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Green Planet

Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and almost all of the USA is in varying levels of lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself.  Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead  and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.    

Then there is man-induced climate change.  The Antarctic hit a record 64.9F (18.3C) last month surpassing the previous high of 63.5F (17.5C) set in 2015.  Three days later on February 9th, the same measuring research station experienced an astounding 69.35F (20.75C) (livescience.com).  Perhaps it is to be expected when we are pumping CO2 to record levels in the atmosphere.  Current measurements are 413 ppm (Feb., 2020), a rise of 100ppm over 1950 figures (climate.nasa.gov/evidence/). 

Global warming is also blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat.  Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals. 

One bright note is a stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist.  Millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. 

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas.  The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019).  Scientists now expect an extra 17mm (6.7 inch) rise in sea levels above current projections by 2100, and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs (Greenland and Antarctica Ice Melt — BBC).   But that is small potatoes in comparison with the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. 

This massive glacier has retreated 5 km (about 3 miles) in the last 22 years reports a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters (Science Daily, March 23, 2020).  From 1979 to 2017, it has lost a cumulative 268 billion tons.  Of particular concern to researchers is the ground surface underneath which renders the glacier more susceptible to global-warming collapse.  This vast ice sheet has the potential by itself to raise sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet).

While global warming is causing a speedup of many ocean currents, an anomaly is the consequence of Greenland ice melt reaching the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current.  Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking salt water (Science, Feb. 7, 2020, p.612) weakening the current — its  beneficence accounting for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extending as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden

At the same time, an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data, indicates an acceleration in currents, particularly in the tropics and the Southern Ocean (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020).  Global warming is the likely cause spurring ocean winds to speed currents, although proof awaits more data collection.  A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels paints a picture of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities (National Geographic, Oct, 15, 2019) that have been popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops.  A recent paper (Science February 7, 2020, p.626) reports widespread decline in bumble bee populations in North America and Europe.  Warming temperature is the likely culprit.  A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumble bees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline.  The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable — if not disastrous — but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide.  A halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to a shocking 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (January 22, 2020).  While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America.  The significance of the new research is its global scope.

In Thailand, for example, the ground nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect.  But sadly, the number of species recorded keep plummeting on most continents.  The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s.  Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300.  What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. 

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops.  Now butterflies are also under threat.  The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns.  They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion.  These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west  and 225 million in the east.  Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further this year to a little over 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability.  As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic.  If  it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people.  Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2.  The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.      

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity.  Could it even be just the initial onslaught?  Now that is a frightening thought. 

Authors’ Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Green Planet

Climate Change Problem: an Emerging Threat to Global Security

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Climate Change is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity. The Greenhouse–gas emissions and over-exploitation of natural resources result in a rise in temperature which brings floods, droughts, a rise in sea level, and other destructive events. The problem is that climate change is a global bad, and it requires collective efforts and cooperation to limit its effects. One state cannot control Climate change alone because it does not take it into borders. Formally, the climate change issue was a matter of low politics, but the inception of the 21st century brought an understanding that it poses greater threats than traditional ones. The Covid-19 plays a major role in the realization of steps taken towards climate cooperation. States often make climate promises but cannot fulfill these promises because of the fascination with development and ignore climate change. But now world leaders have realized that the lessons of COVID-19 can tackle global climate change problems otherwise it will make this world difficult to live in.

 The newly elected President of the United States (US) Joe Biden inaugurated a virtual climate change summit with 42 world leaders. It includes leaders from Russia, China, Turkey, Israel, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Setting aside all the differences, he invited leaders from those countries that are a major contributor to Greenhouse gas emission and those who are most vulnerable to climate change risk. In this summit, the Biden administration asked the world leaders to take actions to combat climate change collectively as the climate is a global good and requires collective efforts to tackle climate change. Biden has announced an aggressive new goal policy for greenhouse gas emissions. 2030 committed the US administration to reduce its greenhouse gas emission to 50-53%. The National Intelligence Director of President Avril Haines told world leaders that the climate change issue is no longer remains a peripheral issue but at the center of foreign policy. Other states such as France and Russia also promised to limit their greenhouse gas emission to 42-46% by 2030. It also committed China to play its role in the summit by announcing its willingness towards coal reduction. India reiterated its target of 450 GW of non-renewable energy by 2030 and announced to launch the “US-India 2030 Climate and Clean energy Agenda 2030 Partnership”. The Brazilian Environment Minister argued they need funds to enforce their plan to eliminate deforestation and carbon emission from their country. Vice president Harris argued that climate actions are necessary to tackle climate crises and to promote job opportunities. . Now, the US has put climate change at the center of its security and foreign policy because climate change is not only changing the pattern of the environment but it speeds up the geopolitical competition, undermine security and provoking ethnic conflicts. The climate change results in cyclones, floods, the rising temperature that disrupts social and economic conditions that threaten food security and human security.

