29 October 2005

Together, we can stop climate change

By Rupert Read

As I sit here writing this column, we are still enjoying a most unseasonably warm October: it shouldn't be this warm, at this time of year. We all know that, really.

And I thank my lucky stars I do not live in the Caribbean, where yet another killer hurricane has just struck. 2005 has already been one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. The latest hurricane, 'Wilma', is the 12th hurricane of this year - a figure equalled only in 1969 since record-keeping began in 1851. By one measure, Wilma is the strongest hurricane EVER, with the lowest barometric pressure on record in the Atlantic.

The scientific consensus is now that these changes in the climate are the direct result of more heat-energy in the weather system. In other words: this catastrophic weather IS global warming.

Perhaps we can dare to hope, in the aftermath of Wilma hitting Florida, that the USA (and the UK!) might finally start to move faster toward real action to combat climate change? Such an intelligent response to such a disastrous change in the weather would at least give the many thousands of victims of these hurricanes a kind of legacy. We must begin to act to prevent future destruction on such a scale, by tackling the causes of climate change. The unprecedented scale of the disaster that hit New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina) should already have made that quite clear.

Now, we EDP writers and readers are fortunate to have on our doorsteps, at the University of East Anglia, the world's premier climatologists. We are less fortunate to live in a part of the country peculiarly vulnerable to climate change. Our crumbling coastline, our low-lying land, our inadequate flood-defences … East Anglians need to be very conscious of the threat that man-made climate change poses to all our futures.

Climate change is in fact the pre-eminent issue - and crisis - of our times. Britain's chief scientist has warned that civilisation may perish virtually everywhere outside Antarctica, within a century, if the crisis is not solved. This is a deeply-shocking state of affairs, almost too big and frightening for the human mind to comprehend. We need radical and co-ordinated action on a scale greater than the world has ever known, to solve the climate crisis.

In the early stages of this worldwide crisis, a remarkably effective potential worldwide solution has been presented by Aubrey Meyer's Global Commons Institute. It is called 'Contraction and Convergence': contraction of CO2 emissions, to a scientifically-agreed safe level, and convergence of emissions toward the same per capita basis, worldwide.

Contraction and convergence would be equitable: because it is put forward on the basis of the right of each individual to an equal entitlement of the maximum amount of carbon emissions that is consistent with climate safety for all, including for those as yet unborn. It would ensure human survival: because it will be based on the best climate science in drawing up safe emissions levels.

Actually, it will be equitable because it will lead to human survival: insufficiently radical action to counter the threat of climate chaos imposes grossly unfair burdens on those whose lives are threatened by that chaos; especially, our children. And it will lead to human survival because it is equitable: any other deal will be unacceptable either to developed nations (which will ask why they should constrain their own CO2 emissions, if developing nations are not bound to) or to developing nations (which will ask why they should be forbidden development, when it is developed nations who have damaged the world's climate and reaped the economic benefits of having done so).

If any of this sounds too remote or abstract, then just remember: this isn't some academic debate. And it isn't just about people far away of whom we know little. Nor is this even just about your children and grandchildren.

Unless we move now to curb carbon emissions drastically, worldwide, then, next time, it might be us. So isn't it time we adopted a 'Contraction and Convergence' policy, and stopped this man-made climate change, in its tracks?

That's what I'll be saying today, in my keynote speech to a new think tank, the 'Green Economics Institute', who are holding a big conference in Reading this weekend on climate change (http://www.greeneconomics.org.uk/). I hope people are ready to listen: especially, to the boffins at UEA who are leading the way on this all-important issue. We need something of the spirit of the Blitz here: we can only solve this problem if we all pull together. The 'war on Terror' is a sideshow compared to what must become the main attraction: a war on climate change.

22 October 2005

Keep the bio-fires burning this Hollow'een

By Marguerite Finn

All weekend the hand-carts have been trundling past the window. I'm not reporting the flight of a population from an invading army or natural disaster. My village's annual bonfire night approaches and everyone is using it to dispose of their green and other burnable rubbish. I like to see this annual procession of men, women and children dragging or carrying sundry bits of greenery towards an enormous mound in the middle of a field - like an altar to the Green Man of ancient times! Perhaps something of that pre-Christian era lingers on in our collective subconscious.

Last year there was a scare that the EU was about to ban such bonfires, but it turned out to apply only to certain types of agricultural burning, so this year the trundling continues and it looks as though the pile will be bigger than ever; it seems indeed to be the year of the Leylandii cull. Yet, if the EU is really worried about global warming, it should realise that the rush of CO2 released in one evening from the bonfires of countless villages, will add considerably to global harmful emissions.

