What a Week’s Disasters Tell Us About Climate and the Pandemic

Extreme weather presents an even bigger threat when economies are crashing and ordinary people are stretched to their limits.

Credit…Ben Curtis/Associated Press

The hits came this week in rapid succession: A cyclone slammed into the Indian megacity of Kolkata, pounding rains breached two dams in the Midwestern United States, and on Thursday came warning that the Atlantic hurricane season could be severe.

It all served as a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 325,000 people so far, is colliding with another global menace: a fast-heating planet that acutely threatens millions of people, especially the world’s poor.

Climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and more intense. Now, because of the pandemic, they come at a time when national economies are crashing and ordinary people are stretched to their limits.

Relief organizations working in eastern India and Bangladesh, for instance, say the lockdown had already forced people to rely on food aid by the time the storm, Cyclone Amphan, hit. Then, the high winds and heavy rains ruined newly sown crops that were meant to feed communities through next season. “People have nothing to fall back on,” Pankaj Anand, a director at Oxfam India, said in a statement Thursday.

The worst may be yet to come.

Several other climate hazards are looming, as the coronavirus unspools its long tail around the world. They include the prospect of heat waves in Europe and South Asia, wildfires from the western United States to Europe to Australia, and water scarcity in South America and Southern Africa, where a persistent drought is already deepening hunger.

And then there’s the locusts. Locusts.

Abnormally heavy rains last year, which scientists say were made more likely by the long-term warming of the Indian Ocean, a hallmark of climate change, have exacerbated a locust infestation across eastern Africa. Higher temperatures make it more inviting for locusts to spread to places where the climate wasn’t as suitable before — and in turn, destroy vast swaths of farmland and pasture for some of the poorest people on the planet.

While the risks are different from region to region, taken together, “they should be seen as a sobering signal of what lies ahead for countries all over the world,” a group of scientists and economists warned this month in an opinion piece in Nature Climate Change.

The impacts will not be equal, though, they added. They stand to exacerbate longstanding inequities, the experts said, and “put specific populations at heightened risk and compromise recovery.”


All those extreme weather hazards are made more frequent and intense by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which drives up temperatures on land and in the sea.

The lockdowns around the world have resulted in a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions, but the decline has been nowhere near enough to shake loose the thick blanket of gases that already wraps the planet.

And even if lockdown measures continued for the next several months, global carbon emissions would drop by between 4 to 8 percent from last year, according to a range of projections carried out by researchers, the latest of them published in Nature Climate Change last week. As punishing as that could be, socially and economically, it would not make a dent in overall warming trends.

The impact of the accumulated warming is already felt by those who were in the eye of Cyclone Amphan this week: those who live in the delta regions of eastern India and Bangladesh, and who are at the mercy of intensifying heat waves, sea level rise, storm surges and super cyclones like this one.

In rural Bangladesh, for example, the storm punched through embankments. Seawater ate the paddy fields. Mud and thatch homes collapsed.

The slow burn of climate change has increasingly made it tough for many to make a living farming and fishing, as generations had before them; many workers had migrated to urban areas nearby to earn a living. The lockdown has put an end to that coping strategy. Migrant workers in India have been trying to head home in droves.

Traditional ways of coping during storms are now more dangerous, too. Evacuating people to cyclone shelters has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in past storms, but aid workers now worry that the virus could spread quickly in shelters.

In India, the city of Kolkata, which was pummeled by the cyclone, is repeatedly cited as one of the most vulnerable to the cumulative effects of climate change, all the more so because of poor urban planning. Its 14 million residents live cheek by jowl, and hunger still stalks many of them.

The United Nations Development Program this week warned that global human development, which takes into account education, health and living standards, was set to decline this year “for the first time since the concept of human development was introduced in 1990.”

The extreme weather events of the last few days, coming on top of the coronavirus pandemic, throw into sharp relief, said Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in England, the perils of underestimating the impact of compounding risks.

Economic recovery policies that governments enact after the pandemic lifts, she said, would impact the trajectory of emissions for decades to come.

“Reconstruction post Covid-19 should be shaped in a way that reduces our vulnerability,” she said. “That means both to prepare for extreme climatic risks, and to reduce emissions that underpin the climatic risks.”


Portrait of Somini SenguptaSomini Sengupta is an international climate correspondent. She has also covered the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia for The Times and received the 2003 George Polk Award for her work in Congo, Liberia and other conflict zones. @SominiSengupta  Facebook

Human activity threatens billions of years of evolution history researchers warn

Elusor macrurus

(CNN)Human activity could drive extinction and destroy billions of years of evolutionary history, which has produced remarkable creatures such as the punk-haired Mary River turtle, the yellow eyed Aye Aye lemur and the Chinese crocodile, researchers have warned.

In a study published in the Nature Communications journal on Tuesday, researchers explored how the areas home to the world’s most threatened amphibians, mammals, birds and reptiles are being affected by our “human footprint,” which could lead to the loss of “the most unique animals on the planet.”
Scientists from Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London found that regions that are home to the greatest amounts of unique evolutionary history — such as the Caribbean, large swathes of Southeast Asia and the Western Ghats of India — are being degraded due to “unprecedented” levels of human pressure, such as habitat loss, agricultural expansion and meat consumption.

