Global Search for Climate-Resistant Crops Begins

A global search has begun for food crops with traits that are able to withstand changes to the climate.The project, co-ordinated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is searching national seed banks for “climate proof” varieties, including maize and rice. The team will screen seeds for natural resistance to extreme events, such as floods, droughts or temperature swings. They hope the strains will help protect food production from the impacts of climate change. The $ 1.5 million scheme will provide grants for projects that will screen developing nations’ seed collections.

The trust says a lack of readily available and accurate material severely hinders plant breeders’ efforts to identify material that can be used to develop crop varieties that will cope with future conditions. “Our crops must produce more food, on the same amount of land, with less water, and more expensive energy,” explained the trust’s executive director, Cary Fowler, “There is no possible scenario in which we can continue to grow food we require without crop diversity.”

The gene hunt is the latest stage in the organization’s ongoing process of conserving the diversity of the world’s food crops. Over the past few years, it has convened a series of meetings that brought together leading experts for each of the main food crops, such as wheat, rice, lentils and maize. Each meeting was set the task of identifying the best conservation strategy for each of the crops. “The experts have, among other things, helped us identify which are the most important seed collections in terms of genetic diversity,” Fowler said. “This has provided us with the scientific foundation for almost everything else we do.” The information has helped the trust, which is also responsible for the “Doomsday seed vault” in the Arctic, pinpoint the exact characteristics needed to ensure that crops have the best chance of thriving in the future. Mr Fowler said one example was whether a plant displayed a good degree of heat resistance during its flowering period. This was a time when a plant would be experiencing increased stress, he said, yet very little data had been gathered on this part of the organisms’ lifecycles.

Over the next 12-24 months, the project’s researchers hope to build up a comprehensive profile of the various “climate-proof” traits and in which crops they are found. “Then it is a matter of getting these varieties containing those valuable traits into breeding programmes,” Mr Fowler explained. He added that all the data would be made available to everyone – both public and private organisations – in an online database. “Plant breeders will be able to go online and type their search criteria, then up pops the details of the samples that match the breeders’ requirements, such as drought tolerance or heat resistance.”

Developing crops that will be able to produce higher yields and cope with climate change is one avenue that is also being explored by the biotechnology sector. Campaigners in favour of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) hope that developments in this area will lessen public opposition to GM food. When asked whether he was concerned that the information gathered by the trust could be used to produce commercial GM crops, Fowler said: “We don’t have a horse in that race. “Agriculture is facing a lot of challenges, and diversity holds a lot of the keys to meeting those challenges. I wish I had a crystal ball good enough to see what agriculture is going to need 100 years or 500 years from now, but I don’t. All I would say is that the people involved in fighting the pro-GMO or anti-GMO battle don’t have that crystal ball either – the best we can do is conserve all the options.”


New Report Targets Management Adaptations for Ecosystems and Resources

A new report, Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources, is a contribution to the US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) and was developed by the Global Change Research Program in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. It is one of 21 synthesis and assessment products commissioned by the CCSP. The report seeks to provide the best-available science to date on management adaptations for ecosystems and resources. Key findings of the report include:

· The success of adaptation strategies may depend on recognition of potential barriers to implementation and creation of opportunities for partnerships and leveraging.

· The United States’ adaptive capacity can be increased through expanded collaborations among ecosystem managers.

· The United States’ adaptive capacity can be increased through creative re-examination of program goals and authorities.

· Establishing current baselines, identifying thresholds, and monitoring for changes will be essential elements of any adaptation approach.

· Beyond “managing for resilience,” the United States’ capability to adapt will ultimately depend on our ability to be flexible in setting priorities and “managing for change.”


New Report Gives Cities Tools to Increase Resilience

Climate Resilient Cities; 2008 Primer, published jointly by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, provides a tool for municipal governments in the East Asia Region to plan for climate change impacts and associated natural disasters through sound urban planning aimed at reducing vulnerabilities. The main focus of the tool is to identify vulnerable and at-risk-areas.


Dutch Planning Adaptation Measures

A government commission recently presented its recommendations for how the Netherlands must strengthen its water defenses to combat global warming’s potentially devastating effects. The plan by the Delta Commission is expected to be the central reference point for policymakers for decades to come — especially for dealing with anticipated rising seas and the threat of flooding.Two-thirds of the country’s 16 million people already live below sea level. The Netherlands’ political history and even its name, which means the “lowlands,” have been shaped by its location at the delta created by the Rhine and other major European rivers.

