Tag Archives: africa

The Viral Storm – Nathan Wolfe


The Viral Storm

The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age

Nathan Wolfe

Genre: Biology

Price: $9.99

Publish Date: October 11, 2011

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Seller: Macmillan

“One of the world’s foremost virus hunters” ( Financial Times ), Stanford University biologist Nathan Wolfe reveals the origins of the world’s most deadly diseases and how we can combat and stop contagions. A “mix of biology, history, medicine, and first-hand experience [that] is potent and irresistible,”* The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age shares information Wolfe uncovered on his groundbreaking and dangerous research missions in the jungles of Africa and the rain forests of Borneo to provide an in-depth exploration of how lethal viruses evolved alongside human beings; how illnesses like HIV, swine flu, and bird flu almost wiped us out in the past; and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic. In a world where each new outbreak seems worse than the one before, Wolfe points the way forward, as new technologies are brought to bear in the most remote areas of the world to neutralize these viruses and even harness their power for the good of humanity. His provocative vision of the future will change the way we think about viruses, and perhaps remove a potential threat to humanity’s survival. “An astonishingly lucid book on an important topic. Deeply researched, yet effortlessly recounted.”—*Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies


The Viral Storm – Nathan Wolfe

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The climate crisis is putting women in danger, study finds

Imagine being a mom of seven children in a small village with little to no economic opportunities and resources. The only job a woman can get is to sell fish in the market — but in order to get the fish to sell, you have to have sex with fishermen as a form of payment.

This is the reality for many women in parts of East Africa, where economic opportunities are divided by gender. Traditionally, men own boats and go out fishing in lakes, while women buy fish from the men to sell at the market. But fish stocks are dwindling in East Africa, as they are across the globe, in part due to climate change. When men don’t catch enough fish to supply all the buyers, they negotiate sex in exchange for a guaranteed catch.

“Sex for fish” is just one of many examples described in a new study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature about the ways in which climate change and environmental destruction are fueling violence against women.

The researchers of the study conducted a survey of environmental policymakers, advocates, activists, and academics and collected 80 case studies that drew connections between environmental catastrophe and gender-based violence and exploitation. Fifty-nine percent of those who took the survey said they have observed sexual assault and coercion, rape, trafficking, child marriage, or other forms of violence against women in the wake of environmental crises or conflicts.

In countries with high gender inequality, like those in East Africa, laws and gender norms determine who has access to and control over natural resources. The study authors write that men often engage in violence against women to maintain these power imbalances. Indigenous women, for instance, sometimes face sexual violence and assault when male authorities demand sexual favors in exchange for land rights.

It’s not just struggles over natural resources that contribute to violence against women. In rural Australia, researchers found an uptick in domestic violence during severe droughts, which the researchers attributed to an increase in men’s alcohol and drug consumption to help them cope with drought-related financial pressures. And climate change–induced migration can also exacerbate gender-based violence, with women who flee to overcrowded temporary shelters after a climate disaster particularly vulnerable.

The jaboya system, as the sex-for-fish practice is called in western Kenya, has made women vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, which are four to 14 times more prevalent in fishing communities than elsewhere in developing countries. Overfishing and warming temperatures have made it more difficult for fishermen to find fish. Climate change-fueled floods and droughts can severely impact inland waters such as lakes and ponds, resulting in a decline in water quality, longer dry seasons, the emergence of new pathogens, and accelerating fish mortality.

Despite environmental pressures, East African women have been exploring ways to resist sexual exploitation. In 2011, a women’s cooperative called “No Sex For Fish” launched, in an attempt to eliminate the jaboya practice. Thanks to grants from various nonprofits, such as World Connect, the women in the cooperative have bought boats and hired men to catch fish for them. Some boats, however, weren’t strong enough to take the strong wave currents, and eventually broke down. Although the jaboya system has not been fully eradicated, the cooperative continues to fight for women’s autonomy.

The IUCN study also provides examples of solutions and proposals for policymakers to consider when addressing gender-based violence and environmental rights. Uganda’s government, for instance, has integrated gender issues into a wetlands restoration project. Research shows that child marriage tends to increase during droughts, famines, and water shortages because it allows a family to receive “bride wealth” and to reduce the number of people to feed in a household. The restoration project is designed to mitigate such climate disasters, and as a result reduce child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence. The study also suggests ways to address gender-based violence by creating consortiums to spread awareness. In Nepal, for example, women who do forest conservation work were particularly vulnerable to violence from illegal loggers. USAID then expanded its Hariyo Ban Program, a consortium that aims to reduce threats to biodiversity and climate vulnerablities, to incorporate trainings to prevent violence against women.

