The few postings (and tweets: #visapourlimage ) this week will focus mostly on photojournalism, am attending the VISA pour l'image festival in Perpignan, France. Will have my eye on emergent photographic reportage on environmental issues, and in this year of extreme weather no doubt flood, fire, and drought will be on ample display. But I'll also be looking for more nuanced in-depth documentary work on energy, climate, sustainability, food, water, soils, and biodiversity, those areas where human aspiration meets face to face with a planet struggling to keep up with our needs and desires.
While I've got you, an analysis piece appeared today in the Financial Times on climate science:
"...We're not supposed to attribute a couple of bad harvests, or the floods in Pakistan, to a changing climate. But this volatility in grain prices was not caused by farmers' decisions or failures of government policy. It was caused by drought and flood. If this looks like a pattern -- or simply a glimpse of things to come -- it is worrying..."
"...The number of humans on this planet forces us to contemplate the limits of the global grain harvest, and to do so while extreme weather imposes its harsh constraints. Then there are new strains of crop disease, like the rust called Ug99, which has blighted African crops...."
Fertilizers helped eliminate postwar food scarcity and are again in demand as global populations rise
The Financial Times August 28: Javier Blas and Leslie Hook: "...Underlying the revolution in the fertiliser industry is the increasing scarcity of another commodity: food. Since the crisis of 2007-08 - when long-term economic and demographic trends combined with short-term problems such as bad weather and a spike in oil costs to produce record prices for crops and riots in countries from Haiti to Bangladesh - investors have regained their interest...
"...The crisis placed fertilisers in the corporate spotlight, with the cost of potash rising from less than $150 in 2006 to almost $1,000 a tonne in 2008.
"Modern agriculture relies heavily on fertiliser - as well as better seeds, including genetically modified ones - to boost crop yields, preventing the global famine that pundits predicted in the middle of the last century. "Potash, for all intents and purposes, is food," says Vincent Andrews of Morgan Stanley in New York.
"Scientists hope to boost yields even further through discoveries, such as this week's publication of the wheat genome, which would help crop breeders to develop improved varieties..."
"Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia's fires and Pakistan's floods are only making a bad situation worse."
John D. Podesta and Jake Caldwell:: "...lasting gains in agricultural productivity will require something more -- action to confront climate change. Food shortages resulting from severe crop losses will occur more frequently and take longer to recover from as more people become vulnerable to extreme weather events like the droughts and flooding we see today in Russia and Pakistan. The World Bank predicts that developing countries will require $75 billion to $100 billion a year for the next 40 years to adapt to the effects of climate change on agricultural productivity, infrastructure, and disease...."
also see: Aug. 27: Climate Change and Food Security: Scientists decode wheat genome (via @FT)
...we get a new report that scientists have decoded the wheat genome in the most difficult DNA sequencing project so far, as the wheat genome is five times more complex than that of humans. Implications are potentially significant for food security as this could unlock future yield improvements and the ability to develop new types of wheat better able to cope with adverse growing conditions such as drought and salinity:
August 27: Financial Times: Clive Cookson: "The raw DNA data, released on Friday night on the internet, will immediately help crop breeders develop improved wheat varieties, though years more research will be needed to understand the complexities of the genome and make full use of the information...."
..."We have delivered most of the sequences necessary for plant breeders to identify genetic differences in wheat," said Keith Edwards of the University of Bristol. "The data will dramatically increase the efficiency of breeding new crop varieties..."
"...the lack of genetic information has held back the breeding of better wheat varieties. Breeders will now be able to catch up, not necessarily by developing genetically modified wheat but by improving the yield of conventional varieties.
"...By understanding the genetic differences between varieties with different traits we can start to develop new types of wheat better able to cope with drought, salinity or able to deliver higher yields..."
Just this summer reports of crop-killing Russian heat waves and drought and devastating Pakistani floods highlight the challenges we face in keeping people fed and watered. The Russian droughts have been so severe that even next year's wheat crop is threatened because there is too little moisture in the soil to support sprouting of wheat planted this fall....
Serial Cereal Risk: Drought to hit next year's Russian grain crop (via @FT)
These severe weather events impair more than the land's ability to grow crops. The New York Times reports August 27 on the long term damage floods are causing to Pakistan's infrastructure -- roads, bridges, water supply systems -- and ability for the nation to be self-reliant:
Pakistan floods set back years of gains on infrastructure (via @nytimes)
As temperatures continue their upward trek, we must plan for disruptive extreme weather like drought, heat waves, storms, and floods. Confronting and adapting to this volatile future will require all the tools we can muster. One of the key tools will come from the labs of plant geneticists trying to understand and improve the productivity of wheat and the other grain crops we eat.
also see: Researchers: Perennial Cereal Grains Can Increase Food and Ecosystem Security (via @sciencemagazine)
Jon Foley: "...global environmental problems are not caused solely by population growth. The number of people on the planet per se doesn't affect our climate, our ecosystems or our natural resources. It's how we collectively consume and pollute that impacts the environment...."
