Imagine a state of laws where murder is illegal if the victim is clad in a blue shirt, but legal if the victim is not wearing blue. A system where robbery is illegal if the victim has white skin but legal if the victim has dark skin. Such a system would be an outrage in human society. But this is the system of laws we have created for others.
Other species, that is. For hundreds of years we have had treaties protecting migratory birds who traverse countries, but no similar protections for non-feathered fliers who also cross borders, such as butterflies. Butterflies are not protected under any treaty, and consequently their populations are in danger. Unlike birds, butterflies are a member of the class Insecta, along with bees and other pollinators.
When a German study reported last year a more than 75 percent insect decline in protected areas over 27 years, the news was particularly disturbing because insects are prodigious pollinators. Perhaps even more concerning, scientists have determined that the Sixth Mass Extinction is underway.
On the American continent, we have the sad declining numbers of the beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Striking in appearance, these orange-and-black-winged beauties are also a biological phenomenon: their migration covers a journey of 3,000 miles, three countries and multiple generations, from their winter home in Mexico to as far north as Canada . . . and then another 3,000 miles on the return trip. A recent article in Science analyzes their plight and the complexity of threats against survival. A population declining for decades, it is threatened by habitat loss, pesticides, extreme weather, disease, and much variation in migratory success. Reproduction along the migratory route is particularly vulnerable as monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed for survival, and it has diminished.
In March this year counts by Mexican officials revealed a population decline for the second consecutive year. Only nine colonies were found, reduced from 13 last year. A declining population since 1994 has now made their migration an endangered biological phenomenon according to scientists.
A longitudinal study conducted over 38 years and recently published in Global Change Biology, has traced the birthplace of monarch butterflies in North America by examining chemical compositions of wing tissue samples. Focused exclusively on the generation of monarchs born in North America that continue their migration to overwinter in Mexico, it established regional climate as the greatest predictor of change in natal origin. Monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed, and the most important implication of this study is that planting milkweed hosts solely in the Midwest is not sufficient. Climate change forces the butterflies to breed in other regions.
Thus, to sustain monarch populations, abundant milkweed is needed not only in the Midwest but throughout the United States. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that as many as 1.8 billion additional milkweed stems are needed to return these butterflies to a sustainable population.
Unfortunately, despite these needs, international law promises little aid for the monarch. The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), backed by the U.N. Environment Program, aims to “conserve terrestrial, aquatic and avian migratory species throughout their range.” While the monarch butterfly has been added to the list of species for conservation, neither the U.S. nor Mexico nor Canada is a party to the convention.
In 2007, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation held a conference in Morelia, Mexico, leading to the creation of the North American Monarch Conservation Plan (NAMCP), which proposes multilateral action between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. The NAMCP is certainly a step in the right direction, outlining objectives for butterfly conservation, yet it does not have the ability to wield the power of enforcement mechanisms in a treaty, nor does it set forth specific mechanisms or measures to achieve its ends. The need for an enforceable treaty thus remains.
There is also the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), entered into force on July 1, 1973. It is designed to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.” The United States, Mexico, and Canada are all parties. Monarch butterflies are not currently listed under CITES for protection. As CITES regulates trade, and monarch butterflies are generally not hunted in quantity, it is unlikely that CITES could ever help monarchs.
In 2014, a petition was filed to protect monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision is due in June 2019. If granted, protection under the Endangered Species Act would help monarchs in the U.S. Yet this attacks only half the problem, as it does not cover Mexico where they return for the winter.
Monarch butterflies have essentially slipped in the cracks. There is no treaty protecting them and they desperately need cross-border protection as has been afforded migratory birds for hundreds of years through the treaties in North America and Europe.
What is crucial is the creation of a carefully drafted Migratory Insect Treaty, tailored to address the unique challenges facing insects like the monarch butterfly. Such a treaty would protect monarchs, whose cross-border travels span three countries – Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. – and who face challenges in each country from illegal logging of overwintering habitat in Mexico to lack of milkweed and flowers further north, and climate effects in all three. Across the Atlantic, it could also protect the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), a cousin of the monarch. Present on every continent except South America and the Antarctic, it is famous for one group’s migration from North Africa to as far as the Arctic and back – an amazing round-trip of 9,000 miles. A migratory treaty would include measures and enforcement mechanisms for each country, to ensure protection of a species with unique needs, and also allow other species to be added later.
Thus, in aid of monarch butterflies, the United States would be obligated to return native milkweed plants alongside highways, particularly those that previously housed native milkweed. And Mexico would have to undertake measures to curb deforestation of the overwintering habitat in Mexico. Both are necessary for the monarch’s survival.