“A powerful ingredient for change is knowledge,” Cate Owren, one of the study’s authors and the IUCN senior gender program manager, told Grist in an email. “We hope innovation and creative partnerships are on the horizon.”

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The climate crisis is putting women in danger, study finds

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The First Human – Ann Gibbons


The First Human

Ann Gibbons

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $2.99

Publish Date: April 18, 2006

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

In this dynamic account, award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons chronicles an extraordinary quest to answer the most primal of questions: When and where was the dawn of humankind?Following four intensely competitive international teams of scientists in a heated race to find the “missing link”–the fossil of the earliest human ancestor–Gibbons ventures to Africa, where she encounters a fascinating array of fossil hunters: Tim White, the irreverent Californian who discovered the partial skeleton of a primate that lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia; French paleontologist Michel Brunet, who uncovers a skull in Chad that could date the beginnings of humankind to seven million years ago; and two other groups–one led by zoologist Meave Leakey, the other by British geologist Martin Pickford and his French paleontologist partner, Brigitte Senut–who enter the race with landmark discoveries of their own. Through scrupulous research and vivid first-person reporting, The First Human reveals the perils and the promises of fossil hunting on a grand competitive scale.

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The First Human – Ann Gibbons

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House Democrats set to introduce first-of-its-kind climate refugee bill

This story was originally published by HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

House Democrats are set to introduce the first major piece of legislation to establish protections for migrants displaced by climate change, ramping up a push for a long-overdue framework for how the United States should respond to a crisis already unfolding on its shores.

The bill, called the Climate Displaced Persons Act, would create a federal program separate from the existing refugee program to take in a minimum of 50,000 climate migrants starting next year.

The legislation, a copy of which HuffPost obtained, directs the White House to collect data on people displaced by extreme weather, drought and sea level rise and submit an annual report to Congress. It also requires the State Department to work with other federal agencies to create a Global Climate Resilience Strategy that puts global warming at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

The bill, set to be introduced by Representative Nydia Velázquez, a New York Democrat, is a companion to legislation proposed by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey, one of the leading advocates for a Green New Deal. Its introduction in the House of Representatives marks an escalation as Democrats start to flesh out what a sweeping federal plan to eliminate emissions and prepare the country for more climate catastrophe would look like.

The 21-page proposal looks unlikely to become law while Donald Trump, who rejects climate science and slashed the country’s refugee cap to a historic low of 18,000 last month, remains president.

But the bill lays the groundwork for how a future administration could deal with what’s already forecast to be among the greatest upheavals global warming will cause.

Since 2008, catastrophic weather has displaced an average of 24 million people per year, according to data from the Swiss-based nonprofit Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. That number could climb to anywhere from 140 million to 300 million to 1 billion by 2050. The World Bank estimated last year that climate change effects in just three regions ― sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America ― could force 143 million people to flee by the middle of the century.

Yet little to no legal infrastructure exists to classify and process climate refugees. Last December, leaders from 164 countries formally adopted the U.N. Global Compact for Migration, the first major international document to recognize the role of climate change in causing displacement. But it’s a nonbinding and voluntary accord, and the United States, Australia, and several European Union members refused to sign.

Meanwhile, the exodus is already underway. Within the United States, coastal communities in Louisiana, Florida, and Alaska are abandoning their low-lying homes in search of higher ground, albeit with limited federal support. The wave of foreign migrants seeking safety in the world’s largest economy has begun lapping on U.S. shores.

Thousands of Central American migrants making the treacherous journey to the U.S. border with Mexico are farmers escaping lands so parched by drought crops won’t grow. Last month, the Trump administration turned away at least 119 Bahamians heading to Florida to flee the destruction Hurricane Dorian, the kind of Category 5 storm scientists project to be more frequent in a hotter world, left in its wake.

“America will continue to stand tall as a safe haven for immigrants,” Velázquez said in a statement. “This legislation will not only reaffirm our nation’s longstanding role as a home to those fleeing conflict and disasters, but it will also update it to reflect changes to our world brought on by a changing climate.”

