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The Avalanche of Evidence

28 October 2009

The Avalanche of Evidence

 By Gwynne Dyer

The news is bad, and it’s coming in fast. Turn tens of thousands of scientists loose on a problem for two decades, and the results will seem pathetic for the first few years, because it takes time to gather the data – even to build the equipment with which you gather the data. But slowly the flow of data will grow, and at the end of twenty years you can expect major new insights every month or so.

That’s where we are now with climate change. September’s unwelcome news, from the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Britain, was that if fossil fuel use continues on the present trend line, the planet will be an average of 4 degrees C warmer by the 2060s. This contrasts with the prediction of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2007, that we might see 4 degrees C, at the most, by 2100.

This month’s bad news came from the drilling ship JOIDES Resolution (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling), which brought up cores from the ocean bottom containing sediments dating back 20 million years. The news was that when the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was last at 450 parts per million, the average global temperature was 3-6 degrees C hotter than now, and the sea level was 25-40 metres (80-130 ft) higher.

That is bad news because 450 parts per million is where we are hoping to halt the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere this time around. (We are currently at 390 ppm.) All the world’s major governments have agreed in principle that the warming must never be allowed to exceed 2 degrees C, because beyond that we risk runaway warming – and it was thought that 450 ppm would let us stop at that point.

Not so, it would appear, or at least not for long. The leader of the JOIDES research team, Aradhna Tripati of the University of California at Los Angeles, put it bluntly: “What we have shown is that in the last period when CO2 levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today, there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25-40m higher.”

Suspicions that the 450 ppm target is much too high have been growing for some time. Late in 2007 James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, made a public appeal at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union to move to a 350 ppm target.

Hansen’s study of ancient climates had led him to the conclusion that the first time permanent ice appeared on the planet, after a complete absence for tens of millions of years, was when the amount of carbon dioxide fell to 425 ppm some 35 million years ago. His calculations had a possible error of plus or minus 75 ppm, so for safety’s sake he settled on 350 ppm as the long-term target for human stewardship of the atmosphere.

Did that word “stewardship” throw you? Many people instinctively recoil from any direct human intervention in the atmosphere, on the grounds that we don’t know enough to get it right. But when we have already been changing the atmosphere unintentionally for two centuries, since the start of the industrial revolution, it’s a bit late for such qualms. We have already destabilised it, and only we can reverse the changes we have caused.

Hansen even thought that 350 ppm might still be too high, because the “normal” level of CO2 during the 10,000 years of human civilisation, before we began burning fossil fuels, was only 280 ppm. Now JOIDES has given us a more accurate measure of ancient climate, from closer to the present.

By 20 million years ago, almost all the ice on the planet had been lost again, due to a prolonged period of volcanic activity in the Columbia River basin of North America. The carbon dioxide emitted by that activity had raised the average global temperature to 3-6 degrees C above the current level, and all the melted ice had raised the seal level by 25-40 metres. But the actual level of CO2 that caused all that was only 400 ppm.

We will be there in five years, but we must not stay there for very long or history will repeat itself. In reality, we are going to go to at least 450 ppm, and more likely 500 ppm, before we get our emissions under control, and then we will have to commence the long and arduous task of getting the CO2 in the atmosphere down to a level that will preserve our present climate over the long term. That may have to be as low as 300 ppm.

And all through that time, we must prevent the warming from exceeding 2 degrees C, which means that a resort to various methods of geo-engineering to keep the heat down is almost unavoidable. That is what these numbers are telling us, and we would be wise to listen.


To shorten to 750 words, omits paragraph 8. (“Did…caused”)

Of Pandemics and Pork

16 May 2009

Of Pandemics and Pork

 By Gwynne Dyer

We seem to have got away with it this time. The swine flu turned out not to be a global killer, at least not in this first go-round. But we have had a fright, and maybe we should learn something from it.

In 1994, only 10 percent of American pigs lived out their brief lives in vast factory farms. Only seven years later, in 2001, 72 percent did. The percentage is even higher today — and it’s now known that the virus that caused the outbreak in Mexico is a direct descendant of one that was first identified on an industrial-scale pig-raising facility in North Carolina in 1998.

It’s not just pigs. Fewer than three hundred people have died from the “bird flu” virus since it emerged in Asia in 2003, but if it became transmissible directly between human beings it could cause a pandemic that killed tens of millions.

Did the bird flu virus also evolve on a factory farm where hundreds of thousands of chickens are crowded together? Nobody knows, but the fact that most chickens everywhere now live in battery farms certainly enhances the chance of a further mutation that makes the virus transmissible human-to-human. Industrial-scale livestock raising, a relatively recent development, is making lethal pandemics ten times more likely than they used to be.

Ten times? Okay, I’m just guessing, and you won’t find scientists going out on a limb like that because they can’t prove it. Scientists who go farther than the evidence will take them end up being pilloried by their

colleagues: in academe, anybody who exposes a flank is attacked mercilessly by his peers, so the prudent researcher doesn’t give voice to his hunches.

There has only been one major pandemic in the last hundred years, in 1918, and we won’t have the hard numbers to show that pandemics have become ten times more likely until and unless there are ten major pandemics in the next hundred years. But when I was interviewing experts about pandemics five years ago, just after avian flu first emerged, several of them told me off the record that that was precisely what they expected.

They wouldn’t go on the record, of course, so it’s left to journalists like me to say what’s on their minds. That is that the way we are getting most of our meat now is probably going to kill quite a lot of us. Just one more hazard of living in a mass society obsessed with getting maximum output at the lowest cost.

Human beings were hardly prey to quick-killer epidemic diseases at all until they started domesticating animals nine or ten thousand years ago. Living in our original hunter-and-gatherer groups of a hundred or less, we were a poor target for diseases that killed their hosts fast, for they would quickly run out of potential hosts and die off themselves.

However, almost all the animals that human beings domesticated for food — pigs, sheep, goats, cattle and poultry — lived in large herds or flocks. They WERE targets for epidemic diseases, because they had enough individuals to keep passing the disease on.

As the number of people in human societies grew larger — thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then tens of millions — they became potentially vulnerable to similar epidemic diseases. But even though the farmers often lived under the same roof with their animals, passing viruses back and forth, it generally took a long time before some minor mutation enabled the virus to cross the species barrier and thrive in human beings.

During the past several thousand years, major quick-killer epidemic diseases that affect human beings have emerged, on average, only once every few hundred years. But now that we keep most of our livestock in crowded cages for their entire lives, generally living above a cess-pool of their own excrement and exchanging disease pathogens at blinding speed, the speed of evolution of the pathogens has accelerated dramatically.

“With massive concentrations of farm animals within which to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and re-assorting between species at an unprecedented rate,” explained Michael Greger, director of public health at the US Humane Society. The same is true of bird flu viruses, and not just in North America.

The giant corporations that drove most small hog-breeders out of business in the United States — from more than a million farms raising 53 million hogs in 1965 to only 65,000 facilities growing 65 million hogs today — are now active all over the world. In Romania, for example, the number of hog farmers fell from 477,000 to just 52,00 in only four years after the agribusiness giants arrived on the scene in 2003.

The new diseases, and new strains of old diseases to which we have no immunity, will surely come, and not just one, either. We have created the ideal environment to maximise new mutations among the diseases that kill large numbers of people, and we will pay a high price. Unless we get out of factory farming, which does not seem very likely.

But then, pork prices in the United States dropped by one-fifth between 1970 and 2004, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That means that factory farming is saving the average American consumer $29 a year, or about $2.40 a month. What’s the risk of a lethal global pandemic compared to savings like that?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5, 7 and 12. (“Ten…hunches”; “They…cost”; and “With…America”)

Oil Prices: Another Prediction

28 April 2008

Oil Prices: Another Prediction

By Gwynne Dyer

Last week Hamish McRae, one of the world’s best economic journalists, declared in “The Independent” that “Hardly anyone a year ago successfully predicted the rise in the oil price to $120 a barrel –in fact I have not found a single forecast of that.” Regular readers of this column may recall that I predicted oil at over $100 a barrel in April, 2006, and well north of that price in another column in July, 2007.

I am the most modest of men, but I reckon this gives me the right to offer some further forecasts. So I predict that the price of oil will soon fall — a bit. So far, the economies of the “Brics” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are still growing strongly, but the old industrialised economies are definitely heading into a recession, and they still consume most of the oil.

This recession has not actually been caused by the high oil price; the sub-prime mortgage scam is to blame for that. But the recession is likely to drive the demand for oil down far enough to bring the price back down to $100 before long, or even to $85-90. Then in 2009-2010, as the “old rich” economies recover, it will go back up, probably to the $130-$150 range.

The price will rise because demand will recover much faster than supply can grow, if indeed it grows at all. An allegedly giant new oil-field has been found off the coast of Brazil, but even if it lives up to the advertising it is 5-10 years away from large-scale production.

The world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, admits that there is now not enough spare capacity among the Opec (Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries) producers to make any difference. Russia, the biggest non-Opec producer, will probably see production fall this year. And practically everybody else is already pumping flat-out.

So once the recession ends, the price of oil will probably stay well about $100 for most of the time in 2010-2015. But it won’t hit $200, because there will be a steep rise in the supply of non-conventional oil from tar sands, oil shales, and other sources of “heavy oil.”

Even if the moment of “peak oil” is upon us, that would not mean the end of oil; it just means the end of sweet, light crude. The Alberta tar sands are profitable if the price of oil stays over $40 a barrel; at $60, the far larger Venezuelan tar sands are a viable economic proposition; at $80, even the oil shales of the western US are promising.

If the supply goes up, the price goes down. There may be little remaining possibility for increasing the supply of conventional oil, but that is not the case with unconventional oil, of which there is a massive potential supply. At a high environmental cost, of course: on average, the equivalent of two barrels of oil must be burnt to liberate three barrels of oil from the Alberta tar sands.

In a world with a stable climate, ample unconventional oil supplies would bring the oil price down below $100 again, but that’s not the way it’s likely to play out. By 2015, global tolerance for any process that involves high emissions of greenhouse gases is likely to be very low. Indeed, there is likely to be a good deal of pressure to cut back on the consumption even of conventional oil.

Five years ago, global warming was a distant worry in most of the world, and in North America, where the denial industry had its headquarters, it was widely disbelieved. Now it is a high-priority concern in Europe, in the United States (at every level below the White House, where change is coming shortly), and in China, and a rapidly growing worry everywhere else.

Go seven years down the road, and throw in a few dozen more climate-related catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina or the killer heat-wave in Europe in the summer of 2003. What will popular support for burning fossil fuels be in 2015? Not very high, one suspects.

Cutting back on the use of oil — and coal, and gas — will not be a rapid or smooth process, because the potential substitutes are either technologically immature or too expensive. But rising demand and the passage of time will change that, and gradually the use of fossil fuels will fall. Most serious people everywhere now know that it must, if civilisation is to survive.

Several billion people live in countries that are now growing very fast economically, so demand will probably keep the price for conventional oil near the $100 level well into the 2020s, but the political pressure to shut down extra-high-emission unconventional oil production may become irresistible. (That’s why the Alberta tar sands producers now want to replace natural gas with nuclear power as the energy source for freeing the oil from the sand.)

In the still longer run — the 2030s and beyond — the demand for oil will probably fall even further, and with it the price. How do we know that? Because if it hasn’t fallen due to a deliberate switch away from fossil fuels, then global warming will gain such momentum that entire countries are falling into chaos instead. There is more than one way to cut demand.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“If..sands”; and “Cutting…survive”)

Ancestral Bones

15 February 2004

Preserving the Evidence

By Gwynne Dyer

“We should be learning from skeletons, not reburying them,” said Dr. Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, England. “They are the remains of people still contributing to humanity and its knowledge of itself.”

Foley’s remarks were triggered by a recommendation to the British parliament to create a national advisory panel to decide on the return of bones from British museums to various aboriginal groups, especially in Australia and North America. But the case that really mattered was the one before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon, where the eight-year struggle over the fate of Kennewick Man was settled (more or less) in mid-February by a ruling that science is more important than people’s feelings.

There were strong feelings on both sides. “If I could do handstands, I would do handstands,” said Paula Barran, one of eight anthropologists who went to court in 2000 to dispute a US government decision to hand over the archaeological find of the century — an almost complete set of human bones found in the Columbia River in 1996 that were 9,300 years old — to the local Indian tribes for ‘reburial’ without any proper scientific examination.

Many Native Americans, however, feel raped by the judgement. “(The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)…gives tribes the right to prevent the study of remains,” said Rob Roy Smith, lawyer for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “What the 9th Circuit seems to have done is to require the tribes to prove the remains are Native Americans before the statute applies.”

Fair enough, you might reasonably reply. If the bones aren’t really their ancestors, why should they have any right to demand anything? But this is to ignore how mythology has mutated into ideology in the minds of many Native Americans. As far as they are concerned, any ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors, because they have always been there.

The trend for museums to return human remains to the people who care about them has grown fast in recent years, and for the most part it is entirely positive. When Manchester Museum handed over a collection of Aboriginal skulls to the representatives of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action two months ago, it was overdue apology for the cruelty of 19th-century British grave-robbers who dug up the bones of only recently dead Australian Aborigines in an outbreak of amateur anthropology.

The same goes for the recent decision of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to return the bones of Haida Indians that had been dug up by an American expedition to Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands in the early 1900s. So far, so good. But Kennewick Man?

There is no human being on Earth who can say with any confidence who his or her ancestors were 9,300 years ago, or where they lived, or even what language they spoke. The claim that the four tribes who live in the Columbia River basin today are in any meaningful sense the descendants of the middle-aged man who died with a spear in his guts 9,300 years ago on the banks of the Columbia is simply incredible. There has been far too much coming and going in human history, too many invasions and migrations and victories and defeats. So why is the claim made at all?

Many, perhaps most aboriginal peoples have creation myths that explain how they have always had an intimate relationship with the land they now occupy. Yet it is most unlikely that their ancestors always lived where they do now, and in the case of Native Americans it is literally impossible: there were no human beings in the Americas until the first of the migrations across the Bering Straits, probably no more than 14,000 years ago.

In a radical younger generation of Native Americans, however, myth often becomes ideology and dogma. There were no migrations; we really were always here; we are not just the descendants of an early wave of immigrants who eventually got overwhelmed by later waves. It is a position based on pride and desperation, not on history, and as such it is completely understandable. But when it is used as a basis for laying claim to 9,000-year-old-bones and denying scientists access to them, it is not defensible. The court got it right.

We live in an extraordinary period when scientists are finally piecing together the true history of the human species: where we come from, how we spread across the planet, even what kind of animal we really are. It is an important project, and we need all the evidence we can get. It does not rely on the remains of those who have died in the past few hundred years, and those remains should be returned to their people if they can be identified. Normal human respect for the dead demands it.

But handing over truly ancient bones to the people who were the local inhabitants just a couple of centuries ago, as the US Department of the Interior tried to do in 2000, is political cowardice and political correctness run mad. The court made the right call, and with any luck it will establish a lasting precedent.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The trend…Kennewick Man)