Invest, Divest and Prosper By PAUL KRUGMAN

The New York Times, July 1, 2013


It has been a busy news week, what with voting rights, gay marriage and Paula Deen. Even so, it’s remarkable how little attention the news media gave to President Obama’s new “climate action plan.” Discount, if you like, the terrific speech he gave when unveiling the proposal; this is, nonetheless, a very big deal. For this time around, Mr. Obama wasn’t touting legislation we know won’t pass. The new plan is, instead, designed to rely on executive action. This means that, unlike earlier efforts to address climate change, it can bypass the anti-environmentalists who control the House of Representatives.


Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Paul Krugman

Republicans realize this, and they’re stamping their feet in frustration. All they can do, it seems, is fulminate (and perhaps scare the administration into backing down). Interestingly, however, right now they don’t seem eager to attack climate science, maybe because that would make them sound unreasonable (which they are). Instead, they’re going for the economic angle, denouncing the Obama administration for waging a “war on coal” that will destroy jobs.

And you know what? They’re half-right. The new Obama plan is, to some extent, a war on coal — because reducing our use of coal is, necessarily, going to be part of any serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But making war on coal won’t destroy jobs. In fact, serious new regulation of greenhouse emissions could be just what our economy needs.

So, what is the plan? Mainly, Mr. Obama announced his intention to use the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency to impose limits on carbon emissions from power plants. Such plants aren’t the only source of greenhouse gases, but they do account for about 40 percent of emissions. Furthermore, regulating power-plant emissions is standard practice; we already have policies limiting these plants’ emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and mercury, so adding carbon to the list isn’t that much of a departure, at least in principle.

But wouldn’t imposing carbon limits raise the cost of electricity? And wouldn’t that destroy jobs? The answer is, yes and no.

Yes, new rules on carbon emissions would increase the costs of electricity generation. Power companies would probably close some old coal-fired plants, turning to more expensive lower-emission alternatives — to some extent renewables like wind, but mainly natural gas. Furthermore, they would be forced to invest in new capacity to replace the old sources.

All of this would, indeed, lead to somewhat higher electricity bills — although not nearly as high as the usual suspects claim. It’s kind of funny, actually: right-wingers love to praise the power of free markets and declare that the private sector can deal with any problem, but then turn around and insist that the private sector will just throw up its hands in despair and collapse in the face of new environmental rules. The actual lesson of history — for example, from efforts to protect the ozone layer and reduce acid rain — is that business can generally reduce emissions much more cheaply than you think, as long as regulation is flexible to allow innovative solutions.

Still, there will be some cost. Won’t this destroy jobs? Actually, no.

It’s always important to remember that what ails the U.S. economy right now isn’t lack of productive capacity, but lack of demand. The housing bust, the overhang of household debt and ill-timed cuts in public spending have created a situation in which nobody wants to spend; and because your spending is my income and my spending is your income, this leads to a depressed economy over all.

How would forcing the power industry to clean up its act worsen this situation? It wouldn’t, because neither costs nor lack of capacity are constraining the economy right now.

And, as I’ve already suggested, environmental action could actually have a positive effect. Suppose that electric utilities, in order to meet the new rules, decide to close some existing power plants and invest in new, lower-emission capacity. Well, that’s an increase in spending, and more spending is exactly what our economy needs.

O.K., it’s still not clear whether any of this will happen. Some of the people I talk to are cynical about the new climate initiative, believing that the president won’t actually follow through. All I can say is, I hope they’re wrong.

Near the end of his speech, the president urged his audience to: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.” Normally, one would be tempted to dismiss this as the sound of someone waving away the need for hard choices. But, in this case, it was simple good sense: We really can invest in new energy sources, divest from old sources, and actually make the economy stronger. So let’s do it.



Climate Change: Disequilibrium Will Become the Norm in the Plant Communities of the Future


Heartleaf Oxeye is an example of a species that has not yet returned to Northern Europe since the last Ice Age, but which we have helped along by planting in our gardens. Here it was found in the Danish countryside. (Credit: Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University)



July 1, 2013, — The forest we are used to looking at is not at all in equilibrium. Since the Ice Age, a number of plants have been ‘missing’ in Northern Europe, i.e. species that have not yet arrived. The same applies in many other parts of the world. Similarly, there is evidence that — even today — it often takes a very long time before plants follow when glaciers retreat, or the climate changes. In future, such disequilibrium will become the norm in the plant communities on Earth.