The nascent climate refugee crisis comes as the United Nations is already recording more than 65 million people displaced worldwide ― a figure that, depending on how it’s counted, amounts to the highest number of refugees ever. In Europe, the steady stream of refugees escaping war, poverty, and drought in North Africa and the Middle East has spurred a powerful new right-wing movement against immigrants, led by some of the most brazenly ethnonationalist elected officials since the 1930s.

Absent any liberal alternatives, this European right is starting to pitch its hardline immigration policies as a bulwark against climate disruption. Earlier this year, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally, criticized “nomadic” people who “do not care about the environment” as “they have no homeland,” harkening to Nazi-era “blood and soil” rhetoric. A spokesman for her party proposed a solution: “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally.”

Climate Displaced Persons Act by Alexander Kaufman on Scribd

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Crisis in the Red Zone – Richard Preston


Crisis in the Red Zone

The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come

Richard Preston

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $13.99

Expected Publish Date: July 23, 2019

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

The 2013–2014 Ebola epidemic was the deadliest ever—but the outbreaks continue. Now comes a gripping account of the doctors and scientists fighting to protect us, an urgent wake-up call about the future of emerging viruses—from the #1 bestselling author of The Hot Zone, now a National Geographic original miniseries. This time, Ebola started with a two-year-old child who likely had contact with a wild creature and whose entire family quickly fell ill and died. The ensuing global drama activated health professionals in North America, Europe, and Africa in a desperate race against time to contain the viral wildfire. By the end—as the virus mutated into its deadliest form, and spread farther and faster than ever before—30,000 people would be infected, and the dead would be spread across eight countries on three continents. In this taut and suspenseful medical drama, Richard Preston deeply chronicles the outbreak, in which we saw for the first time the specter of Ebola jumping continents, crossing the Atlantic, and infecting people in America. Rich in characters and conflict—physical, emotional, and ethical— Crisis in the Red Zone is an immersion in one of the great public health calamities of our time. Preston writes of doctors and nurses in the field putting their own lives on the line, of government bureaucrats and NGO administrators moving, often fitfully, to try to contain the outbreak, and of pharmaceutical companies racing to develop drugs to combat the virus. He also explores the charged ethical dilemma over who should and did receive the rare doses of an experimental treatment when they became available at the peak of the disaster. Crisis in the Red Zone makes clear that the outbreak of 2013–2014 is a harbinger of further, more severe outbreaks, and of emerging viruses heretofore unimagined—in any country, on any continent. In our ever more interconnected world, with roads and towns cut deep into the jungles of equatorial Africa, viruses both familiar and undiscovered are being unleashed into more densely populated areas than ever before.   The more we discover about the virosphere, the more we realize its deadly potential. Crisis in the Red Zone is an exquisitely timely book, a stark warning of viral outbreaks to come.

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Crisis in the Red Zone – Richard Preston

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Remember the rainforests? We still haven’t saved them.

Every half hour, the world lost a football-field chunk of tropical forest in 2018.

Over the course of the year, that added up to a total forest loss of nearly 30 million acres, an area the size of Pennsylvania, according to the World Resources Institute’s annual report, out Thursday. As bad as that sounds, many more acres were lost in each of the two previous years, when huge fires wiped out millions of trees. The report is hardly cause for celebration, said Frances Seymour, senior fellow at WRI.

“The world’s forests are in the emergency room, said Seymour. “Even though they are recovering from extensive burns suffered in recent fires, the patient is also bleeding profusely from fresh wounds.”

Global Forest Watch

Deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. If deforestation were a country, it would be the third largest source of carbon pollution, after the United States and China.

“Tropical forest loss pulls the rug out from under efforts to stabilize the global climate,” Seymour said.

Every year, WRI’s Global Forest Watch pores over satellite images of the world’s woodlands and reams of data to monitor where trees are falling. Here are a few bullet points from the report:

Old growth deforestation continues: Primary or old-growth rainforest stores a lot of carbon in big trees and a lot of biodiversity — the frogs, bromeliads, lichens, leafcutter ants, and lemurs that live in those big trees. Since 2000, we’ve been losing about the same amount of primary rainforest every year: A Belgium-sized 9 million acres.

