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© Pascal Guyot / AFP

Climate change

French seaside resort heading under the waves

Palavas-les-Flots is a popular seaside resort in southern France, one of several built in the 1960s as part of a government programme to develop tourism along the western Mediterranean seaboard. But the town, like others in the region, now faces disaster from the slow but sure rising sea levels and the coastal erosion exacerbated by mass tourism.

von Jade Lindgaard

On a roundabout on the avenue lining the Mediterranean seafront at Palavas-les-Flots, a seaside holiday resort close to the town of Montpellier in southern France, a notice board sets out the local municipality’s rules for „better living together“.

These include the wearing of „correct“ clothing in town, and notably shoes, the exhortation to not ride mopeds or motorbikes on the pavement, and to not indulge in loud behaviour – because „noise is a form of pollution and aggression“. But it makes no recommendation that holidaymakers leave their cars behind in favour of walking or using public transport, nor does it urge property developers to stop building on the remaining plots of land between the apartment buildings standing just a few metres from the seafront.

This major resort of the Languedoc region lies on a narrow sandy strip of land about 30 kilometres long that stands as a barrier between small lagoons to the north and the open Mediterranean Sea on its south side. Once a small fishing port, the permanent population of just more than 6,000 is bloated by tens of thousands of tourists during the summer months, largely accommodated in sprawling modern apartment buildings that overlook the beaches and a marina with more than 1,000 berths.

Nowhere along the avenue Saint-Maurice, which is one of the principal residential arteries of Palavas-les-Flots, is there any attempt to draw public attention to coastal erosion, nor to the issue of climate change. But already, in 1982, during an exceptional storm, the sea swept inland for a distance of about 50 metres from the beach. Now, finding passers-by to talk about the threat of flooding appeared to be a vain hope. It might be off-season, but the only pedestrian to be met along the avenue, alive with vehicles and motorbikes, was a Yorkshire Terrier, scurrying along with its head bowed.

But out on the jetty was a woman who said she remembered that last winter the seawater reached the roundabout on the main avenue. She pointed at the low walls made of wood that surround the entrances to the houses along the sandy seafront, still showing the stains of water.

In 2012, the French public agency for the management of surface and sub-surface resources and risks, the BRGM (or „French geological survey“, in English), carried out a study of the vulnerability to sea flooding of the coastline around Palavas-les-Flots. In their modelling projection of the effects on the town of rising sea levels, they notably took into account the events of 1982. They found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate and, as a result, that global warming increases above a further 2°Celsius, the consequences for Palavas-les-Flots by 2100 will be considerable. These include saltwater pollution of coastal aquifers, land loss, the disappearance of the beaches (and the entire commercial activity dependent upon them), and a modification of the lagoons that lie behind the town.

“Palavas-les-Flots lies on a low-lying sandy base which has already encountered problems from coastal erosion, like a large part of the Languedoc region’s coast“, said Gonéri Le Cozannet, a BRGM engineer specialised in coastal erosion risks. „The vulnerability of these beaches to marine submersion is already high during storm conditions. Climate change will aggravate this.“

The rise in the sea level at Palavas-les-Flots currently averages three millimetres per year, a rate that is impossible to recognise with the naked eye. But it compares with an estimated average annual rise over the previous 6,000 years of one millimetre per year. This relative surge in sea levels accentuates the risk of erosion caused by heavy swells, notably during storms. The risk has become a major problem because of the recent artificial development of the natural coastline, and also the depletion of the amount of sediment that spills into the Mediterranean from the south-running Rhône river as a consequence of the construction of dams along its course.

“When one looks at the retreat of the Atlantic or Mediterranean coastlines, they suffer from the effects of erosion and storms“, said Éric Chaumillon, a researcher in coastal marine geology at the University of La Rochelle in south-west France. „The contribution made by the rise in the sea level is today very little with regard to the sedimentary dynamics. But in the long-term the effect is real. It is simply a question of timescale.“

The more global temperatures climb, the more the glaciers will melt into the oceans.Meanwhile, the more that beaches suffer from erosion, the lower they lie, and the more the sea rises the more the beaches erode. In Palavas-les-Flots, if the sea rises by 30 centimetres during a storm, the inland flooding will be significantly more extensive, while if the sea rises by a metre the whole of the town centre would be under water.

According to estimations produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that works under the auspices of the United Nations, sea levels will rise by 60 centimetres between now and the year 2100 if global warming increases during that period by an extra 2°C.

In Palavas-les-Flots and the neighbouring coastline, a scientific programme involving dozens of engineers, researchers and administrative officials with the local authorities of the Hérault département (county) is underway to monitor and counter the very real effects of coastal erosion: cameras have been set up to track the erosion of beaches, which is regularly measured, studies have been launched into the effects of storms, prospecting for new sand reserves is underway, along with modelling of the effects locally of climate change. While Palavas-les-Flots is not the most threatened site, it is strategically important because of its location within the surrounding lagoon- and lake-dotted Aigues-Mortes gulf which has a fragile eco-system.

But the scientific programme concerns the whole of the beaches lining the small towns in the same zone. „It is extremely important“, said Alexandre Richard, appointed by the Hérault  local authorities to coordinate the coastal study. „The scale of the management of the natural environment dominates that of administrative management.“

A mayor with his head in the sand

In 2008, the most eroded beaches of Palavas-les-Flots and those of nearby Carnon, about five kilometres further east along the strip and a favourite spot for day-trippers from Montpellier, about a 20-minute drive away, were recharged with a total of one million cubic metres of sand. The supplies were taken from the broad width of sands at the pointe de l’Espiguette, at the east-most point of the Aigues-Mortes gulf, where sediment continues to accumulate. The three-month operation cost 8 million euros, but the problems have since returned.

It took just seven years for the popular Petit-Travers beach in Carnon to find itself back to the same depleted level of sand from before the recharge. In Pavalas-les-Flots, about half of the new sand has already disappeared. „The recharge is the only solution that allows for gaining time to raise awareness among [local] populations about long-term strategies“, said Alexandre Richard. „But it’s no miracle solution, because sand reserves are not unlimited and it costs a lot.“

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Richard is among those who advocate a soft approach to restoring the beaches and dunes, which includes methods like erecting units of wooden fence protection against wind erosion, beach drainage, and armouring the sands with geotextile defences. Such procedures, and notably recharging eroded sites with new sand, were employed in a lengthy operation to restore the Sète lido, a regularly-eroded stretch of sandy coastline several kilometres long between the towns of Sête and Marseillan, west of Pavalas-les-Flots. The cost of the programme was 54 million euros.

palvais03_en.jpg

Pascal Guyot / AFP

Faced with its own problems of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, the Netherlands has access to significant undersea sand reserves in the North Sea and the Channel, above an ancient continental plateau. But the Mediterranean Sea, which during the glacial period 21,000 years ago was 120 metres lower than today, is marked by very deep areas of seabed. Meanwhile, if global warming increases by 6°C, the Mediterranean could eventually rise by about another 100 metres or more.