As a result, “evolutionary distinct” species such as the Chinese crocodile lizard, the Shoebill, a large bird found in Africa’s swamps and wetlands, or the long fingered, yellow eyed nocturnal Aye-Aye lemur — could be lost to extinction.
Entire groups of closely related species, like pangolins and tapirs, could also be lost, taking with them billions of years of evolutionary heritage, experts warned.
Using the tree of life methodology — a model which shows the relationships between organisms alive and extinct — researchers studied vertebrates, mammals and reptiles which were classified as “critically endangered,” “endangered” and “vulnerable.”
“We calculated how much evolutionary history we would lose. And that number came out cosmically large, even I didn’t expect that myself,” Rikki Gumbs, lead author of the study and PhD researcher at Imperial College London and ZSL, told CNN.
When adding together the cumulative years of evolutionary history that would be lost in the event of extinction, “around 50 billion years of evolutionary history is under threat,” he added.

Gumbs told CNN that, as a result of human encroachment on natural habitats around the world because of farming, housing and meat consumption, there is a decline of some of the “most unique animals on the planet.”
“We’re starting to see the current impact of this on the world’s biodiversity — on the most unique animals on the planet, and also the most important areas where they still persist,” he said.
“Intrinsically, losing any species is a real loss just because it exists and it has a right to exist and it has a value in itself,” he told CNN.
“But the tree of life also is a real thing. You know, it seems quite abstract that we draw these branches between these species — just like our relationships with our parents and our grandparents,” he explained. “The genetic relationship, it does exist — we can’t see it, but it is represented across this diversity. So as we lose the species, we are losing a part of our entire evolutionary heritage across the planet, and also large parts of diversity,” he said.

Research showed that among the biggest threats to threatened species was eating meat, Gumbs said.
“We know from all the data we have for threatened species, that the biggest threats are agriculture expansion and the global demand for meat. Pasture land, and the clearing of rainforests for production of soy, for me, are the largest drivers — and the direct consumption of animals.”
“It’s not too late — we can identify these areas and still, where these species are clinging on, we can hopefully influence conservation actions to protect these and restore these areas,” he said.
The study also warned that more research is needed, especially into lizards and snakes, to fully understand the extinction risk posed.
For years, scientists have warned that we are in the midst of a mass extinction — the first one in the planet’s history caused by humans.
In January, a United Nations agency warned that we have just 10 years to save Earth’s biodiversity and our remaining wildlife, or face severe consequences for human survival.
More than a million species already face extinction, and three quarters of the Earth’s land has been significantly altered because of shrinking habitats, the exploitation of natural resources, climate change and pollution.

46% of Forests Have Been Destroyed by Civilization…and Counting

creative commons

New research in the prestigious journal Nature estimates that “the global number of trees has fallen by approximately 46% since the start of human civilization.”

The study also suggests that about 15 billion trees are being cut down each year, and that the average age of forests has declined significantly over the last few thousand years.

The study was led by researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with contributions from scientists at universities and research institutions in Utah, Chile, the UK, Finland, Italy, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Brazil, and China.

While fossil fuels have only been burned on a large scale for 200 years, land clearance has been a defining characteristic of civilizations – cultures based around cities and agriculture – since they first emerged around 8,000 years ago.

This land clearance has impacts on global climate. When a forest ecosystem is converted to agriculture, more than two thirds of the carbon that was stored in that forest is lost, and additional carbon stored in soils rich in organic materials will continue to be lost to the atmosphere as erosion accelerates.

Modern science may give us an idea of the magnitude of the climate impact of this pre-industrial land clearance. Over the past several decades of climate research, there has been an increasing focus on the impact of land clearance on modern global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2004 report, attributed 17% of global emissions to cutting forests and destroying grasslands – a number which does not include the loss of future carbon storage or emissions directly related to this land clearance, such as methane released from rice paddies or fossil fuels burned by heavy logging equipment.

Some studies show that 50% of the global warming in the United States can be attributed to land clearance – a number that reflects the inordinate impact that changes in land use can have on temperatures, primarily by reducing shade cover and evapotranspiration (the process whereby a good-sized tree puts out thousands of gallons of water into the atmosphere on a hot summer day – their equivalent to our sweating).

So if intensive land clearance has been going on for thousands of years, has it contributed to global warming? Is there a record of the impacts of civilization in the global climate itself?

10,000 years of Climate Change

According to author Lierre Keith, the answer is a resounding yes. Around 10,000 years ago, humans began to cultivate crops. This is the period referred to as the beginning of civilization, and, according to the Keith and other scholars such as David Montgomery, a soil scientist at the University of Washington, it marked the beginning of land clearance and soil erosion on a scale never before seen – and led to massive carbon emissions.

“In Lebanon (and then Greece, and then Italy) the story of civilization is laid bare as the rocky hills,” Keith writes. “Agriculture, hierarchy, deforestation, topsoil loss, militarism, and imperialism became an intensifying feedback loop that ended with the collapse of a bioregion [the Mediterranean basin] that will most likely not recover until after the next ice age.”

Montgomery writes, in his excellent book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, that the agriculture that followed logging and land clearance led to those rocky hills noted by Keith.