And it’s spreading: Efforts in Indonesia and Brazil to stem the loss of old-growth forests have started to work. By enforcing a moratorium on clearing primary forest, Indonesia has managed to bring deforestation down to the lowest level since 2003, said Belinda Margono from Indonesia’s Department of Environment and Forestry. But forests are falling at a quicker pace in West Africa, Colombia, Bolivia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Big trouble in Madagascar: The East Africane East African island island country lost a full 2 percent of its primary forest, more than any other country.

Peace brings cattle to Colombia: A truce between the government and between the government and rebels made it safe for farmers to enter previously perilous forests. Now they’re cutting down trees to create pastures for cattle.

Small farmers, big problems: Small-scale farmers (often growing cocoa for chocolate) were responsible for most of the forest loss in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru. By contrast, large farms — like those growing soy for China — were the main culprit in Bolivia.

From the distance, these data points might seem abstract, but the numbers represent “heartbreaking losses in real places,” Seymour said. “For every area of forest loss there’s likely a species one inch closer to extinction. And for every area of forest loss there’s likely a family that has lost access to an important part of their daily income from hunting, gathering, and fishing. Such loses pose an existential threat to the cultures of indigenous peoples. And for every area of forest loss there’s likely a community downstream that has less access to clean water and is more exposed to floods and landslides.”

Still, she said she’s optimistic that the world can stop leveling forests. Some countries have radically slowed tree loss by passing and enforcing laws. And the United Nations program that pays developing countries to stop deforestation has worked in the few places where it has been funded, she said.

“We know what to do, we just need to do it,” Seymour said.

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Remember the rainforests? We still haven’t saved them.

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Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ water crisis, one year later

This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In January 2018, when officials in Cape Town announced that the city of 4 million people was three months away from running out of municipal water, the world was stunned. Labelled “Day Zero” by local officials and brought on by three consecutive years of anemic rainfall, April 12, 2018, was to be the date of the largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history.

Photos of parched-earth dams and residents lining up to collect spring water splashed across news sites. The city’s contingency plan called for the entire population to collect its water — a maximum of a two-minute-shower’s-worth a day per person — from 200 centralized water centers, each serving the population equivalent of an MLS soccer stadium.

Then April 12th came and went, and news of the crisis evaporated.

One year on, Cape Town has apparently made it through the worst of a historic drought without turning off the taps, although the water supply is still tenuous. How the city managed to evade disaster — a combination of water conservation and efficiency measures, smarter use of data, and a little help from Mother Nature — serves as a largely hopeful precedent for cities globally facing increasing risk of extreme environmental events. Still, serious challenges in establishing a resilient and sustainable water supply system for Cape Town remain.

90 critical days

The countdown to Day Zero was 90 days. So what did Cape Town do to beat it? Unsurprisingly, it was not a silver bullet but a barrage of efforts that averted disaster. One big boost came in February 2018, when the national government throttled allocation of water in the region earmarked for agriculture, allowing more to flow to urban residents. The same month, farmers also agreed to divert additional water stored for agricultural purposes to the city.

However, the city’s conservation efforts were as important, and more remarkable. Cape Town’s government ramped up water tariffs and enforcement of prohibitions on heavy users, prohibiting use of municipal water for swimming pools, lawns, and similar non-essential uses. The city’s government also implemented a new water-pressure system in January, saving roughly 10 percent of overall municipal water consumption.

The effect was stunning. Cape Town’s municipal water-use levels historically oscillate throughout the year, showing up on a graph as a standing wave pattern with troughs coinciding with wet winters, and peaks mirroring the dry summer months when people rely more on taps for water. Like an ocean wave crashing onto shore, this wave pattern fizzled out as Cape Town implemented drought restrictions, cutting its peak usage by more than half in three years.

The January 2018 announcement alone galvanized a 30-percent drop in residential consumption after a steady but slower decline in earlier stages of the drought, according to City of Cape Town statistics.

A city changes its habits

Technical fixes and regulatory controls implemented by the municipality were important to curbing water consumption, but reaching such levels of conservation would not have been possible without large-scale cooperation by a wide swath of residents, businesses, and other stakeholders.