Would it not be better if all that greenery which faithfully absorbed CO2 for so long, was encouraged to return it slowly over many years while adding useful organic matter to the soil, via shredders and compost heaps? Better still, if villages invested in shredders and sold the resulting compost and mulches so that people could protect their soils from extreme weather, giving the proceeds to local charities.

I can already hear the cries of "Spoil Sport!" Yet paradoxes and incongruities such as these abound in EU affairs, particularly where agriculture is concerned.

Norfolk farmers are unhappy at the reductions in sugar beet growing that are being enforced in the current reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy. The argument rages over whether this will hurt more third world countries than it helps. Yet CAP reform was not principally directed at helping poor countries. It was supposed to reduce the pressures for intensive industrial agricultural production which have been contributing to declining soil organic matter (soil carbon), pollution of surface water, ground and coastal waters and terrible destruction of wildlife over the last thirty years. Intensive beet growing is harmful in all those ways - a fact rarely acknowledged .

Going in the opposite direction, the EU has proposed optional biofuel targets, to which many European countries are responding by developing their biofuel agriculture. Norfolk is berating our own government because it won't create the favourable financial terms under which our own biofuel industry might take off. Again, no one mentions that it would take about a quarter of all UK arable land to meet those optional EU biofuel targets. It wouldn't simply be a matter of growing biofuels on what is presently set-aside. It would mean massive food imports to replace the food that is no longer grown here. Long distance transportation of food across the world is incompatible with the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Statistically, a typical UK family of four emits per year 4 tonnes of CO2 from the house, 4 tonnes from the car but 8 tonnes from production, processing, packaging and distribution of the food they eat.

That 16 tonnes of CO2 per year is about six times our global ration - were everyone on the planet given an equal ration of the total CO2 emissions for a sustainable climate.

A recent European Conference on Climate Change and Biodiversity organised by English Nature, concluded that far more gains for the environment would be made by reducing the size of car engines than by producing fuel from crops. "You can either feed humans or cars but not both", it said.

But there is a type of biofuel that can be developed locally from organic wastes, used cooking oil and damaged crops, using simple equipment that can be erected on a farm or community basis. This would enable farms to generate their own heat and drive their own vehicles and machinery. Villages could build similar plant and profit from the sales while helping to reduce waste recycling and other substances harmful to the environment.

This cannot happen while governments impose swinging restrictions on the development of such systems. We need clear, positive leadership from government down to local council level. Sustainable food and transport systems should be at the heart of national and local policy. In East Anglia we have already started and a Zero-Waste Centre is planned for Lowestoft. Further information can be had on 01502 584061 or email anna@zwc.org.uk.

Thanks to Peter Lanyon and Maxine Narburgh (Chair - SIREN).

15 October 2005

We are all connected

By Andrew Boswell

Poignantly last week's terrible Kashmir earthquake cut through human imposed borders. In affecting both India and Pakistan, the earthquake respected no border showing how we are all connected.

A connection which was aptly illustrated at last weekend's Resolving Conflict conference at UEA by three members of Friends of the Earth Middle East - Mira from Israel, Munqeth from Jordan, and Nader from Palestine presented their project for the Lower Jordan River saying "the River has no borders".

The river from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea is in environmental crisis. Just 50 years ago, a strong river took 1.3 million cubic meters of water from Mt Hermon and springs across Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan into the Dead Sea. Now the flow is just 10% of this, whilst the Dead Sea surface lowers 1 metre each year.

Waste dumped at Wadi Abu NarPhoto: waste dumped at Wadi Abu Nar

For 50 years, water has been progressively diverted to meet the needs of Israel, Jordan and Syria for water for agricultural irrigation and drinking. The ecological catastrophe is compounded by all the countries pumping untreated Israeli sewage into the river.

Friends of the Earth Middle East, founded in 1994 as 'EcoPeace' by Egyptians, Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, fosters environmental peace building projects across the region - their Jordan river project catch phrase is "Good Water makes Good Neighbours".

As Nader Khatid, Palestinian director has said "Water can be a bridge for peace - the water resources are so scarce in the Middle East that we have to work together with our Israeli neighbors in order to help guarantee that we as Palestinians get our fair share of water and all together stop the pollution of the water resource."

Turning around the river's plight requires a huge coming together of people who are also in conflict. Whilst all parties have contributed to the crisis by excessive water diversion and dam building, discharging sewage and saline into the river, it is only all party solidarity that can turn around these devastating practices.

