6/27/2011 12:50:40 PM
Let’s see: today, it’s a story about rising sea levels. Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds, and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.
Time’s up, and if “faster,” “far faster,” “fastest,” or “unprecedented” didn’t come to mind, then the odds are that you’re not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011. Yes, a new study came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures sea-level rise over the last 2,000 years and -- don’t be shocked -- it’s never risen faster than now.
Earlier in the week, there was that report on the state of the oceans produced by a panel of leading marine scientists. Now, close your eyes and try again. Really, this should be easy. Just look at the previous paragraph and choose “unprecedented,” and this time pair it with “loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory,” or pick “far faster” (as in “the seas are degenerating far faster than anyone has predicted”), or for a change of pace, how about “more quickly” as in “more quickly than had been predicted” as the “world’s oceans move into ‘extinction’ phase.”
Or consider a third story: arctic melting. This time you’re 100% correct! It’s “faster” again (as in “than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts” of 2007). But don’t let me bore you. I won’t even mention the burning southwest, or Arizona’s Wallow fire, “the largest in state history,” or Texas’s “unprecedented wildfire season” (now “getting worse”), or the residents of Minot, North Dakota, abandoning their city to “unprecedented” floods, part of a deluge in the northern U.S. that is “unprecedented in modern times.”
It’s just superlatives and records all the way, and all thanks to those globally rising “record” temperatures and all those burning fossil fuels emitting “record” levels of greenhouse gases (“worst ever” in 2010) that so many governments, ours at the very top of the list, are basically ducking. Now, multiply those fabulous adjectives and superlative events—whether melting, dying, rising, or burning—and you’re heading toward the world of 2041, the one that TomDispatch energy expert and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet Michael Klare writes about [at TomDispatch]. It's a world where if we haven't kicked our fossil-fuel habit, we won’t have superlatives strong enough to describe it.
Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels)…. New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe. No one can know, of course, what our version of the Treaty of Westphalia will look like or who will be the winners and losers on this planet. In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question.
Image by adamfarnsworth, licensed under Creative Commons.
6/21/2011 2:25:21 PM
If you saw a boulder impossibly perched on the side of a mountain, with little holding it back from a free fall down the side, what would you do?
That’s the scene in a short essay by Michael Branch at High Country News. Branch and three hiking buddies playing hooky come across an “immense rock” just barely holding onto the mountain. After scanning the mountain side and canyon with his “binocs,” Branch puts fears about hitting a human to rest, and the group is left to wax philosophical about the situation, invoking Sisyphus and a divine plan to help them in their decision: To roll or not to roll.
When the three American hikers can’t decide they turn to the Frenchman among them—“a scholar of environmental literature [named] ‘Francois’”—who replies simply, “Whenever I am uncertain…I abide by this principle: WWEAD.” Don’t worry, it meant nothing to the other three hikers, either, who all looked to Francois for an explanation. “’What would Edward Abbey do?’ he explained coolly.”
(I’ll give you a spoiler alert here, because I’m going to give away the ending by telling you the hikers’ decision If you want to read the essay first, go here.)
And with that cool proclamation, the four men move with confidence toward the rock, intent on pushing it down the mountainside, confident they’re living in the spirit of Cactus Ed. As Branch watches the scene, he feels a great weight lifted, or thrown downhill, rather.
Each impact elicited a collective gasp or cheer, and I can't begin to explain how cathartic it was to watch that boulder fly. I felt as if I had been rolling a boulder up a mountain my whole adult life, and had only now decided to simply step aside and just let it go. I was Sisyphus unbound, and I had a Frenchman's love of Cactus Ed to thank for it.
Now, I don’t think I would have chosen to push the rock, but the scene does inspire a sense of freedom—the kind that (maybe) can only come with a certain amount of irresponsibility. What interested me more than the decision they made, though, was the course they took to get there—invoking Abbey as their reckless guide.