“It is my contention that the invention of [agriculture] fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and soil erosion – dramatically increasing soil erosion.

Other researchers, like Jed Kaplan and his team from the Avre Group at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, have affirmed that preindustrial land clearance has had a massive impact on the landscape.

“It is certain that the forests of many European countries were substantially cleared before the Industrial Revolution,” they write in a 2009 study.

Their data shows that forest cover declined from 35% to 0% in Ireland over the 2800 years before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The situation was similar in Norway, Finland, and Iceland, where 100% of the arable land was cleared before 1850.

Similarly, the world’s grasslands have been largely destroyed: plowed under for fields of wheat and corn, or buried under spreading pavement. The grain belt, which stretches across the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, and across much of Eastern Europe, southern Russia, and northern China, has decimated the endless fields of constantly shifting native grasses.

The same process is moving inexorably towards its conclusion in the south, in the pampas of Argentina and in the Sahel in Africa. Thousands of species, each uniquely adapted to the grasslands that they call home, are being driven to extinction.

“Agriculture in any form is inherently unsustainable,” writes permaculture expert Toby Hemenway. “We can pass laws to stop some of the harm agriculture does, but these rules will reduce harvests. As soon as food gets tight, the laws will be repealed. There are no structural constraints on agriculture’s ecologically damaging tendencies.”

As Hemenway notes, the massive global population is essentially dependent on agriculture for survival, which makes political change a difficult proposition at best. The seriousness of this problem is not to be underestimated. Seven billion people are dependent on a food system – agricultural civilization – that is killing the planet.

The primary proponent of the hypothesis – that human impacts on climate are as old as civilization – has been Dr. William Ruddiman, a retired professor at the University of Virginia. The theory is often called Ruddiman’s Hypothesis, or, alternately, the Early Anthropocene Hypothesis.

Ruddiman’s research, which relies heavily on atmospheric data from gases trapped in thick ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, shows that around 11,000 years ago carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere began to decline as part of a natural cycle related to the end of the last Ice Age. This reflected a natural pattern that has been seen after previous ice ages.

This decline continued until around 8000 years ago, when the natural trend of declining carbon dioxide turned around, and greenhouse gases began to rise. This coincides with the spread of civilization across more territory in China, India, North Africa, the Middle East, and certain other regions.

Ruddiman’s data shows that deforestation over the next several thousand years released 350 Gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, an amount nearly equal to what has been released since the Industrial Revolution. The figure is corroborated by the research of Kaplan and his team.

Around 5000 years ago, cultures in East and Southeast Asia began to cultivate rice in paddies – irrigated fields constantly submerged in water. Like an artificial wetland, rice paddies create an anaerobic environment, where bacteria metabolizing carbon-based substances (like dead plants) release methane instead of carbon dioxide and the byproduct of their consumption. Ruddiman points to a spike in atmospheric methane preserved in ice cores around 5000 years ago as further evidence of warming due to agriculture.

Destruction of the land as the root

The anti-apartheid organizer Seve Biko wrote in the 1960’s that “One needs to understand the basics before setting up a remedy. A number of organizations now currently ‘fighting against apartheid’ are working on an oversimplified premise. They have taken a brief look at what is, and have diagnosed the problem incorrectly. They have almost completely forgotten about the side effects and have not even considered the root cause. Hence whatever is improved as a remedy will hardly cure the condition.”

The same could be said of much of the modern environmental movement. While coal, oil, and gas are without a doubt worthwhile targets for opposition, the “climate” movement has forgotten the primary importance of the meadows, the grasslands, the forests, the mountains, and the rivers.

Without this, the movement has been led astray. It’s no wonder that ineffective solutions and tepid reforms that actually strengthen global empire are being promoted, instead of what is actually needed: revolutionary overthrow of this system of power.


Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Kate Evans/CIFOR, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cifor/35035343564

Alberta minister says it’s a ‘great time’ to build a pipeline because COVID-19 restrictions limit protests against them

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage is seen in Edmonton, on June 18, 2019.  AMBER BRACKEN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Alberta’s energy minister says it’s a good time to build a pipeline because public-health restrictions limit protests against them.

Sonya Savage made the comment Friday on a podcast hosted by the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors. She was asked about progress of the Trans Mountain Expansion project, which is under construction on its route between Edmonton and Vancouver.

“Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people,” Ms. Savage said. “Let’s get it built.”

While the interviewer laughed, Ms. Savage did not.

Unprompted, Ms. Savage went on to suggest that the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic favours pipeline construction.

“People are not going to have tolerance and patience for protests that get in the way of people working,” she said on the podcast, which was posted on the association’s website. “People need jobs and those types of ideological protests that get in the way are not going to be tolerated by ordinary Canadians.”

Ms. Savage’s spokesman acknowledged in an email that she was on the podcast.

“We respect the right to lawful protests,” said Kavi Bal. “I would note that the limitations to public gatherings … have benefited no one – including project proponents and any opposition groups.”

Both Alberta and B.C. have increased their limits to 50 people for outdoor gatherings.

Irfan Sabir, the Opposition New Democrat energy critic, called Ms. Savage’s comments more of the same for the government.