By exploring the climate solution, the virtual summit announced the need to increase the public finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Biden emphasized the importance of investment in the public and private sectors to achieve the collective goal of net zero-emission. Further, climate actions require cooperation at the national and sub-national governments to speed up efforts to transform communities in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Another change that needs to be highlighted at the national level is that the government must not subsidize renewable energy industries and keep their prices high to contain their over-exploitation.  It is easy to make promises as states do, but the problems emerge in its implementation. For decades, climate change has raised concern but states often prioritize development over the environment. This is real-time for states to limit their emission and comply with the promises they have made in the summit otherwise it will lead to never-ended consequences.

COVID-19, a super-fast placed event that emerged from one part of the world and quickly spread throughout the entire world. By its speed of diffusion, it reduced all the emissions at an expensive cost, thus halting the global economy. So still we have time to think about other efficient means of emission reductions to prevent countries from the intolerable burden of Climate Change. But the challenge is how to keep that emission reduction after the pandemic. Second, just an as sharp and instant change of behavior is possible with COVID-19 so to deal with climate change a behavior change is also possible, thus shifting to the low carbon emission all depends on seriousness and credibility to the mortal threat. Third, a key implication of COVID-19 to climate change is that how to reorganize the economy so, in the post-pandemic world, it is the human interaction that would determine the organization of the economy. Thus future will determine whether a low contact economy with a clean environment would be a lower carbon emission economy or not. Further, states must focus on how to open up the economy in the Green Revolution. Another major issue which the world leaders failed to address is the global problem of Covid-19. Despite the technological advancement and huge development, zoom diplomacy began with a distorted voice from the most advanced countries of the world. There is a need to cooperate on a matter of Covid-19 so that states think on the wider notion of climate actions. Thus we have to use all these lessons in the context of climate change to make this world a better place to live in.

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Green Planet

Rails, Roads And Emissions

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It is common knowledge that emissions affecting climate are least for rail travel in comparison with airplanes or road vehicles.  Consequently the $80 billion allocated to rail in an otherwise laudable budget appears paltry. 

Why is the US not investing in rail?  The usual reason given is that distances are so vast that it’s a no-brainer for business travellers to rely on commercial airlines.  But the way the technology is advancing, and as Europeans (and the Chinese) have demonstrated, a network of high-speed rail can offer a greener alternative. 

Trains are getting faster and new innovations like tilting trains lower the cost of replacement tracks.  If 200 mph is being breached more often, then 250 mph should be in our sights.  And Elon Musk has proposed vacuum tubes to remove wind resistance and reach even higher speeds. 

Yet a 250 mph rail network with average speeds in excess of 200 mph would revolutionize the concept of travel.  New York to Chicago in five hours and east to west coast overnight with the possibility of visiting neglected areas out of reach with expressways and airplanes would bring new growth and dynamism where it is needed. 

A point to note is prevailing interest rates.  They are so low historically that railroad bonds at a competitive interest rate would be snapped up  especially if they were guaranteed by the government. 

While one can agree with the aims and compassion clearly evident in the president’s proposals, the process to achieve them is less clear.  In particular on climate change the goal of net zero emissions within a decade is laudable.  But a speedy switchover to electric vehicles raises questions: Simply, how?

The system is geared to internal combustion engines.  Mechanics train for years to become proficient.  Aside from that, has anyone wondered what happens to all those large electric car batteries when they have to be replaced?  Since lithium used in them is a finite resource, it would have to be recovered or the 80 million tons estimated to be the world’s store would eventually be depleted.  

Another issue is the electricity used to charge the batteries.  If it comes from a coal-fired plant, are we back to square one?  Currently about a quarter of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Of course dealing with pollution at the source (like a coal plant) is easier. 