I can’t say that I’m an Abbey expert by any stretch of the imagination, but reading his letters over the years in Postcards from Ed (Milkweed Editions), I can’t say that I’d be so confident in the fact that ol’ Ed would have chosen to push the rock. And I’m not alone in being a little less sure than the hikers. In the comments section (a portion of websites I often try to avoid), a debate around the question of what Abbey would actually do was in full swing when the post went up.
Christine Petersen wrote, “Do you really think Abbey would be proud of you for choosing that particular act to commit—and write about—in his name? Sorry, but this piece just sounds self-indulgent.” While Shelley McEuen responded, “I think even Abbey had a sense of humor. Wish I could have seen the boulder cascade down the hill.”
Other comments get to the contrary figure that was Ed Abbey. One man writes:
I once asked Ed Abbey after a lecture, "Is the real Ed Abbey the man who preaches environmentalism or the one who writes about how he rolled tires off the cliffs into the Grand Canyon and carved the initials of himself and his girlfriend into aspen in the La Sal National Forest?" Ed said not a word, just smiled impishly and enigmatically, and moved on to the next question.
And another scolds his fellow commentors:
[E]vidently people create their own version of Abbey to suit their own sets of values. Abbey defended throwing beer cans out of car window, and definitely was into rolling rocks to hear the sound. He writes about the delights of pushing giant tractors full of oil and diesel fuel off canyon rims to see them tumble to the bottom. Abbey purist or leave--: his first day on the job in Arches he killed a rabbit with a rock just to see if he could. So if you're going to speculate on what Abbey would have said, be sure you've actually paid attention to what he did say.
So, what would you have done? Left the boulder for future hikers to marvel at or give the darn thing a shove and watch with glee for a handful of seconds? And, do you think you’d be making the same decision as the impossible-to-categorize Cactus Ed?
Source: High Country News
Image by Krikit<3, licensed under Creative Commons.
6/16/2011 11:21:12 AM
Think your life is tough? Try dragging a dead sheep across the frozen tundra on a makeshift wooden sled. Foreign Policy shows life on Mongolia’s barren landscape during dzud—or severe winter conditions—in a bitterly cold and impossibly bleak photo essay. Photographer Alessandro Grassani chronicles the rampant alcoholism and ubiquitous squalor of Mongolia’s capitol city, Ulan Bator, and the hardscrabble subsistence lifestyle of those from its surrounding provinces.
Source: Foreign Policy
Images courtesy of Alessandro Grassini and LUZphoto.
6/9/2011 10:22:54 AM
This article was originally published at
Here’s the good news about energy: thanks to rising oil prices and deteriorating economic conditions worldwide, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that global oil demand will not grow this year as much as once assumed, which may provide some temporary price relief at the gas pump. In its May Oil Market Report, the IEA reduced its 2011 estimate for global oil consumption by 190,000 barrels per day, pegging it at 89.2 million barrels daily. As a result, retail prices may not reach the stratospheric levels predicted earlier this year, though they will undoubtedly remain higher than at any time since the peak months of 2008, just before the global economic meltdown. Keep in mind that this is the good news.
As for the bad news: the world faces an array of intractable energy problems that, if anything, have only worsened in recent weeks. These problems are multiplying on either side of energy’s key geological divide: below ground, once-abundant reserves of easy-to-get “conventional” oil, natural gas, and coal are drying up; above ground, human miscalculation and geopolitics are limiting the production and availability of specific energy supplies. With troubles mounting in both arenas, our energy prospects are only growing dimmer.
Here’s one simple fact without which our deepening energy crisis makes no sense: the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year. According to the projections of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), world energy output, based on 2007 levels, must rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025 to meet anticipated demand. Even if usage grows somewhat more slowly than projected, any failure to satisfy the world’s requirements produces a perception of scarcity, which also means rising fuel prices. These are precisely the conditions we see today and should expect for the indefinite future.
It is against this backdrop that three crucial developments of 2011 are changing the way we are likely to live on this planet for the foreseeable future.