“These comments do not come as a shock,” he said. “The UCP have already used the pandemic as an excuse to suspend environmental monitoring. When combined with the minister’s latest comments, this will harm the reputation of Alberta’s energy industry and inhibit our ability to attract investment and get our product to market.”
Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government has a mixed record on protesters.

The Premier defended the right to protest in the case of a man recently arrested at the legislature as he was protesting against public-health lockdown orders. Mr. Kenney said at the time that he would modify such orders to ensure they didn’t interfere with that right, as long as guidelines were being respected.

The government has less tolerance for civil disobedience.

In February, it introduced legislation imposing stiff fines and possible jail terms for protesters who damage or even interfere with the operation of a wide range of energy infrastructure – although such acts are already illegal. The bill has passed and awaits royal assent to come into force.

A similar bill carrying increased trespassing punishments for animal-rights protesters at agricultural facilities came into force in December.


Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let’s start with education

The pandemic is a tough lesson in the workings of the natural world – and proves how vital a knowledge of ecology really is

Clapham Common in London, 29 April 2020. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Imagine mentioning William Shakespeare to a university graduate and discovering they had never heard of him. You would be incredulous. But it’s common and acceptable not to know what an arthropod is, or a vertebrate, or to be unable to explain the difference between an insect and spider. No one is embarrassed when a “well-educated” person cannot provide even a rough explanation of the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle or the water cycle, or of how soils form.

All this is knowledge as basic as being aware that Shakespeare was a playwright. Yet ignorance of such earthy matters sometimes seems to be worn as a badge of sophistication. I love Shakespeare, and I believe the world would be a poorer and a sadder place without him. But we would survive. The issues about which most people live in ignorance are, by contrast, matters of life and death.

I don’t blame anyone for not knowing. This is a collective failure: a crashing lapse in education, that is designed for a world in which we no longer live. The way we are taught misleads us about who we are and where we stand. In mainstream economics, for example, humankind is at the centre of the universe, and the constraints of the natural world are either invisible or marginal to the models.

In an age in which we urgently need to cooperate, we are educated for individual success in competition with others. Governments tell us that the purpose of education is to get ahead of other people or, collectively, of other nations. The success of universities is measured partly by the starting salaries of their graduates. But nobody wins the human race. What we are encouraged to see as economic success ultimately means planetary ruin.

Large numbers of people now reject this approach to learning – and to life. A survey reported this week suggests that six out of 10 people in the UK want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing ahead of growth when we emerge from the pandemic. This is one of the most hopeful results I have seen in years.

I believe that education should work outwards from our principal challenges and aims. This doesn’t mean we should forget Shakespeare, or the other wonders of art and culture, but that the matters crucial to our continued survival are given the weight they deserve. During the lockdown, I’ve been doing something I’ve long dreamed about: experimenting with an ecological education.

George Monbiot’s daughter with their ecology painting. Photograph: George Monbiot

I can’t claim to have found it easy, or to have got it all right. As millions of parents have discovered, there’s a reason why people undergo years of specialist education and training before qualifying as teachers. Persuading children to see you as a parent one moment and a teacher the next is especially challenging. But, working with an eight- and a nine-year-old (my youngest daughter and her best friend), I’ve begun to discover that my dream is not entirely ridiculous.

I’m not talking about teaching ecology as an isolated subject, but about something more fundamental: placing ecology and Earth systems at the heart of learning, just as they are at the heart of life. So we’ve been experimenting with project-based learning, centred on the living world. We started by constructing a giant painting, composed of 15 A4 panels. Each panel introduces a different habitat, from mountaintops to the deepest ocean, the forest canopy to the soil, on to which we stick pictures of the relevant wildlife.

The painting becomes a platform for exploring the processes and relationships in every ecosystem, and across the Earth system as a whole. These, in turn, are keys that open other doors. For example, rainforest ecology leads to photosynthesis, that leads to organic chemistry, atoms and molecules, to the carbon cycle, fossil fuels, energy and power. Sea otters take us to food webs, keystone species and trophic cascades.

We’ve done some fieldwork in soil ecology, an extraordinary and neglected subject, upon which all human life depends. You can study it at home or in the park. It introduces basic scientific principles and experimental design, which then – as we compare and record the results from different samples – leads us into various aspects of maths and writing.

We’re now making a model landscape, to demonstrate the water cycle, river dynamics, stratigraphy, erosion, soil formation and temperature gradients. To the greatest extent possible, I’m letting the children guide this journey. But because of the circular nature of Earth systems, it doesn’t matter where you begin: eventually you go all the way round. As on many previous occasions, I’m struck by children’s natural affinity with the living world. The stories it has to tell are inherently fascinating.

There’s nothing radical about the things we’re learning: it’s a matter of emphasis more than content – of centralising what is most important. Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rethink the entire basis of education. As local authorities in Scotland point out, outdoor learning could be the best means of getting children back to school, as it permits physical distancing. It lends itself to re-engagement with the living world. But, despite years of research demonstrating its many benefits, the funding for outdoor education and adventure learning has been cut to almost nothing.

This is the time for a Great Reset. Let’s use it to change the way we see ourselves and our place on Earth. The conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.” But if everyone has an ecological education, we will not live alone, and it will not be a world of wounds.


