Will 'Godzilla' mega-drought cause global crisis?

Will this year’s El Niño drought turn into an eco-catastrophe?  In an article published today, ALERT's Susan and Bill Laurance say there are lots of danger signs already:

- because of its exceptional intensity, NASA experts have already labeled this drought "Godzilla", arguing it could be the strongest El Niño in living memory

- previous mega-droughts driven by El Niño have degraded large expanses of the Amazon, with a single fire consuming over three million hectares of drought-choked rainforest, farmlands, and indigenous territories in 1997-98

- fires spurred by past mega-droughts have rampaged across Indonesia and burned huge expanses of Borneo

- in New Guinea, the frequency of wildfires has already risen dramatically in recent months, currently running at about triple the rate of previous years

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea  (Philip Shearman)

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea (Philip Shearman)

- worldwide, seven of the ten hottest years on record occurred during or immediately after an El Niño year

- Australia's Daintree Drought Experiment suggests that severe droughts could potentially devastate the region's rainforests

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly  (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

- rapidly expanding land-use changes, such as habitat fragmentation and logging, are making ecosystems far more vulnerable to droughts and fire

- as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources, greatly increasing fire risk

The article on the "Godzilla drought" -- which you can access here -- argues that we must take urgent action if we're to avoid battling a fire-breathing monster.

 

The scariest things about climate change are what we don't know

Some argue that, when it comes to climate change, we should play down our uncertainties -- because climate-change deniers will just seize on those unknowns as an excuse for inaction.

Clinging to survival

Clinging to survival

But in a brief, highly topical essay just published today, TESS director Bill Laurance argues that scientists have to be entirely frank about uncertainty -- and that many of the scariest things about climate change are in fact the things we don't know.

Read the essay here

In just three minutes you can get a sense of what we we know, what we don't know -- and what we don't know we don't know about climate change.

 

The global villains and heroes of tropical forest destruction

The Earth may well be experiencing its sixth mass-extinction event and the rapid destruction of tropical forests is a key reason for this.  Who is responsible for the ongoing decimation of rainforests?

The high cost of deforestation  (Photo (c) Tantyo Bangun)

The high cost of deforestation (Photo (c) Tantyo Bangun)

After an exhaustive data-collection effort, the Global Canopy Programme, a UK-based scientific and conservation organization, has just released a 'ratings agency' for rainforests. 

This scheme -- called "Forest 500" -- identifies the governments, corporations, and investors that are either driving or saving tropical ecosystems and their imperiled biodiversity.

Overall, Forest 500 evaluates the actions of 50 governments, 250 companies, 150 investors, and 50 other 'power brokers'.

Who are some of the biggest sinners and heroes

Among nations, the global heroes include Liberia, Colombia, and several E.U. nations such as Norway, all of whom are working to slow deforestation.  China, India, and Russia rank among the biggest sinners for having aggressive policies to source tropical commodities and weak commodity-import policies.

Surprisingly, despite a growing number of 'zero deforestation' claims in the rhetoric of many corporations, the Forest 500 study suggests that less than 10% of the companies evaluated really have an overarching commitment to this goal. 

Six corporations, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, get top scores for improving their policies.  A number of Asia-based corporations are big-time sinners.  Privately-owned corporations tend to rank more poorly than do publicly-traded ones, which are more prone to pressures from consumers and investors.

Among other power brokers, financial institutions based in Europe tend to have better policies than do those based in Asia or North America.  In general, banks tend to have better policies than do insurance companies, hedge-funds, and sovereign-wealth funds. 

Globally, the study concludes, investors in the U.S. are the dominant owners of stock in major forest-destroying corporations.

The Forest 500 analysis is an excellent effort to highlight who in the world is working to save tropical forests -- and whose hand is on the axe.

 

Australia talks the talk but will it walk the walk for conservation?

Australia's environment minister, Greg Hunt, has a tough gig. 

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?   (photo by William Laurance)

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hunt seems legitimately interested in advancing nature conservation but his boss, the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, clearly is not.  Abbott's government has the worst environmental record of any Australian government in living memory

That leaves Hunt in a difficult spot.  Few doubt that if he were to push conservation too strongly -- or fail to support Abbott's pro-coal, pro-mining, no-new-parks, anti-renewable-energy policies -- he'd soon be gone.

In such a setting, where domestic policy is so clearly being driven by a growth-first agenda, what is an environment minister to do?  One 'safe' strategy is to focus not on matters at home, but on those abroad.