In addition, the ecological and economic benefits due to insects are also profound. Insects provide the US with $57 billion worth of ecological services, a figure thought by many to be an underestimate. Humans have increased the rate of insect extinction exponentially, endangering the almost 80 percent of the world’s crops that require pollination. Consequently, treaty protection is also economically important. Legal cover protects habitat for the insects in their countries of migration; in turn, the insects serve as necessary pollinators.
Insects also have been found to have immunological, analgesic, antibacterial, anesthetic, and anti-rheumatic properties. Eight hundred species of terrestrial arthropods, the phylum that includes insects, show anticancer activity. Promising anticancer drugs have been isolated from the wings of Asian sulfur butterflies (Catopsilia crocale). Some insects might even have qualities as yet unknown, making it vital to ensure each species of insect survives.
Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita,” was also a lepidopterist. It was he who named the tiny Karner blue butterfly (now endangered), whose life cycle, and thus survival, depends on the blue lupine flower. He described its stunning beauty in his novel “Pnin”:
“A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin’s shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes. . .”
When beauty is lost, the world is a diminished place.
Author’s Note: This article first appeared in Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org).
UN Environment, Google, EC partnership effective to depoliticize water crisis in South Asia
This year the theme for World Water Day 2019 is ‘Leaving no one behind’ and goes hand in hand with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-six which is ‘water for all by 2030’. However, the ground reality in South Asia appears gloomy and too far to achieve the SDG-6 as the countries are still politicizing water crisis.
The women and children walk miles each day in search for water in Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi. While, in India, according to a 2018 WaterAid report, about 163 million people in India lack access to clean water close to their home and 70 percent of the country’s water is contaminated. The situation in Bangladesh is no better, the demand for water in the Dhaka is 2.2 billion liters a day, while the production is 1.9 billion liters a day.
Besides, in Bhutan and Nepal, South Asia’s per capita water availability is already below the world average. The region could face widespread water scarcity— less than 1,000 cubic meters available per person.
Warning bells too have been sounded by Down To Earth, the magazine that Centre for Science and Environment, Bengaluru will see Cape Town-like water crisis in the not too distant future. As the number of waterbodies in Bengaluru has reduced by 79% due to unplanned urbanization and encroachment – while built-up are has increased from 8% in 1973 to 77% now.
Despite common concerns over the inevitable threat of water scarcity South Asian countries have found it difficult to collectively curate effective agreements over efficient water resource management within international river basins. The absence of guiding frameworks plagues hydro-diplomatic relationships of these countries. It is also being said that water will be one of the critical drivers of peace and stability in South Asia in the second decade of the 21st century.
Though there are some joint mechanisms like India-Pakistan Indus Waters Treaty of 1960.Both have repeatedly accused each other of violating the 1960s Indus Waters Treaty that ensures shared management of the six rivers crossing between the two neighbors, which have fought three major wars in the past 71 years.
Yet fast-growing populations and increasing demand for hydropower and irrigation in each country means the Indus is coming under intense pressure. Also, the NASA in one of its reports mentions that the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed basin. Another one is between India-Bangladesh Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996, long-standing and seemingly intractable regional disputes have put a strain on these agreements.
The EastWest Institute, researchers have suggested steps should be taken towards enabling effective hydro-political regimes to take root in South Asia and involved countries should endorse the United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC). This will ensure, sharing of transboundary hydrological data and water bodies would be managed through the Integrated River Basin Management process.
Besides, Hydro-diplomats have a role to play along with the multilateral institutions like the World Bank. Local and international NGOs also have a key role to play by bring all stakeholders of these countries together for cooperation on the Indus basin.
The recent partnership between the UN Environment, Google, and the European Commission, which aims to ‘leave no one behind’ on World Water Day, have launched a groundbreaking data platform that would track the world’s water bodies—and countries’ progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And this partnership could be of vital importance for South Asian countries to depoliticize the water crisis.
I love the the Green New Deal but …
Ever since out first ancestor lit a fire, humans have been pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Add to that the first herder because ruminants are another large emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG).
Some people want to declare a national emergency and ban fossil fuels within ten years. How? I am for it and all ready to go. But please tell me how. Think of the quarter billion vehicles in the U.S. and the infrastructure supporting them; the myriad gas stations and repair shops and the people employed in them; the thousands of miles of domestic gas pipelines to homes using gas stoves and gas heating. Think of the restructuring, the replacement, the energy required, the megatons of metal and other materials used and their production which all require one thing — energy. And what about air travel and the shipping industry?