George MonbiotGeorge Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

We now have the proof: greening the economy doesn’t come at the price of prosperity

After the financial crisis, green investment paid dividends. Coronavirus presents an even greater opportunity

‘Electric vehicle charging points are needed around the world, and the slack in public transport can be used to upgrade rail networks.’ Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Everest is once again visible from Kathmandu, after decades shrouded in pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to levels last seen in 2006. Nature has returned to our streets with a quack and a flurry, and people are waking to birdsong in inner cities as the roar of traffic recedes.

Clear skies bring little cheer at the food bank, however. Birdsong might lift the heart, but it won’t pay the rent.

The environmental renaissance that has come with lockdown shows both the necessity of cleaning up our filthy air and atmosphere, and the dangers of associating economic ruin with environmental gain. Daily greenhouse gas emissions fell by a quarter in many countries when the lockdown bit hardest, according to the first comprehensive study this week, and by early April were 17% down on last year. At the same time, the global economy plunged 6% and half the global workforce now face the loss of their livelihoods, says the International Labour Organisation.

For environmentalists, it may seem tedious to have to explain yet again why it makes economic sense to save the planet – there wouldn’t be an economy without the environment, so if we trash it “growth” will cease to have much meaning. But we teeter on the threshold of what could be the greatest depression for centuries. People who are losing their jobs and homes, with only politicians’ promises to put in their bank account, have every right to ask whether now is the time to prioritise the climate – or couldn’t it wait a year or two while we sort out this catastrophe first?

That question has a clear answer: a green recovery can produce higher returns on public spending and create more jobs in both the short term and the long term, compared to the alternative of pouring stimulus cash into the fossil fuel economy.

Those findings come from a study of the potential for a green recovery, based on a survey of finance ministries and central bankers, and a comparison with the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, conducted by the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank chief economist Lord Stern, and leading economists from Oxford University.

After the financial crisis in 2008, calls for a green recovery were partially successful. About 16% of the global stimulus spending was green, including subsidies for renewable energy, seed funding for research and development, and new technology such as electric vehicles.

That proportion may seem small, and the effects of the rest of the spending – much of which went on carbon-intensive projects such as concrete construction and coal – were soon apparent: carbon emissions, which had fallen 1.4%, rebounded by a record amount of nearly 6% in 2010.

Yet the green stimulus bore fruit. Renewable energy expanded, and the cost of wind and solar power fell far faster than predicted, to the point where both forms of power are now competitive with fossil fuel generation, without the need for subsidy.

If that was possible from just 16% of stimulus spending, what could be done if the proportions were reversed? We are much better prepared to create green jobs now, according to the Oxford study. Shovel-ready projects, from insulating homes to widening cycle lanes, abound. Electric vehicle charging points are needed around the world, and the slack in public transport can be used to upgrade rail networks.

Car companies, with government incentives, could hasten the move from petrol and diesel engines. The renewable energy industry has progressed in the last decade, making home solar installation cheap and offshore wind farms viable. All of these are labour intensive and would provide quick returns on taxpayer cash.

There are fledgling industries that could soar with a government boost. Fatih Birol, the widely respected executive director of the International Energy Agency, points to hydrogen and batteries as two major areas “now ready for the big time”. Hydrogen, in the form of ammonia, will be key to decarbonising shipping, but take-up has been slow due to lack of investment.

If governments get it right, the structural changes needed to bring emissions to net zero in the next 30 years will come with a gain in jobs and security. But more needs to be done to ensure that people see the positive, rather than associate falling emissions with falling prosperity. Much of the public discussion so far has focused on attaching “green strings” to bailouts for established industries such as airlinesfossil fuels and car manufacturing. Those are certainly needed – as the failure to attach conditions after the 2008 crisis clearly shows – but can seem like punishing industries already on their knees. Workers on airlines and in shale fields are workers too, with mortgages to pay and families to care for. Shrugging off the loss of their jobs as the casualties of a cleaner future is not good enough: there must be a clear path to high-quality alternatives.

After the financial crisis, capital did not reel for long – the initiative was soon recaptured by austerity advocates and increasingly by populists who persuaded voters in many countries that the rollback of the state was the price of fiscal stability. The same forces are still in place: Donald Trump’s White House has already seized the excuse to repeal dozens of regulations on clean air and water, threatening to reverse environmental protections to a pre-Nixon state. If things are to be different this time, people need reassurance on jobs above all, and hymns to nature must be sung to the backing hum of industry.


Fiona Harvey

Fiona Harvey is the Guardian’s environment correspondent

(Mostly) white covidiots at Trinity Bellwoods Park think the rules don’t apply to them. They’re right

One look at images of Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday and it was instantly clear that idiocy is not just an affliction of the American middle class.

As a person with the luxury of living with greenery around me, I appreciate how difficult it must be to be trapped in a condo, sometimes even without balconies. I don’t blame people for wanting to break out of their confines when the sunny outside beckons so cheerily.

I get that there aren’t a lot of open spaces in the core of Toronto — although, for perspective, compared to many parts of the world, the city is positively lush.

What is bothersome is that while people around the world and even in our own city have been weathering the pandemic in far tougher conditions, in crappy apartments and crowded homes and in poverty, it was in Trinity Bellwoods that people somehow collectively felt entitled to say to hell with social distancing.

Their pleasure trumped our collective safety.