Tough-Oil RebelsThe first and still most momentous of the year’s energy shocks was the series of events precipitated by the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions and the ensuing “Arab Spring” in the greater Middle East. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt was, in fact, a major oil producer, but the political shockwaves these insurrections unleashed has spread to other countries in the region that are, including Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. At this point, the Saudi and Omani leaderships appear to be keeping a tight lid on protests, but Libyan production, normally averaging approximately 1.7 million barrels per day, has fallen to near zero.
When it comes to the future availability of oil, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this spring’s events in the Middle East, which continue to thoroughly rattle the energy markets. According to all projections of global petroleum output, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states are slated to supply an ever-increasing share of the world’s total oil supply as production in key regions elsewhere declines. Achieving this production increase is essential, but it will not happen unless the rulers of those countries invest colossal sums in the development of new petroleum reserves—especially the heavy, “tough oil” variety that requires far more costly infrastructure than existing “easy oil” deposits.
In a front-page story entitled “Facing Up to the End of ‘Easy Oil,’” the Wall Street Journal noted that any hope of meeting future world oil requirements rests on a Saudi willingness to sink hundreds of billions of dollars into their remaining heavy-oil deposits. But right now, faced with a ballooning population and the prospects of an Egyptian-style youth revolt, the Saudi leadership seems intent on using its staggering wealth on employment-generating public-works programs and vast arrays of weaponry, not new tough-oil facilities; the same is largely true of the other monarchical oil states of the Persian Gulf.
Whether such efforts will prove effective is unknown. If a youthful Saudi population faced with promises of jobs and money, as well as the fierce repression of dissidence, has seemed less confrontational than their Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian counterparts, that doesn’t mean that the status quo will remain forever. “Saudi Arabia is a time bomb,” commented Jaafar Al Taie, managing director of Manaar Energy Consulting (which advises foreign oil firms operating in the region). “I don’t think that what the King is doing now is sufficient to prevent an uprising,” he added, even though the Saudi royals had just announced a $36-billion plan to raise the minimum wage, increase unemployment benefits, and build affordable housing.
At present, the world can accommodate a prolonged loss of Libyan oil. Saudi Arabia and a few other producers possess sufficient excess capacity to make up the difference. Should Saudi Arabia ever explode, however, all bets are off. “If something happens in Saudi Arabia, [oil] will go to $200 to $300 [per barrel],” said Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the kingdom’s former oil minister, on April 5th. “I don’t expect this for the time being, but who would have expected Tunisia?”
Nuclear Power on the Downward SlopeIn terms of the energy markets, the second major development of 2011 occurred on March 11th when an unexpectedly powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. As a start, nature’s two-fisted attack damaged or destroyed a significant proportion of northern Japan’s energy infrastructure, including refineries, port facilities, pipelines, power plants, and transmission lines. In addition, of course, it devastated four nuclear plants at Fukushima, resulting, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, in the permanent loss of 6,800 megawatts of electric generating capacity.
This, in turn, has forced Japan to increase its imports of oil, coal, and natural gas, adding to the pressure on global supplies. With Fukushima and other nuclear plants off line, industry analysts calculate that Japanese oil imports could rise by as much as 238,000 barrels per day, and imports of natural gas by 1.2 billion cubic feet per day (mostly in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG).
This is one major short-term effect of the tsunami. What about the longer-term effects? The Japanese government now claims it is scrapping plans to build as many as 14 new nuclear reactors over the next two decades. On May 10th, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the government would have to “start from scratch” in devising a new energy policy for the country. Though he speaks of replacing the cancelled reactors with renewable energy systems like wind and solar, the sad reality is that a significant part of any future energy expansion will inevitably come from more imported oil, coal, and LNG.
