Monday, March 8, 2010

The Global Warming Debate

Sunflowers near Chimoio in Mozambique. A perfect example of how to make energy from the sun.

That there is a debate about the nature and severity of Global Warming is good. It keeps everyone on their toes, and makes sure that issues and discrepancies are dealt with as they come up. That is is dominated on one side by pseudo-science, factions that are supported by shadowy "research groups" funded by oil companies, and marginal right-wing proponents that shout loudly with few scientific facts is irrelevant. This debate needs to be played out in the public sphere and mind. Sadly, the whole point of the debate sometimes gets lost.

The main questions seem to be, are humans having an impact on the Earth's climate? Even from some of the more denialist camps, there is some acceptance that this is so. If you fart in a room too much, it does get a bit smelly. It is a direct human impact on the environment. So everyone can agree that at least on this very personal level direct impacts are not just possible but to be expected.

So, by throwing out billions of tons of pollutants like carbon dioxide and that oh-so-smelly gas methane, and cutting down the forests that remove these pollutants, most kindergarten classes would grasp the idea that we are indeed having an impact on our closed system (a much larger room, but finite still). The question is then, what impact are we having, and what impacts can we possibly avoid?

The Earth is a very complex system. Predicting the weather is only about 72% accurate, and that is on a day-to-day basis. A committed reader of this blog may have noticed that I have always stayed away from the term Global Warming, preferring the term Climate Change.

Some of the loudest denialist arguments come from people who suggest that change is the norm for our climate, so why bother changing our behavior? For the last ten thousand years, called the Holocene period, the Earth's crazy climactic behaviour mollified, and has remained within certain parameters that have allowed a stable climate, and many would suggest that it is this stability that allowed our civilization to develop. Before this short little period, things were rather unsavoury. Ice ages, mega-storms and floods, oceans rising and falling, droughts, -pretty much every one of them would spell doom for our way of life. So that sort of change should really be avoided.

So we have gotten a reprieve. So what has made our current system so stable? The truth is we don't know. What we do know is that with the loss of arctic sea ice, the melting of Greenland and other well-documented facts, things are headed for a change. Did we cause this? Scientists, thousands of them, believe we have had a hand in it. Do you need to prove that you can smell up a room?

Climate campaigners have proven that the Earth's climate is changing, and fought from a fringe movement in the 1970s and 80s. They have sharpened their tools by fighting congressmen like James Inhofe. He loves to burst the bubble of the climate change debate, but it's hard to take a man seriously who, according to PBS, has taken more than $572,000 in campaign contributions from big oil companies. That is more than most spokespeople get paid.

I am sure genuine believers exist on both sides, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, changing our behaviour to account for our role in climate change is pretty reasonable even if climate change is not the huge bugbear that many of us believe it to be.

Stop CO2 and other pollutants getting into the atmosphere, use fancy new technology to generate power, plant trees to help clean the air, make cleaner running cars so our kids have better air to breathe and our cities are not health hazards. These are do-able and when scaled up, create a lot of high-end jobs for an economy like the United Sates'. Our kids would be happier, and history will judge us well. Critics say it will cost money. Investing in our better future seems to be money well spent.

The downside of doing nothing, is not sustainable, and I don't mean just environmentally. Our ability to produce food and continue to live at the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to will both diminish. As we run out of oil, and we have not created these very green solutions to replace our energy needs, prices will go up, economies will suffer. Gradually at first. It could be called a recession. But a return to previous prosperity will not happen. My friend Paolo Bacigalupi, a futurist who's book The Windup Girl was chosen last year by Time Magazine as one of the best book of the year calls it a "Contraction". Business as usual becomes like a funeral dirge, driven by buy-out politics supported by the stranglehold of big energy companies and the politicians in their pockets.

The world is changing, China is rising, at the expense of her environment and politics. The only way the western world can succeed in stopping a contraction is to counter with another expansion. It makes health sense, it makes business sense, and it may even help slow Global Climate Change.

If some of the more dire climate predictions are right, a hollow "I told you so" by scientists and researchers will not cut it, but if they are wrong, and we have made a transition out of our coal and oil powered world, energizing our economy while finding a way to live in balance with our planet, then we all win.

Last week I was sitting with some friends who work in sustainable agriculture and green fuels. They were approached by an American industrialist, who is ready to spend one billion dollars supporting green industries like theirs. He made his money is gas and oil in the USA, and over drinks they asked him why he was changing his tack. "I am tired of my young daughter telling me what a big ugly polluter I am, how I am part of the problem, I have to get her off my back!". We are borrowing this place from our kids, and arguments about Global Warming aside, it's time we started acting like it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Internship Position

Environmental Reporting Internship Available

Six months, part-time (no more then 20 hours a week) position working with international film maker and photographer Jeffrey Barbee. Possible travel to Africa, and the possibility of payment and a long-term position.


Internet Based, with the possibility of international travel.


March to October 2010

Duties will include but not be limited to:

Proposal and grant writing for documentary films about the environment. The intern would help refine and present Barbee's proposals to companies, film festivals and funding organizations in both the US and Europe for these documentary films. Other duties will including selling already produced works that Barbee owns the rights to, and assist (if funding is found through the intern's endeavors) in the creation of the material, in Africa, Greenland and elsewhere.

This is an unpaid position that will give the intern experience in the real world of documentary film making as well as: proposals, marketing, selling, editing, presenting, shooting, and exhibiting environmental documentary reportage, writing and multi-media movies. However, IF the intern is successful at raising money above and beyond projected budgets, then the intern will receive a sizable percentage of those sales. So although the position is unpaid, there is the very real chance of income and the certainty of experience in this challenging work environment.

Applicants should have the following skills:

Complete computer competency, able to use skype and conferencing software, MS word, create basic web pages, use twitter, facebook and other social networking systems, a passing knowledge of Photoshop, and hopefully have and be able to use Final Cut Pro 7 on a fast HD-capable Apple computer.
Excellent phone skills.
A very good people person who can dress for movie premiers or a tough day in the bush.
Physically and (at least somewhat) emotionally fit.
Camping experience or an interest in it.
Persistence, someone who can hear "NO" and keep on going.
Investigative and interested in environmental issues.
Able to laugh easily, and plan on the spur of the moment.
A rough knowledge of all aspects of video reporting and production (or an interest in learning)
Travel Ready (passport, no criminal record etc.)

About the film maker:

(click the links for work examples)

Jeffrey Barbee is a photojournalist and film producer who works freelance with the New York Times, the BBC, The UK Guardian, NOS Tv Holland, Smithsonian, Global Post, RTL News, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, the LA Times, National Public Radio, and many others.

Barbee's long term work with the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting has been broadcast in specials on World Focus and PBS's other headline shows, Smithsonian Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and twelve US based newspapers and Magazines, and can be seen here.

He is the Africa At Large reporter and a share-holder in Global Post.

His images and stories have appeared in more than 47 different local and international publications, and his films and short news pieces have been broadcast in nine countries.

He is currently working on a project called Trading Trees.

He is based out of Johannesburg, South Africa.

A typical story for PBS in the USA about forests (as seen on PBS). LINK

Please feel free to contact Mr Barbee for more information

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The End of The Day in Mozambique

Allan Schwarz tends to Baobab seedlings in his nursery at the Mezimbite Forestry Center, outside of Beira, Mozambique.

Its late in the day, and hot. Hot like only the tropics can get after rain. Daniel, Alan Schwarz's assistant manager at Mezimbite, sits across from me, panting in the heat.

He is hot. He lives here. He is not as hot as me. I have lived in the tropics for more than 15 years, but this is too much. I am used to Namibia, to the dry ridiculous heat of the desert. 128 degrees is not that unknown for me. Today its only a hundred. But the humidity. Daniel keeps saying, in his very limited English, "hoo-meeditay! ...ah!" while fanning himself with his T shirt.

He is the perfect companion for a hot, fly-covered tropical evening. Quiet, good natured, friendly and generous with his coffee and smiles. Portuguese is important here in Mozambique. Vital even. I wish mine was better so I could get to know him better. Daniel is clearly a man to be reckoned with. He is whip strong and commands respect, not only because he is in charge but because he leads from the front, always has a smile and treats everyone as his equal, even a hot, bothered tall American like me. He rises early and has the coffee going long before George the cook arrives in the morning at 7.