Trinity Bellwoods is considered a “gentrifying” neighbourhood with a higher concentration of white folks compared to the city. Like in all of the city, nearly half the resident are renters, and the same proportion have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the 2016 census.

Based on social-media comments and real-estate agents’ descriptions, the 32-acre Trinity Bellwoods Park is a place to be seen. That’s a concept beyond my comprehension but on Saturday it meant that people could have gone to other parks (Stanley Park, Alexandra Park) but didn’t.

I wonder if the news about who is most at risk from COVID-19 — the racialized have-nots — has created a sense of inoculation among the haves. It’s affecting those people, not us, unless we’re old. Pandemics have always killed the poorest — mainly because those are the bodies the virus comes across. People who can’t afford to hunker down necessarily place themselves at risk to keep the rest of us in comfort. Gathering in large numbers simply offers the virus more bodies to feast on.

Photographs doing the rounds on social media showed thousands of what looked like white people milling around in crowds in the west-end park, as if millions of other Torontonians were not holding back from precisely that because common sense. And courtesy. And safety.

No doubt there were racialized folks among those gathered — fools come from all races — but they were protected by the overwhelming whiteness of those around them. Had that been a sea of Black and brown folks, we’d be having a very different conversation today.

While we may call Saturday’s hordes at Trinity Bellwoods covidiots or victims of squashed housing or poor communications by the province, to me they serve as a quick snapshot as to who feels entitled to the public space in this city, who gets scrutinized and who gets penalized for existing in it.

Of course, race matters, class matters.

A couple of weeks ago, a Tamil friend in our suburban neighbourhood was taking his children for a walk, observing all social-distancing protocols. A white man working on his front lawn chided him for being outside and told him to get off the sidewalk and walk on the road.

Last month, the father of a Black teen in Ottawa accused a trustee of harassing and photo-shaming his teenage son on Facebook for shooting hoops by himself. This was before there was clarity around the use of public parks.

In Brampton, Peel Police broke up groups of people who broke social-distancing rules by playing cricket and fined them $880 each.

It was also Eid this weekend when Muslims ended the month-long fasting of Ramadan. It’s a time of celebration, but Muslim Canadians shared stories on Twitter of a visible police presence in their communities to ensure they didn’t break social-distancing rules. SOURCE

Robin Wall Kimmerer: ‘People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how’

Her book Braiding Sweetgrass has been a surprise bestseller. The nature writer talks about her fight for plant rights, and why she hopes the pandemic will increase human compassion for the natural world

Informed by western science and the teachings of her indigenous ancestors … Robin Wall Kimmerer. Photograph: Dale Kakkak

“This is a time to take a lesson from mosses,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, celebrated writer and botanist. Her first book, published in 2003, was the natural and cultural history book Gathering Moss. She grins as if thinking of a dogged old friend or mentor. “What is it that has enabled them to persist for 350m years, through every kind of catastrophe, every climate change that’s ever happened on this planet, and what might we learn from that?” She lists the lessons “of being small, of giving more than you take, of working with natural law, sticking together. All the ways that they live I just feel are really poignant teachings for us right now.”

It’s the end of March and, observing the new social distancing protocol, we’re speaking over Zoom – Kimmerer, from her home office outside Syracuse, New York; me from shuttered South Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where the constant wail of sirens are a sobering reminder of the pandemic. The occasion is the UK publication of her second book, the remarkable, wise and potentially paradigm-shifting Braiding SweetgrassIndigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which has become a surprise word-of-mouth sensation, selling nearly 400,000 copies across North America (and nearly 500,000 worldwide). In January, the book landed on the New York Times bestseller list, seven years after its original release from the independent press Milkweed Editions – no small feat.

A mother of two daughters, and a grandmother, Kimmerer’s voice is mellifluous over the video call, animated with warmth and wonderment. Her delivery is measured, lyrical, and, when necessary (and perhaps it’s always necessary), impassioned and forceful. She laughs frequently and easily. Today she has her long greyish-brown hair pulled loosely back and spilling out on to her shoulders, and she wears circular, woven, patterned earrings. Behind her, on the wooden bookshelves, are birch bark baskets and sewn boxes, mukluks, and books by the environmentalist Winona LaDuke and Leslie Marmon Silko, a writer of the Native American Renaissance.

“Sitting at a computer is not my favourite thing,” admits the 66-year-old native of upstate New York. Our original, pre-pandemic plan had been meeting at the Clark Reservation State Park, a spectacular mossy woodland near her home, but here we are, staying 250 miles apart. A distinguished professor in environmental biology at the State University of New York, she has shifted her courses online. It’s going well, all things considered; still, not every lesson translates to the digital classroom. For one such class, on the ecology of moss, she sent her students out to locate the ancient, interconnected plants, even if it was in an urban park or a cemetery. To collect the samples, one student used the glass from a picture frame; like the mosses, we too are adapting.

Moss in the forest around the Bennachie hills, near Inverurie. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

“Most people don’t really see plants or understand plants or what they give us,” Kimmerer explains, “so my act of reciprocity is, having been shown plants as gifts, as intelligences other than our own, as these amazing, creative beings – good lord, they can photosynthesise, that still blows my mind! – I want to help them become visible to people. People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how it’s a gift.”