The disaster at Fukushima—and ensuing revelations of design flaws and maintenance failures at the plant—has had a domino effect, causing energy officials in other countries to cancel plans to build new nuclear plants or extend the life of existing ones. The first to do so was Germany: on March 14th, Chancellor Angela Merkel closed two older plants and suspended plans to extend the life of 15 others. On May 30th, her government made the suspension permanent. In the wake of mass antinuclear rallies and an election setback, she promised to shut all existing nuclear plants by 2022, which, experts believe, will result in an increase in fossil-fuel use.
China also acted swiftly, announcing on March 16th that it would stop awarding permits for the construction of new reactors pending a review of safety procedures, though it did not rule out such investments altogether. Other countries, including India and the United States, similarly undertook reviews of reactor safety procedures, putting ambitious nuclear plans at risk. Then, on May 25th, the Swiss government announced that it would abandon plans to build three new nuclear power plants, phase out nuclear power, and close the last of its plants by 2034, joining the list of countries that appear to have abandoned nuclear power for good.
How Drought Strangles EnergyThe third major energy development of 2011, less obviously energy-connected than the other two, has been a series of persistent, often record, droughts gripping many areas of the planet. Typically, the most immediate and dramatic effect of prolonged drought is a reduction in grain production, leading to ever-higher food prices and ever more social turmoil.
Intense drought over the past year in Australia, China, Russia, and parts of the Middle East, South America, the United States, and most recently northern Europe has contributed to the current record-breaking price of food—and this, in turn, has been a key factor in the political unrest now sweeping North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East. But drought has an energy effect as well. It can reduce the flow of major river systems, leading to a decline in the output of hydroelectric power plants, as is now happening in several drought-stricken regions.
By far the greatest threat to electricity generation exists in China, which is suffering from one of its worst droughts ever. Rainfall levels from January to April in the drainage basin of the Yangtze, China’s longest and most economically important river, have been 40% lower than the average of the past 50 years, according to China Daily. This has resulted in a significant decline in hydropower and severe electricity shortages throughout much of central China.
The Chinese are burning more coal to generate electricity, but domestic mines no longer satisfy the country’s needs and so China has become a major coal importer. Rising demand combined with inadequate supply has led to a spike in coal prices, and with no comparable spurt in electricity rates (set by the government), many Chinese utilities are rationing power rather than buy more expensive coal and operate at a loss. In response, industries are upping their reliance on diesel-powered backup generators, which in turn increases China’s demand for imported oil, putting yet more pressure on global fuel prices.
Wrecking the PlanetSo now we enter June with continuing unrest in the Middle East, a grim outlook for nuclear power, and a severe electricity shortage in China (and possibly elsewhere). What else do we see on the global energy horizon?
Despite the IEA’s forecast of diminished future oil consumption, global energy demand continues to outpace increases in supply. From all indications, this imbalance will persist.
Take oil. A growing number of energy analysts now agree that the era of “easy oil” has ended and that the world must increasingly rely on hard-to-get “tough oil.” It is widely assumed, moreover, that the planet harbors a lot of this stuff—deep underground, far offshore, in problematic geological formations like Canada’s tar sands, and in the melting Arctic. However, extracting and processing tough oil will prove ever more costly and involve great human, and even greater environmental, risk. Think: BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
Such is the world’s thirst for oil that a growing amount of this stuff will nonetheless be extracted, even if not, in all likelihood, at a pace and on a scale necessary to replace the disappearance of yesterday’s and today’s easy oil. Along with continued instability in the Middle East, this tough-oil landscape seems to underlie expectations that the price of oil will only rise in the coming years. In a poll of global energy company executives conducted this April by the KPMG Global Energy Institute, 64% of those surveyed predicted that crude oil prices will cross the $120 per barrel barrier before the end of 2011. Approximately one-third of them predicted that the price would go even higher, with 17% believing it would reach $131-$140 per barrel; 9%, $141-$150 per barrel; and 6%, above the $150 mark.