“It doesn’t matter how much technical expertise you’ve got, but you actually have to stand back and understand the system more broadly,” notes Gina Ziervogel of the University of Cape Town, who has researched the crisis. For the city, this meant using data more effectively to prompt people to save water.

Starting in 2017, the municipality had begun ratcheting up its drought-awareness campaign, publishing weekly updates on regional dam levels and water consumption and using electronic boards on freeways to notify drivers of how many days of water supply Cape Town had left. Then, in January 2018 and with Day Zero looming, the city got more aggressive. In addition to announcing its Day Zero countdown, the city launched a city-wide water map to show water consumption on a household level, allowing people to compare their consumption to their neighbors and the rest of the city.

Heightened outreach regarding the crisis prompted wide discussion: The municipality’s weekly water report became a regular topic at social gathenings and on the radio. Governmental and civic organizations published water-saving techniques, and people traded tips on social media. In an unusual turn of events, techniques used in the poor, water-strapped township areas gained traction in wealthier areas.

Prompted by new water-use tariffs, businesses also began increased efforts to communicate the need to save water to customers and employees. Bathroom signs explaining “If it’s yellow, let it mellow … ” became ubiquitous in restaurants and bars, while startup and corporate types initiated “dirty shirt” challenges to see who could go the most days without washing their work shirt.

Crisis averted (for now)

By the end of March 2018, the emergency efforts had provided a small additional buffer in the city’s water reserves, allowing city officials to push back Day Zero beyond the upcoming rainy season. In June 2018, the region saw average rainfall for the first time in four years. With the rain, dam levels rose, and officials were able to call off Day Zero indefinitely.

Cape Town’s multi-pronged effort to stave off Day Zero succeeded. Still, the challenges to achieving water security persist. Although dam levels are above the lows experienced during the drought, they remain below pre-drought years and currently stand at 50 percent of capacity. Meanwhile, daily water use for the city has crept higher over the past year.

Furthermore, disparities in access to water in Cape Town continue to be related to extreme economic inequality, which generally runs along the racial lines established during South Africa’s colonial and apartheid eras. For a large proportion of Cape Town’s poor citizens, whose only normal access to water is a communal tap, Day Zero remains a constant reality. Combine this with a complex political climate and historical distrust of state policies, and it is easy to understand that a sustained unified effort to conserve water is fraught with tension.

Cape Town is making a longer-term effort to diversify its water resources, but that too is prompting concerns. Projects to desalinate ocean water and tap the aquifer beneath the city have proven far more expensive than initially thought, and have also faced questions about their environmental impacts on local ecosystems and overall sustainability. An increase in private wells drilled by wealthier households has added pressure to the future availability of this source. Although plans for both desalination and groundwater extraction are progressing, neither alone will solve Cape Town’s water issues.

For now, the city and its residents are still enduring moderate drought conditions. Urban water restrictions remain in place, although less strict than before, and the legacy of the drought can still be seen all around Cape Town. Many businesses continue to remind customers to restrict their usage in signs taped to bathroom mirrors and above toilets. That’s probably just as well — water-scarcity issues are not likely to go anywhere, considering the increased risks of drought caused by climate change and population growth.

As for other cities facing similar resource crises: Ziervogel advises “to make sure you’ve got those relationships and partnerships in place so that when a crisis hits you can actually draw on those partnerships.”

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Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ water crisis, one year later

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Climate change could push tropical diseases to Alaska, according to a new study

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Nearly a billion people could be newly at risk of tropical diseases like dengue fever and Zika as climate change shifts the range of mosquitoes, according to a new study.

Since the life cycle of mosquitoes is temperature sensitive, scientists have long been concerned about how their prevalence might spread as the world continues to warm. The study is one of the first to examine in detail how that might happen by using an overlap of two disease-carrying mosquitoes’ range and projected monthly temperature changes under a variety of future warming scenarios.

In the most extreme scenario of more than 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) warming by 2080, certain tropical disease-carrying species of mosquitoes currently found only seasonally in the U.S. South and southern Europe could greatly expand their range, as far north as Alaska and northern Finland — north of the Arctic Circle. That would force a redefinition of the term “tropical” diseases.

The sheer enormity of people who could be exposed gave the lead author pause. “It’s rather shocking,” said Sadie Ryan, a disease ecologist at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, in an interview with Grist.