Like many coastal areas, Palavas-les-Flots must adapt to a rise in sea levels that cannot now be avoided. The problems facing the resort are not down to climate change alone, but arise in part from the construction of coastal resorts on the dune banks of the Gulf of Lion. „In this region, most of the coastline is especially vulnerable to climate change“, said Yann Balouin, a geologist and oceanographer with the BRGM. „One of the reasons for this situation is that the lines of dune were destroyed with the building of houses and roads beginning in the 1960s.“

Before the development of the coastal region, there were mostly only small fishing villages along the coast between Sète and Marseille to the east. But in 1963 the so-called „Mission Racine“ was launched, named after Pierre Racine, the senior French civil servant in charge of the government programme to develop the western French Mediterranean coastline, centred on that of the Languedoc-Rousillon region, with the building of tourist resorts and transport infrastructures where once were sands and swamps. Press reports at the time hailed the emergence of a „new Florida“, and the seaside resorts which sprung up are today among the best-known and most popular in France, including La Grande-Motte, Cap d’Agde, Port-Leucate and Port-Barcarès.

Before the construction programme began, Palavas-les-Flots was already a popular spot, but at a far more modest scale than today. For under the Mission Racine, the town’s seafront became lined with large modern buildings within just a few years. The name Palavas-les-Flots became synonymous with summertime seaside tourism, albeit much less chic than the French Riviera, with its facilities adapted to group tourism and children’s holiday camps.

Michel Houellebecq sings “Plein été”, his wry take on Palavas-les-Flots in summertime, when tens of thousands of tourists gather there every year.

French novelist Michel Houellebecq penned a song dedicated to the town in 2000, entitled Plein été(height of summer). The lines, translated here from the original French, went:

“Everything oozes flatness, whiteness, finiteness/An Algerian sweeps the floor of ‘The Dallas’/ Opens the sliding glass windows, his look is pensive/On the beach are a few condoms/A new day comes up over Palavas.“

Today, tourism is by far the major source of revenue for the town, which is developing a new additional line of business in hosting conferences for professional groups at its Phare de la Méditerranée, a 43-metre-tall observation tower (a converted water tower in service until 1997), complete with apartments, conference rooms, and a panoramic restaurant. The kitchens of the restaurant are run by a former winner of the French version of MasterChef, while one of the shareholders is former French footballer Vincent Candela.

After the mushrooming of resorts under the Mission Racine, the environmental consequences emerged, prompting misguided efforts to protect the beaches. These included artificial wave-breakers, and also the laying of lines of barriers made up of rocks which stretch into the sea, perpendicular to the beach, like dark fingers. But while such measures provided some local defences against the sea, they blocked the migration of sediment, aggravating the problems of erosion along the Gulf of Lion coastline.

Christian Jeanjean, the mayor of Pavalas-les-Flots since 1989, member of the conservative Les Républicains party and a former local Member of Parliament for the wider region, denies any existence of a threat from rising sea levels. „We’ve always had a bit of water when there have been storms“, he said, speaking to Mediapart in his vast office at the town hall. „The rise of water levels has been around for 70 years. I can’t say that it’s particularly evident.“ Holding up large-sized colour photos, he argued that the local beaches are in fact growing with sand to the point that it is now invading the town. „We don’t know where to put it anymore“, he said, adding that he would like to see a photo that demonstrates the reality of coastal erosion, jokingly comparing himself to being „like Thomas the Apostle“.

Asked whether he had read the scientific report on the projections of the possible submersion of the town due to the effects of climate change, Jeanjean replied, „I haven’t heard of it“. Did he agree that climate change will necessarily cause a rise in sea levels? „There have been periods of warming and cooling over the last thousands of years“, he answered. „I am a little sceptical if I’m told that over 50 years there’s a change in climate.“ Asked whether he contested the existence of climate change, he said: „No, but before the happening of what you talk about, there will be catastrophes everywhere.“

“We’re going to keep Pavalas natural, and without changes of a nature to hinder nature“, continued Jeanjean. „I am conscious of the problem of climate change, but concerning the rise of water levels Palavas is not for the moment affected.“ At the end of the interview, the mayor offered gifts of a bottle of ‘Pavalos-les-Flots’ perfume, a key ring, and stickers in the form of a fish, capping a somewhat surreal exchange.

While mayor Jeanjean appeared happy to adopt the proverbial position of sticking his head in the sand, a study published in the review Nature Climate Change in February 2016 and co-signed by 22 scientific researchers involved in climate change studies from seven different countries gave a stark warning, underlined by modelling graphics, of the urgency for political initiatives for the vast long-term future of the planet. „Here, we argue that the 20th and 21st centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context, including the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next 10 millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist“, they wrote in their introduction to the study, entitled Consequences of 21st-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. „This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies – not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.“

That implies taking action now to counter problems that are not yet apparent, which is a disturbing prospect but also an exciting one – no less so than developing mass tourist resorts on strips of sand and swamps.

© Ted Aljibe / AFP

Climate change

The Philippines: Abandoned

The Philippines is one of the countries most affected by sea level rise. This will be costly, yet no help is forthcoming from the big industrialised nations – who disproportionately contributed to the changing climate which is causing the sea to rise.

von Jacque Manabat

In the capital, Manila, the sea level has risen by more than 80 centimetres over the last few decades. In Legazpi City, the increase is 30 centimetres and in southern Davao Bay it’s 24 centimetres.

The rising seas affect almost the whole population, because most Filipinos live by the water: the country is made up of 7,000 islands, with a total coastline spanning some 36,000 kilometres. The islands are flat, and the bays reach far inland. This makes them more vulnerable to rising sea levels. “In addition, we get tropical typhoons. If we do not take fast-paced measures, our agriculture and our food are at risk“, says Analiza Solis, an expert on the Philippine climate.

According to a 2012 study by the Asian Development Bank, the Philippines is one of the five countries most affected by climate change in the world. The coastal inhabitants in the east are most affected, as the prevailing wind pushes water up into the island’s bays.

The fifth world climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea level rise will accelerate. This will have devastating consequences for the Philippines. Higher water levels in the bays will mean that typhoons do more damage, and already around 20 of the tropical storms rage across the country every year.

According to a study by the environmental protection organization WWF, more than 13 million Filipinos will have to be relocated from the coastal areas. Even now, the floodwaters are reaching areas that have never been flooded before. The most affected are poorer Filipinos, who often live in condominiums which collapse even in light storms.

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, struck the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan destroyed rice stocks. Boats and fishing facilities were devastated. Many people had no access to food, and an estimated 6 million people in the Visayas region were displaced.

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Major climatic changes also affect the animal world. The Tubbataha reef on the island of Palawan is a valuable habitat for seabirds. But the island is slowly disappearing – since it was first measured in 2004 it has shrunk from 1.5 to 1.1 hectares.

The United Nations World Climate Council says that sea level rise could disrupt crop growth, and flood cornfields which could spread Dengue fever through the standing water. But to this day, the Philippines have no response against the threats to humans and animals. They have no resources to protect against these dangers. And the international community is doing little to help the first victims of climate change.

 

“We have not seen money from rich countries to help us adapt. We cannot go on. This is not life when we have to run away from storms, “says Naderev Saño, who represents the Philippines at the international UN conferences on climate change. Every destructive tropical storm costs his country two percent of the gross domestic product, and another two percent has to be put into reconstruction afterwards.

For a developing country like the Philippines, with almost 100 million citizens spread over thousands of islands, it is an unsolvable challenge to relocate those that will be worst affected. Storms are already transforming public schools into evacuation centers, which provide shelter to hundreds of displaced families. When the floodwaters subside, they return to the coasts to re-start their existence. They say they need to find food — and have no choice.