Today was the first day of sunshine and no rain. OK, some rain but generally not much, and little enough that I was able to meet and interview some of the people who work here at Mezimbite Forest Products. David (last name withheld) comes from the wrong side of the political chaos in Zimbabwe, and worked there as a carpenter. "I never knew how much it matters that we replace the forest that we are using for our wood and timber" he tells me in good English. "Before I would just use wood, even waste a lot of it," he pauses, and looks a bit sad, scratching his chin, "But here, I have learned that we must replace what we use," as a car drives by and I have to pause the video camera, he brightens, "but now we can even get paid for that too, and its important, because I have seen a lot of forest disappear."

I am surprisingly suffering from something I have just put my finger on, prickly heat. Its painful, and feels like I am sitting on a cactus. I remember hearing about it, and maybe searching back in my memory on a trip to Florida to see my aunt I have had this before. I was a very tempestuous and sickly child, so its not unlikely. But its harmless. It spreads like a rash, and if memory serves me (no internet here) it comes from the pores of the skin, or maybe the nerves, or something, but rest assured it is caused by heat, circulation, and something to do with sweat or the lack of it.

Daniel and I sit back, our feet covered in flies, excellent coffee in our hands, and enjoy each other's company. There are so few moments like this. Make no mistake, this has been one hell of a job, replete with fights, struggles and successes. But sometimes these special quiet times mean more than everything.

Tomorrow I go back to Johannesburg, to my life and my flat and the struggle to make it all work together, but for now we are uncomfortably content, working on something we love, Daniel and I, and hoping against hope that whatever we are doing will be a success.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Saving A Little, To Save a Lot

Domingo Chinamasa, 41, clears bush to plant more Cassava. This low-nutrition crop is easy to grow, but also strips the soil of nutrients. Thousands of hectares of cleared forest have been replanted with Cassava in central Mozambique, leaving the land unproductive after a few short years.

It is the fifth day of rain and wild weather here on the flood plain (emphasis on flood) near the Mozambiquan city of Beira. Its still wet, and rather miserable, but in between downpours I have been able to get into the bush and continue the work I am doing.

Allan Schwarz, who runs the Mezimbite Forest Center, is my host at the moment. If you see my last post, you will know that he is working to return forests to their original glory, and it is tough work.

Schwarz runs the largest nursery within the Miombo biome. What that means is that he has the largest selection of seedlings of indigenous tree species in more then ten African countries, including Congo, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana, Angola and Malawi.

Last night, as we drove through the rain back to his roadside camp and tree nursery, he explained that the work he does has been recognized around the world. Schwarz is often the keynote speaker at talks on sustainable forestry from Switzerland to the Americans, and yet his project is tiny compared to the destruction visited on the forests of southern Africa. "I do not even replant or save 1% of the forests just in Mozambique, much less the rest of Africa."

It's late, and the road is dark and wet. We dodge potholes and hard-to-see pedestrians. His back hurts from years of rough driving. He is clearly upset. "And yet my project is held up as a paragon of possibility! Its ridiculous! There is no political will, there is no social change happening, just a lot of lip service and empty promises."

He is right. From the man on whom so many depend for the hope of forests, his tirade rings too true. People simply don't care, and that means you, that means me. There is not enough change happening at a fast enough pace to keep up with the destruction. Our natural world is fragmenting, has been fragmented, and our local micro-climates already show the strain. But he is also wrong.

His mistake comes because he thinks, in his well of reality, that people do not care. But they do. There is a growing movement of people that are upset that forests are gone and not being replaced. There are folks working to plant trees, working to improve their environment all over the world, right now. I saw thousands of them in Copenhagen at the Climate Conference.

The numbers are growing, and at some point a critical threshold will be reached that pushes these concerns to the front pages of our newspapers, gets them debated in Congress and Parliaments in every country. By that time it may be too late. It may already be too late, but the truth is that as long as there are seed banks and small forests left, as long as the Allan Schwarzes of this world keep fighting to save just a little from what was so much, there will be the chance to change it all around.

Schwarz sees what little is being done, but future generations will look back at him and those who championed his causes and judge him for what huge things he succeeded in doing at a time when it was not fashionable, not supported and not valued.

From the muddy reaches of developing countries to the hills behind your house, people are struggling against un-imaginable odds to save little pieces, little forests, little stores of indigenous knowledge and genetic material. By saving these little places, by their small successes, they may eventually be saving our future.