In her debut collection of essays, Gathering Moss, she blended, with deep attentiveness and musicality, science and personal insights to tell the overlooked story of the planet’s oldest plants. For Braiding Sweetgrass, she broadened her scope with an array of object lessons braced by indigenous wisdom and culture. From cedars we can learn generosity (because of all they provide, from canoes to capes). From the creation story, which tells of Sky woman falling from the sky, we can learn about mutual aid. Sweetgrass teaches the value of sustainable harvesting, reciprocal care and ceremony. The Windigo mindset, on the other hand, is a warning against being “consumed by consumption” (a windigo is a legendary monster from Anishinaabe lore, an “Ojibwe boogeyman”). Ideas of recovery and restoration are consistent themes, from the global to the personal. 

In one standout section Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, tells the story of recovering for herself the enduring Potawatomi language of her people, one internet class at a time. (It’s meaningful, too, because her grandfather, Asa Wall, had been sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, notorious for literally washing the non-English out of its young pupils’ mouths.) The resulting book is a coherent and compelling call for what she describes as “restorative reciprocity”, an appreciation of gifts and the responsibilities that come with them, and how gratitude can be medicine for our sick, capitalistic world.

In the years leading up to Gathering Moss, Kimmerer taught at universities, raised her two daughters, Larkin and Linden, and published articles in peer-reviewed journals. (A sample title from this period: “Environmental Determinants of Spatial Pattern in the Vegetation of Abandoned Lead-Zinc Mines.”) Writing of the type that she publishes now was something she “was doing quietly”, away from academia. But she chafed at having to produce these “boring” papers written in the “most objective” scientific language that, despite its precision, misses the point. What she really wanted was to tell stories old and new, to practice “writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land”. Through soulful, accessible books, informed by both western science and indigenous teachings alike, she seeks, most essentially, to “encourage people to pay attention to plants”. And she has now found those people, to a remarkable extent.

“I’ve never seen anything remotely like it,” says Daniel Slager, publisher and CEO of the non-profit Milkweed Editions. He describes the sales of Braiding Sweetgrass as “singular”, “staggering” and “profoundly gratifying”. Since the book first arrived as an unsolicited manuscript in 2010, it has undergone 18 printings and appears, or will soon, in nine languages across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Pulitzer prize-winning author Richard Powers is a fan, declaring to the New York Times: “I think of her every time I go out into the world for a walk.” Robert Macfarlane told me he finds her work “grounding, calming, and quietly revolutionary”.

Other lessons from the book have resonated, too. Jessica Goldschmidt, a 31-year-old writer living in Los Angeles, describes how it helped her during her first week of quarantine. “I was feeling very lonely and I was repotting some plants” and realised how important it was because “the book was helping me to think of them as people. It’s something I do everyday, because I’m just like: ‘I don’t know when I’m going to touch a person again.’”

“What’s being revealed to me from readers is a really deep longing for connection with nature,” Kimmerer says, referencing Edward O Wilson’s notion of biophilia, our innate love for living things. “It’s as if people remember in some kind of early, ancestral place within them. They’re remembering what it might be like to live somewhere you felt companionship with the living world, not estrangement. Though the flip side to loving the world so much,” she points out, citing the influential conservationist Aldo Leopold, is that to have an ecological education is to “live alone in a world of wounds”.

“We tend to shy away from that grief,” she explains. “But I think that that’s the role of art: to help us into grief, and through grief, for each other, for our values, for the living world. You know, I think about grief as a measure of our love, that grief compels us to do something, to love more.” Compelling us to love nature more is central to her long-term project, and it’s also the subject of her next book, though “it’s definitely a work in progress”. “The way I’m framing it to myself is, when somebody closes that book, the rights of nature make perfect sense to them,” she says. “I’m really trying to convey plants as persons.” 

Key to this is restoring what Kimmerer calls the “grammar of animacy”. This means viewing nature not as a resource but like an elder “relative” – to recognise kinship with plants, mountains and lakes. The idea, rooted in indigenous language and philosophy (where a natural being isn’t regarded as “it” but as kin) holds affinities with the emerging rights-of-nature movement, which seeks legal personhood as a means of conservation. Kimmerer understands her work to be the “long game” of creating the “cultural underpinnings”.

“Laws are a reflection of social movements,” she says. “Laws are a reflection of our values. So our work has to be to not necessarily use the existing laws, but to promote a growth in values of justice. That’s where I really see storytelling and art playing that role, to help move consciousness in a way that these legal structures of rights of nature makes perfect sense. I dream of a day where people say: ‘Well, duh, of course! Of course those trees have standing.’”

Our conversation turns once more to topics pandemic-related. Kimmerer says that the coronavirus has reminded us that we’re “biological beings, subject to the laws of nature. That alone can be a shaking,” she says, motioning with her fist. “But I wonder, can we at some point turn our attention away to say the vulnerability we are experiencing right now is the vulnerability that songbirds feel every single day of their lives? Could this extend our sense of ecological compassion, to the rest of our more-than-human relatives?”