© Noel Celis / AFP

Climate change

A village on the edge of the world is disappearing

In the Philippines, sea level rise – relative to the height of the land – is greater than in any other region of the world, according to our data. This means that the frequent typhoons inflict even more damage, and threaten people like Pepe and Soledad Cabasag.

von Jacque Manabat

In the calm before a storm, fisherman Pepe Cabasag nailed boards to his old house. Made of wood and aluminium, he wanted to protect his house and himself from the approaching typhoon. Hours later, the storm arrived – whipping wind gusting through the village of Caroan. The village is in the northern Philippines, in the province of Cagayan.
Cabasag is deaf and visually impaired, so he could neither see nor hear the monstrous storm ravaging the village. But he could feel how strong the wind was when it knocked him off balance. His wife Soledad dragged him inside. The two crossed themselves and crawled into their bed, praying that the typhoon would not destroy their little house. They were praying all night. The typhoon raged for hours, with howling gusts and torrential rain smashing the picturesque village. Water leaked from the ceiling of their house, the roof in tatters.
It was windy in the morning. They crawled out of the remains of their hut, collected what they could still find, and set about repairing it.

Three typhoons hit their community every year, on average. “Sa awa ng Diyos, andito pa kami!” says Soledad: Because of the grace of God we have survived. Pepe is a fisherman in Gonzaga Cagayan, in the northeast of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. He catches oysters to sell at the local market. The sea feeds them; providing them with fish, crabs and prawns. But now it has become an enemy.
The majority of the 40 kilometre-long coastline of the region is located on the Babuyan Sea Ridge. Nature is heavenly here. There are 139 acres of beach, 69 acres of mangrove forests and 348 acres of coral reefs. The province of Cagayan is also one of the regions most affected by monsoon rain and storms. According to the Philippine Institute of Geology, these coastal residents are constantly threatened by floods, erosions and landslides. Sometimes one typhoon is followed immediately by another. In the summer of 2015 the north of the Philippines, including the province of Cagayan, was hit by three typhoons. They brought destruction and flooding.

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After every storm, the inhabitants have a Sisyphean task – they have to repair the damaged houses before another one strikes. Because they can’t relocate, they rebuild on the same bit of land where the storm tore up their house. At least, they do if the land is still there. More than ten hectares have been lost to the sea; around 100 concrete houses, nipa huts and small buildings that were standing ten years ago are no longer visible, sunk by the rising sea.
One of the lost buildings was the Brgy Caroan Elementary School, where teacher Roselyn Campano was once a student. She remembers that the school was more than a kilometre from the coast. Today its disappeared into the water. “The sea has eroded it,” says Campano. She is now teaching at another elementary school and is afraid for the youth in her village.
Campano takes pictures after every storm that hits the residential areas. She has watched an average of five houses every year get washed into the sea. “My favorite motif is the sunset. I have tears in my eyes when I think that our village will soon be eradicated from the map forever,” she says.

Gonzaga’s mayor, Marilyn Pentecostes, says, “We hope that Congress and the government will help protect our people, for example with a dam.” The rising sea level is one man-made threat. The other was shown by an American study in which scientists predicted that areas in the North of the Philippines, where magnetite and black sand are mined, will continue to sink and in 30 to 70 years will be totally submerged.

Rising seas and sinking land: The people of Cagayan face a double threat.

© unsplash.com / Josefin Brosche Hagsgård

Climate change

Where the harbours are drying out

The sea level is rising everywhere in the world, except along the coasts of Finland and Sweden. But the sea is still rising here; it's just that the land is rising faster.

von Jòn Bjarki Magnússon



 

“We should be pretty safe for now“, says Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, when talking about the effects of sea level rise in his home country. While global sea level is currently rising at an average of three millimeters per year Finland´s landmass is rising three to nine millimeters per year. In Scandinavia, the so called post-glacial uplift has been ongoing for ten thousand years or since the pressure from the huge weight of the glaciers was lifted off the land at the end of last glacial period.

“Globally sea level rises by about three millimeters per year in the last decade, whereas the land uplift, the post-glacial uplift in Scandinavia for example, reaches up to nine millimeters per year, so it is about three times faster than the sea level is rising at the maximum“, says Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University and Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. „That is why many places, especially around Scandinavia, experience relative sea level drop.“

The fact that the land in Finland is rising at the same rate as the sea or even faster means that sea level is dropping everywhere along the coastline. The same goes for Finlands neighboring country, Sweden, where land is rising at similar rates. This is causing problems along the coastlines of these countries such as for the shipping industries in the area. „The conditions for sea transportation in the area is getting more tricky“, says Sven Knutsson, professor of Soil Mechanics at Luleå University of Technology.

Fennoscandian land uplift (mm/yr) relative to the centre of the Earth. Land is rising 9 mm per year where the center of the glacier was but only 1-2 mm at the old margins, for example by the west coast of Norway. (Finnish Geospatial Resarch Institute.)

The port of the town of Luleå in northern Sweden is one of the biggest in the country when it comes to shipping goods and the biggest in terms of tons passing through. An easy and open access to the Baltic Sea is fundamental for the large iron ore industry and other industries in the area. But now it is being threatened.

“The land rise itself is creating a more shallow port“, says Henrik Vuorinen, the managing director for the port of Luleå in Sweden. Vuorinen describes how the port, which was built in the mid seventies, is getting to shallow for the larger ships that are coming into the port nowadays. „During these last forty years, the land has risen by approximately half a meter due to the post-glacial rebound.“

This is why the town of Luleå is working on a project to deepen its port so that bigger ships will be able to freight goods through there. „We plan to make a rather large dredging operation to deepen the fairway into Luleå“, says Vuorinen who hopes that the new and deeper harbor will be ready by 2023. The so called Iron Port Project, which is partly financed by the European Union, will cost about 1.7 billion Swedish crowns.

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Luleå is a town in northern Sweden highly affected by the post glacial uplift that has been ongoing for last ten thousand years.

 

Drying lakes

But the shallowing sea water in the Baltic Sea is not the only thing worrying people in the area, says Sven Knutsson, professor of Soil Mechanics at Luleå University of Technology. Swedes are known for enjoying a swim in their fresh water lakes during the hot summer months but inhabitants of Luleå and surrounding areas are now worried about their lakes. As the the land rises they slowly become smaller and shallower. Knutsson describes how grass is already growing in these shallow lakes making them more dirty and less attractive than before.

“It becomes more of a muddied terrain instead of this open free space it used to be with its clear water“, Knutsson says adding that there is an ongoing discussion amongst the locals on what can be done about this. „There is a very strong debate in our city if the city should make some measures in order to keep the water surface free which is of course very expensive and they would be fighting against nature and loose anyway.“ Other things people are concerned with is the constant growth of the numerous small islands in the Baltic Sea. „Islands which were separated with water earlier are now connected“, says Knutsson.

Finland is gaining new land

Across the Baltic Sea people are facing different problems. Ostrobothnia makes up a land area in Western Finland where floods have become more common due to land rise. Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, describes how land is rising faster by the coastline than further east which is causing rivers to tilt. „The big rivers flow from the east to the Gulf of Bothnia, and because of the land is rising more in the west than in the east, it is tilting“, he says adding that this can cause big river floods especially during spring time when the rivers are full of melting snow water.