The Netherlands has already budgeted euro1 billion (US$1.4 billion) annually for urgent water defense projects over the next 20 years, in addition to the euro500 million (US$720 million) spent annually to maintain existing sea and river dikes.

The worst flood in living memory was a 1953 disaster in which a storm surge drove water along the Dutch coast more than 13 feet (4 meters) above normal levels, breaching defenses and killing more than 1,800 people. The first Delta Commission created after that deluge undertook a massive 40-year building project that made the country’s water defenses among the strongest in the world.

The new commission was created last September, after the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina spurred a new round of reflection and preparations. Those included drawing up worst-case scenario plans for evacuations — a politically unthinkable task just a few years ago.

Dutch policymakers are now preparing for a rise in sea level of around 80 centimeters (30 inches) in the coming century regardless of the ongoing scientific debate on global warming. Strategies introduced in the last decade include pumping sand into strategic offshore locations where North Sea currents sweep them into place, bulking up dunes; re-establishing minor waterways and canals to accommodate sudden water influxes; and designating intentional flooding zones for emergencies. Some long-term ideas previously proposed include altering the course of the Rhine or creating “breaker islands” off the country’s North Sea coast to defend against storm surges.


Lovelock Warns Against Putting Too Much Faith in Engineering Solutions to Climate Change

Engineering solutions to modify the Earth’s environment and climate may be necessary if humanity is to adapt to global warming, a group of influential scientists announced today. Technological fixes such as encouraging cloud formation and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans have the potential to limit climate change, according to papers published in a special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

The experts, however, also give warning that there is no guarantee that such ingenious schemes will work, and that so-called geo-engineering needs to be assessed properly to ensure that it does not cause more problems than it solves.

Professor James Lovelock, the environmental scientist who developed the Gaia hypothesis of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, likened geo-engineering to 19th-century medicine — a tool that might sometimes work, but was generally too primitive to stave off disaster.

“Whether or not we use … geo-engineering, the planet is likely, massively and cruelly, to cull us, in the same merciless way we have eliminated so many species by changing their environment into one where survival is difficult,” he said. “Before we start geo-engineering, we have to raise the following question: are we sufficiently talented to take on what might become the onerous permanent task of keeping the Earth in homeostasis [balance]?”

He raised the example of introducing aerosols into the stratosphere to induce a cooling effect. While this might have positive effects, it would not address ocean acidification, a separate problem caused by rising carbon emissions, which would then require another engineering solution. “We have to consider seriously that as with 19th-century medicine, the best option is often kind words and painkillers but otherwise do nothing and let Nature take its course,” Professor Lovelock said.


Experts Warn that the West Coast of Africa will be Submerged by 2099

Swathes of West Africa’s coastline extending from the orange dunes in Mauritania to the dense tropical forests in Cameroon will be underwater by the end of the century as a direct consequence of climate change, environmental experts warn.“The coastline will be completely changed by the end of this century because the sea level is rising along the coast at around two centimetres every year,” said Stefan Cramer, Nigeria director of Heinrich Boll Stiftung, a German environmental NGO.

Even where urban areas appear unscathed, sea level rise will still challenge towns and cities by threatening the underground water supplies from which millions of people across the region draw their water.

The effects of sea-level rise will be most “dramatic” in Nigeria’s economic capital Lagos which is just five metres above sea level, with some parts of the city lying below sea-level, Cramer said.The flooding is likely be most severe in Lagos because of its position at the southern end of the Gulf of Guinea where stronger tropical storms from the South Atlantic create storm surges up to three metres high, Cramer said. He estimates that most of the 15 million inhabitants of Lagos will be displaced and Nigeria’s southern Delta region where oil installations are located will also be swamped.

Other major urban centres in West Africa which experts have identified as at risk of flooding are Banjul in The Gambia, Bissau in Guinea Bissau, and Nouakchott in Mauritania. All three capitals are at or close to sea level.

Environmentalists blame the gradual melting of the 3,000 metre-thick Greenland ice cap in the Arctic as being responsible for the coastal erosion along the Coast of Guinea. “It is all due to climate change – the greenhouse gas emissions result in global warming and subsequent melting of the Greenland ice cap,” Cramer said.Compounding the situation in West Africa, in August 2007 a tropical storm 5,000 kilometres off the coast caused a shift in the strong currents that run near the Nigerian coast and destroyed a protective sand bar.

Environmental experts have different solutions to the problem.

“I think the best way out for the moment is devising simpler and more cost effective solutions such as how to preserve towns and villages under threat and preventing sea water intrusion”, the director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Yvo de Boer said.

“The sensible option is moving to higher ground which is a tough option especially for Nigeria as it means giving up its economic centres in Lagos and its oil installations in the Delta”, Cramer said.

But Awudi at Friends of the Earth described relocation as an “unthinkable option” due to its economic, social and cultural implications. “Every solution to a problem must focus on the major cause of that problem and in this case greenhouse gas emissions by industrialised countries which are responsible for sea-level rise must be effectively tackled.”


Mali Works to Protect Communities and Elephant Populations in the Face of Climate Change

Implementers of an international project to help endangered elephants in Mali want to prove that by doing so, they can also help local communities adapt to climate change in the Sahel. The Malian government lists elephants in Gourma in the country’s far desert north as highly endangered. A drought in the 1970’s killed most of the country’s elephants leading the population to dwindle from several thousand down to 350.

Often seen near Lake Banzena, about 400 kilometres south of Gao, these elephants have the largest migration route of any known elephant group according to the World Bank-funded Gourma Biodiversity Conservation Project (PCVBGE), with an estimated home range of 30,000 square kilometres.

But conservationists say that climate change is leading to increased tensions as elephants and the local population vie for access to water.

“The drought in the Sahel in the 1970’s created a shortage of watering holes,” says Namory Traore, a director at Mali’s National Centre for Nature Conservation.As climate change affects more people in this desert country, Lake Banzena has become one of the last remaining water sources for both animals and people. The nearby Lake Gossi, about 150 kilometres south of Gao, has begun to dry out, and there are fears that the region can no longer support even this smaller elephant population.

Many inhabitants of Gourma have turned to agriculture as desertification is making pastoral life increasingly difficult. Now, thirsty elephants are beginning to raid their newly-cultivated fields.”Sometimes the elephants even break into our reserves and chase people to get the fruits, because they don’t have enough water,” says Alou Tambura, a herder in Haire, about 150 kilometres from Lake Banzena.

The World Bank-funded biodiversity project is designed to protect both animals and humans in drought-prone regions. Its main focus is to facilitate elephants’ passage through inhabited areas.The elephants migrate counter-clockwise, covering a 450 kilometre circular route across northern Mali. After spending the dry season at Lake Banzena, they then head south to Burkina Faso.

The normally arid Gourma has some of the best pasture in the region during the rainy season, typically from June to October. Pastoralists come from as far away as Mopti, Mali and Burkina Faso to feed their animals in lean times, which is also when elephants arrive.”The problem we have is the lack of water. We have excellent pasture, but there is often not enough water for elephants and humans to share,” says herder Tambura.

But the elephants are actually helping herders find water, according to conservationist Traore. “The best water sources are hidden in the forest, and the elephants open it up by trampling down the bush and exposing the grass to light. They break off small branches, which goats cannot reach. Often you’ll see a herder with his goats following the elephants through the forest.”

Traore says elephants have become an integral part of the planting season.”Many herders and farmers take the arrival of the elephants as the start of the rainy season. They won’t plant until they see them, because the elephants won’t move until they’re sure they can find water.”

The PCVBGE project says local communities have an economic incentive to save the elephants.”We are developing a tourist industry here based on wildlife in a way similar to safari,” says Binama Sissoko, director of PCVBGE. “Guides who come from Bamako have little sympathy or understanding for life in the north, so we are training local guides and building tourist camps so that northerners can profit from, and fight to save, their natural resources.”

Mali’s Ministry of Environment has reported climate change threatening giraffes, lions, cheetahs, dwarf hippos and 15 bird species throughout the country. Organisers are looking at the elephant project as a test to see whether local communities can also benefit from saving an endangered species in areas with shrinking cultivable land and water supplies.

Herder Tambura says elephants are no longer a threat to him, and have, instead, helped him find water for his animals. “With more education, awareness and water wells, elephants and people can live together.”


Report Urges the Protection of Biodiversity to Increase Food Security

A new report produced by Greenpeace suggests that a review of recent scientific literature underlines that the most effective strategy to adapt agriculture to climate change is to increase biodiversity. Food Security and Climate Change: The Answer is Biodiversity, goes on to state that a mix of different crops and varieties in one field is a proven and highly reliable farming method to increase resilience to erratic weather changes. The report further notes that the best way to increase stress tolerance in single varieties are modern breeding technologies that do not entail genetic engineering, such as marker assisted selection.


New IPCC Technical Paper Focuses on Water

The sixth in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Technical Paper series, Climate Change and Water, addresses issues of freshwater and climate change. The paper notes “abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable and have the potential to be strongly impacted by climate change, with wide ranging consequences for human societies and ecosystems.” It also notes projections for increased flooding and drought, increased water pollution, and the need for integrated adaptation strategies on both the demand and supply sides. The paper was developed by an interdisciplinary team of authors from the three IPCC working groups, and has been subject to expert and government review, although it has not been considered by the IPCC for its approval.


Report Focuses on Human Rights Concerns Resulting from Climate Change

A new report discusses human rights concerns raised by anthropogenic climate change and by the strategies devised to address it. Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide, produced by the International Council on Human Rights Policy, indicates areas where climate change will have direct and indirect human rights impacts, and where human rights principles might sharpen policy-making on climate change, including in the two core policy areas of adaptation and mitigation. The report also assesses the adequacy of human rights conceptions and processes to the larger justice concerns climate change raises.


New Paper Investigates Pastoral Land Rights in the Face of Climate Change

A new paper produced by the International Institute for Environment and Development, titled Browsing on fences. Pastoral land rights, livelihoods and adaptation to climate change,addresses the rights to land of pastoral groups while accounting for changes brought about by climate change.It brings together the input from over 120 participants from a web-based forum organized in 2006 by the International Land Coalition on pastoral land rights. Additional materials and lessons were drawn from a number of projects and experiences all around the world, in order to provide a comprehensive update about the rights of nomadic and pastoralist groups and natural resources. Elements for discussion were contributed by another web-based forum organized by the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism in 2007, focusing on climate change, adaptation and pastoralism, which received contributions from over 80 participants belonging to or working with pastoral groups in different regions of the world.


Health Canada Report to be Released with Little Fanfare

The Conservative government is planning a quiet release for a major Health Canada report that warns of the harmful impact of climate change on the health of Canadians, particularly the young, elderly and aboriginals.

Those involved with the report were informed in a July 3 conference call that the government is preparing a “low-profile release” on the Health Canada website, rather than launching the report with major media fanfare.

The Health Canada report is called Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity. It is more than 500 pages long and has been ready for several months.

McMaster University chemistry professor Brian McCarry, who chairs a group called Clean Air Hamilton, said the dangers of global warming and fossil fuels on human health deserve far more attention, not less.”Certainly, the stance taken by this government has been to keep climate change in a low-profile format,” he said. “Unfortunately, Canada and the U.S. are almost singular in the world now as being not quite climate-change deniers, but they’re not putting much emphasis on [it.]”

Canadian scientists and climate experts worked for months on a similar major study last year for Natural Resources Canada called From Impacts to Adaptation, which warned of the specific impacts of climate change for each region of the country.The release of that report was delayed for several months before being posted in a hard-to-find section of the Natural Resources Canada website. As a result, the report received little media coverage, frustrating many of the public servants, scientists and academics who worked on it.Similar frustration is now beginning to surface over the government’s handling of the Health Canada study.

Health Minister Tony Clement‘s press secretary, Laryssa Waler, issued a brief response yesterday to questions about the department’s communications plan. “Health Canada is preparing the report for release. Once it’s ready, it will be released,” she said in an e-mail.

Peter Berry, Health Canada’s senior policy analyst for climate change and health, who was on the July 3 conference call discussing the communications plan for releasing the report, offered an outline of the study during a February presentation to Clean Air Hamilton.At that time, Dr. Berry said the report would be released in the spring. It is expected to warn of the health dangers of longer and hotter heat waves on the elderly and children, while saying that changing vegetation will affect the traditional ways of northern aboriginals.Dr. Berry’s presentation included a quotation about how society will only act to avoid the effects of climate change if it is aware of the possible negative consequences.

Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation, responded to the government’s plans by saying”If this government cared about climate change, then it would highlight these reports and use them as a way of engaging Canadians on the importance of addressing the issue.”


Some Scientists State That Species Will Need to be Moved to Survive Climate Change

With climate change increasingly threatening the survival of plants and animals, scientists say it may become necessary to move some species to save them.

“When I first brought up this idea some 10 years ago in conservation meetings, most people were horrified,” said Camille Parmesan, a biology professor at the University of Texas.”But now, as the reality of global warming sinks in, and species are already becoming endangered and even going extinct because of climate change, I’m seeing a new willingness in the conservation community to at least talk about the possibility of helping out species by moving them around.”

Dubbed assisted colonization or assisted migration, the idea is to decide how severe the threat is to various species, and if they need help, rescuing them by moving them someplace new.Suggestions of how this could be applied include moving African big game to the American Great Plains, or airlifting endangered species from one mountaintop to another as climate zones shrink.

Once dismissed as wrongheaded and dangerous, assisted colonization is now being discussed by serious conservationists. And no wonder: Caught between climate change and human pressure, species are going extinct 100 times faster than at any point in human history.And some scientists say that figure is too conservative. The real extinction rate, they say, is a full 1,000 times higher than normal. The last time such annihilation took place was during the time of the dinosaurs. And though many conservationists say that saving species by transplanting them is foolish, others say there’s no choice.

“It’s a showdown. The impacts of climate change on animals have become apparent. And it’s time to decide whether we’re going to do something,” said Notre Dame ecologist Jessica Hellmann, co-author of an influential 2007 Conservation Biology paper, A Framework for Debate of Assisted Migration in an Era of Climate Change. “Reducing CO2 is vital, but we might have to step in and intervene.”

“They want the world to be what it was before. But it’s not going to happen,” said Australian ecologist Hugh Possingham, co-author of an assisted-colonization article published in Science, Assisted Colonization and Rapid Climate Change.

The language of Possingham’s paper is understated — its centerpiece is a risk-benefit flow chart — but the recommendations are radical. He proposes a systematic analysis of Earth’s threatened species, identifying those suitable for last-ditch uprooting.That one of the scientific world’s most respected publications carries such a proposal marks a sea-level shift in conservationist consciousness, say researchers. Others have weighed the idea, but Possingham’s team came down firmly in favour.

Adding to the momentum, the Ecological Society of America‘s annual meeting in August will be preceded by a three-day discussion of assisted colonization, by ecologists, policy wonks and lawyers.

Still, it’s an idea that makes conservation biologists nervous.

There are plenty of risks in moving plants and animals to new locations. They may not survive, or they may become invasive, growing wildly without predators and crowding out natives of their new location.And it’s not possible to relocate every species that may need it, so how to decide who gets moved and who gets left behind to become extinct?

Stanford biologist Terry Root has been traveling the country urging her colleagues to come up with a plan for “triage” to decide which species should be saved from global warming and which can’t. After other biologists complained about the word “triage,” Root said she now calls it prioritizing which species should be saved.”We’ve got to work on the ones we have a prayer of saving,” Root said.

Some species biologists will have to write off, such as the threatened and endangered species of the Sky Islands in Arizona and New Mexico because “They don’t have any place to move to.Those species are functionally extinct right now,” Root said. “They’re toast.”

When deciding which species to save and which to watch die, Root said one key is how unique it is. That’s why she said she’d save the odd-looking Tuatara of New Zealand, a lizard-like creature with almost no living relatives, over the common sparrow.

But not everyone is in a rush. “I think it’s a bad idea,” said Duke University biologist Jason McLachlan, also a co-author of the Conservation Biology paper. “There are a million examples of invasive species introduced with good intentions that caused all sorts of damage.”Accounts of destruction wrought by invasive species are legion, from wild boars in the southern United States and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes to cane toads in Australia and mongeese in Hawaii. An endangered species that now seems sympathetic could quickly become a villain.

The perfect example of McLachlan’s objections is the solution touted by some researchers to save polar bears: move them to the Antarctic. Cost and logistics aside, the bears would wreak havoc in an ecosystem unprepared for them.”Antarctic penguins and seals aren’t adapted to surface predators,” explained Steven Amstrup, the chief U.S. Geological Survey polar-bear researcher. “The bears would have a field day for a while, because they could walk right up to them and eat them. For a short period of time, it would be great, but in the end the whole system would probably collapse.”

But assisted-colonization proponents believe their animals, unlike other invasive species, would be carefully selected and their effects anticipated.”You work out what the risks are before you take action,” said Possingham. “You go through these decision trees, and start by doing some trials under very controlled circumstances, then we’ll learn about it.”

