Carbon Life: Bacteria to President Barack Obama

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Life survives miles below the Earth’s surface

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 5 2013 (IPS)

Every living thing from bacteria to President Barack Obama is made of carbon from exploding stars.

Billions of years ago, motes of carbon and other stardust formed the Earth. Carbon is the basis of all life but most vanished deep inside the planet, researchers now believe. And surprisingly, life thrives inside the rocky layers kilometres below our feet.

“Microbes survive by eating rock at those depths,” said Robert Hazen, executive director of the , a decade-long, global collaboration investigating the inner workings of the planet.

“Life is very different under those tremendous pressures and temperatures,” Hazen told IPS.

The variety of bacterial life at extreme high-pressure depths worldwide constitutes a subterranean “Galapagos”, he said. There may be as much as half of all life in the ground deep below us, according to one estimate, although Hazen thinks that might be too high.

“Drill a hole one or two kilometres deep just about anywhere and you will find a sparse but hardy microbial community,” said Isabelle Daniel of l’Université Claude Bernard in Lyon, France.

“These deep microbes, which live in the tiniest cracks and fissures in rocks, survive on the chemical energy of minerals,” said Daniel, who is one hundreds of scientists involved in the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO).

DNA analysis reveals a diversity of microorganisms, mainly single-celled. However, deep below the ocean floor live fungi-like organisms with complex cell structures. Researchers estimate that these are extraordinarily long-living organisms, conceivably living for millions of years.

“There are also a huge numbers of viruses, their DNA carefully inserted into living cells,” said Hazen.

Continue reading

Help Wanted: 27 Planet Earths

This story was featured on the IPS wire and on the Al Jazeera network in 2011. It shows that national parks, conservation and protected areas do not and cannot halt the decline in biodiversity that is humanity’s life support system. It is hopeless without addressing the root causes: too many of us, taking too much and having too big of an impact. On our present course we’ll need 27 planet Earths by 2050 experts conclude. — Stephen 

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jul 29, 2011 (IPS)

Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.

Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.

The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.

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But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the studypublished in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“It is amazing to me that we haven’t dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses,” said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear,” Mora told IPS. Continue reading

Governments Fail to Take Steps to Steer Away From Looming Crisis

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Rio+20 should have been about life, about the future of our children”

By Stephen Leahy

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 19 2012 (IPS)

“Very disappointing.” That was the term business and non-governmental organisations used to describe the formal intergovernmental negotiations at the Rio+20 Earth Summit as of Tuesday.

With overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the Earth’s ability to support human life is at serious risk, the Rio+20 summit is being held to help chart a safe course that will steer away from disaster and bring a better future people around the globe.

After two years, negotiators from more than 190 nations agreed Tuesday to a 49-page draft of the document “The Future We Want”, intended to be the roadmap for this transformation. This document will be presented to heads of states in Rio de Janeiro to revise and finalise by the summit’s conclusion on Friday.

Yet the draft document leaves out a 30-billion-dollar fund proposed by a group of developing countries known as the G77 to finance the transition to a green economy. Nor does it define tangible Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be substituted for the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

“This (the revised text) is extremely disappointing….There is no vision, no money and really no commitments here,” said Lasse Gustavsson, head of the Rio+20 delegation from WWF International, which works to stop environmental degradation worldwide.

Rio+20 should have been about life, about the future of our children, of our grandchildren. It should have been about forest, rivers, lakes, oceans that we are all depending on for our food, water and energy security,” Gustavsson told TerraViva.

Instead, two years of work have resulted in merely a long document that commits to virtually nothing but more meetings, he said.Rio+20 logo

“This document is a great disappointment. There’s no ambition and little reference to the planetary boundaries we face,” said Kiara Worth, representing the U.N.’s Major Group on Children and Youth at Rio+20.

“The voices of civil society and future generations is going unheard. We ought to call this Rio minus 20 because we are going backwards,” Worth told TerraViva. Continue reading

“We Should be Shaking in Our Boots” – UN Environment Official

Construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazil -- sml Photo by Hans Silvester

Earth’s Ability to Support Us At Risk – An Indictment of Governments We Elected

By Stephen Leahy

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 19 2012 (IPS)

The science is crystal clear: humans are threatening Earth’s ability to support mankind, and a new world economy is urgently needed to prevent irreversible decline, said scientists and other experts at an event on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

Yet the Global Environment Outlook report, or GEO 5, which was launched on June 6 and assessed 90 of the most important environmental objectives, found that significant progress had been made only in four in the 20 years since the first landmark summit in Rio in 1992.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said the results of GEO 5 were “depressing, even to me”.

“This ought to have us shaking in our boots,” Steiner told TerraViva at the Fair Ideas conference that concluded Sunday. ”It is an indictment of our behaviour over the past 20 years and of the governments we elected. We need an honest conversation about why we are not turning things around.”rio banner sml

Instead, “what’s happening right now in the RioCentro (Rio+20 official site) is that science is being picked out of the text of the final agreement,” Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, told the conference.

Rockström said he had received updates from the negotiations that the United States and some of the world’s least developed countries were attacking the science showing humanity is pushing up against “planetary boundaries”.

Climate is only one of those “planetary boundaries”. Another is the ongoing decline of biodiversity, where so many plants and animals are going extinct that the Earth’s living systems, upon which humanity depends, are unravelling. Fresh water is another planetary boundary. Water is a limited resource, yet water use has increased six-fold in the past century.