Another more positive effect people in Finland are experiencing due to land rise is all the extra land that is being added to the coastline. „Finland is gaining seven hundred hectares every year due to this uplift“, says Vermeer, stressing that a very thin strip is added to the western coastline of Finland every year. „And after a generation or so it is noticeable that there is more land than on old pictures.“ Newly added land is by default owned by the state but people owning land adjoining it can claim it. This has sometimes caused a stir between neighbors claiming the same land with such issues ending up in courts.

Although the inhabitants of Finland and Sweden do not have to worry about the effects of sea level rise for now it is highly likely that will change in the near future. As the atmosphere warms the sea level will likely continue to rise at accelerating rates, says Vermeer. „As temperatures go up the sea level rise will increase further and even Finland won´t be safe after that.“

Climate change

Is Paris burning?

Laurence Tubiana was the French ambassador for international climate negotiations in Paris 2015 and is now CEO of the European Climate Foundation. For her, the international commitments are showing striking results

von Laurence Tubiana

When the French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump jointly celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution and commemorated the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice on 14 July 2016, Macron highlighted an issue closely interlinked with the future of the free world and the fight against terrorism: climate change.

Laurence Tubiana, Chefin der European Climate Foundation

Laurence Tubiana, Chefin der European Climate Foundation

Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation

When the French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump jointly celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution and commemorated the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice on 14 July 2016, Macron highlighted an issue closely interlinked with the future of the free world and the fight against terrorism: climate change.

In light of President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Macron emphasized the importance of the agreement as a key instrument to secure a stable future for the citizens and the economies of this world in their bilateral conversations.

With his focus on the Paris Agreement, Macron joins a long list of world leaders, both political and economic, who have reinforced their support of the agreement again and again over the past weeks and months – not least at the recent G20 summit. Still, given the weight of the US on the global stage, many still wonder whether „we’ll always have Paris“.

The political direction suggests we will. More than just an international treaty, the Paris Agreement was designed to be a catalytic force in the global economy. It was intended to provide investors and businesses with a clear signal on future direction of economic development. Less than two years since it was officially adopted in December 2015, the results are striking.

At the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly stated his intention for China to become a world leader in climate change mitigation, and around fifty countries have ratified the Paris Agreement since the US elections last November. But the place to look for the answer to this question is not only high-level politics. The last weeks and months have demonstrated that cities, regions and the real economy are pulling in the same direction.

Since 195 countries, including the EU, approved the agreement in Paris, big coal projects have been stalling globally – in Australia, the power company Engie decided to close the world’s most polluting coal plant and in Germany there are plans to phase out the majority of its coal plants in the coming decades. China has slashed its coal growth and many coal projects have been cancelled in India. Coal-fired plant construction globally decreased by 62% in the past two years, bringing the well-below 2˚C temperature limit within reach. As a result, global greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector have flatlined for the third year in a row.

A major game changer has been the continuous drop in prices of reneable energy generation, with new record lows on a monthly basis. It is expected to become the cheapest source of electricity in G20 countries by 2030, and it already is in some regions today.

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Since the inception of the Paris Agreement and spurred on by the air pollution crisis in cities across the world, car manufacturers are increasingly turning towards electric and hybrid vehicles, with India announcing plans for a 100% electric car fleet by 2030, Volvo announcing to only sell electric or hybrid cars as of 2019, and France’s new climate plan to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040. Such developments both in the transport sector and other economic sectors harbour unprecedented business opportunities for those ready to drive the transition to a new reality.

The Paris Agreement has entered turbulent waters since the US presidential election. But in spite of ordering agencies to row back on America’s once ambitious climate policies, at the state level the country continues to invest in renewables and drive low-carbon innovation in areas such as battery storage. Moreover, cities and regions have become a key actor on climate action, as they experience the impacts first hand and will have to drive implementation of new systems and infrastructure on the ground. To underline their commitment to the Paris Agreement, mayors, governors, businesses, investors and university leaders recently published their „We’re still in“ coalition, and the state of California is preparing a Global Climate Action Summit for non-state actors in 2018.

But while these actions have brought the Paris Agreement’s objective to limit global temperature increase to under 2 degrees celsius within reach, all work is not done. Even as the low-cabon transition continues, the considerable gap between current emissions trajectories and a pathway to 1.5° remains. Collaboration between countries to establish their pathways to climate neutrality in 2050 will be key to closing this gap and to driving investment into existing technology as well as into the research and development necessary for the new innovations that will be vital to our collective success.

The political shifts that have occured during 2016 are certainly testing the resilience of the Paris Agreement, but the evidence so far suggests that it is holding strong. This was demonstrated most recently by 19 of the 20 leaders of the biggest economies worldwide when they declared at the G20 summit in Germany that the Paris Areement is irreversible – leaving Trump isolated from the group on this front. And somehow ironically, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has actually catapulted climate change high up on the public and political agenda.

However, there are still considerable challenges, and all countries – particularly Europe – will have to ratchet up existing efforts to reach the Paris objective. If Europe wants to reclaim its role as a leader of international efforts to curb climate change, it will need to show that it is able to promote strong and coherent ambition in its own laws.

The months to come will be an opportunity to show that no single country can sow division among a united group of nations working together for everyone’s benefit. The UN climate change conference in Bonn (COP23) and the international climate summit in Paris hosted by Macron will be the next big moments for the world’s leaders to prove to their citizens that they are taking their futures and their security seriously, and to underline their ambiton with concrete action.

© Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

Climate change

Carbon pricing could stop climate change

Ottmar Edenhofer is a climate scientist and head of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin. He says we must raise the price of carbon to promote zero emission technologies and to generate revenue for the poor.

von Ottmar Edenhofer

Climate change could hardly be reversed at this point. But it can be slowed down. One possible means with which international climate policy could accomplish this is carbon pricing. As an instrument, carbon pricing is effective because it operates at three levels: it provides incentives for zero carbon technologies, it punishes the use of fossil fuels, and it generates revenue.

Klimaexperte Ottmar Edenhofer

Klimaexperte Ottmar Edenhofer

Thomas Trutschel/photothek.net

If we want to achieve the two-degree-target with high probability, the atmosphere can only absorb another 800 gigatons of CO2, in total. However, the Earth still harbors about 15,000 gigatons of CO2 in the form of fossil fuels. This means that at least 40 per cent of the Earth’s oil, 40 per cent of the gas and, especially, 80 per cent of the coal will have to remain in the ground.

Nonetheless, many countries are still relying on the use of coal, which stands by far as the world’s cheapest source of energy. Moreover, the use of coal, oil and gas on a global scale is subsidies by the countries with an estimated US$150 per ton of CO2, if all externalities, such as negative health impacts, are included. Thus, the political and economic challenges are immense.

In a first step, as has been shown by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), huge progress could be made by dismantling the exorbitant coal subsidies. Through this measure alone people in 70 countries of the world could gain universal access to drinking water, in 60 countries to sanitation, and in 50 countries to electricity over the course of the next fifteen years—provided that the money presently going to coal subsidies was diverted to the construction of these infrastructures. At the same time, this measure would function as a poverty alleviation program.