Due to years of conflict, badly needed cooperative mechanisms between the parties do not exist, and Friends of the Earth Middle East are working hard to create these and foster joint sustainable development - the third joint meeting between Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian mayors in the valley takes place next month.

Internationally, they are lobbying UNESCO to recognise the river as a world heritage site, given its natural and cultural significance, leading to jointly developed cross-border nature reserves and national parks.

Their vision needs our support as real action to restore the ecology of the river directly challenges the prevailing tide of economic globalisation that benefits only a minority in the region, and worldwide - the ecological restoration of the river has to be built on a fundamental restructuring of the region's economy.

Right now, the region's agriculture is far from sustainable, nor justified in terms of the water economy. Much of Israel and Jordan's agriculture is for profit oriented export - high value fruit trees such as apples, peaches and bananas needing large amounts of high quality water are favoured by rich absentee farmers because they are more profitable than vegetables.

20th century agricultural development was about making the deserts bloom for burgeoning Western demands - huge amounts of water have been required for this project - literally diverted from the river, leaving it to shrivel away and die.

Yet, the economic benefit of this has only been for a minority of the population - 50 percent of Israel's water goes to agriculture, yet the sector's contribution to the GDP is just 3% (for Jordan, the figures are 75% and 6%). Friends of the Earth Middle East promote a return to sustainable agriculture that can feed the local people growing vegetables such as tomatoes and aubergines which make less demands on water.

Systemic problems of the imbalance of power and water poverty must be overcome too - Palestinians have a mere 70 cubic metres of water per head compared to 340 for Israel.

As elsewhere, radical change is needed quickly - the river's original water sources must be restored quickly so it may heal - otherwise like rain forests and ice sheets, it too will die. In battling for ecological rehabilitation of the Jordan, Friends of the Earth Middle East are in solidarity with all those who seek the life of the planet and people to be put before economic growth.

This approach, given a chance, could produce a beautiful outcome - restoration of the natural and cultural heritage of the river and its region, and water playing a fundamental role in the long term Middle East peace process - reminding us we are all connected.

8 October 2005

Man cannot live by bread alone

By Jacqui McCarney

One may eat and drink at any time during the night
"until the white thread (light) of dawn appears
to you distinct from the black thread (darkness of night)":
then keep the fast until night"

The Holy Quran

Muslims started to celebrate one of the most important festivals in their religious calendar this last Tuesday. During this ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, they will fast during the daylight hours, and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. Ramadan is the month in which the Qur'an was revealed, it is a time for worship, reading the Qur'an and contemplation. Also a time to family and community ties are strengthened.

What is the relevance of this today? The great quality of all religions at their heart is that they are profoundly radical. Their core values centre on the 'brotherhood of man', generosity, renunciation and personal transformation. These values are clearly at odds with societies that advocate competition and greed. Sadly, religion, throughout the ages has been fashioned to fit human vices whether this means justifying slavery, wars, capitalist exploitation and hunger for power.

We will never extinguish the human hunger for meaning; it may be as necessary as food and shelter. Islam retains a central position in the lives of ordinary people. Its teachings are not abstract ideas to be touched infrequently at weddings and funerals, but part of the rhythm of everyday life. The Holy month of Ramadan, free from the commercialism that all too often dogs Christian festivals, allows Muslims to have a truly religious experience.

All Muslims, if they are fit, excluding pre-pubescent children, fast from all food and drink, from sunrise to sunset. Fasting is common to practically all religions, and its meaning, like the skins on an onion has many layers. It is a practice of self – sacrifice, enabling one to experience what the poor in the world experience on a daily basis. It encourages compassion and generosity and at the end of the month every person will be expected to give to charity, so that the poor too, can celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, the shared meal and festivities marking the end of Ramadan.

Fasting, for Muslims - as for Buddhists and Christians - is about 'letting go' of all that one does not need. This operates not just on the physical level, but on psychological and spiritual plains too. On the physical level, one is expected to let go of unnecessary food and snacks, but also the habits of endless cups of coffee, tea and smoking. On a psychological level, it means letting go of fillers like TV, magazines, unnecessary shopping, and other forms of entertainment. It also means letting go of ways of thinking that are unkind or egotistical. You fast not only with your mouth but with your ears and eyes and thoughts and from all wrongdoing. This state of nakedness exposes the spiritual, where there is nowhere to hide and we are confronted by ourselves.

This is to awake to our patterned way of behaving, and in that consciousness, we can go beyond habits and begin to live with more awareness. For Muslims, it is also to awake to the presence of Allah (God) in a heightened state of devotion and prayer. Fasting brings spiritual purification and is a cleansing of the heart and oneself.