In Europe alone, the number of people exposed to the dengue-carrying Aedes egypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes could roughly double within the next 30 years. In currently warm climates like the Caribbean, West Africa, and Southeast Asia, tropical disease incedence could actually decrease as those climates become so warm that they “exceed the upper thermal limits for transmission.” In other words: It will be too hot for the mosquitoes to effectively carry dengue.

On the whole, “climate change will dramatically increase the potential for expansion and intensification of Aedes-borne virus transmission,” according to the study.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats to global health,” Ryan said. “There are many more vector-borne diseases out there that are temperature sensitive.” Ryan also cautioned that mosquitoes, ticks, bark beetles, and invasive fungus threaten animals and plants as well as human health, and climate change is making many of them worse.

Malaria, which was not considered in this study, already affects nearly half of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization, killing more than 400,000 people each year — one of the leading causes of death for children in Africa. Previous studies have shown that hundreds of millions of people could be newly exposed to malaria by the end of the century, which is carried by a different species of mosquito. Dengue is one of the most common tropical diseases, but it is far less deadly than malaria — out of 100 million infections, it causes about 22,000 deaths each year.

According to the work from Ryan and her colleagues, Europe could be hardest hit because it sits on the leading edge of where mosquitoes can now survive. The worst-case scenario that Ryan and her colleagues explore is actually worse than business-as-usual — it’s a world where civilization doubles down on fossil fuels and planetary systems cause the world to heat beyond the 3.4 degrees C (6.1 degrees F) currently projected.

Ryan said her results should send a clear message to public health departments to boost their budgets in preparation.

There are countless reasons to be scared of climate change, and invading mosquitos might be one of the most tangible. Still, Ryan points out that it’d probably be among the least of our worries — sea-level rise, food shortages, mass migration, and financial collapse would probably pose a much greater risk to civilization.

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Mozambique braces for ‘extremely dangerous’ Cyclone Idai

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A major port city on the coast of southeast Africa is bracing for a direct hit from a powerful tropical cyclone — in a situation the World Meteorological Organization has called a “potential worst case scenario.”

Cyclone Idai is targeting Beira, Mozambique, a booming city of about 500,000 people. The storm packs sustained winds of 115 mph and threatens a month’s worth of rainfall for an already waterlogged region — the makings of a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Meteorologists have called the conditions “extremely dangerous.” So far, blurry social media videos during landfall convey eerie sounds of wind and rain and crashing metal.

In Mozambique and neighboring Malawi, 122 people have died in cyclone-related rains according to a U.N. briefing issued on Thursday, making Idai the deadliest extreme weather event on Earth so far in 2019. More than a million people have already been directly affected by the disaster.

U.N. officials have spent much of the week preparing communities for the worst, which may still be ahead. Government authorities in Mozambique have ordered a coastal evacuation and raised the national alert level to “institutional code red,” its highest state of emergency.

Idai is the strongest tropical cyclone — the generic meteorological term for a hurricane or typhoon — to approach Mozambique since 2000, and the strongest to affect Beira in at least 56 years.

In Beira, residents have been working for years to prepare for a storm like Idai, building retention ponds for floodwaters and trying to focus the city’s growth on higher elevation neighborhoods. But Mozambique is one of the most disaster-prone countries in Africa, and climate change is increasing the severity of flooding events there — as it is nearly everywhere.

That, in combination with the fact that 40 percent of the city lies just three feet or less above sea level, means that Idai could be a huge disaster. In the days before landfall, meteorologists predicted Idai’s storm surge could be as high as 26 feet.

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Mozambique braces for ‘extremely dangerous’ Cyclone Idai

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We need to talk about palm oil

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This story was originally published by the HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

We wash our hair with it, brush our teeth with it, smother our skin in it, and use it to powder our cheeks, plump our lashes, and color our lips. We clean our houses with it, fuel our cars with it, and eat it in chocolate, bread, ice cream, pizza, breakfast cereal, and candy bars.

Palm oil: You may never have walked into a supermarket with it written on your shopping list, but you’ve certainly walked out with bags full of it.

An extremely versatile ingredient that’s cheaper and more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils, palm oil is found today in half of all consumer goods including soaps and toothpaste, cosmetics and laundry detergent, and a whole array of processed food. Palm oil is also found in biodiesel used to power cars (more than 50 percent of the European Union’s palm oil consumption in 2017 reportedly went to this purpose).