“The science is absolutely clear: we are up against the edges of the planet’s ability to support us and approaching irreversible tipping points,” Rockström said. Continue reading

24 Policies That Can End Our Earth Emergency

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“Ecological literacy is vital for those in positions of power and influence”

Never vote for anyone who isn’t literate

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 7 2012 (IPS)

Ecologically ignorant policies are largely responsible for the interlinked crises that are unraveling the planet’s life support system.

The unintended consequences of such policies are climate change, desertification, biodiversity decline, ocean pollution and the destruction of forests, according to the policy advocacy organisation World Future Council.

The solution is to eliminate “bad” policies and implement policies that ensure a healthy planet for future generations. On world environment Day, Jun. 5, the World Future Council will present an emergency policy agenda consisting of 24 tipping-point policies that need to be implemented globally to preserve a habitable planet.

“We are in an Earth Emergency. It’s an unbelievable crisis. Policies are the most important tool we have to change this,” Jakob von Uexkull, founder and chair of the World Future Council (WFC).

The five-year old WFC is based in Hamburg, Germany and comprised of 50 eminent individual from around the globe who have already successfully promoted change.

“Policy may be seen as dull and boring but they are the things that shape our societies,” von Uexkull told IPS.

In 2000, the German government created the now famous feed-in tariff policy launching a renewable energy revolution. That policy has enabled Germany to generate 22 percent of its electricity from renewables today and created a new business sector employing more people than its automotive industry.

“With the best laws and right policy incentives we can mobilise human inventiveness and entrepreneurship to safeguard a healthy planet for future generations,” he said.

On the other hand bad government policies allow 3,000 of the world’s biggest corporations to escape more than 2.2 trillion dollars in annual costs through their impacts on the natural environment, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. (A trillion is one thousand billion. A trillion seconds is nearly 32,000 years). Continue reading

Green Approaches to Water Safest and Cheapest Solution

Wetlands regulate, clean and cool water. Mare Aux Cochons high-altitude wetlands, Seychelles Islands (ReneeLeahy copyright)
Wetlands regulate, clean and cool water. Mare Aux Cochons high-altitude wetlands, Seychelles Islands (ReneeLeahy copyright)

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 18 2013 (IPS)

After Hurricane Sandy swept through the northeast of the United States late October 2012, millions of New Yorkers were left for days without electricity.  But they still had access to drinking water, thanks to New York City’s reliance on protected watershed areas for potable water.

Instead of using electric-powered water treatment plans, New York City brings its high-quality drinking water through aqueducts connected to protected areas in the nearby Catskill/Delaware forests and wetlands – just one example of how protecting watersheds can provide residential areas with drinking water and flood and pollution protection at bargain basement prices.

New York saved between four and six billion dollars on the cost of water treatment plants by protecting forests and compensating farmers in the Catskills for reducing pollution in lakes and streams.

In 2011, countries around the world invested more than eight billion dollars in similar watershed projects around the world, according to the State of Watershed Payments 2012 report released Thursday. That year, China led the way, accounting for 91 percent of watershed investment.

“Whether you need to save water-starved China from economic ruin or protect drinking water for New York City, investing in natural resources is emerging as the most cost-efficient and effective way to secure clean water and recharge our dangerously depleted streams and aquifers,” said Michael Jenkins, president of Forest Trends, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the United States, which compiled the report. Continue reading

Worlds’ Scientists Say Facing “Planetary Emergency”

Planet Under Pressure – State of the Planet Declaration Mar 29 2012.

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, (IPS)

[Based on my article Climate Summit: A Moment That Must Be Seized ]

Governments, the media and the public aren’t paying attention to the “planetary emergency” unfolding around them. The situation is like firefighters yelling “fire” in crowded room and still no listens.

“The situation is absolutely desperate and yet there’s nothing on the front pages or on the agenda of world leaders,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organisation based in Ottawa.

“The lack of attention is a tragedy,” said Mooney, who has 40 years experience in international environment and development issues.

Humanity is failing in its stewardship of the planet. An incredible 85 percent of the world’s oceans are in trouble, said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, a U.S. organisation.

“Planetary emergency” is how many in the world’s scientific community describe “the mess we are in“. They will detail their comprehensive state of the planet assessment at the “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London Mar. 26-29.

That assessment will summarise the overwhelming evidence that “the continued functioning of the Earth system as we know it is at risk,” conference organisers previously told IPS.

Climate change, which is overheating the planet and making the oceans more acidic, is just one of the major challenges. Another is the ongoing decline of biodiversity, where so many plants and animals are going extinct that the Earth’s living systems on which humanity depends are unraveling.

Fresh water is another “planetary boundary” humanity is pushing up against. Water use has increased six-fold in the past century and in many places the quality of water resources has been degraded. Other challenges include increasing poverty, food and energy security, and the current financial and economic instability.

A first and essential step in a green transition is for nations to commit to phasing out harmful and unsustainable subsidies for fossil fuels, fisheries and industrial agriculture.

According to Mooney, some countries and large corporations see the green economy in terms of a post-petroleum future where resources and energy for industrial production comes from biomass and other living things. Most of those “living resources” are in the global South and local people rightly fear a massive land grab, he said.

Foreign investors have already gained access to more than 35 million hectares in Africa, Asia and South America for food and biofuel production according to GRAIN, a small NGO working with small farmers and farming communities.