Kimmerer often thinks about how best to use her time and energy during this troubled era. Though she views demands for unlimited economic growth and resource exploitation as “all this foolishness”, she recognises that “I don’t have the power to dismantle Monsanto. But what I do have is the capacity to change how I live on a daily basis and how I think about the world. I just have to have faith that when we change how we think, we suddenly change how we act and how those around us act, and that’s how the world changes. It’s by changing hearts and changing minds. And it’s contagious. I became an environmental scientist and a writer because of what I witnessed growing up within a world of gratitude and gifts.”

“A contagion of gratitude,” she marvels, speaking the words slowly. “I’m just trying to think about what that would be like. Acting out of gratitude, as a pandemic. I can see it.”


Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is published by Penguin https://guardianbookshop.com/braiding-sweetgrass-9780141991955.html

Regional chief says First Nations not consulted as Alberta loosens open-pit coal mining rules

“There could be protests or anything that will slow down any projects.”

Before the big roar - Vancouver Is Awesome

First Nations leaders and environmentalists in Alberta are concerned after the provincial government announced updates to open-pit coal mining regulations.

Open-pit coal mining has been banned in some parts of Alberta since 1976, when the province introduced regulations to protect the Rocky Mountains and foothills. On May 15, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced changes to those regulations.

But Jesse Cardinal, interim director of Keepers of the Water, says open-pit coal mining will cause a lot of harm.

“The Athabasca River flows all the way to the Arctic Ocean,” she said. “So all of those communities depend on that access to the fresh water to feed into that river. Same with the South Saskatchewan River. That goes all the way to Hudson Bay, so that goes all the way to eastern Canada. You think about fresh water that is giving life to these rivers, to keep them clean, so this is a huge, huge concern.”

The regulations protected four areas. Most of the Mountains themselves were category one. The foothills were category two. Categories three and four were further east.

But as of June 1, mining could begin in the foothills in category two near settlements like Grand Cache.

Savage’s office released a statement saying that “all existing laws relating to coal development remain in place and unchanged.

“We will continue to uphold our province’s stringent environmental standards, and respect the rights of landowners to protect environmentally sensitive and recreational land along Alberta’s eastern slopes,” the statement said, adding that former category one lands will continue to be protected from coal leasing, exploration and development.

Marlene Poitras, Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, says there was no warning about coal mining.

“We have three treaties in Alberta: Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 that covers the entire province,” said Poitras. “And I think that’s a significant decision to move forward with coal mining, and I think First Nations should be consulted.”

She added that the caribou and grizzlies in the area need protection and the lack of consultation could lead to resistance.

“There could be protests or anything that will slow down any projects.”

Savage’s office told APTN News they were not available for an interview, and the minister herself has not yet returned our calls.


4 First Nations reach agreement with Manitoba Hydro to end blockades: MKO

Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation and York Factory Cree Nation make a deal

A crowd of people from all four partner First Nations joined in solidarity as Tetaskweyak Cree Nation was served with an injunction to take down their blockade on a road leading to at Keeyask on Wednesday. Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak announced Sunday the First Nations have come to an agreement with Manitoba Hydro. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)

Four Cree Nations have agreed to remove blockades after reaching a deal with Manitoba Hydro over work at the Keeyask Generating Station in northern Manitoba during the COVID-19 pandemic, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak says.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation and York Factory Cree Nation had objected to Manitoba Hydro’s plans for a shift change that would see 700 people leave the project near their communities and bring in more than 1,000 different people, some from outside Manitoba.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation had set up two road blockades to prevent the hydro company from carrying out the shift change.

Chief Doreen Spence of Tataskweyak was served with an injunction against the blockades on Wednesday.

“While we absolutely want our economies to open up and succeed, we are ultimately most concerned about the well-being and health of our citizens during this uncertain period. We want to keep everyone safe from this virus,” she said Sunday in the news release.

A member of Tataskweyak Cree Nation stands at the front of a blockade that formed last week at the entrance to the Keeyask hydro project. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)


MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in the release their ultimate concern was in protecting their communities from the threat of exposure to COVID-19.

“It took a stance from the First Nations to be able to get that message across,” he said Sunday in an interview.

Chiefs of the four First Nations, who are Manitoba Hydro’s partners in Keeyask, met with the Crown corporation’s president and CEO Jay Grewal on Saturday.

“I think that people are happy because that’s what they wanted. They wanted to have their voice heard and they wanted to be respected as partners and they also wanted to ensure that these decisions that are being made are not in exclusion of them,” Settee said. “They had no decision making, they had no input.”

It’s a move forward for the partnership, he said.

“That’s something that I’m very happy about.”

The corporation is pleased to reach an understanding that will see the project’s construction “resume safely, while protecting both workers and the surrounding communities,” Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said in an email.

The blockades have been removed and the company “will not be renewing” its injunction, the statement said.

The next steps involve discussing how First Nations will take a more prominent role “in the way things would be going and, of course, the blockades have come down based on the two letters that were exchanged with the two entities agreeing to work together and turning back to the partnership,” Settee said on Sunday.

“I think that the situation was going to get volatile and I’m glad it did not escalate to that level,” he said.

“I’m very happy for the Cree Nation, and I’m thankful that the legal action that has been introduced, the injunction, is now, they’ve agreed to rescind that, and it was a good move forward.” SOURCE

Dana Hatherly with files from Riley Laychuk and Austin Grabish