Oxford scientist Michael Clark: emissions from current food production alone will push us over the climate cliff. It is new science, but there is something we can do. But we know climate change is just part of our planet-wrecking. For the really big picture we go to another environmental hero from Sweden: Pella Thiel.
I know many of you are struggling to keep going, or ducking into home shelters as the virus washes over everything. Outside, the natural world is in crisis too. Below the election and health headlines, strange and violent storms, floods, fires and heat continue., even if we try to ignore the climate emergency.
KILLING NATURE IS A CRIME – SWEDISH GREEN HERO PELLA THIEL
If you kill a human that is crime. You will be punished. If you kill a river or a forest that is not a crime. It may be part of your business plan, producing profits for shareholders. Wiping out species and poisoning places is not a crime – but it should be! Pella Thiel shows how we can make that happen, starting where we are now.
Pella Thiel is a leading Swedish ecologist fighting to change that. She works tirelessly to get the new crime of “ecocide” enshrined in International Law. This is not an obscure legal thing. And Pella is not demanding an end to everything humans do. She comes out of the Swedish Transition Network, Chairs the non-profit End Ecocide Sweden, and coordinates the Swedish Network for Rights of Nature. Pella Thiel was appointed Swedish “Environmental Hero of the Year” for 2019.
If you are looking for a nerdy distant discussion of international law, this isn’t it. Pella is a spark-plug connecting people who care about our future, all over the world. Check out this StopEcocide web site to follow this important activism.
There is a platform of international law where we can begin. About 123 countries have agreed to four major crimes, in the Rome Statute. The four crimes are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. You have heard of them, many of us take them for granted. With these charges, people have been arrested and brought to the Hague to stand trial, convicted, and imprisoned.
Now we need to add a fifth great international crime: ecocide. The Pope supports ecocide as an international crime. The Swedish labor movement supports it. French President Macron supports it, in part because of such strong support for the Greens in the summer of 2020 elections. The government of Belgium is working on it.
Two of the State parties to the Rome Statute, Vanuatu and the Maldives, put this on the table in the Hague. Their countries are likely to go underwater due to rising seas under the climate regime. On November 17, top legal experts formed to write a legal definition of ecocide. This is major progress.
Pella talks about the environment group “Friends of Lake Erie”. That “Great Lake” in North America is a victim of industrial agriculture leading to poisonous algae blooms, making it undrinkable. When that basic need like water disappears we are already in big trouble. A town on Lake Erie says the lake has rights. That has been opposed, but it has been proposed. There has been no concrete action.
Another example comes from New Zealand, which has a strong aboriginal community. A forest and a river has been acknowledged as a “person” with rights. The river an be represented by guardians in the legal system. One representative is from the government, and one from the Maori. They are the human face of the river, and can speak for the rights of the river in court cases or policy-making. There is a budget to monitor the river. All this reminds me of the children’s’ stories where animals meet in a Parliament of animals.
Sweden’s Pella Thiel sent me a follow-up email. Right on his campaign web site, the Biden/Harris team promises to implement the basic thrust of the ecocide law. The Biden campaign says, quote:
“Biden will direct his EPA and Justice department to pursue (pollution) cases to the fullest extent permitted by law and, when needed, seek additional legislation to hold corporate executives personally accountable – including jail time where merited.”
In our interview, Pella brings up another advantage for pressing this new ecocide law into the Rome Statutes. Those 123 countries have agreed the Rome Statues crimes will also be crimes in their own national legal systems. If we get Ecocide law done in the Rome Statues, it becomes law for much of the planet. Corporations tend to avoid international crimes, banks will not finance companies who commit those crimes, and criminal corporations can not buy insurance either.
Imagine genocide is proven against a major company. They will be shunned. Now let’s do it for ecocide.
SWEDEN – AHEAD AND BEHIND
Sweden has a history of environmental leadership. The first international conference on the environment was held in Stockholm in 1972. Fifty years later, Sweden has asked to hold next development conference by UN – in Stockholm in 2022. Greta Thunberg is far from alone as inspiring voices and groups coming out of that country. Radio Ecoshock has also found top-rated climate science coming from Sweden.
But even though the King of Sweden awarded Pella that medal for her environmental heroism, she criticizes her own country. Sweden is often ranked number one for sustainability, but has one of the largest technological footprints. Swedish people still consumes as though there were four Earths. Thiel says even the Swedish are hypocrites. The forests are hardly forests now. They have become plantations, not real ecosystems anymore. Why do we say “we are so good” – even though we can’t reach environmental goals set 20 years ago?
