as growers adapt to less rainfall by relying more on irrigation.
“I’ve seen some amazing, shall we say, agronomic setups down in Colombia particularly,” said Helling, who worked for the State Department’s anti-drug office in Colombia for three years after retiring from the USDA in 2007.
One coca farm he studied in Colombia was a former cattle ranch, “more of the kind of place where cacti were. But you could grow coca perfectly well if you irrigated it.” And if warmer temperatures led to a higher risk of disease or insect infestation, “growers will undoubtedly use more chemicals to prevent it,” he said.
Some indigenous South American populations still use coca for medicinal purposes – particularly in Bolivia, led by former cocalero Evo Morales. It’s chewed or brewed into a tea, often offered to visitors struggling with the high altitude.
Under Morales, Bolivia has allowed limited, legal coca cultivation while cracking down on illicit crops. In June, UNODC reported that Bolivia’s coca production shrank by 9 percent in 2013 and was down 26 percent in the past three years.
But though traditional uses persist, UNODC says most of the South American coca crop ends up as cocaine on the streets of Europe and North America, where it’s long been a favored pick-me-up of the rich and the scourge of the inner-city poor.
Marshall Rancifer knows the latter well. He’s a former crack cocaine addict who’s now an anti-drug counselor and outreach director for the Atlanta nonprofit Someone Cares. His job involves seeking out current users and prostitutes who turn tricks to support their habits.
He doesn’t think climate change will make a dent in the drug supply in Atlanta. But if it does, he says, watch out: Previous supply droughts have been ugly.
“It’s happened before, when big shipments get busted or for whatever reason supply gets low,” said Rancifer.
“Demand is always high, and then they start cutting the dope down” – diluting the product with anything from baking soda to baby laxative. The temptation to boost the adulterated drug’s potency is high, he said.
“Sometimes they get very inventive and put other stuff in the dope, so you get the sense that you’re not losing anything when you’re getting high,” he said. “That’s where we start having a lot of overdose deaths.”
And then there are the shootings.
“You see an uptick in violence because people are not getting the high that they expected,” Rancifer said. Addicts get angry with dealers, who move in on rivals’ corners, “and then you’ve got a drug turf war.”
“Nothing good comes out of a shortage of dope when it comes to people using and selling,” Rancifer said.
The money is likely to keep the cocaleros in business, even if it takes more effort to produce a crop. If someone’s buying cocaine, someone will be growing coca, said Walsh, the drug policy analyst.
“The main driver is there is global demand, and it is fully a globalized transnational industry,” he said. The United States and other countries have tried spraying herbicides on coca fields and encouraging Andean peasants to grow other crops, but coca “provides a better return than say, plantains,” he added.
And if climate change hurts other sectors of the economy, it could drive more people to start growing coca. That’s what happened in Bolivia in the 1980s, when the country’s tin mining industry went bust: Miners and their families moved to the country’s Chapare region and took up coca farming. It’s easy to grow, can be cultivated several times a year and the market “almost comes to them,” Walsh said.
But at this point, there’s little that can be said authoritatively about how coca itself may fare. Helling, the retired USDA soil chemist, said that if climate change accomplished what decades of eradication efforts didn’t, “nobody would be shedding any tears.”
But if the weather did change enough to affect coca, he cautioned, “there are a host of legal crops we’ll have to be worrying about more.”
First published by the Daily Climate e-journal.
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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