Our modern lives are inextricably intertwined with the commodity, which can appear on ingredient labels under a myriad of alternative names including sodium lauryl sulphate, stearic acid, and palmitate. But activists warn that our insatiable demand for palm oil has fueled one of the most pressing environmental and humanitarian crises of our time.

The equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest is destroyed every hour to make way for palm oil plantations, according to the Orangutan Project. This rampant deforestation — which has occurred in some of the world’s most biodiverse hot spots, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia — has decimated the habitat of endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran tigers, displaced indigenous communities, contributed to a regional smog problem linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths, and is a significant driver of climate change.

Last month, palm oil and its impacts became the story of the hour when the U.K. banned a stirring ad about the commodity from TV broadcast. The ad, which featured an animated orphaned orangutan and was released by British grocery store Iceland, was deemed too political for television. The ban triggered a flurry of interest and outrage worldwide.

“There’s been a huge spike in awareness about palm oil because of the Iceland ad,” said conservationist and Mongabay.com founder Rhett Butler, who’s been monitoring trends in the palm oil industry for years. “It was quite astonishing actually. It seems like global interest in this issue is at an all-time high.”

But this spotlight on palm oil has revealed a troubling stagnation of the industry’s progress in tackling the environmental and human rights issues that have dogged it for years.

On the surface, significant progress appears to have been made since the early 2010s: Public awareness of the palm oil crisis has significantly increased; some of the world’s largest producers and buyers of palm oil have made very public and very lofty sustainability and human rights commitments; and governments — notably Indonesia’s — have vowed to do more to protect the people, species, and habitats exploited by the palm oil industry.

Yet, in spite of all this, “unfortunately from an environmental perspective, not a lot has changed,” Butler said.

Deforestation is still occurring at an alarming rate in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil. A September Greenpeace investigation found that more than 500 square miles of rainforest — about the size of Los Angeles — had been cleared in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the neighboring nation of Papua New Guinea for palm oil production since the end of 2015.

According to the Greenpeace report, 12 of the world’s largest brands including Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, and Unilever continue to source palm oil from producers and growers that were found to be “actively clearing rainforests” — despite the “zero-deforestation” commitments that these companies have made in recent years.

“We’re consuming their products on a daily basis,” said Annisa Rahmawati of Greenpeace Indonesia, according to Mongabay.com. “So we’re … indirectly [participating in these] deforestation and human rights violations.”

Some companies including Unilever and Nestle responded to the Greenpeace report by reiterating their sustainability commitments. “Our ambition is that by the end of 2020 all of the palm oil that we use is responsibly sourced,” Nestle said on its website.

“Greenpeace rightfully addresses serious and systematic issues that we know are fundamentally broken in the palm oil supply chain,” Unilever noted in a statement, adding that the company is “actively driving change in both our own operations and across the industry.”

This summer, Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader, was embroiled in controversy after its billionaire co-founder Martua Sitoris was accused of running a “shadow company” with his brother that had cleared an area of rainforest twice the size of Paris since 2013 — the same year that Wilmar had promised to work toward “no deforestation” and “no exploitation” in its supply chain.

Sitoris was forced to resign in the wake of the allegations, and Wilmar — which controls almost half of the world’s trade in palm oil — vowed this month to strengthen its sustainability policy.

“Wilmar’s [scandal] makes abundantly clear that these companies cannot be trusted to police themselves,” said Tomasz Johnson, head of research at Earthsight and founder of The Gecko Project, speaking from London last week.

Emma Lierley, forest policy director at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), echoed this sentiment. “The same problems are still happening in this industry,” she said. “Deforestation is continuing, threatened species are still being put at risk, and there’s evidence that labor abuse including child labor and forced labor are still commonplace across plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia — and all of this is happening despite corporate policy changes.”

“Corporate policy is all well and good but it has to be worth the paper it’s written on,” Lierley added. “We’re just not seeing that real change taking place.”

And the clock, she warned, is ominously ticking: The palm oil industry is causing potentially irreparable damage to the planet — and its climate — and if we don’t take prompt and comprehensive action, the outcome could be catastrophic.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is how much of an impact palm oil has on our future climate stability,” Lierley said.

