Science

Published on August 7th, 2009 | by Steve Savage

15

Should “Charismatic Megafauna” be the “Face” of Climate Change


Charismatic Megafauna

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A polar bear is the perfect example of “Charismatic Megafauna” – the kind of animal whose image can easily be used to generate sympathy.  I care about polar bears as much as anyone, but I’m a little concerned about how images of animals like this are being used to promote Climate Change awareness and to fund-raise for environmental organizations. If we are going to make the personal life-style changes, the new business strategies, and the public policy decisions to counter this threat, we need to do it with a clear-eyed understanding of what is at stake.  The “faces” we should be thinking about are those of starving people in poor nations.

The “Preview”

You may remember back in 2007/8 there was a sudden spike in grain prices.  Stores of wheat and rice were very short around the world. Countries were putting on export bans and there were food riots in places like Haiti and Egypt.  Some nations like Korea decided they needed to develop dedicated crop production areas exclusively for their national import supply.  What had caused this was a “perfect storm” of five factors.  The one that got the most attention was Biofuel expansion.  Indeed ~20% of the US corn crop was going to ethanol (though few commentators realized that 40% of that amount goes back into the animal feed market as DDGS).  Of course world population was continuing to grow and the rising standard of living of middle classes in places like China and India was putting more pressure on food supplies.  High energy costs were discouraging some farmers from planting or fertilizing as much as they would have.  Finally, an extended drought in Australia was lowering its contribution to the grain trade.  The current global recession has eased the supply issue for now, but it is poised to return.

The Challenge Ahead

Between population growth and economic development, it is estimated that by mid-century we will need twice as much food as we produce today.  There will be the added challenge of the effects of climate change that makes crop yield more unpredictable.  Extremes of drought or flooding are expected with greater frequency.  The problem will be most acute in the areas of the world that are already the poorest.  This is not an insurmountable challenge, but it will require our best application of technological innovation to be able to do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable.  Fortunately there are some new, biotechnology-derived, drought tolerance traits about to be commercialized in corn and it is feasible to extend those to the critical human food crops, wheat and rice. The Gates Foundation is funding a major effort to deliver such technologies to poor African farmers for free.  These traits are just part of what is needed, but they are potentially important.

Precautionary Thinking

Unfortunately, there is continued resistance to “GMO” crops even after 13 years and billions of acres of safe implementation.  Of course if we fail to grow enough food, it won’t be the risk-averse, affluent people of Europe and Japan that will suffer.  Even though their own farms are less productive than they could be, they will be able to afford to import food at prices that put it out of reach for the poor.  They may also continue to be able to block other countries from growing GMO wheat or rice without suffering much for it, but the suffering will occur somewhere else.  I highly recommend Robert Paarlberg’s book, “Starved for Science” which documents how European influence has influenced agricultural policy in Africa to reflect the precautionary leanings of their former colonial masters rather than what is needed to feed poor people.

This is why a polar bear is not an appropriate image of what will happen if we don’t respond properly to the challenge of climate change. We need to envision hunger, starvation, political instability, and mass migration. Climate change consequence needs a human face.

Child Starving in Zimbabwae

Polar Bear photo from Flickrfavorite, Starving Child photo from Venetiajoubert



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



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  • russ

    Excellent article Steve! Thanks

  • Alice Runbin

    GMO crops mean $$ for corporations and NOTHING “SUSTAINABLE” for mankind. Bio-diversity is critical, and your stupid chemicals have killed my:

    bees
    horny todds
    fireflies
    monarch butterflies.

    how long can the balance of nature endure mans selfeshness before she strikes back. Looks like sooner than later if the pro-gmo whacks get their way. Aint gonna be without challenge.

  • Charles Sifers

    This article just goes to show how out of touch with reality the people are who believe that we need to make this enormous investment in this ridiculous theory.
    We should be spending this money to actually help those who are starving and living in destitution. Not to mention those who will be driven to this state by enormous increases in energy costs and resulting economic collapse that will follow.
    Of course, the real aim to to kill off a sizable portion of the human population, since the people who promote this lie have repeated said that the human race is a “virus” on the Earth.
    Anthropocentric Climate Change Theory is the new Eugenics, and the population is too uninformed and brainwashed to know that they are in the crosshairs.
    Remember…Soylent Green! It’s People!

