Okay Climate Change, Now It’s Personal!

The latest evidence is that some of our most beloved foods are even more threatened now than they were just a few years ago. I guess when climate change starts to threaten the things we love like coffee, chocolate and wine, people start to stand up and take notice. If you haven’t see this video before, here’s your chance to see why it’s been so popular with some of my previous posts. Enjoy!

Malala: Changing the World

“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation.”
~African proverb

In this next post in my series dedicated to women and climate change, you may wonder why I picked Malala Yousafzai. Despite being the youngest Nobel laureate in history (co-winning the Peace Prize in 2014), you’d be right to question what it is that she’s done to help the environment or to fight climate change. It’s not like she’s a climate scientist, or has discovered some new way to use renewable energy, and she hasn’t invented a new battery that’s smaller and more efficient. So why do I give her this distinction?

Quite simply this: Malala is fighting for women’s righst to an education all over the world. And that has the potential to make a significant impact on climate change in the future, perhaps even more than new sources of renewable energy or better batteries. An increasing global population is one dramatic cause of increasing emissions on Earth. In my book “Comprehending the Climate Crisis” I explain some of the larger societal changes that can help to tackle population growth, thereby curbing emissions:

An expanding global population leads to an increase in greenhouse gases at every level. All of these various activities lead to increased emissions of carbon dioxide along with the other greenhouse gases. This raises the point that one way to help tackle the problem of global warming is to somehow curb the rise in the global population—easier said than done, but progress in the developing nations can help. This can include better sanitation, immunization, and health care… Also, improved education, equal rights for women, and the growth of democracy all have the potential to alter the continuing trend of a rise in global population.

Mark my words, but this brave young woman who was shot in the head by the Taliban because they didn’t want her and her friends to have the same kind of education the boys in her village had is already changing the world. A brief biography below comes from her own website:

Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 in Mingora, a town in the Swat District of north-west Pakistan. Her father who has always loved learning ran a school in Swat adjacent to their family’s home that provided girls an education. He was an advocate for education in Pakistan which has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world, and so he became an outspoken opponent of the Taliban’s efforts to restrict education and stop girls from going to school.

Malala shared her father’s passion for learning and loved going to school. In 2009, as the Taliban’s military hold on her region of Pakistan intensified, television and music were banned, women were prevented from going shopping and her father was told that his school for girls had to close. They found out that Malala had been writing a blog under a pseudonym advocating for girls’ rights to an education, and both Malala and her father received death threats but they continued to speak out for the right to an education for everyone anyway.

In 2011, she received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize and was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. In response to her rising popularity and national recognition, Taliban leaders voted to kill her. On October 9, 2012, as Malala and her friends were travelling home from school, a masked gunman entered their school bus and asked for Malala by name. She was shot with a single bullet which went through her head, neck and shoulder. Two of her friends were also injured in the attack.

Malala survived the initial attack but was in critical condition. She was moved to Birmingham in the United Kingdom for treatment at a hospital that specialises in military injuries. She was not discharged until three months later by which time her family had relocated to the UK.

The Taliban’s attempt to kill Malala received worldwide condemnation and led to protests across Pakistan. In the weeks after the attack, over 2 million people signed a right-to-education petition, and the National Assembly swiftly ratified Pakistan’s first Right To Free and Compulsory Education Bill.

Malala became a global advocate for the millions of girls being denied a formal education because of social, economic, legal and political factors. In 2013, Malala and her father co-founded the Malala Fund to bring awareness to the social and economic impact of girls’ education and to empower girls to raise their voices, to unlock their potential and to demand change.

Malala accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2014 along with Indian children’s rights and education advocate Kailash Satyarthi. Malala contributed her entire prize money of more than $500,000 to financing the creation of a secondary school for girls in Pakistan.

Malala is an impressive young woman who will turn 20 this July. As women become educated, as they acquire rights equal to men, and as they achieve control over their own reproduction, population growth will diminish. Malala is helping to make that happen. And the planet thanks her for it.

Katharine Hayhoe: Atmospheric Scientist

“The choices we make today and over the next decade will have a radical impact on the path we travel in the future.”
—Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

To honour the upcoming International Women’s Day on March 8th, no series of posts on important women and climate change would be complete without Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist originally from Toronto, Ontario (an hour’s drive from where I live) but who now resides in Texas with her husband.

I first heard about Dr. Hayhoe when I was trained by Al Gore in San Francisco in August, 2012 for the Climate Reality Project. Mr. Gore used a video featuring Dr. Hayhoe describing how much more moisture the atmosphere could hold the hotter it got, explaining why more intense storms and flooding were taking place as a part of global warming. But Mr. Gore liked to point out that not only was she a climate scientist but she was also a Republican and an evangelical Christian, subtly pointing out what a rarity she is.

Dr. Hayhoe describes herself thusly:

I’m an atmospheric scientist. I study climate change, one of the most pressing issues we face today. I don’t accept global warming on faith: I crunch the data, I analyze the models, I help engineers and city managers and ecologists quantify the impacts. The data tells us the planet is warming; the science is clear that humans are responsible; the impacts we’re seeing today are already serious; and our future is in our hands.