In Sweden they have one of the few truly Indigenous people in Europe. That is Sami land, which has been colonized by the Swedes. (It used to be called “Lapland” by the English). There is conflict between the two societies, and forest extraction or mining over-rides indigenous voices, several even recently and continuing. Our system does not admit their world-view, even though they are so sustainable that you cannot see their existence in the land-scape. They touched it so lightly. A big company is building a plant to build electric batteries in the north, in Sami land,. That sounds sustainable, but those mines are not good for nature, even though they bring jobs and “wealth’ to the North.
Check out this excellent English-language interview with Pella Thiel in the Sweden in Transition Podcast hosted by Sonia Le Masne. (Season 2, Episode 18)
WHEN CAN HUMANS STOP TAKING – AND START GIVING TO NATURE?
Pella says there is no end to the extraction we want to do. Humans are always trying to expand their sphere. We want to mine the moon, other planets or asteroids. We are unable to say “enough” – no more development, which is now something destructive. We need to look at what development means. We truly need sustainable development, which takes less, and does it more efficiently – but even that is against what we could GIVE to nature, instead of taking. Nature is always a collection of objects for us to use, not a group of living creatures which also want to exist.
Of course I have questions about how ecocide law can work. The legal concept of ecocide also supposes there is a government able to control multinational corporations, instead of being controlled by them. Do we need corporate support to make this really work? What could be changed in corporate law, perhaps in the registration of corporations, which always include purposes, but seldom limitations. In the days of kings and queens, the Monarch granted patents for corporations, like the East India Company. Those patents might exclude development by the company in certain companies or parts of the globe. So we have a long-standing mechanism back in early law – perhaps that can help us think that limits of corporations are possible?
Can we protect the rights of nature, not just in our country, but everywhere – and still have an economy that can shelter and feed seven and a half billion people? If there is a mass famine in some country, which still seems quite possible, perhaps people there will blame the ecocide laws for limiting business. Will we compensate business for what they would have made, if a particular ecosystem were not protected? Or is that like compensating a thief?
Pella makes us think. She challenges us. Pella winning makes some people uncomfortable. Even though she says ecocide laws do not dictate an end to corporate profits, or that we give up anthropocentric views, – something in our core, almost an unthinking action in our lives, makes us think domination is not just necessary to survive, but our right. If we have an ability, we should do it. But this ability can make us thrive for a short time in history, and then bring a broken climate, disappearing species, and finally mass human deaths. The whole depends on a system of limits, developed by the various species unconsciously as part of evolution. But now, super-predators with higher intelligence, must, for the first time, put limits on its own ability to kill.
The pandemic virus has already learned that lesson. If a virus is too deadly, it kills the host faster than it can spread to new victims. Humans are like a virus, wanting to expand infinitely, living as a predator on other species, both animals and plants. But if we kill too much, too fast, then we fall down.
Humans must learn what the virus already knows: limits are the key to continued existence.
Many humans have already learned to limit their desires. Under long-standing laws, we don’t kill other humans even if we want to and could. There are many other limits we set on ourselves and agree to socially. We need to add a new one which consists of two things:
1. The various parts of the natural world need a voice in human law and decisions and
2. The rest of nature has a right to exist, and ecosystems have a right to thrive.
FOOD CAN PUSH US OVER THE CLIMATE CLIFF – MICHAEL CLARK
You know it: – if we don’t slash fossil fuel emissions from industry, cars and power plants, the future will become unbearably hot and stormy. Maybe we think: the last gas and oil should go to producing food. But according to new science, even that can kill off a good future this century. Is there a long chain linking over-sized humans, ravaged forests and dangerous climate change?
A consortium of American and British scientists now warn: “Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets.” The lead author is Dr. Michael Clark. He is a researcher at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, at England’s University of Oxford.
Dr. Michael Clark,Oxford
In their Abstract, the authors say:
“We show that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the 1.5°C target and, by the end of the century, threaten the achievement of the 2°C target.”
THE CHANCES OF CRASHING
Remember, just like the UN’s IPCC, these authors accept some dubious chances of success. They say:
“We next determine the maximum allowable cumulative GHG emissions from all human activities from 2020 onward that are compatible with having a 67 or 50% chance of meeting the 1.5° and 2°C targets, on the basis of the thresholds set in the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (13). We call these the emissions limits.”
Would you get on a plane with a 67 or 50% chance of not crashing? We are already approaching 1.5 degrees C of warming. That has already arrived in a few places, and the weather now is unstable, at times threatening. Two degrees or beyond would be a crash of this civilization and very difficult times for at least one generation.
Plus the IPCC assumes carbon capture and storage technology will be invented and constructed at scale to reach even those difficult goals of 1.5 or below 2 warming. This paper may be taking a very conservative approach. On the other hand, their model assumes business-as-usual in the global food system, expanding as it must to meet new dietary demands, like more meat, and for a rapidly expanding population of humans on this small planet.