Palm oil cultivation is currently conducted disproportionately in high-carbon areas like tropical forests and carbon-rich peatlands. When these areas are deforested to make way for plantations, enormous volumes of climate-warming gases are released into the atmosphere.

It’s estimated that tropical deforestation is responsible for between 15 and 20 percent of global warming emissions — more than the emissions from cars and other forms of transportation.

Indonesia’s peatlands alone now release more than 500 megatons of carbon dioxide every year — an amount greater than California’s entire annual emissions, The New York Times reported in November. And the deforestation of Borneo, an island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, has contributed to “the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums,” the paper said, citing NASA research.

Palm oil plantations are the main driver of deforestation on Borneo, which has lost more than 16,000 square miles of ancient rainforest — and critical habitat for a wide variety of creatures — because of the commodity. Almost 150,000 critically endangered Bornean orangutans were killed between 1999 and 2015, partly because of palm oil.

“Scientists have warned us that we have just 12 years to avert the worst effects of climate change,” Lierley said, referring to a grim United Nations report released in October. “The stakes are incredibly high. A lot of people are trying to pass the buck in the palm oil industry, but we need to see really bold action from companies all along the supply chain, as well as government actors and other institutions.”

This is particularly pressing given the expected ballooning of demand for palm oil in the coming years. The Center for International Forestry Research estimates that world consumption of palm oil will increase by 62 percent in a “medium growth scenario” and 94 percent in a “high demand scenario.” Other countries, particularly in Africa, are expected to see a boom in palm oil production to meet this growing demand.

Johnson, who for years has been investigating corruption in the palm oil industry, warned that the same broken agri-industrial model of palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia is already being replicated in parts of Africa.

“The same palm oil companies that have been operating in Indonesia have announced plans in recent years to do the same” in countries like Liberia and Uganda, said Johnson. “And you could just see the disaster slowly unfolding.”

Companies like Wilmar and the Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby have been granted enormous concessions, or cultivation areas, for palm oil in these countries — and reports have already emerged of deforestation and land-grab issues.

“Many of these countries are fragile, post-war states,” said Johnson of the African nations where the palm oil industry has been steadily encroaching. “If these [companies] aren’t even following the rules properly in Indonesia,” where President Joko Widodo has taken steps to crack down on conflict palm oil, “what’s the chance they’ll do things better in these fragile states?”

The problems with palm oil may feel complex and entrenched, but activists insist that solutions are within reach.

Though reducing consumption of palm oil could be a positive step, boycotting the commodity entirely doesn’t appear to be the answer. Producing alternative vegetable oils like soybean would have similar, or even worse, environmental impacts, Lierley noted.

“It’s not palm oil itself that’s the problem,” she said. “It’s the way it’s produced.”

And that, activists say, is what needs to change.

Consumers should push companies to be more transparent about where their palm oil is coming from, said Mongabay.com’s Butler.

“Look at the ingredient lists on the things that you are buying and figure out what products actually contain palm oil,” he said. “Then contact the company and ask them what their palm oil policy is. It doesn’t actually require that much feedback from consumers to send a strong message to a company.”

Companies, in turn, need to be more transparent about their practices, Johnson said.

“If they want to be trusted, they need to put everything on the table, they need to be as transparent as humanly possible and people need to be watching them closely. If not, we’re just going to see more ‘zero deforestation’ companies buying from dodgy suppliers,” he said.

Consumers can use their dollars to support companies that have made — and fulfilled — sustainability commitments. The “bare minimum,” said Butler, is to choose companies and brands that are certified by the RSPO, or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

The RSPO, which is the world’s leading certification body for sustainably sourced palm oil, has been widely criticized in the past for not setting high enough standards for its members and for inadequately enforcing its rules. Last month, however, the group significantly strengthened its criteria — a move lauded by activists.

WWFRAN, and the Union of Concerned Scientists have palm oil scorecards that track how some of the world’s biggest companies and brands are faring when it comes to sustainable palm oil.

“Companies often say it’s a lack of resources or lack of information that make it difficult for them to fulfill their sustainability commitments. But if a small nonprofit like RAN can identify labor abuses, deforestation, and land-grab issues, there’s no reason why a huge multinational can’t do it too,” Lierley said.

“It’s not an impossible problem,” she continued. “It’s a matter of willpower.”

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We need to talk about palm oil

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