The number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck (roughly half) is just one more reason the changeover to electric vehicles might take a while; they just don’t have the funds.  Add to these numbers the elderly living on fixed incomes or the ranks of the unemployed and one can understand the scale of the problem.  

One can laud the US president’s goals but we need to see some action (even proposals) to facilitate them. 

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Green Planet

Global Environmental Governance and Biden’s Administration

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Being the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, it is the responsibility of U.S to contribute expeditiously to manage the environmental issues at domestic and international level but the previous government, under the leadership of Trump, took back seat and reversed all the decisions of Ex-president Barack Obama to combat the climate change. Unlike this, New Elected President, Joe Biden, who is very enthusiastic and firm to fulfill all the promises regarding climate change which were done during the general election’s campaign. Moreover, he views climate change a thwart to national security. One of the biggest achievements associated with Biden’ administration regarding environmental issues is to bring U.S back into Paris Climate Accord and brought executive order’’ Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring science to tackle the climate crisis’’ on the surface.

A flurry of changes to U.S environment policy is going to play a constructive role in global environmental governance under Biden administration. Even before elections, climate change was one of the top priorities and aimed to put the U.S on a path which leads towards ‘’ Zero Net’’ greenhouse gas emission. In the very early of His office days, He is very committed to deal with the climate change as they hosted ‘’ Climate Day’’ to introduce government climate centric approach to emphasize on the climate change.  Biden administration also ordered to revoke a permanent issued for Keystone XL oil pipeline which trump issued for extraction of oil and energy which is dangerous to national ecosystem. In addition to this, they are also very active to promote US role to tackle the climate change at domestic and abroad. At domestic level, Biden’s actions are speaking louder than the words as he has ascribed the climate crisis with a national emergency. At the time of his inauguration, Biden said: ‘’ A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any clearer’’. He also directed his cabinet to work on the policy of ‘’ social carbon cost’’ to measure the cost of actions and how costs will impact the climate change. He endeavors to control the climate change by keeping a strict eye on the big project’s reviewing process before working under the National Environmental Policy Act which calculates the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

On international level, Biden has been striving to improve the spoil image shaped by the previous government regarding global environmental governance as he has declared to rejoin the Paris Climate accord which would help to reduce the greenhouse gas emission. In the result of this action, Biden was welcomed by the General Secretary of the United Nations and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron by saying ‘’ Welcome Back to the Paris Agreement’’. Moreover, Biden Administration is very determined to convene a global climate summit on the earth day to encourage leaders to align themselves with scientist to alleviate the impacts of climate change. On international forums, US need to cooperate and compel the economic trade partner to take actions to combat with climate crisis. One of the essential steps taken by the Biden administration is to manage the climate refugees which aim to make strategies to compensate the climate affected migrants.

The thin majority of democratic in the senate does not only limit the possibility for Biden to achieve climate change reforms along strong anti-climate lobbyist business group who are inimical to the reforms particularly relevant to vehicle, power plants and oil and gas drilling industries. Without new climate legislation from congress, it would be not an easy task to implement the climate agenda across the borders. The vocal resistance comes from the coal production sectors which result in burning of fossil fuels and caused of greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas, few sectors are opposing the agenda there are also companies specially electrical vehicles are exclusively offering assistance to Biden for the sustainable development. Undoubtedly, environmental organizations and scientists community applauded the Biden decisions but few business groups have also filed a lawsuit against Biden to not stop the new permit for oil and gas drilling. There are also concerned raised by the community that climate actions will delete many jobs and cause of upsurge in unemployment percentage across the federation.

It is very evident from the ambitions of Biden’s action regarding climate crisis that he is very interesting to mitigate and curb the climate change but it will require highly comprehensive strategy aims to manage the reforms in laws while taking congressmen in confidence because most of them are not in favor of climate actions due to clash of interests. On the other hand, there is need to work on renewable energy resources at domestic and international level and for this US should compensate the companies to compete with the old capitalized firms which do not want safe and peaceful planet. Moreover, there is need to bring reforms in existing environmental treaties and their compliance process which should be strictly followed by the harsh actions against the violators. The process of financing the agendas which are very environment friendly and transforming the resources to the periphery states should be done swiftly to improve the environment across the globe. The aims of achieving sustainable development should be promoted and supported by the US across the world.

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