According to this paper: for a 50% chance of meeting the 1.5 degree target, humans can emit 705 Gigatonnes (billion tons) more CO2 equivalent (which includes other gasses like methane and nitrous oxide). Recently, the paper says:
“In total, global food system emissions averaged ~16 billion tonnes (Gt) CO2 equivalents year?1 from 2012 to 2017.”
In 80 years (end of century), if that emissions average remains stable, the global food system alone would emit 1280 Gigatonnes of carbon, versus the 705 margin we have left. Will the emission profile of global food remain stable? Farming with fossil fuels has spread across the globe, including tractors, fertilizers and other agrochemicals.
Plus: world population is going up fast. According to an article in Nature: “By 2030, 1.1 billion more people will live on Earth — bringing the total to about 8.5 billion.” If so, adding a billion more people demands that world food production increase about 12% by 2030, with corresponding increase in emissions. Some of that could be added with better food handling, like refrigeration – but that also has it’s carbon costs. Or we could stop wasting food. By some estimates, up to half of all crops are wasted somewhere in the chain.
Even with the conservative assumptions, the authors of the Clark study find: “even if all non–food system GHG emissions were immediately stopped and were net zero from 2020 to 2100, emissions from the food system alone would likely exceed the 1.5°C emissions limit between 2051 and 2063.”
Let me say that again:
food production alone will push us past 1.5 degree C of warming over pre-industrial – somewhere between 2051 and 2063!
To avoid a devastating climate crisis threatening billions of lives in this century, we have to bring fossil fuel burning emissions to a screeching halt, prioritizing our slim remaining carbon budget (if any) to food. But realistically, with this new science, even that is not enough. We have to transition to climate sustainable food production and distribution, possibly within 5 or10 years.
FIVE STRATEGIES TO AVOID DANGEROUS FOOD EMISSIONS (directly from this new paper led by Michael Clark)
“We next explore how global food system GHG emissions might be reduced through five strategies that target food supply and demand:
1. globally adopting a plant-rich diet [here modeled as a diet rich in plant-based foods that contains moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, and meat, such as a Mediterranean diet or planetary health diet;
2. adjusting global per capita caloric consumption to healthy levels;
3. achieving high yields by closing yield gaps and improving crop genetics and agronomic practices;
4. reducing food loss and waste by 50%; and
5 reducing the GHG intensity of foods by increasing the efficiency of production, such as by altering management regimes (e.g., precise use of nitrogen fertilizer and other inputs) or technological implementation.”
I also ask Michael about some of his earlier work especially this one: “Feedlot diet for Americans that results from a misspecified optimization algorithm.”
ENTERING UNCHARTED WATERS…
“We show that meeting the 1.5° and 2°C targets will likely require extensive and unprecedented changes to the global food system”.
– Clark paper
Can this world, already reeling from a relentless pandemic, economic hardship and unheard of extensions of government debt – still have the ability to make unprecedented changes? How can we communicate the seriousness of this challenge, and what we all can do to meet it, to a public that right now doesn’t want to hear about it? Heavy meat-eating appears to be a hot political statement in America and many European countries, and obesity is a new addiction appearing in every country acquiring enough wealth to get a super-calorie meal.
According to the National Institutes of Health about 300,000 Americans a year die because they are overweight. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death, behind only tobacco. Now we learn the weight trap is directly related to the safety of our climate. On the other hand, cutting back the wasted food pouring into unhealthy body weight, just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, might generate not just massive public health savings, but extend life expectancy and enjoyment for millions of people. We could all win with that aspect of this program.
The new findings suggest we really can limit warming to 1.5 degrees, or 2 C. Everything I hear from our scientific guests, plus reports of heating around the world says we are already committed beyond 2 degrees, especially counting natural feed backs like disappearing ice and snow coupled with permafrost thaw. Are we talking about trying to reach safety limits that are really already in the rear-view mirror? Many of my listeners think so.
As I mention to Michael, this study did not include any authors from the world’s biggest food producers and consumers: China and India. With more diversity, scientists might have found the same facts, but reached different conclusions. Still, this is great science with a lot to tell us about what we need to do to survive our human-made climate shift.
Missing from this paper is any call for localized food, or sustainable food production like permaculture, or capturing carbon back into the soil with regenerative agriculture.
By the way, to get some good listening about Regenerative Agriculture, check out this TUC Radio program “Gabe Brown – Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota”.
TO READ MORE ABOUT FOOD AND CLIMATE, check out the New York Times article here, or this from ourdailyplanet.