The price of coal, too, has soared in recent months, thanks to mounting worldwide demand as supplies of energy from nuclear power and hydroelectricity have contracted. Many countries have launched significant efforts to spur the development of renewable energy, but these are not advancing fast enough or on a large enough scale to replace older technologies quickly. The only bright spot, experts say, is the growing extraction of natural gas from shale rock in the United States through the use of hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking”).
Proponents of shale gas claim it can provide a large share of America’s energy needs in the years ahead, while actually reducing harm to the environment when compared to coal and oil (as gas emits less carbon dioxide per unit of energy released); however, an expanding chorus of opponents are warning of the threat to municipal water supplies posed by the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process. These warnings have proven convincing enough to lead lawmakers in a growing number of statesto begin placing restrictions on the practice, throwing into doubt the future contribution of shale gas to the nation’s energy supply. Also, on May 12th, the French National Assembly (the powerful lower house of parliament) voted 287 to 146 to ban hydro-fracking in France, becoming the first nation to do so.
The environmental problems of shale gas are hardly unique. The fact is that all of the strategies now being considered to extend the life-spans of oil, coal, and natural gas involve severe economic and environmental risks and costs—as, of course, does the very use of fossil fuels of any sort at a moment when the first IEA numbers for 2010 indicate that it was an unexpectedly record-breaking year for humanity when it came to dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
With the easily accessible mammoth oil fields of Texas, Venezuela, and the Middle East either used up or soon to be significantly depleted, the future of oil rests on third-rate stuff like tar sands, shale oil, and extra-heavy crude that require a lot of energy to extract, processes that emit added greenhouse gases, and as with those tar sands, tend to play havoc with the environment.
Shale gas is typical. Though plentiful, it can only be pried loose from underground shale formations through the use of explosives and highly pressurized water mixed with toxic chemicals. In addition, to obtain the necessary quantities of shale oil, many tens of thousands of wells will have to be sunk across the American landscape, any of one of which could prove to be an environmental disaster.
Likewise, the future of coal will rest on increasingly invasive and hazardous techniques, such as the explosive removal of mountaintops and the dispersal of excess rock and toxic wastes in the valleys below. Any increase in the use of coal will also enhance climate change, since coal emits more carbon dioxide than do oil and natural gas.
Here’s the bottom line: Any expectations that ever-increasing supplies of energy will meet demand in the coming years are destined to be disappointed. Instead, recurring shortages, rising prices, and mounting discontent are likely to be the thematic drumbeat of the globe’s energy future.
If we don’t abandon a belief that unrestricted growth is our inalienable birthright and embrace the genuine promise of renewable energy (with the necessary effort and investment that would make such a commitment meaningful), the future is likely to prove grim indeed. Then, the history of energy, as taught in some late twenty-first-century university, will be labeled: How to Wreck the Planet 101.
Image by spaceamoeba, licensed under Creative Commons.
6/6/2011 4:44:40 PM
One does not impose, but rather expose the site. — Robert Smithson 
There is a satisfying immediacy about the prospect of establishing an encampment for the night — clearing the site, erecting the tent, chopping wood, building a fire and cooking over the live flame — that in turn suggests a meaningful connection to landscape, place and the rugged life of backwoods adventurers. In essence camping is an act of faith and survival, a way to buttress a modest, isolated human settlement against the forces of nature. Situated "somewhere between challenging new circumstances and the safe reassurances of familiarity," the camp is a temporary substitute for the home — a place to dwell, to sleep, to interact socially, to prepare and eat food.  Stripped of any but the most vital conveniences, the camp is literally and figuratively open to the stimuli of its natural surroundings.
This summer millions of Americans will take to the road in search of this powerful experience of nature. And that parcel of land upon which most will elect to drive their car, set up their tent, park their trailer or RV is the campsite — which is thus not only an imagined ideal but also the fundamental unit of management of the modern campground. There are 113,000 federally managed campsites in the United States, 166,000 campsites dispersed across state parks, and untold numbers in private facilities.  Last year Kampgrounds of America — KOA, familiarly — alone reported a total usage of over five million campsite nights, as well as 1.5 million hits monthly on its website. 