“Things could still go wrong”, said Hellmann, “but the consequences pale in comparison to those of climate change and inaction. And for animals whose natural habitat has been eradicated, or who live — as did the golden toad of Costa Rica’s cloud forest — in rapidly changing places from which they cannot escape, there may be no other option.”

“If all other conservation methods fail, and evidence shows that a species is in danger of extinction, then assisted migration becomes an option that we should consider seriously,” said Nature Conservancy ecologist Patrick Gonzalez.

McLachlan, however, has other reasons for opposition. Assisted colonization could be seen as a quick-fix panacea, distracting people from the necessary task of preserving habitat and braking climate change. More philosophically, there’s something troubling about treating nature as a zoological theme park.”We’re destroying any semblance of the idea that a place has its own biota and history,” he said. “It’s not just saving a couple whooping cranes, it’s redesigning the entire biota of Earth. And that’s incredibly creepy to me.”

Hellmann agrees that assisted colonization could be mistaken as a convenient solution. But the purity of nature, she said, is now a myth.”You can find signatures of humanity in the deepest jungles and remote locations. This idea of pristine nature doesn’t really apply,” she said. “If assisted colonization will have benefits, it seems strange not to cross some arbitrary line.”

“Ultimately, the decision about whether to actively assist the movement of a species into new territories will rest on ethical and aesthetic grounds as much as on hard science,” Camille Parmesan said in a statement.”Passively assisting coral reef migration may be acceptable, but transplanting polar bears to Antarctica would not be acceptable.Conservation has never been an exact science, but preserving biodiversity in the face of climate change is likely to require a fundamental rethinking of what it means to preserve biodiversity.”


Changing Climate May Ruin Coffee Production in Uganda

Changing weather patterns in Uganda may lead to the extinction of the east African country’s key export, coffee, in coming decades, a report by British charity Oxfam states.

Uganda is Africa’s second biggest coffee producer after Ethiopia and has become a major player in robusta coffee production since political unrest in the Ivory Coast slashed that nation’s coffee output.Coffee output in 2007/08 (Oct-Sept) is seen at 2.85 million bags, up from 2.7 million the year before.

The report, Turning up the Heat, Climate Change and Poverty in Uganda, stated that:

“The outlook is bleak. If the average global temperatures rises by two degrees or more, then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee…this may happen in 40 years or perhaps as little as 30.”

“According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, only patches of land on the periphery will still be able to grow coffee…In the meantime, coffee farmers are going to have to adapt to rising temperatures.”

The report went on to state that effects of global warming like increasing temperature and more intense rainfall and storms, has led to erratic rainfall patterns in Uganda.

Across much of Uganda, the climate is bimodal, meaning that there are two rainy seasons — the first from March to June and the second from October/November to December/January. Rainfall during the rainy seasons has become unreliable, the report said, adding that reduced rain during the March to June season was causing drought, reductions in crop yields and plant varieties, while the late season rainfall was coming in more intense and destructive downpours, bringing floods, landslides and soil erosion.

“But, farmers have continued to invest in Uganda’s Robusta coffee and export earnings have continued to increase. This has helped protect losses from climatic problems,” said Philip Gitao, head of the East African Fine Coffees Association.Farmers have also adopted good husbandry practices such as using more hardy coffee plants, added Gitao, who was quoted in the Oxfam report.


Australia’s Murray-Darling River System May Never Recover from Drought

The prolonged drought in Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin is worsening and the country’s food-producing region may forever be changed by accelerating climate warming, Australian government officials announced.

Despite good autumn rains, June inflows into the river basin were the lowest in more than a century on record and climate experts are predicting a 60-70 percent chance of below average rain in the next decade, with the year ahead likely to be a “shocker.”

The drought will hit irrigated crops like rice, grapes and horticulture the hardest, but would have less impact on output of wheat, which depends largely on rainfall during specific periods and is on track to double after two years of shrunken crops.

“Regrettably, the drought is getting worse,” said Wendy Craik, chief executive of the government’s overseeing Murray-Darling Basin Commission, revealing June inflows were only 95 gigalitres against a long-term average of 680gl. “If the sort of climatic regime we’ve had in the past couple of years becomes a feature of the future, it’s pretty clear we don’t have the volume of water available that we’ve had in the past. Clearly the basin is not going to be the same,” Craik said.

After good early rains, which briefly eased Australia’s worst dry spell in 100 years, dry weather has set in again in the past three months, plunging more rural areas back into drought.