MORE NEWS AND COMMENTS FROM ALEX SMITH
ANOTHER MAJOR AMERICA CLIMATE SCIENTIST PUSHED OUT BY TRUMP
In September, I interviewed Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a world-leading scientist who left research at NCAR, The US National Center for Atmospheric Research, because the Trump Administration cut off funding for climate research. America’s loss was New Zealand’s gain.
On November 7 another towering figure in science published “An Open Letter to Joe Biden”. Dr. Ben Santer is known globally as a Research Scientist at the government-funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He specialized in identifying human “fingerprints” of climate on important events like hurricanes, and trends like crop-killing droughts. Santer is author or co-author of 153 scientific papers and articles going back to the 1980’s.
Dr, Ben Santer, formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
His Open Letter published in Scientific American begins by saying, quote:
“In the last four years, federally funded science agencies were unmade and remade. They were given new marching orders. The mandate of providing the nation with unbiased scientific advice was replaced by a new mandate—that science is subordinate to the political goals and ego of President Trump.”
Many long-funded climate research projects, which depend on decades of uninterrupted data were killed by the Trump administration. Santer says “The Environmental Protection Agency became the Environmental Pollution Agency, rolling back protections on clean air and clean water, and providing regulatory relief to President Trump’s campaign contributors from the fossil fuel industry. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were censured for challenging President Trump’s incorrect forecast of the path of a major hurricane.”
The next generation of climate scientists must call themselves something else, like weather forecasters, to survive. Self-censorship and avoiding difficult questions is the order of the day in what used to be the world’s leading force for science, America.
THE WORLD’S LARGEST WETLANDS ARE ON FIRE
As Trump insists climate change is a hoax and a Chinese conspiracy, the real world continues to twist out of shape. Here is just one sample: The world’s largest wetlands are on fire. Although I often criticize the mainstream media, CNN has stayed on this case with three reporters. The Pantanal region is a flood plain reaching far beyond what the eye can see. In the interior of Brazil, this vast wetland stretches out into Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Pantanal on Fire (Reuters photo by Amanda Perobelli)
We are talking about 3 percent of the world’s total wetlands in this one place. There are multiple fires raging there easily visible from space as blaring red and black patches on the planet. The fire is burning one of the most biodiverse places on space vehicle Earth. It is home to jaguars, capybaras, giant otters and the most colorful birds. These untouched wetlands contain a significant amount of carbon, now being wafted into the atmosphere. While humans fight stew in politics and disease, a key carbon sink has been hobbled.
AS WINTER SETS IN, THE ARCTIC REFUSES TO FREEZE
Almost at the other end of the world, scientists are tearing their hair out about the Arctic. The North Pole has been above freezing – in November! Record high temperatures kept winter away so far in Siberia. The permafrost got extra thaw time in 2020, meaning more carbon dioxide and even stronger methane emissions in the North.
This summer there was far less sea ice in the Arctic than in past decades. Scientists measured the second lowest amount of sea ice ever, second only to 2012. But now in November, Arctic sea ice is below 2012, at an absolute record low. This means more darker ocean waters have been absorbing the extra heat you and I are shunting into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The hotter oceans delay sea ice further, a feed-back effect. Warmer seas eventually affect weather around the world, including super-charging hurricanes, typhoons and tropical storms with tons more water vapor in the atmosphere. That gives big storms extra energy, making them more violent.
Next week, I expect to learn more about how warmer seas send colossal amounts of storm rain further inland than ever before. Are you listening North Carolina? Tropical storm and hurricane Eta killed more people last week, inland, where they were not expecting rapid deep flooding. Stay tuned for the science behind this new eruption of rains from storms. We’ll talk about Nicaragua, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the whole damn East Coast of the United States and Canada.
If you are home, feeling like it is bunker-time, I am too. The government here in British Columbia Canada is advising people to stay home except for essential work or groceries. Real health experts are trying to gently talk Americans out of any Thanksgiving travel or family get-togethers. The stakes are too high, literally life and death. But I ask you to keep your eyes and ears on what is happening in the natural world outside. Somehow, we need to find ways and means to create massive social change that will not turn the atmosphere and seas against us.
A couple of scientists now say we are out of time. You may feel that way, but feelings have to be checked against facts. That is what science is for. The best minds, models and tracking in the world say we still have a short desperate chance to turn away from a future that is hot, wet, and violent. If we can stop lying to ourselves, we may see the truth. Then the right action becomes self evident.
Music for this show is from “Breath of Ma” (AtYyA Remix) by Shaman’s Dream. From Nevada City California, Craig Kohland cranks out musical prayer for health and happiness. Get more here.
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Thank you for the fight to stay alive, not just for ourselves, but for all creatures, now and in the future.
I’m Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock.