Tag Archives: Global warming

Our Nation is Sinking: The Maldives and Global Warming

by Benjamin Sacks

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

The Maldives is sinking. Like several other South Asian and Oceanic archipelagos, the Maldives’s topography suffers from a lethal combination of high surface erosion and rising sea levels. The former stems from the islands’ soft soils, but most scientists agree that the latter is a direct consequence of global warming. Although rising sea levels may not pose much of a concern to residents of Salisbury or Kinross, it has become an extraordinarily important issue for a country where the highest point above sea level is a paltry 2.4 metres. Heightening tensions, the archipelago is remarkably dense and urbanised. In Malé, the country’s political, social, and cultural capital, Over 100,000 people reside on an island with an area less than 6 square kilometres (2.24 miles).

The Maldives’ susceptibility to erosion and land loss has been acknowledged for at least a century. In a 1901 Royal Geographical Society expedition, J Stanley Gardiner noted how the islands of Minikoi Atoll were sharply controlled by currents (pp. 287-88). But Gardiner evidently recognised the beauty in the erosion process. ‘Together with the washing away of the land’, he recalled in The Geographical Journal, ‘fresh conditions tend to be found on its reefs’ (p. 293). But what Gardiner perceived as interesting, if not dangerous phenomena proved increasingly problematic in the years following the Maldives’ independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. In the early 1990s, British geographers and climate specialists repeatedly warned that such archipelagos as the Maldives were at increasing risk of flooding or disappearing altogether. Even a ‘slightly higher rise in sea level increase the areas of potential inundation, threaten[ing] the existence of certain island states (e.g. the Maldives) (Jones p. 127)’. Rising sea levels and increased erosion prompted Erlet Cater to accuse, in 1995 article in The Geographical Journal, the Maldives’ government of willful negligence and destruction for the sake of tourism. Cater identified a increasingly negative cycle:

  1. Rising sea levels and increasingly fast erosion led to fewer tourists, and hence much-needed income.
  2. To increase tourism levels, Malé increased mining of coral reefs around the islands, selling the dried corals as souvenirs and permitting tourists to travel in and around the fragile reefs.
  3. Coral levels plummeted, not only creating an oceanic environmental crisis, but destroying islands’ natural barrier against erosion. Erosion increased, to the shock and amazement of officials.
  4. The Maldives tried to both stem rising water levels and continue fostering tourism through coral sales. They failed in both instances.

As if deliberately echoing Cater’s call to action, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami most violently demonstrated the existential threat the Maldives faced. Although the country suffered remarkably few casualties relative to its neighbours, much of the islands were completely flooded, quickly leading to a national disaster. Malé – and most government administration and private business – came to a chaotic standstill for weeks while locals tried to apprise the situation on dozens of widely scattered and isolated islands.

In the most recent edition of The Geographical Journal (June 2014), Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) returned to the Maldives question, albeit with a new – and fascinating – perspective. In order to combat rising sea levels, recent successive Maldivian governments have sought to resettle thousands of residents from some of the more remote, impassable islands to larger, more populated, and accessible atolls. In total, the government intends to reorganise the country’s total population – currently thought to reside on some 200 islands and oversize reefs – onto about ten larger islands.

On the surface this appears logical, (relatively) efficient for a small state with a small population, and even honourable, given the Maldives’ enormous environmental obstacles. As Kothari explains, however, Malé is also influenced by longstanding political and economic priorities; environmental concerns, to an extent at least, have become a convenient mask. Although the government’s commitment to drastic environmental reforms is undeniable (In 2009 then-President Mohamed Nasheed pronounced that the Maldives intends to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2020), ‘environmental concerns have also been used to justify and legitimise other agendas’ (p. 135). Since the early years of independence, both the government and private sector elites have pushed for population consolidation as a means of reorganising national spending, raising the profile of tourism, and effecting greater political and social control (pp. 136-37). Although some Maldivians have vocally resisted the government’s declarations, the very real threat posed by climate change seems to have swung the balance far in Malé’s favour.

How does the Maldives’ approach and handling of rising sea levels and increasing land erosion compare to other, similarly at-risk states? Kiribati? Micronesia? Nauru? Has climate change become a front for consolidating other agendas?

 J Stanley Gardiner, ‘The Formation of the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 19.3 (Mar., 1902): 277-96.

 Erlet Cater, ‘Environmental Contradictions in Sustainable Tourism‘, The Geographical Journal 161.1 (Mar., 1995): 21-28.

 David K C Jones, ‘Global Warming and Geomorphology‘, The Geographical Journal 159.2 (Jul., 1993): 124-30.

 Richard Warrick and Graham Farmer, ‘The Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change and Rising Sea Level: Implications for Development‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 15.1 (1990): 5-20.

 Uma Kothari, ‘Political discourses of climate change and migration: resettlement policies in the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 180.2 (Jun., 2014): 130-40.

No change from climate change: island vulnerability

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

by Ilan Kelman

Climate change is often touted as humanity’s biggest development challenge. Low-lying, tropical islands are particularly highlighted as potentially experiencing future devastation. How accurate is this rhetoric?

No doubt exists that many islanders are suffering under climate change. Residents of the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea have been forced to move as sea-level rise encroaches on their villages.

Many other island locations are also experiencing climate change impacts, but in tandem with other development challenges which have existed for decades. Also in the Pacific, Kiribati is severely threatened by sea-level rise. But the people there have long been trying to solve other devastating problems including urban planning, land use, and water resources.

Focusing on climate change problems has the unfortunate consequence of distracting from other development challenges. In particular, the physical hazard of climate change to islands and islanders is often emphasised, tending to promote technocratic responses for only climate change. Integrated approaches focusing on island peoples, communities, and livelihoods are frequently sidelined.

The fundamental question is why inequality and power relations have left many island communities with few options for responding to climate change. That is the same as the long-standing questions about why inequality and power relations have left many island communities unable to tackle the root causes of their multiple vulnerabilities.

The difficulty is not so much addressing the hazard of climate change per se. Instead, it is understanding why islanders often continue to be denied the resources and options to address climate change themselves–just as with the other development challenges that have pervaded for decades.

In that regard, climate change brings little to the islands that is new.

The author: Dr. Ilan Kelman is Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).

books_icon Kelman I 2013 No change from climate change: vulnerability and small island developing states The Geographical Journal DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12019

60-world2Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2013 Mangroves in the Marshall Islands to protect local community (Press release) Scoop 24 January

Mapping carbon emissions

I-Hsien Porter

Power stationThe Guardian website recently published a map of carbon emissions by country. There were few surprises. China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. hile recession-hit Europe and America have seen a fall in their emissions due to reductions in industrial output, it has not been enough to offset the rapid expansion of emerging economies in China and India. Developing countries in South America and Africa have some of the smallest carbon emissions in the world.

It might have been helpful to see this illustrated in relation to carbon emissions per person, since countries are not all the same size. However, it provides a useful indication of where strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might be best focused.

Market based solutions, where carbon is commodified (e.g. carbon credits), have become the focus for international strategies to reduce emissions. However, in a recent paper in The Geographical Journal, Samuel Randalls warns of the dangers of this approach.

Simplifying carbon emissions into a quantity that must be managed comes with broader ethical and moral issues. Management of the issue by distant national or international markets makes assumptions about the fair allocation of personal carbon allowances.

Randalls argues that wider political participation is needed to consider the ethical implications of imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution across countries with different cultural and social characteristics.

The Guardian (31st January 2011) ‘An atlas of pollution: The world in carbon dioxide emissions.’

Randalls, S. (2011) ‘Broadening debates on climate change ethics: beyond carbon calculation.’ The Geographical Journal [Early View]

An insight into the consequences of climate change?

Arctic sea iceMethane is a potent greenhouse gas. Human activities, e.g. farming, have resulted in the release of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. However, in locations across the world, large amounts of methane and carbon are stored in soil or the sea bed. These are released gradually as a natural process.

In a Geography Compass paper, William Bowden raises concerns over this process as Arctic ice and permafrost (frozen ground) begin to thaw in response to climate change. Bowden suggests that stored methane and carbon may be released into the atmosphere, further contributing to the volume of greenhouse gases.

Switching our attention to the Gulf of Mexico, last April’s Deepwater Horizon oil leak also caused the release of a large quantity of methane. Research discovered that methane-absorbing bacteria multiplied rapidly in response. As a result, much of the additional methane was not released into the atmosphere.

The Arctic and Gulf of Mexico may behave very differently from each other. However, research into the Deepwater Horizon oil leak offers an insight into the potential consequences of much greater environmental change.

BBC News (6th January 2011) ‘Gulf of Mexico oil leak may give Arctic climate clues’.

Bowden, William B. (2010) ‘Climate Change in the Arctic – Permafrost, Thermokarst, and Why They Matter to the Non-Arctic World’. Geography Compass 3 (10): 1553-1566

Overcoming inertia not to act on climate change

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009I-Hsien Porter

In a commentary in The Observer, Robin McKie outlines some of the statistics that reinforce the argument for man-made climate change.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased significantly over the past 50 years, causing temperature rises of 0.80C. Many scientists argue that a total increase in temperature of at least 20C is inevitable by 2100, leading to more extreme weather events, water shortages and disruption to food production.

Despite the warnings, surprisingly little has been done to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. In an article in Area, Andrew Sayer expresses pessimism about whether this attitude will change.

Sayer argues that in the Global North, states are too dependant on capital to meet the costs of acting against climate change. Governments are too electorally dependant on the middle classes to reduce their consumption.

Overcoming the incentives not to act on climate change provides a challenge for those in government. However, the need to do so is clear. Geographers can contribute to this debate by improving our understanding of both the physical processes driving climate change, and the human processes driving our response.

‘After a wasted year, climate change must once again be our priority.’ The Observer 26th December 2010.

Andrew Sayer (2010) ‘Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened?’ Area 41 (3): 350-353

Learning for food

I-Hsien Porter

Global climate change is likely to cause significant changes, or at least greater uncertainty, in human lifestyles. One vulnerable area of our relationship with the environment is food production.

The BBC recently reported that over the past 25 years, rice yields in Asia have fallen 10 – 20% in response to rising temperatures. This trend is expected to continue. Meanwhile, a summer heatwave (a relatively short-term climatic event) has caused the Russian government to ban the export of wheat, with far-reaching impacts for food prices. In this light, some might be concerned for future food security.

However, many small-scale farmers in the Global South have been dealing with adverse climatic conditions and resource scarcity for decades. In a recent paper in Geographical Journal, Lindsay Stringer and others look to these groups to inform countries in the Global North, which are now facing similar challenges.

Many of the strategies employed by farmers in developing countries were specific to particular places, so had limited transferability to other contexts. As a result, Stringer et al. looked at the process-related aspects of farmer’s experiences, rather than those rooted in place.

Farmers who were faced with adversity were found to have much greater political awareness (e.g. of trade agreements). Those responsible for food production in the developed world could learn from the way that other actors have influenced food and farming policies.

Redefining the traditional North-to-South flow of knowledge into a two-way exchange generates a much larger pool of ideas to mitigate and cope with pressures on food production.

“Rice yields to “fall” under global warming”, BBC News, 9th August 2010

Stringer et al. (2008) “Learning from the South: common challenges and solutions for small-scale farming” Geographical Journal 174(3): 235-250

Geography and Global Warming

By Paulette Cully

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the world is on course for the hottest year ever since records began in 1880. January to June temperatures demonstrated the warmest combined global land and sea temperatures since 1880 and June saw the 304th consecutive month where the global surface temperature has been measured to be above the 20th century average. June was also the fourth consecutive month that the standing high temperature mark was surpassed.

The fact that global warming presents an enormous threat to humanity is widely accepted but according to Andrew Sayer writing in the article “Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened?” published in the Area journal, the response from academia, including geography, has been slow. Andrew explores the fact that geographers have expertise in specific processes contributing to global warming in specific places but it appears that geographers have not addressed the larger questions; those of can global warming be prevented and if so is capitalism capable of forestalling it? 

Andrew’s opinion is that of pessimism, believing that the chances of capitalism being greened are slim.  When faced with the challenge of acting against global warming, capitalist states are too dependent on capital to do anything about it and are also too dependent electorally on the middle classes to reduce their consumption. Andrew’s final sentence is to throw this debate open to his fellow geographers. So come on; what do you think?

To read the full global warming article click here

To read the full article Andrew Sayer, 2009, Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened?     Area,  Volume 41, Issue 3,  Pages: 350-353

Accessing local climate records

By Andy Hacket Pain

We hear a lot in the news about climate change, with global scale trends and predictions . This large research effort is underpinned by the historic data for climate change, some of which, for the UK at least, is held by the Met Office.

Much of the primary data is publically accessible, and you can access it from the Met Office website. It is interesting to use the historic weather station data to look back at the climate of your local area over the last few decades; the length of the records vary but some go back over a hundred years.

An easy way to access the data is to copy and then save the data as a .txt file (using Windows notepad for example), then import  the data into a spreadsheet from this file. The data is formatted so that you can easily insert column breaks where needed – your data import wizard should guide you through this.

The data can easily be sorted into months allowing you, for example, to look at temperatures for August (as in the graph above). The results for most locations show a clear warming trend over the last few decades, but also the high variability in climate on a year to year basis. For example, in 1997 in Cambridge, the mean maximum temperature in August (i.e. the mean warmest daily temperature across the whole month) was 26.3°C, but the following year was nearly 4°C  cooler.

Have a look around the rest of the website too- there is a lot of interesting material.

Access Met Office climate data for local weather stations here

Norwegian Problem Solving

By Caitlin Douglas

In exchange for a payment from Norway of US$1 billion, Indonesia has recently pledged to introduce a two year moratorium on deforestation. The action is being undertaken as a climate change initiative. Tropical deforestation releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide but the benefits of maintaining forests extend far beyond carbon sequestration. As  John Kupfler and Scott Franklin describe in the their article in Geography Compass, forests provide many services at the local scale, such as soil stability, erosion control, protection and improvement of air quality, timber and non-timber products. Forests also have important cultural and aesthetic roles.  Whilst Norway’s initiative to take action against tropical deforestation is admirable, and will have tremendous benefits both locally and globally it fails to address what is driving the deforestation in the first place. Kenneth Young notes in his article in Geography Compass that tropical deforestation is often driven by global incentives and policies; therefore, unless these issues are addressed Norway’s initiative may be futile.

Read BBC’s news article

Read Kupfer and Franklin’s article and Kenneth Young’s article in Geography Compass

The human consequences of climate change

Andy Hacket Pain

Over the last few years, there has been much recent media interest in the impacts of climatic warming in the Arctic region, with the Guardian recently reporting new research that demonstrates a strong feedback between sea ice loss and increasing regional temperatures, potentially leading to even more rapid loss of Arctic sea ice.

Studies such these provide important evidence on the global impacts of anthropogenic climate warming, and are often used in high profile campaigns by conservation groups to emphasise the importance of rapid national and international action to reduce carbon emissions.

However, I think we can sometimes be guilty of neglecting the local impacts of climate change. James Ford and others, writing in The Geographical Journal provide a case study examining how climate change in the Arctic impacts on indigenous Inuit populations in Canada. They show that in addition to the rate and nature of environmental change, factors such local traditions and community structure interact to produce a complex picture of vulnerability in these communities.

Despite this being a very locally-based study, work such as this highlights that simply producing good monitoring and prediction capacities is not enough when we are dealing with the impacts of climate change – we must go beyond the pure science and appreciate the complex relationships between society and nature if we are to gain a better understanding of the true human consequences of greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the article in The Guardian

Read the article by Ford et al (2007)