The Murray-Darling, an area the size of France and Germany, produces 41 percent of Australia’s agriculture and provides A$21 billion ($20 billion) worth of farm exports to Asia and the Middle East. Some 70 percent of all irrigated agriculture comes from the sprawling region.

Neil Plummer, Senior Climatologist at Australia’s National Climate Centre, said rains barely dented the drought, or the one-in-two chance of a dry year ahead. As well, long-term trends now pointed to 6-7 years of below average rain each decade.

Craik said while the basin was expected to have enough water for critical needs in the coming year, many irrigators would face zero or near-zero water allocations and environmental river flows would be slashed to a bare minimum. The warming outlook for what is already the world’s driest inhabited continent would also force hard decisions on river use, with the water needed to save threatened lakes more than the total extracted last year by basin irrigators, she said.

The government’s top climate adviser, economist Ross Garnaut, last week said the Murray-Darling could be devastated by climate change without global action, with irrigated agriculture slashed by 92 percent. The current drought has already wiped more than A$20 billion from the economy since 2002.

But Craik said growers were proving surprisingly resilient, pointing to barely changed grape harvests last year, which dropped from 1.9 to 1.8 mln tonnes as farmers introduced more water-efficient cropping systems. “Farmers can be incredibly adaptable,” she said.


Climate Change Causing Insurance Rate Hikes along the US Coast

Scientists say the jury is still out on whether rising sea temperatures will cause more hurricanes to hit U.S. coastlines. Yet some insurance companies are boosting premiums based on assumptions that they will. Others are withdrawing from coastal communities altogether.

Last year, Leanne Lord of Marion, Massachusetts, decided to put her house up for sale after her insurance premiums more than doubled to about $2,892 a year since 2005. Many of her Cape Cod neighbors, who hadn’t seen a hurricane in the area since 1991, followed suit. Today, there’s a glut of houses on the local market.

Costs for homeowner insurance along the East and Gulf coasts have risen 20% to 100% since 2004, says the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group. In the three years through 2006, says the institute, property and casualty insurers registered record profits, topping out at $65.8 billion in 2006. (Despite severe U.S. weather that has caused about $8.9 billion in insured property losses to date this year, it’s too early to forecast 2008 profits.)

Helping to drive these developments is a little-known tool of the insurance world: Computerized catastrophe modeling. Crafted by several independent firms and used by most insurers, so-called cat models rely on complex data to estimate probable losses from hurricanes.

But regulators and other critics contend that the latest cat models — which include assumptions about various climate changes — are triggering higher insurance rates.

Starting in the early 1990s, cat models began to replace the industry’s older tools. Previously, insurers based their rates and underwriting policies largely on historical records of past claims. The turning point in methodology came after 1992, when Hurricane Andrew wrought damages in excess of $15.5 billion and left about a dozen insurers insolvent.

The original purpose of cat models was to help stabilize the insurance market and ensure affordable coverage in risky areas. To do this, the first versions used historical weather data to project long-term future losses.

In the wake of the punishing 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, many cat models saw drastic revisions. Rather than take a traditional longterm view, some attempted to estimate what might happen in the next several years. Modelers also factored in dramatically higher rebuilding costs when a large area is hit. The result: big premium hikes and higher deductibles.

Underlying the newer cat models are scientific theories that rising sea temperatures will result in more intense, and possibly more frequent, hurricanes. The hypotheses suggest that catastrophic hurricanes like 2005’s Rita, Wilma and Katrina weren’t an aberration, but rather the shape of things to come.

Large reinsurance companies, such as Swiss Re and Munich Re, were early converts to theories of global warming and cite warming of the earth’s oceans when predicting massive damages from future storms.

“Losses from hurricanes and tropical storms have risen along with sea temperatures,” says Eberhard Faust, a climate scientist at Munich Re. “This is [the assumption] from where all the modelers start.”

The impact from cat models on homeowners along the East and Gulf coasts has stirred some of the greatest controversy. In New Jersey, State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. and a subsidiary of Allstate Corp. have declined to renew at least 12,000 customers with homes near the ocean. In Mississippi, several insurers, including Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., have stopped covering wind damage in six counties along the Gulf. Some homeowners in the region got a 90% premium increase in 2006. And in Florida, State Farm, the largest private insurer there, said recently it would no longer write new homeowner policies and planned to drop 50,000 existing ones.

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