But Ramadan is not just about ascetics, it is about balance and just as important as fasting is the breaking of the fast. The fast is broken slowly with dates or water and the sharing of an evening meal called iftar. This is a time to strengthen kinship ties and show hospitality to guests.

Kinship ties are of paramount importance to Muslims and the prophet Mohammad said that Ramadan entered into with ongoing conflict between people will be of no merit to either party. All conflict must be resolved before Ramadan, and no conflict should last longer than three days without resolution.

Christians share their religious roots with Muslims; all three monotheistic religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam originate in the Holy Land. Abraham and the prophets are revered by all three religions, we share the creation story of Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden and the promise of reward in the after-life. Our common bonds are numerous and yet this commonality is seldom talked about.

I have recently shared some time with local Muslim women and their children, and have been moved by the atmosphere of tranquility and peace around them – a living testimony to the truth that man cannot live by bread alone, and a society that offers only this can never be truly contented.

1 October 2005

Leading the way beyond animal testing

By Rupert Read

There are many reasons to be against testing cosmetics, diseases and medicines on animals. Some of those reasons have been explored in recent 'One World' columns.

But the most basic reason of all is perhaps the least understood one. It is this: animal testing just doesn’t work. Europeans for Medical Progress (EMP) is a new organisation representing thousands of doctors and scientists who oppose animal experimentation exclusively because it is harmful to human health. In fact, a survey that EMP commissioned in August 2004 revealed that 82% of doctors are concerned that animal data can be misleading for humans. Sadly, the mainstream national media seems to have little interest in this perspective, preferring sensational stories of "thugs" threatening "men in white coats".

Meanwhile, we hear constantly that animal experimentation is essential for medical progress – but where is the evidence to support that claim? Whereas there is a mountain of evidence from the scientific literature against it. For example, animal experiments showed that cigarettes were safe, that high cholesterol diets were safe, that Aidsvax would protect against HIV (it doesn't), and that HRT would protect women from heart disease and stroke (it doesn't). See http://www.curedisease.net/ for many more examples.

Overwhelming evidence shows that testing drugs on animals is meaningless for people, with a successful prediction rate for side effects of only 5-30%. Tossing a coin would predict drug safety as 'effectively' as animal tests do.

Side-effects of prescription medicine are now the fourth biggest killer in the western world. How are these drugs tested for safety? On animals! Pharmaceutical companies have known for decades that animal testing is mostly scientifically worthless - pure junk science - but they use it to provide liability protection when their drugs kill or injure people. Juries are easily swayed by volumes of safety data from rats, mice, dogs and monkeys – even though it is meaningless for humans. Vioxx (the recently withdrawn arthritis painkiller) alone has killed tens or more probably hundreds of thousands of people through heart attacks and strokes – yet tests in monkeys and mice showed it protected their hearts!

As to finding cures for our most dreaded diseases, it is vital that we abandon animal experiments if we expect to see any progress here. In 1998, Dr Richard Klausner, director of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), admitted, "The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades - and it simply didn't work in humans". The NCI believes we have lost cures for cancer because they were ineffective in mice. How can animal testing actually prevent us from finding cures to diseases? Through the tests showing substances as being dangerous to animals, even though they may be harmless for – and beneficial to – humans. Just think: without animal testing, perhaps we might already have figured out a cure not only for some cancers, but also for killers such as multiple sclerosis.

I believe the idea of cures for human disease efficiently being found via research on animals to be an expensive and dangerous lie. As respected elder statesman Tony Benn has said, "There is every reason why the public should be sceptical about claims that animal testing benefits human health. It is astonishing that animal testing has never been scientifically evaluated, and the process of doing so is long overdue."

The positive news is that we already have much safer ways to test new medicines – such as DNA chips to identify who will benefit and who will suffer side effects, and sophisticated microdose studies with volunteers monitored by PET scanners – providing information that could never be obtained from animals. Switching to these 21st-century technologies will benefit both people and animals.

Forward-looking scientists have already given up animal experiments, and are using exclusively non-animal based methods, as they endeavour to uncover the basic mechanisms of human diseases. Here, for instance, is the ‘Statement of policy regarding applications for funding’ of the Humane Research Trust, which is based in Cheshire (and has a laboratory at the University of East Anglia): "No animals or animal tissue to be used. Applications need to show some advance in technique, or use existing techniques in area where it is the norm to use animals, which will lead to a reduction in animal usage and a benefit to human health." It's good to know that British 21st century non-animal-based medical research is showing scientists the world over the way to go.

Big thanks to Shelley Willets of 'Europeans for Medical Progress', for help researching this article.