This has been demonstrated by a new synthesis carried out by two researchers at Aarhus University — Professor of Biology Jens-Christian Svenning and Assistant Professor Brody Sandel.

Professor Svenning explains: “In the climate debate, even researchers have had a tendency to overlook the fact that ecological dynamics can be slow. However, our forests take an extremely long time to adapt. For example, we still have a small amount of small-leaved lime in Denmark, which has held on since the warm period during the Bronze Age, i.e. about 3000 years. Perhaps it will now get another chance to spread when the summers once more get warmer. However, such expansion would take a long time, as lime is not a particularly fast-growing tree or particularly good at dispersing, even under optimum conditions. The climate will change considerably in the course of a single tree generation so we should not assume that the forest we’re looking at in a given place is suitable for the climate. Future climate will constantly shift, which will increasingly result in these strange situations of disequilibrium.”


Even fast spreaders such as some invasive exotic plants remain in disequilibrium for decades or centuries. Shown here is a Norway maple, a highly invasive tree species in North America that may nevertheless still take many decades to spread across even small landscapes.


The challenges we face

“Consequently, if you’re trying to practise natural forest management with natural regeneration, you may see completely different plants regenerating compared with what you had before, because the climate has shifted to become suitable for another set of species. This also makes it challenging to adhere to a management plan granting preservation status to a particular type of nature at a certain site. At such a site, the existence of a large number of fully grown specimens of an endangered species is no guarantee that there will be a next generation.

This would be challenging for everyone — for the managers, for the people who use the countryside in one way or another, and also for the researchers who are used to working with ecosystems that are much more balanced. Plant life and ecosystems will become much more dynamic and often out of sync with the climate.


We’re causing so many changes to the climate, but at the same time nature is SO slow. Just think of a tree generation. Our entire culture is based on something that was, if not in complete equilibrium, then at least relatively predictable. We’re used to a situation where flora, fauna and climate are reasonably well matched. In future, this equilibrium will shift on an ongoing basis, and there will be plenty of mismatches. That’s what we’ll have to work with.”


Professor Svenning also calls for caution: “With nature in such a state of disequilibrium, human introduction of new species will play a key role. Take cherry laurel, for example, which we see in many gardens in Denmark. It’s ready to spread throughout the Danish countryside. If it were to migrate unaided from its nearest native site in South-East Europe to Denmark, it would take thousands of years. Horticulturists now help it along. This will help the species survive, but can also cause northern species in Denmark to become extinct more rapidly. The cherry laurel is an evergreen, and if it disperses on the forest floor, it may create too much shade for the existing flora on the forest floor to survive. At the same time, the disequilibrium presents the advantage that such dispersal will take decades despite the contribution of horticulturists,” Professor Svenning concludes.


Cherry laurel is another example of a species that has not yet returned to Northern Europe since the last Ice Age, but which we have helped along by planting in our gardens. Here it was found in the English countryside. Photo: Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University.



Combating Plant Diseases Is Key for Sustainable Crops

Arid regions are very sensitive to climate change — Climate change is likely to make plants more vulnerable to infectious disease, which will threaten crop yield and impact on the price and availability of food. Dr Adrian Newton, presenting his work at the Society for General Microbiology’s Spring Conference in Harrogate, explains how exploiting diversity in crops is the best option to improve food security in a changing climate.

Pest and disease management has helped double food production in the last 40 years, but 10-16% of the global harvest is still lost to plant diseases each year costing an estimated US$220 billion. Climate change is impacting on the micro-organisms that cause these diseases.

Fusarium head blight (FHB) — a fungal disease that affects both the quality and safety of wheat — has re-emerged over the last few decades as a disease of global significance. Changes in levels of rainfall, humidity and temperature all influence the predominant strain of FHB, in addition to the quantity of the harmful mycotoxin produced by the fungus. These changes are likely to affect wheat production, processing and marketing. Mathematical models have shown that the risk of FHB epidemics and the number of crops containing potentially dangerous levels of mycotoxin will increase across the whole of the UK over the next few decades.

Dr Newton from the James Hutton Institute, Dundee (formerly the Scottish Crop Research Institute) explains the difficulties in predicting the likelihood of disease. “The communities of microbes on plants are complex and include harmless and beneficial organisms as well as those that cause disease on plants and humans. We need to understand the dynamics of complex microbial communities and their interactions to be able to predict the likelihood of disease.”

