Saturday, 22 December 2012

Will we collapse like Easter Island?

The spectacular statues of Easter Island, a sparsely populated Pacific isle which is seemingly so desolate that there are not even any large trees on it, have been a mystery for centuries. How could an island of a few thousand people produce hundreds of such statues, the largest of which are 33 feet tall and weigh 82 tons? This question inspired Erich Von Daniken, a best-selling author of the 1970s, to speculate that the statues were erected by aliens from outer space. The real story of the statues and the people who carved them are the subject of the first chapter of Jared Diamond's book, 'Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Survive' (published by Penguin in 2006). Diamond is professor of Geography at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of several award-winning books on the impact of the physical world on human history. His Easter Island history turns out to have profound environmental lessons for us even today.
Diamond points out that archaeologists have proved that Easter Island was once very different from today; before being colonised by people, it was covered with forest typical of other sub-tropical Pacific islands. Once settled by explorers who arrived by canoe from other islands, it seemed to present itself as a hospitable place, and the human population expanded rapidly. Incidentally, this solves the mystery of the statues; a population several times bigger could more reasonably be expected to erect such monuments. However, unknown to the new settlers, the soil of Easter Island was much less fertile than that of other islands that they had lived on. This infertility manifested itself in slower tree growth. Thus when the Easter Islanders cut down trees for firewood, houses and deep-sea canoes, they did this at a rate which may have been sustainable on other islands that their ancestors had lived on; but on Easter Island it brought disaster.
As the population grew, people cut down more trees for firewood and canoes. Canoes were necessary as dolphin-hunting provided a large portion of the animal protein in the diet (along with wild birds and other small animals from the forest). But once the forest cover was removed, the exposed land eroded quickly in the rain and wind. Crop yields decreased, and the islanders' solution was apparently to cut down more trees to plant more crops and build more canoes for dolphin-hunting. As a result, within a few centuries the island was completely deforested. Without trees, there were no more wild birds or animals to hunt, except rats. With no more wood available for canoes, dolphin meat was also no longer available. The islanders descended into famine, war and cannibalism (unfortunately, human meat was one of few remaining sources of animal protein). Two-thirds of the population perished in this terrible manner.
Diamond describes other societies that collapsed primarily due to environmental difficulties, including several more Pacific islands, the Norse colony in Greenland, the native Anasazi culture of the southwestern US, the central American Maya civilisation and modern Rwanda. He also presents the case of Japan, which came close to such a fate but managed to avoid it thanks to intelligent decisions and good leadership.
There is a lesson for us here: in these times of global warming, it may be comforting to believe that our leaders can be trusted to sort everything out, and that humanity would never allow itself to be destroyed. But such a faith would be unfounded; many previous societies have thought this way, and failed. Long-term survival requires a real understanding of the limitations of our environment and a strong political will to live within those limits.
Like the first settlers of Easter Island, we find ourselves in a new, unknown environment; namely an industrialised 21st century world with greenhouse gas levels higher than they have ever been in human history. We no longer need to colonise a new island to experience unfamiliar environmental conditions; our carbon dioxide emissions are altering the climate of our whole planet, which will bring unpredictable new risks for everyone. The lesson of Easter Island should make us think on the failure of our own leaders to come to an agreement to prevent catastrophic climate change even after 20 years of fruitless negotiations.
 Copyright 2012 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh on 22nd December 2012 in the Financial Express.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

How the fossil fuel industry deceives us and endangers our future

For the past 15 years a largely invisible struggle, critical to the future of the planet, has been fought between the global community of climate scientists on one hand and the think-tanks and politicians funded by fossil fuel companies, on the other. During this time, climate scientists have reached an overwhelming scientific consensus that the carbon dioxide emissions caused by our reliance on coal, oil and gas have already caused significant global warming, and will ultimately endanger our planet unless all fossil fuels are rapidly phased out. Simultaneously, the fossil fuel industry has run a huge misinformation campaign to keep the public in the dark about climate change. Ground-breaking scientist Michael Mann writes about this struggle in his new book, The hockey stick and the climate wars; dispatches from the front lines (published 2012 by Columbia University Press).
The critical study which solidified scientific opinion about the truth of global warming was the "hockey stick graph" discovered by author Michael Mann himself in 1998, and highlighted in Al Gore's documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Mann's graph showed global average temperatures slowly decreasing towards a distant new ice age for most of the past 1000 years, only to spike sharply upwards in the 20th century (like the end of a hockey stick). The 'hockey stick graph' showed that man-made global warming was real, and was already happening. The 'hockey stick graph' was confirmed by many subsequent scientific studies; the handful of studies which contradicted it were found to have critical errors. Among climate scientists, there was no longer any doubt about the reality and seriousness of global warming.
The fossil-fuel industry, composed of multinational coal and oil companies, sought to protect their business interests by sowing public doubt in global warming, and was quick to strike back at climate scientists. They funded think-tanks and web-sites propagating reports by their own "experts" who cast doubts on the 'hockey stick'. These experts were usually economists and meteorologists/TV weathermen who knew little of climate science, as well as an ever-shrinking minority of climate scientists. The misinformation campaign took advantage of a public and media largely ignorant of science, and unable to appreciate that the real scientific debate on climate change was over. US Congressmen in the thrall of oil and coal lobbyists undertook an official witch-hunt of climate scientists in 2005. The US Congress was, however, unable to find any problems with the climate scientists' views; but the damage was done. Widespread media coverage of politicians like Senator James Inhofe saying that climate change was "the single greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public" ensured that doubts about global warming continued in the public mind. The anti-climate science campaign ultimately descended to criminal acts of hacking and baseless accusations of fraud directed at Mann and his fellow scientists. In the 'Climate-gate' incident in 2009, unknown hackers stole thousands of e-mail messages from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the UK. One particular e-mail from another climate scientist to Mann was repeatedly used as evidence to claim that Mann had used a "trick" to falsify his 'hockey stick' data and was thus able to "hide the decline" in global temperature.
Climate change denialists had a field day. In actual fact, the word "trick" is commonly used among mathematicians and scientists to describe a clever means of solving a difficult problem, seemingly by magic; it did not imply any wrongdoing. Likewise, the "decline" in that was being hidden was a series of temperature measurements from one particular study acknowledged by the original author to be doubtful due to pollution. A number of subsequent inquiries were conducted, and none found any wrongdoing on the part of climate scientists. Again, the damage was already done; public belief in global warming and political will to tackle it both fell dramatically.
The fog of public doubt created over global warming had long-term consequences. Firstly, President Barack Obama's attempts at regulating carbon emissions were rejected by the US Congress. Secondly, the 'Climate-gate' hacking had been timed to occur just before the Copenhagen summit on global warming in December 2009. Due to doubts raised by the 'Climate-gate' as well as Obama's failure to pass any carbon dioxide emissions legislation in the US, Copenhagen failed to produce any meaningful international agreement to prevent global warming. This failure has left the planet in continued peril of global warming and consequent sea level rise, cyclones and drought. Hurricane Sandy, US/Russian crop failures and high food prices in 2012 are the beginnings of what is in store for us unless the public and politicians start taking real action to replace fossil fuels with nuclear, solar and wind power.
First published on November 30th, 2012 by the Financial Express in Bangladesh. Copyright 2012 by Zeeshan Hasan.