What of the millions of jobs lost? Think of the jobholders and their families. Most of these workers cannot switch skills overnight. These are not just the million and a half employed in the industry directly, but include gas company employees, your gas furnace repair and maintenance man, the people building furnaces, gas stoves, the auto repair infrastructure — electric motors of course are darned reliable and need attention only to brakes, tire rotation and battery coolant checks for the most part — and so on.
When you offer this laundry list, the response is likely to be, “Well I didn’t mean that.” In effect, it defines the problem with the Green New Deal: It is remarkably short on the ‘whats’ and especially the ‘hows’. Funny though I first searched for the Green New Deal at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (whose courage I admire greatly) official web page and surprisingly found … well nothing. Why not something practical like mandating solar collectors on new homes constructed?
So you want to suck the CO2 out of the air; you can. It takes 300MW to 500MW of electrical energy per million tons annually. To put it in perspective, we need to remove at least 20 billion tons (20,000 times more) each year to remove the minimum of a trillion tons expected to be emitted by the end of the century. The 10 million megawatt electrical base required for this is ten times the current total US electrical power grid of 1.2 million megawatts.
You want to bring carbon emissions down to zero. I am all for it even though our ancestor — the one who lit the coal fire — could not. Just tell me how. If you want to talk about carbon neutrality … now there’s an idea. But “switching immediately away from fossil fuels” as I read from one advocate recently … I wish it was possible.
The rest of the goals are equally laudable — in fact I have advocated many including the necessity for well-paying jobs, infrastructure spending, eating less meat, and even net-zero emissions. The big question is ‘how’ against entrenched interests.
In the meantime, would someone please electrify my local suburban train. The 1950s diesel-electric locomotives spew black smoke and the carriages were designed in the same era. Worse still, the service is chronically late. Electrification of rail lines and improving public transport in the U.S. should be job one. But every activity — and change particularly — uses energy.
Author’s note: This piece first appeared on counterpunch.org
Seven ways to fix a warming planet
Many people across the world, including schoolchildren, are demanding bolder action on climate change by governments, businesses and investors. There are tremendous opportunities here to “think beyond, solve different,” transform our economies, and change the way we live.
Climate change actions are key to sustainability, and part and parcel of globally agreed efforts in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Agriculture and food
According to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, food systems from production to consumption have the potential to mitigate up to 6.7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, which is second only to the energy sector. We need a global food transformation in the next 12 years in which food waste is halved and diets and health are improved through decreased animal protein intake. We also need to incentivize climate-smart and sustainable agriculture and end the current unjust food situation in which over 820 million people are undernourished.
Buildings and cities
Responsible for some 70 per cent of energy use, buildings and construction account for 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Vast amounts of urban infrastructure are to be built in the coming 15 years as rural-urban migration accelerates. There are huge opportunities here to retrofit existing buildings, improve building standards, and rethink urban planning such as by providing incentives for mini-grid solutions. We also need to tackle human-induced methane, nitrous oxide and CF11 emissions, and find smarter solutions for cooling, heating and waste management.
Educate girls: educated women have fewer and healthier children. Improve global access to, and education on, family planning. We need to focus on economic, social and political inclusion to leave no one behind. Education, skills, and awareness-building are essential ingredients for meaningful inclusion.
Invest in renewables and stop commissioning new coal-fired power plants. We need to redirect fossil fuel subsidies to incentivize large-scale investment and job creation in renewable energy. At the same time, we need energy efficiency standards for electric equipment (lighting, appliances, electric engines, transformers) and a transition towards efficiency-labelled electric equipment.
Help poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. According to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in developing countries could significantly cut emissions by 2020 if industrialized nations made good on their pledge to mobilize US$100 billion a year of climate funding. While energy investment is flowing increasingly towards clean energy, it is not flowing at the rate necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals.
Forests and land use
Protect and restore tropical forests. Plant a trillion trees to boost carbon capture, with associated benefits for biodiversity, food security, livelihoods and rural economies. To do this we need to scale up investment to halve tropical deforestation by 2020, stop net deforestation by 2030 globally, and raise around US$50 billion per year to reach a target of 350 million hectares of forest and landscape restoration by 2030 in line with the Bonn Challenge. So far, 168 million hectares of restoration have been pledged by 47 countries. We should avoid any further conversion of peatlands into agricultural land and restore little-used, drained peatlands by rewetting them. We also need to plant more trees on agricultural land and pastures.
Transport is responsible for about one quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions, and set to increase to one-third by 2050, growing faster than any other sector. With the right policies and incentives, significant emission reductions can be achieved. For this to happen, we need to put in place vehicle efficiency standards, incentives for zero-emission transportation and invest in non-motorized mobility. For example, the Indian government is prioritizing policies that are helping to shift freight transport from road to rail.
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