Dr. Hayhoe began her career with a B.Sc. in physics and astronomy from the University of Toronto, first publishing papers in the field of observational astronomy. She then went on to complete a Masters’ degree in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois where her research focused on understanding human and natural sources of methane. For her Ph.D., she refocused her research on statistical downscaling methods that help to generate future projections.

Dr. Hayhoe is now a professor in the Department of Political Science, and serves as the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Her research currently focuses on establishing a scientific basis for assessing the regional to local-scale impacts of climate change on human systems and the natural environment. She analyzes observations, compares future scenarios, evaluates global and regional climate models, builds and assesses statistical downscaling models, and constantly strives to develop better ways of translating climate projections into information relevant to agriculture, ecosystems, energy, infrastructure, public health, and water resources.

One of the things I admire most about Dr. Hayhoe is that her faith hasn’t been a hindrance to accepting global warming and climate change, as it seems to have been for so many people of faith. She believes in the facts and doesn’t believe her faith should prevent that. As she has pointed out:

I don’t think there are any churches that have “Thou shalt not believe in climate change” in their actual statement of faith.

With her husband Andrew Farley she has written a book entitled “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions” that untangles the complex science and tackles many long-held misconceptions about global warming.

Dr. Hayhoe will be speaking at Starmus this coming June in Norway and I’m very much looking forward to meeting her. Her work is tremendous, her perspective is extremely valuable, and her efforts are worthy of our praise. She’s an amazing woman indeed and serves as an exemplary model for International Women’s Day.

Rachel Carson: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
—Rachel Carson

In honour of International Women’s Day approaching on March 8th, today I wanted to honour Rachel Carson. It is almost 55 years since the publication of her seminal book “Silent Spring” where she expressed concern about the haphazard use of pesticides—particularly DDT—without looking into them more thoroughly. She argued that we needed to understand the impact of pesticides on ecosystems and on the health of living creatures, including us. Her book is often heralded as what helped launch the environmental movement and she had (and still has) many fans all over the world. One important individual who took notice of her message was none other than President John F. Kennedy who subsequently asked his Science Advisory Council to launch an investigation into the safety of the use of DDT as a result of reading Carson’s book. (DDT was eventually banned in the US in 1972.)

Carson helped people realize that we need regulatory bodies, and that big business can’t do what it wants without confirming the safety of those actions, largely because big business is often motivated more by profits than by what’s in the best interest of the general public. Organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are examples of precisely the type of regulatory bodies Carson argued for, and that the current Administration appears poised to dismantle.

It makes sense that we need clean water and clean air, and we can’t rely on the forces that drive the free market to maintain those for us. We obviously can’t let companies dump toxic waste in rivers simply because that’s the cheapest option for them. And we shouldn’t let factories dump tonnes of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere without paying some sort of price for that pollution either.

Of course, toxins like DDT aren’t necessarily something that should be banned outright. As many scientists will point out, the toxicity is in the dose, not the molecule. Many products that some environmental groups want completely banned aren’t unsafe in the small amounts we’re exposed to, and what scientific inquiry needs to do is to determine precisely what those thresholds for safety are, and ensure that society conforms to them.

Even DDT has a role to play in the world to this day. Although here in North America it makes sense to look for alternatives to DDT that are more selective and less toxic to animals and human beings, and that don’t linger around in the environment as long. But DDT is an extremely important component in fighting malaria in both Asia and Africa, and without its availability as a pesticide in those continents, millions of lives would be at greater risk.

Rachel Carson faced a lot of criticism as a result of her book, much of it coming after her death. (She died from breast cancer in 1964.) Some described her as nothing more than a hysterical woman, and many companies that manufactured pesticides began a smear campaign, trying to discredit both her and the research she described. Many people still blame her for any subsequent problems that resulted from the banning of pesticides. In 2004 for example, Michael Crichton had one of the characters in his novel “State of Fear” offer this little tidbit: “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.” Although it was only a bit of dialogue from a story of fiction, Crichton made it clear in future interviews that he believed the statement.

To be totally fair to Rachel Carson—and I believe she deserves nothing less—she didn’t advocate the complete banning of pesticides. I’ve read her book: if you look carefully in it, she simply wanted to make sure we made proper decisions about safely using them. In her own words:

It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.

After “Silent Spring” came out, the modern environmental movement was born. As with most things in life, such principles as those she expressed can be taken to an extreme, leading some overzealous groups to advocate for complete bans rather than proper study and regulation. Nuclear energy, managed forestry, aquaculture, genetically modified foods and industrial farming are just some of the many environmental issues that have some people arguing against them 100 percent, despite the fact that they all have a role to play in the modern world.

I expect that if Rachel Carson were alive today, she would have something to say about greenhouse gas emissions and the threat they pose to our society. And I’m sure her comments would be as poignant and as tempered as they were more than a half century ago. Perhaps we should all strive to be so eloquent in our own efforts to help save the planet.

I Will Be a Hummingbird

“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.”
—Wangari Maathai

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, I wanted to honour some important women who have taught me valuable life lessons. First on my list is Wangari Maathai who unfortunately passed away in 2011. In this beautiful animation she explains how we can all help make a difference, no matter how small the effort, with a beautiful analogy involving a hummingbird. I think its message is increasingly more important as each year goes by: We all need to do our part. We all need to be hummingbirds now, more than ever.

Please enjoy these two precious minutes.