"...So are the world's environmental ills really a result of the burgeoning number of humans on the planet--growing by more than 150 people a minute and predicted by the United Nations to reach at least 9 billion people by 2050? Or are they more due to the fact that, while human population doubled in the past 50 years, we increased our use of resources fourfold?..."
Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
Carlota Gall: "...The flooding, which began with the arrival of the annual monsoons late last month, has by now affected about one-fifth of the country -- nearly 62,000 square miles -- or an area larger than England, according to the United Nations.
"At the worst points, the inundation extends for scores of miles beyond the banks of the overflowing Indus River and its tributaries, said Cmdr. Iqbal Zahid, a Pakistani Navy battalion commander in charge of rescue operations in Sindh Province.
"You have to highlight that the infrastructure all the way from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to Sindh is ruined," Commander Zahid said, referring to Pakistan's northernmost and southernmost provinces. "It will take years to rebuild."
"Nearly 20 million people have been significantly affected, about the population of New York State, the United Nations said. The number in urgent need is now about eight million and expected to rise. More than half of them are without shelter..."
Pakistan floods have washed away roads and bridges isolating whole communities. Photo from Creative Commons by UNDP/flickr.
New Scientist: "...The aim of the Attribution of Climate-Related Events workshop was to discuss what information is needed to determine the extent to which human-induced climate change can be blamed for extreme weather events - possibly even straight after they have happened...."
"Two newspapers on opposite Atlantic shores examine global warming through different lenses. The New York Times (still) wondering if recent extreme weather might be connected to global warming, the UK Guardian focusing on scientists (gathering in Colorado) who seek to better anticipate, warn of, and respond to these increasingly frequent extreme events. ..."
Beijing, 2008: China's skies have been jammed with coal pollution for years, now its roads are clogged as coal-carrying trucks from Mongolia back up on its highways. Photo pair from Creative Commons by IFC Infrastructure/flickr.
Jonathan Watts: "...the snarl up on the G110 motorway was called the "biggest traffic jam in the world" and it may well have been for much of the past 10 days, when the tailback stretched about 60 miles.
But the fact that almost every vehicle in the jam was a coal truck and almost every driver said they were used to mega-jams suggests the congestion was as much caused by the strains on China's energy supply as its transport system..."
also see: Gridlock is a way of life for Chinese (via @guardiannews)
Michael Price: "...the genetic improvements that have increased wheat yields year after year may have hit a wall, according to new research. That could present new challenges to farmers and policymakers trying to find ways to feed a growing world population that shows no signs of plateauing...."
Thomas Homer-Dixon's trip across open Arctic Ocean waters provides a catalyst to ponder the potential impacts from Arctic ice loss: disruptions in the jet stream, prevailing winds, and weather systems, and eventually the stability of food supplies at lower latitudes far away. He says a "devastating climate shock" may be the event that will cause movement on climate policy, and that contingency plans need to be developed now to prepare:
"...It is possible that the changes I'm seeing from the ship deck are the beginning of the climate shock that will awaken us to the danger we face. Scientists aren't sure what will happen when a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean changes from white, sunlight-reflecting ice to dark, sunlight-absorbing open water. But most aren't sanguine...
"These experts are especially concerned that new patterns of air movement in the Arctic could disrupt the Northern Hemisphere's jet streams -- which are apparently weakening and moving northward. This could alter storm tracks, rainfall patterns and food production far to the south.
"The limited slack in the world's food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions..."
"Policy makers need to accept that societies won't make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn't mean there's nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks -- what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.
"Some work of this kind is under way at intelligence agencies and research institutions in the United States and Europe. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government has produced one of the best studies, "Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes..." (link below)
Lisa Friedman: "Rising ocean levels brought about by climate change have created a flood of unprecedented legal questions for small island nations and their neighbors.
Among them: If a country disappears, is it still a country? Does it keep its seat at the United Nations? Who controls its offshore mineral rights? Its shipping lanes? Its fish?
And if entire populations are forced to relocate -- as could be the case with citizens of the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and other small island states facing extinction -- what citizenship, if any, can those displaced people claim?..."
Matthew Brown, Associated Press: "Utilities across the country are building dozens of old-style coal plants that will cement the industry's standing as the largest industrial source of climate-changing gases for years to come.
"An Associated Press examination of Energy Department records and information provided by utilities and trade groups shows that more than 30 traditional coal plants have been built since 2008 or are under construction..."
The picture above is from "Removing Mountains" by Daniel Shea, a documentary photography project about coal.
Global Footprint Network: "August 21st marks an unfortunate milestone: the day in which we exhaust our ecological budget for the year. Once we pass this day, humanity will have demanded all the ecological services - from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food - that nature can provide this year. From that point until the end of the year, we meet our ecological demand by liquidating resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere...."
"...Enormous harm has already been inflicted on Appalachia's environment, most acutely in West Virginia. Mountaintop mining involves blasting the tops off mountains to expose subsurface coal seams. The coal is trucked away, but the debris is dumped over the side into the valleys, forests and streams below. As many as 2,000 miles of clear-running streams have been poisoned or buried in this fashion..."
"...instead of preaching financial ruin, the coal companies need to develop ways to mine this coal without blasting the tops off mountains and fouling the waters below. If they can't or won't, the practice must be shut down."