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    @Charles: It’s rare to read comments that are short, sweet and deadly accurate.

    @Steve:
    1. Why did you fail to mention that the biofeuls expansion was yet another failed idea of the environmental movement? The greens sure have done an about-face on that one.

    2. I am still impressed that a proponent of GMO crops is allowed a writer’s post on this blog. Its founder and much of the green blogosphere have cast countless stones at companies that engineer GMO crops; what they call “Frankenfood.”

    3. Regarding “Charismatic Megafauna” I recently saw a commercial featuring Noah Wyle pandering for the WWF. Although Noah is a relatively popular actor, the stars of the commercial were a mother polar bear and her cub floating on an ice drift conveniently cropped to make it appear as though they were floating miles away from anything solid. Here are a few statements on the plight of polar bears that contradict the commercial:

    (a) “Since the 1970s, while much of the world was warming, polar bear numbers increased dramatically, from roughly 5,000 to 25,000 bears, a higher polar bear population than has existed at any time in the twentieth century. Scientists believe polar bears thrived in the past in temperatures even warmer than at present–during the medieval warm period 1,000 years ago and during the Holocene Climate Optimum between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago.” – Source: heartland.org/policybot/results/20631/ESA_Listing_Not_Needed_for_Polar_Bears.html

    (b) “The current estimates for global polar bear population is between 22,000 and 25,000 — numbers too big to risk any immediate extinction.” – Source: scitech.blogs.cnn.com/2008/05/15/contentious-fact-in-polar-debate-bears-scrutiny/

    (c) “ But global warming is not killing the polar bears of Canada’s eastern Arctic, according to one ongoing study. Scheduled for release next year, it says the number of polar bears in the Davis Strait area of Canada’s eastern Arctic – one of 19 polar bear populations worldwide – has grown to 2,100, up from 850 in the mid-1980s. ‘There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a … lot more bears,’ biologist Mitchell Taylor told the Nunatsiaq News of Iqaluit in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Earlier, in a long telephone conversation, Dr. Taylor explained his conviction that threats to polar bears from global warming are exaggerated and that their numbers are increasing. He has studied the animals for the Nunavut government for two decades. “ – Source: csmonitor.com/2007/0503/p13s01-wogi.html?page=1

    (d) “It may be the latest evidence of global warming: Polar bears are drowning…(however) Polar-bear drownings were so rare that they have never been documented in the surveys. But in September 2004, when the polar ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska, researchers counted 10 polar bears swimming as far as 60 miles offshore. Polar bears can swim long distances but have evolved to mainly swim between sheets of ice, scientists say. The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days after a fierce storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. ‘Extrapolation of survey data suggests that on the order of 40 bears may have been swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough seas caused by high winds,’ the researchers say in a report set to be released today.” – Source: online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB113452435089621905-vnekw47PQGtDyf3iv5XEN71_o5I_20061214.html

    Naturally, I should mention that nearly every story available on polar bear population growth includes statements by either a dissenting expert, or worse, a dissenting journalist throwing about his own opinions. Many claim the increasing populations are due to inaccurately tabulated (low) counts from the 60’s and 70’s, or that it can be attributed to the success of hunting regulations. Some claim that Dr. Mitchell Taylor’s findings lack objectivity because he is employed by the Nunavut population that has an interest in hunting the bears for sustenance (a good green must never miss a chance to call someone a “shill”). Even though polar bears are accomplished swimmers, they do sometimes drown in rough seas. This provides a convenient opportunity for an AGW disciple to attribute the drownings to a larger, global crisis; which is all too enticing to dismiss. I use the term “disciple” intentionally, because the lack of good science forces the layman to accept either one side of the polar bear debate or the another by taking a leap of faith.

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    To Alice,
    GMO crops have not killed anything. The Monarch Butterfly thing was proven to be inconsequential years ago. There is no connection of GMO to the bee issue or fire flys or frogs. The farmers of the world would not be using biotech crops on huge acreages unless it was a good business decision for them, and then also for us because we get enough food at a decent price.