Modern campsites embody a peculiar contradiction: They are defined and serviced by an increasingly sophisticated range of utilities and conveniences, and yet marketed to perpetuate the cherished American ideal of the backwoods camp. For artist Robert Smithson, whose sensitivities to site and site-making were informed by childhood family camping trips he helped organize, the campsite was where one could reenact the making of a place.  Campgrounds indeed commodify into multiple sites — literally tens of thousands of them — with each functioning as the locus of a singular experience, which is itself further commodified and mediated by popular imagery. The record sales reported by sporting utility stores like REI and EMS owe largely to the retailers' successful efforts to associate their equipment with the out-of-doors and the prospect of healthy living. For many urbanites, high-performance gear — hiking boots, mountaineering vests, etc. — have become staples of everyday casual chic.
Modern campgrounds are replete with delightful irony: each "lone" campsite functions as a stage upon which cultural fantasies can be performed in full view of an audience of fellow campers interested in much the same "wilderness" experience. Who in the camping community has not experienced a degree of gear envy at the sight, on a neighboring camp, of a brand new Primus Gravity II EasyFuel stove (with piezo ignition), a Sierra Designs tent, or a Marmot sleeping bag? KOA even leases some permanently parked Airstream trailers, which allow campers to spend the night in a cultural icon; this experiment also allows would-be campers to show up without any personal equipment, just as they would at a roadside motel. No wonder that the daily repetition of chores once associated with survival has now been so fully recast as a series of almost spiritual rituals intended to reconnect the camper with what has been largely lost; for by now most of the old necessities — hiking to and clearing the site, hunting for game, collecting water and firewood — have given way to such less arduous activities as parking the car, pitching cable-free pop tents, buying cold cuts at the campground store, hooking up electrical and sewerage conduits, setting up patio chairs, etc. Serviced by networks of infrastructure and populated with trailers and $100,000 RVs, campgrounds celebrate a unique form of American ingenuity in which intersecting narratives and desires (wilderness, individuality, access, speed, comfort, nostalgia, profit) have become strangely and powerfully hybridized.
To tell the story of the campsite is not to tell the story of any one site or even any one campground, but rather to examine how this cultural ideal of rugged American character came to be appropriated and transformed into a generic and widely replicated template of spatial protocols. It is to talk not only about campers but also about the crucial role of motor vehicles in shaping this narrative, which begins rather innocuously with early 20th-century roadside bivouacs and culminates in today's tightly organized loops of dedicated plots. The following four concepts seem to me key to understanding the radical physical and cultural transformations of the campground in the past century.
Read Martin Hogue’s four concepts at Places >>
, licensed under
6/1/2011 4:11:12 PM
The Republic of Maldives, a popular tourist destination in the Indian Ocean, has drawn attention in recent months because its average altitude is 1.5 meters—alarmingly close to predictions of climate-change-induced sea level rise by the end of this century. As a result of its precarious position, the nation has been extensively involved in preparing for anticipated climate changes. It also has taken a proactive stance toward slowing climate change by reducing its emission of climate-warming greenhouse gases to the global atmosphere. Here, President Mohamed Nasheed, who famously held a cabinet meeting 6 meters underwater in 2009 to pass a resolution calling for action at the Copenhagen climate change talks, discusses the Maldives’ response to the threat of climate change. This interview is being simultaneously published online by Utne Reader and Momentum magazine.
When and how did you first become aware of the threat of climate change to the Maldives?
I used to be a journalist when I was in my 20s. In those days, the Maldives was a pretty strict authoritarian regime and you certainly couldn’t talk or write about politics without ending up in jail. So I used to write articles about environmental issues, which were tolerated by the regime. I have visited almost every island in the Maldives and I have snorkeled or dived off most of our coral reefs, so I have seen how the country has changed and understand how it could change very radically in the future because of climate change.