The industrialized countries would likewise benefit from carbon pricing. In particular the finance ministers—even if they do not care much about climate policy—stand to benefit from this regime. A group of U.S.-American Republicans, for example, proposed the introduction of a carbon tax to Donald Trump. After all, if the president’s infrastructure plans proved to exceed the allocated budget, Trump may possibly warm up to a carbon tax. Finally, similar to an eco tax, a carbon tax can be used to lower other taxes, such as income taxes or capital gains taxes. It could also be used to improve the public transport system.

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A suitable forum for promoting carbon pricing internationally would be the group of the 20 major economies (G20), since climate protection stopped long ago being a topic only extending to the environment. Moreover, the current political climate appears more favorable than ever to the introduction of a carbon price: Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has expressed her support of the carbon tax, as has the president of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. Even in the financial sector, Mark Carney, head of the British Central Bank, is proposing a carbon price.

Last but not least, China—the largest emitter of greenhouse gases—has announced that it will launch the world’s largest emissions trading scheme in 2017. Together with Europe, the People’s Republic could create the world’s largest carbon market. If this was to happen, the turnaround of international climate policy would be as irreversible as climate change is today.

Ottmar Edenhofer is the director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), chief economist at the Potsdam-Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of the Economics of Climate Change of the Technical University Berlin.

Climate change

Healthy soils might save the climate

Ute Scheub has carried out a global investigation into farmers who regenerate humus on their land, and found that fertile soils can reduce the CO2 content to safe levels. Scheub pleads for diversified and natural crops.

von Ute Scheub

Ending the climate crisis is possible within a few decades. The solution is literally at our feet: nature can, with the miracle of photosynthesis, take carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide back to where it originates — into the ground. New studies confirm: only one per cent more humus on global soils would be enough to reduced the CO2 content to largely safe levels.

There is too much carbon, the base of all life, in the air and too little in the ground — due to deforestation and agro-industrial practices that release it and let it oxidize to CO2. At least one quarter of soil globally is already damaged. Carbon is the main component of humus on which the life cycles of all plants, animals and humans depend. Without humus there is no food and no life. Finish, end, out.

Humus formation, however, takes carbon from the CO2 supersaturated atmosphere. The initiative www.4p1000.org, which was launched by the French agricultural minister at the climate summit in Paris, demonstrates with reference to the UN climate council IPCC and its figures that with only four per thousand of humus per year the global new emissions could be neutralised. Humus also makes the soil fertile and species-rich, protects it against droughts and floods, renews groundwater and drinking water, promotes healthy plants, animals, and people, regenerates the small water cycle and thus entire landscapes, drives back desertification and desolation, and creates millions of meaningful jobs. A win-win-win solution.

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How? Through regenerative agriculture — an ecosystems  approach that actively supports the regenerative powers of nature and improves soils, air, water, biodiversity, food sovereignty, health and justice. Its methods include plough-less soil tillage, permaculture, Terra Preta, holistic pasture management, agro-forestry systems, indigenous forest gardens, woodland pastures and more. We can build up humus if we no longer plow the soil but directly sow and always cover it with intermediate crops and green manures; if we compost organic waste with vegetable carbon to produce black earth (“terra preta”); if we keep livestock under trees or on rotating pastures (“holistic management of pasture”). Grassland makes up about 40 per cent of the global land surfaces and therefore has a very high potential to fix CO2. Also deserts and desolate landscapes can be regenerated as the Loess Plateau in China shows or the Demeter project Sekem in Egypt, which has literally created 4,000 jobs on sand.

Many other agricultural pioneers show how to do it, and the Global Alliance www.regenerationinternational.org makes them visible. Small is beautiful, small is fruitful! A purely biological feeding of the world is possible and necessary, because it helps in the healing of ecosystems. Even more: In a world full of violence which continues to create new waves of (environmental) refugees, regenerative agriculture is a key to peace because it creates a new perspective for many millions of people in rural areas.  

For this, however, the global agro-industry intertwined with Monsanto & Co has to be pushed back. We need a coalition of small farmers, environmental, climate and food movements. According to Ronnie Cummins, co-founder of Regeneration International, it requires a “massive grassroots army of earth regenerators: three billion small farmers and villagers, ranchers, shepherds, forest dwellers, urban gardeners and indigenous communities — assisted by a few billion conscious consumers and urban activists.” Regeneration is possible — locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

Ute Scheub is a freelance journalist in Berlin. She co-founded the taz and its environmental editorial and published a total of 18 books.

Over 300 times St. Petersburg was haunted by floods in its 300-year of the history.

Over 300 times St. Petersburg was haunted by floods in its 300-year of the history.© Sergei Kulikov / Interpress / AFP

Climate change

Wanted: A masterplan for St. Petersburg

Once upon a time, the "Venice of the North" was built in swamp near the coast. Now St. Petersburg is vulnerable to the rising sea. The problem: There is still no master plan to protect the city from climate change.

von Marcus Bensmann

In the 1970s it was considered progressive to move to one of the low-rise buildings of Vasilij, an island in the Newa Delta, the most modern city district in the then Leningrad. The Soviet citizens escaped the narrowness of the old buildings in the historic center of the city, and some of the balconies on the Vasilij Island had a sea view. Till today, more than 200,000 people live near the coast. They will all be affected by the rise of sea level.

In the 18th century, Zar Peter the Great literally wrestled the city from the water. A few meters above sea level, he built the then Russian capital in the marsh of the mouth of the Neva. To build the buildings, wooden piles were driven into the muddy ground. Because of the many canals the city is considered the Russian Venice. Over five million people live today on 42 islands, St. Petersburg is one of the economic centers of Russia. Refineries, arms factories and tool factories are located near the coast, the port is the most important in Russia.

The city has always had to contend with flooding. Over 300 times St. Petersburg was haunted by floods in its 300-year of the history. Even to Soviet times in the beginning of 1970’s the planning of a storm service, which separates the Finnish sea gulf from the city. So long before climate change and the resulting rise in the sea level became the subject.

The 25-kilometer-long St. Petersburg dam over the island of Kotlin was completed in 2011, the ships can pass it through two gates. The construction of the dam has cost more than three billion Euros. Since its inception, the dam has protected the city over a dozen floods, is proud to announce an advertising film for the five-year anniversary of the barrier.

But now, alongside the regular floods, the city is confronted with another challenge: the rise in sea level as a result of climate change.

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Climate change and its effects are an issue in Russia, especially for scientists. Among them, Valery Malinin is regarded as the leading expert by the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. The country, Malinin says, is bordering five seas, on all shores the rise of sea level is measured, “but the city that is most affected by the effects of climate change is St. Petersburg. For “Little separates the city from the sea.” And it comes closer. In a study, the professor says that every year up to three meters of beach near the city of St.Petersburg were lost.

There is much to do next to the dam building. According to the professor, the city needed an overall concept.

According to him, the city administration of St. Petersburg should have followed the example of Rotterdam. Since 2008, the Dutch harbor city has been working to defend itself against the rise in the sea level. Rotterdam is considerably smaller with its 1.3 million people. “But Rotterdam has recognized the signs of the times,” says Malinin. As soon as you start the preparations, its better.

It is only slowly that the political leaders in St. Petersburg enter the aisles. After many essays and conferences on the subject, the city administration has decided to also develop a master plan for population and industry on the rise of sea level.

Prepare. But nothing is more concrete, the plans  just have begun.

The problem of the rise in sea-level would, as the Russian professor is convinced, remain, even if it succeeded in throttling global warming. Malinin says it takes decades to make a change in the climate in the depths of the ocean.