    To Bobby B, I’m not ready to say that biofuels is a failed concept. I track what is coming in the next generation of biofuels and I am encouraged. Also thanks for the info on polar bears. Also, GreenOptions let me start blogging here with full disclosure of my background that spans everything from biocontrol and natural products to GMOs

    To Charles, I’m not interested in the argument about why climate change is happening, I just see its effects on agriculture today (shifting pest problems, higher drought frequency…) and out of concern for the world’s poor, I’d like to encourage changes in agriculture that might help

  • russ

    Keep it up Steve! To many of the fuzzy headed but popular stories manage to stay alive in the green world only because they are allowed to recirculate and be spouted from empty heads without being refuted.

  • Charles Sifers

    To Steve,
    I agree! We should be taking a good chunk of the money that’s being wasted on AGW, and put it to the basic technology that will allow people to feed themselves.
    Even a small fraction of this largess would go a long way.
    On the other hand, once the American economy has been ham stringed, where do you suppose additional money will come from?
    Once the current government has it’s way, and the cost of fuel skyrockets, then how are we going to help anyone?
    I have been an environmentalist and practitioner of “green” farming tech for more than 30 years, so I know what we can do.
    It is unconscionable that we allow this fraud to hijack all the good work that has been done over the last half century, and by supporting the lie, we help to cut our own throats.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    @Steve: Maybe calling biofuels a “failed concept” was a bit strong. However, the idea of diverting food crops from animal feeds and the grocery store to a car’s gas tank seems flawed at its core. Are not food and shelter at the top of the human needs list?

    Now, if the next generation of biofuels to which you refer are waste based, I support it to a point. There’s a lot of buzz about methane from landfills and fuel from manure. I also remember reading something about a rancher who was hired by the Air Force because he had isolated the enzyme that cattle use to convert a large percentage of their diet directly into methane. However, knowing that everything requires fuel or becomes fuel itself, I wonder if there isn’t a flaw in this concept as well. A host of micro-organisms thrive on what we humans consider waste. These micro-organisms have long been considered to exist at the bottom (better known as the start) of the food chain. What happens if humanity converts too much waste into auto fuel and starves this segment of the ecosystem? How long before the ripple effect moves up the food chain?

    @Charles: Preach On! Bankrupting the US economy will do nothing to benefit the plight of the world. Consider how many nations and people have benefitted and continue to benefit from the benevolence of the United States, especially after some natural disaster. Compare that to how few come to the aid of the U.S. in times of trouble. Breaking the U.S. to the point that its charity has to be directed inward (or becomes non-existent) will increase human suffering worldwide.

  • Charles Sifers

    Bobby,
    Clearly, you’ve mistaken my position. I have no idea where do you get the idea that I WANT to bankrupt our economy.
    I made the point, that following the AGW lie will result in bankrupting the U.S. economy.
    I can’t imagine why you think that I want to do this.
    Just because I am an environmentalist doesn’t make me a leftist, or stupid. I am also a capitalist and an American, and I in no way support the current regime or paradigm.
    This has clearly been my argument from the beginning here.

  • Charles Sifers

    Bobby,
    After re-reading your post, I can see that I may have misinterpreted your intention. That’s the problem with this type of conversation.
    If you’re simply agreeing and expounding on my position, then pardon my mistake.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    @Charles: I was simply agreeing with you, but don’t worry, I can take the heat (no harm-no foul). These types of conversations are difficult to interpret at times. The only disagreement that you and I may have with one another is that I consider myself a bit of a conservationist, but by no means an environmentalist. Of course, the discussion had not gotten to that topic.

  • rockymtnway

    One simple fact remains: Polar bears are responsible for the deaths of more of those cute little seals than any Alaska Native. Somehow I just don’t see that as a selling point.

    The problem is that people tune out the “we’re all going to die” message, too. Frankly, I see the only solution is abject selfishness. No, I don’t mean going out to buy a big SUV so I can use as much as I can. Instead I opt to build a truly self-sufficient lifestyle, where I can feed my family from my own land if times get tough or even if they don’t. If 10% of Americans would tear out 10% of their lawns to plant gardens to supply perhaps 10% of their own food, how much carbon would that remove from the atmosphere relative to having imported veggies from Argentina?

  • Mys

    Good article, but I am still opposed to GMOs. What we need is not GMOs but a complete return to sustainable farming with naturam methods of organic plant protection. The main thing we need is for people who can’t feed their children to stop breeding them. So let’s put farming back where it belongs and get birth control pills out there to the starving nations to every woman who has a family that’s can’t produce enough food to feed a child.

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