Understanding these relationships is key to improving our crop production and protection in the face of climate change. “Climate change adds an extra layer of complexity to an already complex agro-ecological system. Higher temperatures, increasing levels of carbon dioxide, water limitation and quality may all affect existing plant microbes as well as favouring the appearance of new microbes. This may increase the incidence of some diseases and reduce the incidence of others,” said Dr Newton.

Less reliance on pesticides is essential to ensure sustainable crops, according to Dr Newton. “Plant pathogens are becoming increasingly resistant to pesticides — a problem that is likely to be made worse as their availability becomes reduced by legislation,” he said. “One way to protect crops is to exploit their diversity. This increases resilience to pathogens and other stresses attributable to climate change. This means less pesticide use, reliable crop production and sustainable food production system.”



Biodiversity Can Promote Survival On a Warming Planet, Mathematical Model Shows


Whether a plant and its pollinator survive rapid climate change can depend upon the density and distribution of other species in the community, according to a new study. (Credit: Nicole Rafferty) — Whether a species can evolve to survive climate change may depend on the biodiversity of its ecological community, according to a new mathematical model that simulates the effect of climate change on plants and pollinators.

The findings, published in the early online edition of Evolutionary Applications, are important because some species that have survived large climatic change in the past might not be able to survive current and ongoing climate change.

In the study, researchers used computer simulations to examine the effect of climate change on populations of flowering plants and their insect pollinators. Ecologists have known for many years that climate change alters the timing of when plants flower and when insects emerge. For example, the onset of new blossoms in many temperate plants in the Northern Hemisphere and the first emergence of some insects have occurred earlier with global warming. If climate change causes species that rely on one another, known as “mutualists,” to be active at different times, then these species may be threatened with extinction. The question that remains is whether the process of evolution can mitigate the potential damage that climate change can inflict upon the timing of life cycle events.

Researchers found that in some cases evolution can rescue plant-pollinator mutualisms that would otherwise become extinct as a result of climate change. Whether a mutualism survives, however, can depend upon the density and distribution of other species in the community. For example, under many circumstances, the presence of alternative pollinators available to the focal plant can help to protect both the focal plant and the focal pollinator from extinction.

“In such cases, habitat fragmentation or loss of native pollinators might compound the threat of climate change to mutualisms,” said Tucker Gilman, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the paper’s lead author. Mutualists are likely to be especially sensitive to rapid climate change, according to the study.

“The results are troubling because anthropogenic (or human caused) climate change is thought to be happening up to ten times faster than any natural climate change in the past 500,000 years,” Gilman said. “This means that mutualisms that have survived past climate change events may still be vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change.”


Drought-Stricken Australian Outback

Photograph by Jason Edwards

A forlorn tree stands sentinel in the parched fields of a devastated, drought-stricken farm in the Australian outback.  A decade-long drought in the region dried up waterways, decimated crops, and left livestock with nowhere to feed—prompting many graziers to destock their ranches



Flooded Fields in Oakville, Iowa

Photograph by John Stanmeyer/VII


Flooded fields surround an Oakville, Iowa, farmstead in the wake of heavy rains that saturated the Midwest in the summer of 2008. Rivers topped their banks and broke through levees, flooding farms and cities alike—some 100 blocks of Cedar Rapids were submerged and millions of acres of wheat and corn crops were ruined. When crops are ruined, like this, food prices rise.



The Great Indus River of Pakistan is Drying Up


Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic

Peering from a decoy, a hunter lifts his head above the water of the Indus River. The Indus is the primary source of freshwater for most of Pakistan, a fast-growing nation of more than 170 million people.  Waters from the Indus are drawn for household and industrial use, and support about 90 percent of the agriculture in the arid country. The Indus is one of the great rivers of the world, but it is now so exploited that it no longer flows into the ocean at the Port of Karachi.

Instead, in the words of New York Times writer Steven Solomon, the Indus is “dribbling to a meager end . . . Its once-fertile delta of rice paddies and fisheries has shriveled up.” The lower Indus had been a lush ecosystem, supporting artisanal fishers and providing habitat to diverse species, including the critically endangered Indus River dolphin.

Choked off from its water supply, Karachi is plagued by increasingly brazen water thieves and riots over scarcity. Many in the water-stressed delta blame wealthy landowners upstream for taking water out of the river. As National Geographic News recently reported, tensions have been running high with neighboring India, which is home to the glaciers that feed the river, and which is planning more large-scale diversions.