Having a good life within the cap of 2,000kg of CO2 is entirely possible. But it will have to look a bit different.

Having a good life within the cap of 2,000kg of CO2 is entirely possible. But it will have to look a bit different.© Ivo Mayr / Correctiv

Climate change

Climate change is down to all of us

Comment: Global warming can be stopped, but only if we all reduce our consumption.

von Annika Joeres

Everyone’s talking about climate protection. But barely anyone is talking about the obvious: Climate change will only slow down when each and every citizen on the planet produces less carbon dioxide. Which means changing our habits, when we drive, fly, eat meat or buy a mobile phone.

There is a magic number that everyone should know: to save the world, every single human must cap their CO2 production at 2,000kg. This figure was calculated by climate experts at the UN. But currently every German produces about five times that. It’s a difference that can’t be resolved just by driving an electric car or paying for green electricity. A cap of 2,000kg per person is smaller than it sounds, equating to only around 10,000km of driving per year. And that’s before you include the climate-damaging meat on your plate, heating your apartment in the winter, or booking flights for your next holiday. Having a good life within the cap of 2,000kg of CO2 is entirely possible. But it will have to look a bit different.

As a society we’ve learned to sort our rubbish for recycling and, in countries like Germany, we give back our glass bottles to the shop. But the rest of our lives and actions are not always climate-friendly – partly because no government has ever told their citizens about the UN’s 2,000kg cap. Why? Because the economy would shrink. If everyone drove the same car for 20 years, kept the same sofa until it fell apart, and picked apples from the garden instead of importing them from New Zealand, the gross domestic product would be badly damaged.

According to Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, the relationship between capitalism and climate protection is poorly understood. Economists have confirmed this: it’s very simple to work out what the carbon dioxide emissions limit must be to stop the earth from warming more than 2C. The calculation is as straightforward as reducing emissions by a four fifth for German for example or two thirs for french peopel, which results in the 2,000kg per person cap. This still means a planet that is 2C hotter, but it prevents any further warming.

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Innovation can’t be the only method used to try and reduce emissions. Technological solutions, though promising, can give false hope. Farmers in the 1960s dreamt of growing bananas and tropical fruits in Germany, using heat from nuclear power. In the 1990s it was said that soon genetically modified plants would feed the world. Today, they only grow in up to three per cent of the world’s fields because of their high risks. By the end of the 2000s hydrogen jets were meant to fly. Today that idea is laughed at. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that the coming droughts can be stopped with electric cars and more efficient refrigerators. But despite supposedly being better, German cars now produce more CO2 emissions than in 1990, according to a study by the Federal Environment Agency. Even the latest technology can’t be more carbon neutral than less technology.

And the world’s climate? International groups and industries say it’s important. But these organisations are not omnipotent The first World Climate Conference took place 22 years ago in Berlin. Since then, greenhouse gas emissions have risen consistently to one-and-a-half times their previous level – except for a small dent in the upwards curve which occurred during the global economic crisis in 2008. Technological progress and international negotiations will not be enough to stop climate change.

The obvious solution is to encourage all citizens to take small daily steps to change their lifestyle, rather than expecting a big change every few years. But calls for this solution are rare because economic growth, for the most part, is more important than climate change.

The magic number of 2,000kg is unknown to most people. And so while most Germans feel committed to climate protection, they also buy T-shirts from coal-powered companies in China, and a new mobile phone every few years with parts sourced from an energy-intensive African mine. This is not compatible with climate protection.

We must understand that climate protection will change our lives. We have to change our habits. We must learn to be lustful consumers of carbon neutral products. This is not an impossible contradiction. We have to do something now – before the consequences of unrestrained climate change ruin the planet, and our lives.

The island Okitonishima. It might not survive the rising sea© AFP

Climate change

Japan is growing an island

In the Philippine sea an island, which has enormous strategic importance for Japan, is slowly sinking. Scientists are trying to grow baby coral on the rock to save it – and spending millions of dollars on the experiment.

von Sonali Prasad

A thousand miles off the coast of south Tokyo, two tiny outcrops gasp for breath in a swallowing ocean. Breaking waves form an oval ring around the crests, the sputtering remains of Japan’s farthest reach in the Philippine Sea.

The Japanese have named the boulders Okinotorishima, or the ‘distant bird island’. Formed by an isolated submerged reef, it is the country’s southernmost point, one that provides an exclusive 160,000-square mile claim to these highly lucrative and strategic waters.

Okinotorishima provides more ocean dominion than the entire archipelago of Japan, but international recognition of the claim remains elusive. Countries such as China and Korea argue that only two rocks are visible at high tide, and therefore not a habitable island that can command its nation’s claim to the seas.

And as ocean levels rise, Japan’s claim is becoming increasingly untenable. Projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that sea levels could rise as much as 98 centimeters by the end of this century.

In collaboration with German media organization CORRECTIV, Columbia Journalism School’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project examined the consequences of sea level changes worldwide, and in particular, Japan’s attempts to keep its ocean claims from drowning.

We found that researchers in the country are hoping to not just help Okinotorishima survive the onslaught of menacing waves, but actually make the outcroppings grow.

The greenhouse experiment

Quietly, and out of sight, scientists in Okinawa’s island town of Kumejima have devised a scheme to keep the country’s claim in the Philippine Sea.  At the Deep Sea Water Research Center, in a small, sunny greenhouse, water gurgles through pipes running along the ceiling in a complex array resembling a New York City subway map. Standing on a stool surrounded by tubs full of lustrous corals, Ryota Nakamura, a senior researcher at the Coral Propagation Laboratory, makes a sweeping gesture with his hand and says to a visiting reporter, „This is the first step in our plan for Okinotorishima.“

In order to raise the atoll above water, he explains, the reef beneath it needs to be bolstered and expanded. Nakamura, along with a team of scientists, is transplanting baby corals cultured in the lab to the natural reef at the island. Assuming that works, as the reef grows and regenerates, the old coral will crumble into gravel, forming the „terra firme“ so desired by the island nation.

Pointing to a tub near him, Nakamura says, „This species is Acropora tenius. For us to culture the juveniles, we collect adult corals from different colonies at Okinotorishima and then transport them to the research facility using a 500 ton vessel once a year.“

It’s a precarious task to keep the parent corals from being damaged during the two-and-a-half day journey back on ship. Scientists store the corals in rectangular fiberglass tanks with transparent acrylic lids. One-third of the seawater in the tank is replenished with fresh seawater three times a day. A shade net on top controls the light intensity, submersible pumps create water flow and tank temperatures remain in check between 22.5 to and 28.4°C.

Once the corals have been safely transported onshore, they are stored in blue circular tubs at the greenhouse. When summer approaches, in what looks like a spectacular snowstorm underwater, the adults release a flurry of buoyant bundles containing eggs and sperms. The luminous specks drift towards the surface of water, creating an image of a living, breathing snow globe. The scientists then separate the eggs from the sperm in each bundle, so they can be sexually fertilized with gametes belonging to different colonies. After a couple of days, once the resulting larvae start moving actively, they are moved to tubs away from the parent corals.

The researchers culture the juveniles on ceramic substrates for about a year, and then they are taken back to Okinotorishima. The scientists first transplant them on an artificial reef installed near the island, and then when the corals are two years old, they attach them to the island’s natural reef. „This way it is possible to protect them from predation till they are big enough with low cost“, Nakamura explains.

Since 2006, around 100,000 juveniles have been transplanted back to Okinotorishima. Though the area of the coral transplanted on the reef has increased, their survival rate is barely 30 per cent. Why there’s such a high rate of morality remains unclear.

According to Nakamura, it is hard to monitor the experiment regularly due to the remoteness of the island and the steep price of each trip. The charter fee of a survey vessel generally is one million yen ($9000 USD) per day. If the researchers embark on a three-week survey in situ, it costs 26 million yen ($234,000 USD). „Quite expensive, don’t you think so?“ remarks Nakamura.

Japan has spent close to 2.4 billion yen ($21 million USD) on the coral project in the last eleven years. Makoto Omori, a coral researcher and emeritus professor at the Tokyo University Of Marine Science and Technology, believes it’s an upward battle for the island. Not only is the sea threatening to wash away all the progress that’s been made so far, but the land beneath the reef is sinking as well.

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The atoll sits at the center of a sub-marine oceanic ridge that extends from the Japanese island of Kyushu in the north to Palau in the south. Starting in the Miocene era around 20 million years ago, due to the tectonics of the Pacific plate, islands across the ridge began to subside, including Okinotorishima.

“The atoll is sinking at a very gradual rate of less than a centimeter every 100 years, but it is sinking nevertheless“, says Omori. „On the other hand, sea water is projected to rise at a rate of 20-40 centimeters in the same time period. We do not know when we will lose this island, so we must put coral underneath to keep it above water level.“

With so many forces working to drown the island, doom seems inevitable. But for the researchers, it’s not just about salvaging Okinotorishima. If they are successful, this experiment could be the silver lining for drowning coral beds worldwide.

“There are close to 500 atolls in the world“, said Hajime Kayanne, a coral reef scientist at the University of Tokyo. „The landmass of some of them such as the Maldives, Tuvalu and Kiribati is made entirely of coral reef organisms. If the eco-technology works for Okinotorishima, it can potentially help these populated islands fight flooding and displacement. „

Kayanne, who has been to Okinotorishima twice as part of the coral growing project, is now researching the next step– how to accumulate the disintegrated coral gravel to form the island’s surface.

“Right now, no one can live on Okinotori“, he says. „But we have examples around the world where people live on atolls made of coral gravel. We know it can happen. Island formation is possible well within a human generation.”

Okinotorishima_detail_en.jpg

AFP

A rock, not an island

China is keeping a watchful eye on Japan’s ambitious project. Even though the country does not dispute Japan’s sovereignty over Okinotorishima, it does have a military interest in disregarding the economic zone in the Philippine Sea- the atoll is on a route that Chinese submarines would take out into the Pacific, towards positions against the United States.

“If the economic zone is recognized, then Chinese vessels cannot freely map the seabed around Okinotori as if it were high seas“, says Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank. „The waters and the resources in them, including the seabed, would belong to Japan.“
In 2004, the regional superpower criticized Japan, calling Okinotorishima a „rock“ that has no entitlement to an economic zone around it.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the zone can only be associated with an island that is defined as a „naturally formed area of land which is above water at high tide.“ It excludes „rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own.“

China’s disregard of Okinotorishima as an island led to a wave of nationalism throughout Japan. In May 2005, Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, rushed to the twin outcrops, raised the Japanese flag and mounted an address plaque reading „One Okinotori Island, Ogasawara Village, Tokyo.“ He even ordered the installation of a 330 million yen (around $3 million USD) radar system that now watches the island in the sea.

But China is not the only country challenging Japan’s claims. Both South Korea and Taiwan have also declared they don’t recognize the economic zone. Japan, who signed the UN treaty in 1983, argues that unlike China’s artificially dredged islands that are damaging marine ecosystems in the South China Sea, Okinotorishima is not a rock, but a „naturally formed reef“ that has been under the nation’s jurisdiction since 1931. Unlike a rock, a reef has the potential to grow.

“Japan is quite honest“, reasons Omori. „The economic zone is important to us and according to international law, our only option is to keep the island using the natural material from the island. That would be the coral.“

The country further justifies its actions suggesting that the process of coral farming generates avenues for research. However, Hornung isn’t convinced that the country’s arguments would win if contested in court. „If any user state of UNCLOS appeals, I doubt that Japan will succeed with these claims at this very moment“, he says. „It’s hard to see how those rocks can sustain human life.“

But Japan is optimistic. The country’s motivation may be rooted in geopolitics, but if it manages to succeed in growing an island, some good may come out of it for the world’s collapsing reefs.

The author takes part in the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is part of Columbia Journalism School post-graduate fellowship program and is supported by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with Correctiv.

© Mehdi Taamallah / AFP

Climate change

USA: Octopus in the mall

Across North America coastlines are dramatically changing. The countless floods are so expensive that they surpass the price of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

von Gilda Di Carli

There was the octopus spotted swimming in a Miami parking garage in 2016. And the submerged roller coaster off the New Jersey coast during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As well as islands, such as Lennox, off the coast of Prince Edward Island, and Alaska’s Kivalina that are being swiftly swallowed by the sea.

For the past six months, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environment Program, in collaboration with Germany’s CORRECTIV and a global network of journalists, has documented global sea level rise and its effects worldwide.

For the first time, the collaboration is making accessible data from the Permanent Service of Mean Sea Level, a British organization that has recorded sea level at more than 2,000 stations worldwide since 1933.

And the measurements collected, along with more recent satellite data gathered by the United States’ National Air and Space Administration and other international government agencies, show the vast majority of North America’s coastlines are increasingly threatened by rising seas.

“Sea level rise is a global issue, and yet some places are being harder hit due to combinations of local factors“, said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences. „This is particularly noticeable on the East Coast of the US, from Massachusetts to Florida and along the Gulf Coast.“

The combination of subsidence – the sinking of land due to groundwater loss or other natural forces — and the relentless creep of sea level rise has become a major risk for cities, transportation corridors and energy production centers along the coasts.

Indeed, a quick glance at a global sea level rise map produced by CORRECTIV shows rising seas along the continent’s Atlantic Coast, as well as along the perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico, where tidal gauges from Texas to New Foundland show steadily rising waters since 1961.

And as glaciers and polar ice caps continue to melt, and warming seas swell, these trends will only accelerate, say scientists.

Already, in Miami, where flooding is becoming increasingly common, the city government has pledged $100 million to raise roads, install pumps and redo sewer pipes and connections to stave off the encroaching seas and increasingly pervasive flooding.

But it’s not just city officials that are adapting. Residents, too, are accommodating to the changes. Indeed, in the South Sound neighborhood of Key Largo, Florida, local news reports showed residents renting SUVs to ford their way home after a recent spate of floods, wary their own cars wouldn’t make it. „…it might be time for residents to consider swapping cars for boats“, wrote the Miami Herald, paraphrasing local county officials.

And south Florida is hardly alone.

“The rise of ‘nuisance’ flooding, increasing salinity of groundwater and beach erosion are already costing communities millions of dollars and threatening the viability of many“, noted Schmidt, the NASA scientist.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine showed the cumulative cost of minor flooding events in cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Seattle, is likely to exceed the cost of extreme and infrequent events.

“How much more sea level rise do you need before it becomes chronic?“ said Billy Sweet, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]. „We need to break the mold of [talking about] big storms, and talk about the cost of flooding people’s basements, repetitive mobilization costs to public safety for road closures, the cost of devaluing real estate properties, even the cost of car rotors busting“, said Sweet.

Sweet is spearheading an effort at NOAA to produce an inundation dashboard where communities can access current flooding information from annual and seasonal reports. „We’re trying to take the pulse on what are the conditions now“, said Sweet.

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Consequences from rising waters are likely to be dramatic in North America, where some the continent’s largest and most populous cities lie adjacent to the coasts, with little elevation above.

Take for instance, New York City where sea level rise adaptation has been on the forefront of policy discussions since Hurricane Sandy. The Mayor’s Office has committed to a $20 billion comprehensive resiliency plan to repair and restore homes, schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and transit ways damaged by floodwaters.

The Category 1 storm devastated much of the Northeast, rattling 24 states and Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, which went into a state of emergency from the late October storm.

On October 30, 2012, 9,000 people across 13 states spent the night in 171 shelters operated by the Red Cross. „Don’t put your emergency power systems in their basement — that’s the lesson learned in New York“, said Jeffrey Marqusee, former executive director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s (OSD) Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program.

hurricane_sandy_en.jpg

Doug Mills / Pool / AFP

Coastal bases, ports and airways owned by the U.S. Department of Defense are also at risk, said Marqusee, who directed research and development on adapting some of the Department of Defense’s coastal installations to climate change. „That’s the thing- that’s most difficult to predict“, said Marqusee. „We don’t do a good job of adapting coastal communities to current storms“, he said, much less future storms. The „real goal is to do better“, he said, „but let’s not make perfect the enemy of good.“

There are areas on CORRECTIV’s sea level map, however, that appear to have falling sea levels, as opposed to rising ones. In places such as Churchill, Manitoba — the polar bear capital of the world — sea level has dropped at a rate of 10.5 millimeters per year since 1961.

And in Skagway, Alaska, it’s been falling as much as 18 millimeters a year, since 1961. Similar trends have been noted in other northern latitudes, including Scandinavia, where land that was once compressed by ice sheets is now lifting as that weight melts.

“Ice is so heavy, it pushes down on the Earth. But when you take away weight, it pops back up“, said Regine Hock, glacier expert at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. In Glacier Bay, Alaska, the land is rising at a rate of 30 millimeters per year: one of the highest uplift — also called isostatic rebound- rates in the world.

Still, glaciers play a significant role in global sea level rise. „I often hear, ‘Oh the glaciers are going to be gone in a few decades. They don’t matter anymore,’“ said Hock, who has dedicated much of her career to the study of these masses of ice. „They’re often forgotten, they’re seemingly so small.“ The mass input of glaciers into the oceans accounts for approximately 50% of sea level rise between 1992-2010, Hock said.

Alaska is also experiencing changes in permafrost — the frozen ground is thawing. „This is a big issue in Fairbanks where I come from, said Hock. „You drive around and see the real estate is so cheap! You see these houses, they’re really sinking into the ground!“

The loss of permafrost combined with sea level rise, and a reduction in sea ice has resulted in a devastating scenario in Alaska: The residents of several Alaskan villages, such as those in Shishmaref and Kivalina, are relocating as their towns get swallowed by the sea.

Whether more cephalopods appear in urban centers, houses sink into thawing soils and military bases drown under rising seas is pretty well established: They will. Maps and satellites make clear North America, like the rest of the globe, is undergoing dramatic changes as the planet’s climate changes.

Just how quickly, and how expensive it’ll all be, however, remains to be seen.

 

The author is part of the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is part of Columbia Journalism School post-graduate fellowship program and is supported by the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with Correctiv.

© Ivo Mayr

Climate change

UN Climate Change Conference: The Factions

The 195 member states participating in the Paris Climate Change Conference can be divided into four major factions: the influential states, the obstructors, the successful and the weak states. What special interests do they have?

von Annika Joeres

In Paris, representatives of the 195 states have gathered to agree on the steps needed to restrict global warming to about two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and so reduce the risk of drought and floods. But the 21st Climate Conference is also a venue for testing the strength of nations. Each member state has just one vote, but the members have very different abilities to push their interests. Some states bring many staff which resides in a major hotel as a display of its power and wealth. And economically strong nations such as the G-20 members, have disproportional influence in the drafting of the final protocol.

Independent of their respective power, member states act similarly on one point: They lobby on behalf of their key industries. This is because the Paris conference is not just a meeting of climate advocates, but it is a meeting of representatives of national business interests. Everyone wants to prevent global warming without choking their own prosperity.

The action plans, known as INDCs, put forward to date, read like homages to the key industries of the proposing state. Member states with similar industries share similar interests, and these common interests fuse the states into a faction. Member states with important coal or gas industries will join forces in their own climate-protection faction, while agricultural nations will form a separate faction.


The Obstructors

The greater a state’s dependency on oil and gas production, the more likely the state will seek to object extensive climate-protection measures. The proof can be seen in the weak climate-protection proposals put forward by Russia, Australia and Qatar. They have neglected to introduce environmentally friendly measures as they modernize their economies. If they were to press for more strict climate-protection, they fear they could destroy the source of their wealth.

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The Weak

Particularly the largely agricultural weak member states, including many African nations, don’t worry about a strict reduction of hydrocarbons. Their economies are affected by drought and drying riverbeds. Due to their weak consumption of hydrocarbons, they are generally open to a reduction in their use of hydrocarbons. But because they don’t have powerful industries, they lack the power to push for their own interests.

The Influential

Europe also acts on behalf of its industries. Because states like France and Germany don’t owe their prosperity to a handful of industries that consume huge amounts of hydrocarbons, they should be able to reduce their pollution by up to 40%. With superior technology, Europe and the U.S. are well placed to restructure their economies to meet climate-protection goals. Even so they usually don’t use their influence for this purpose. Take for example Germany and its coal-fired power plants: A coalition of coal-power producers, trade unionists and the governors of coal-producing regions successfully pushes its local interests at the expense of climate protection.

The Successful

Even the successful nations will create their own faction at the Paris conference. Member states such as India and Brazil are growing at rates comparable to Europe and the U.S. 50 years ago. They argue that the effort to reduce global warming should not hinder their domestic efforts to increase economic growth. They want to expand their polluting industries, build coal-fired power plants, and continue to export textiles and household goods to wealthier nations. They want to please their voters and increase prosperity. These governments owe their popular support to the pursuit of these goals. „Many Indians don’t have access to electricity and clean water,“  says the Indian delegate Lavanya Rajamani. „The Paris Final Protocol must provide opportunities for growth and development.“ Per capita, the successful-faction nations consume relatively little CO2, even as their GDP is growing and will continue to grow. So these countries want to burn even more hydrocarbons now and think about reductions at a later date.

This investigation is a collaboration of NDR, Süddeutscher Zeitung, and CORRECTIV. More on parisprotokoll.de.

Credits

  • Data research: Stefan Wehrmeyer
  • Information graphics: Simon Jockers, Christopher Möller + Moritz Klack / webkid

Sources

  • CO2 emissions per capita: Worldbank
  • GDP 2014: Worldbank
  • Population 2014: Worldbank
  • Population 2050: Worldbank
  • Most important industries: OECD, Worldbank, IWF, Eurostat, Bureau of economic analysis (BEA)
  • Climate change performance index: Germanwatch