In what ways do you anticipate climate change will affect the Maldives?
There is no greater threat to the Maldives than that posed by the climate crisis. The best available science predicts that sea levels will rise 0.5 to 2 meters by the end of the 21st century, assuming global warming increases average temperatures by 4 degrees Celsius. Our islands are on average just 1.5 meters above the ocean, so even a 0.5 meter rise in sea level will be catastrophic. If sea levels rise by 2 meters, we will have to abandon the Maldives and find a new home on higher land abroad.
Has your country already experienced any impacts of climate change?
Climate change increases sea levels, which increases the likelihood of coastal erosion. Climate change also changes weather patterns and makes severe storms more likely. Many islands in the Maldives suffer from coastal erosion and seawater contamination of the freshwater lens. It is difficult to say with complete accuracy how much of this erosion and contamination is caused by climate change. What we can say is that climate change will make these problems much, much worse over the course of this century, if carbon dioxide pollution is not reduced. Climate change also threatens our coral reefs. Carbon pollution is increasing ocean temperatures and adding extra carbon dioxide to the oceans, making them more acidic. If ocean temperatures rise too high, or the sea becomes too acidic, corals die. For example, in 1998 a particularly strong El Niño caused sea temperatures to spike in the Maldives, killing 98 percent of all the corals in North Male’ atoll.
What are the people of the Maldives doing to prepare for climate change?
We are building sea walls, revetments and shore protection to protect the islands from erosion and storm surges. The capital island, Male’, is surrounded by a 2 meter sea wall, which protected the island from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. So, at least in the medium term, sea walls can protect us from the stronger storm surges and more violent weather patterns that climate change will bring. Sea walls and heavy infrastructure projects are extremely expensive, however, and we have 1,190 islands, of which 300 are inhabited or are tourist resorts. We cannot afford to build a sea wall around every island community. The government is therefore looking at soft engineering to protect the islands. These soft engineering methods include protecting each island’s coral reef, which acts as a natural water-breaker, and looking after shoreline vegetation such as mangroves, which reduce beach erosion.
What are the people of the Maldives doing to reduce the threat of climate change?
The Maldives has announced a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020—which means a 100 percent reduction in carbon dioxide levels by the end of this decade. This is the toughest mitigation target of any country submitted under the UN Copenhagen Accord. In part, the Maldives has chosen this path to prod other countries into action. If we can reduce our carbon emissions so radically, we believe bigger countries can be equally ambitious. Environmental considerations are only part of the reason for adopting carbon neutrality, however. The Maldives is Asia’s most energy insecure nation. We rely on imported oil to power our entire economy. As such, we are at the mercy of the volatile oil price, over which we have no control. For example, recent oil price hikes over the last six months are costing the Maldives over $300,000 per day in extra fuel bills. For a country of 350,000 people, this is a huge burden. We are dangerously exposed to oil price rises. For us, going carbon neutral and aggressively introducing renewable energy is necessary for our future prosperity and economic development. Over the past year, government economists have been crunching the numbers and we believe we can provide 80 percent of an average island’s electricity through renewable energy—solar, wind and batteries—without increasing people’s electricity bills. We will start to roll out these new power systems across the country this year.
What is your reaction to the agreement reached as part of the Cancún climate change conference to provide international adaptation aid to least-developed nations threatened by climate change?
The Maldives welcomed the Cancun agreements. We felt that these agreements built on the modest success achieved at the Copenhagen talks. The Cancun Agreements earmark billions of dollars of climate aid for poor, vulnerable countries so they can adapt to climate change. To be honest, we will believe this when we see it. All too often, big pledges of aid are made but rarely distributed to those in need. The Maldives will continue to plan for adaptation with the modest income that we have and we will work with reliable partners that have already provided us help, such as Denmark. If we are given further international assistance, then all well and good, but we are not holding our breath.
Mary Hoff is managing editor of
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
, courtesy of the President’s Office, Republic of Maldives.
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