That is precisely what Hunt did this week in Sydney with his "Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit" -- a forum that proclaimed it will help Australia's tropical neighbors to protect their imperiled forests.

After interviewing Hunt, ALERT director Bill Laurance just wrote this lively critique of the event

It's worth a quick read to see how nature conservation -- and politics -- are playing out in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

 

Neotropical rainforests under assault from infrastructure & mining

Everywhere you look across Central and South America, native ecosystems are being imperiled by an avalanche of new mining and infrastructure projects. 

Forests under assault in Panama  (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Consider just three examples:

- In Nicaragua, a massive interoceanic canal project threatens vast expanses of rainforest and other ecosystems.  It will imperil 4,000 square kilometers of forest and wetlands, slice across several key nature reserves, and cut through the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor.  This issue is so worrisome that the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world's leading scientific organization devoted to tropical research, issued a special resolution of concern.

- In Brazil, many protected areas are under assault from mining.  A paper just published in the leading journal Science shows that at least 20% of all Brazil´s strictly protected areas and indigenous reserves -- an area larger than the UK and Switzerland combined -- are under consideration for mining projects.  More than 44,000 square kilometers of Brazil's protected areas have been lost to mining and other developments since 2008.

- Across the Amazon basin and Andes, at least 150 major hydroelectric dams have been proposed or are under construction.  These projects will not only flood large expanses of forest but their associated road projects will imperil some of the basin's most remote and biologically important areas.  For instance, it is estimated that 12 dams proposed for the Tapajós River in Brazil would result in nearly 1 million hectares of additional forest loss by 2032.

Who is responsible for this tsunami of forest-destroying projects?  There is no single cause, but China's unquenchable thirst for natural resources, the aggressive Brazilian development bank BNDES, and ambitious regional development schemes such as IIRSA are all leading contributors.

No one wants to halt responsible economic development, but this is a feeding frenzy.  Unless scientists and conservationists have a louder voice, some of the world's most important environments could be lost forever.

 

Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

Crisis time for India's endangered forests

The Western Ghats—a long mountain chain that supports ancient rainforests and a range of other habitats—is arguably India’s most biologically important real estate.  Here, ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud weighs in on the ongoing debate about how best to conserve this critical region:

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Two ambitious management plans, by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and the High Level Working Group, were recently proposed for the Western Ghats.  Both attempted to identify Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) that merit protection, but generally got a cold reception from stakeholders and the general public.  

A recent article in Mongabay argues that these management schemes represent a way forward, so why haven't they been better received?

Both plans were invited to make conservation choices based on the principle of sustainability.  But the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, which contracted the studies, failed to define what “sustainability” meant.  Because this basic definition was muddy, there was no clarity about anything else--the development model for the region, or which industries or livelihoods would be favored in a reasonable path to prosperity.

The legal framework for the ESA scheme wasn't clear either.  Whether the ESA overrides existing laws or competes against them at the local level is yet to be seen.  For instance, plans to protect elephant corridors may be diluted by the scheme.

Without any clear economic guidelines, both the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and High Level Working Group framed their own understanding of how the Western Ghats should be managed economically and legally.  This was probably an overshoot of their mandates.

What this tells me is that society’s reactions to conservation plans may not imply a lack of enthusiasm about conservation.  In the ESA case, widespread confusion on several levels created so much public angst that neither plan had much chance of widespread acceptance.

Across the planet, big trees are in trouble

We all know that big animals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers are in trouble, but it turns out that the fate of our largest and oldest trees is just as dire.

Everywhere you look, big trees are hurting (photo by William Laurance)

Everywhere you look, big trees are hurting (photo by William Laurance)

All across the world, big trees are suffering.  They are being cleared for agriculture, felled by loggers, and are dying as a result of habitat fragmentation, exotic pests and pathogens, altered fire regimes, and severe droughts. 

Big trees are adapted for longevity and stability--two things in short supply in our rapidly changing world.

I first wrote about the dire fate of big trees in early 2012, in New Scientist.  That was followed by papers in Science in 2012 and Conservation Letters in 2013, in collaboration with leading ecologists David Lindenmayer and Jerry Franklin. 

Now there's more evidence of the vulnerability of big trees, from the Amazon.  Plinio Sist and colleagues have just found that many big trees are being damaged during selective logging operations there, and die soon afterward.  This is on top of the big trees that are actually being harvested.  The post-logging wave of tree death has a serious impact on the carbon storage and ecology of the forest.

It's increasing looking like big trees are an important barometer of Earth's environmental 'health'.

-Bill Laurance