Solomon concludes that Pakistan’s water future is “grim,” with the population expected to pass 220 million within a decade, and flows of the Indus to fall further in the wake of global warming. He points out that the country currently only has the capacity to store enough water for about 30 days’ use.  Even so, as National Geographic News reported, there are signs that India and Pakistan are cooperating better over water than they have in the past. Population growth in the region has been slowing, and there is rising awareness about the importance of protecting the world’s great rivers.


Coral Bleaching


Coral reefs, often called the rain forests of the ocean because of the diversity of life that they support, are also impacted by climate change. Coral species require a relatively narrow temperature range to function, so small fluctuations in the ocean temperature can induce bleaching. Once coral bleaching begins, it is difficult to stop and often results in the death of large sections of the reef and the organisms that depend upon it. Coral bleaching events have been increasing in frequency and seriousness across the globe for the past twenty years.


The Russian River,  Amu Darya, is Drying Up


Pictured is the Amu Darya River, a little ways upstream from where it dries out.

Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Corbis

Many schoolchildren know the sad tale of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland water body with a surface of 26,000 square miles (67,300 square kilometers). The sea was once ringed with prosperous towns and supported a lucrative muskrat pelt industry and thriving fishery, providing 40,000 jobs and supplying the Soviet Union with a sixth of its fish catch.

The Aral Sea was originally fed by two of Central Asia’s greatest rivers, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the north. The former is the longest river in the region, snaking through 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) of steppe.

But in the 1960s, the Soviets decided to make the steppes bloom. So they built an enormous irrigation network, including 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams, and more than 80 reservoirs, all to irrigate sprawling fields of cotton and wheat in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The system was leaky and inefficient, however, and after several decades, the Amu Darya had lost so much of its flow that it no longer reached the Aral Sea. Today, it ends about 70 miles (110 kilometers) away.


Deprived of a major source of its water, the inland sea shrank rapidly. In just a few decades, the Aral Sea was reduced to a handful of small lakes, with a combined volume one-tenth the original and much higher salinity due to all the evaporation. Millions of fish died, coastlines receded miles from towns, and those few people who remained were plagued with toxic dust storms, the residue of industrial agriculture and weapons testing in the area.


Climate Refugees


As sea levels rise, islands disappear, and severe weather like droughts and storms increase, more and more people will be displaced. These Somali refugees were displaced by severe floods that killed at least 85 people. Other climate refugees include people from the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu who are facing the reality that their island may completely disappear. Some experts predict that the number of climate refugees could reach 1 billion by the 2050.   Judging by recent extreme weather in the U.S., and the numbers of climate refugees we’ve had here, 1 billion world refugees from climate change, 37 years from now, does not sound unusual.



In the United States, the Rio Grande River is Greatly Reduced in Volume


Here, the Rio Grande River defines the international border across the Adams Ranch near Big Bend National Park.


Photograph by Ian Shive, Aurora Photos/Alamy


One of the largest rivers in North America, the 1,885-mile (3,033-kilometer) Rio Grande runs from southwestern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. It defines much of the border between Texas and Mexico. But the once grande river is looking more poco these days, thanks to heavy use on both sides of the border.  Less than a fifth of the Rio Grande’s historical flow now reaches the Gulf. For a few years in the early 2000s, the river failed to reach the coast entirely. All that separated the United States from Mexico was a beach of dirty sand and an orange nylon fence.


The population in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is exploding in both the United States and Mexico, driven by NAFTA-era factories and agricultural productivity. But by the time it reaches Matamoros, the river’s level is so low that it often falls below the Mexican city’s intake pipes. Farmers in Texas say they lose $400 million annually due to lack of irrigation water.

The region’s wetlands, once critical stopover points for migrating birds, are getting choked off. All these problems are made worse by the decades-long drought gripping the region.



The Yellow River in China, has Frequently Run Dry


Photograph by Christian Kober, Robert Harding World Images


The Yellow River is the second longest in China, after the Yangtze, and the sixth longest in the world, with a course of 3,395 miles (5,464 kilometers). The Yellow River was the cradle of the earliest known Chinese civilization, and it has a long and complex history in the region. Numerous floods over the centuries resulted in catastrophic loss of life, including a flood in 1931 that killed one to four million people.

Since 1972, the Yellow River has frequently run dry before reaching the sea, thanks to extensive diversion, largely for agriculture. In 1997, the lower Yellow River did not flow for a whopping 230 days. Such a dramatic decrease in water has choked off the ecologically rich delta, which is also eroding due to loss of silt.

In recent years, the Chinese government has taken steps to restore some of the water’s flow, denying some farmers use along the way.