Accelerating in reverse
We're a fortnight into the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and half of the world's people have been watching football non-stop for the past two weeks. So let's kick things off (see what I did there?) with an analogy that people will get. A new study shows that in 2017 slightly more than a football field worth of forest was logged every second
. Picture a dusty brown soccer pitch appearing in the middle of the pristine South American rainforest. Now another one just next to it, and another. Deforestation is intensifying the worst effects of climate change and there is little will to stop it.
There is sadly nothing positive to be taken from the latest figures. Since 2008, tree-cover loss in rainforest systems has doubled. Brazil's notable efforts in 2016 to slow the deforestation of its savannah were reversed last year. Known as the cerrado
, the country's vast expanse of woodland is an invaluable carbon sink
. Last year it was logged at a faster rate than the Amazon itself. The nation's biodiversity and climate change commitments are just part of the picture. Brazil's political class has been plagued by corruption and instability and as a consequence the stalled regulations have allowed illegal loggers to ply their trade. Wealthy countries are not immune to this instability: in both America and Australia too, governments institute safeguards only to see them torn up by successors.
Deforestation often benefits the wealthiest countries (which often have far stricter rules on felling their own trees). In the Democratic Republic of Congo - one of the world's least secure nations - lush rainforest is lost every day. One would be hard-pressed in most places to find a timber-company that doesn't over-extract from its plots, but in the DRC there are almost no constraints. Here, at-risk timber from the Congolese forests is being illegally felled by the nation's largest logger in response to demand for artisanal African wood in Europe
. There remains an unbroken line connecting foreign extraction of the continent's natural resources to the Scramble for Africa
. Westerners may well fund satellites to monitor deforestation in realtime but that won't change a thing if we are content to sit on couches made from Amazonian or Congolese timber.
An old enemy reared its head again this week: palm oil. Since 1990 Indonesia has lost a full quarter of its rainforest due to the slash-and-burn of palm oil manufacturers. The scale of the problem is immense: not only do billions of people use the cheap product for cooking oil, it also makes an appearance in the ingredients list of half the packaged items in the average American supermarket. Bottom line: as the most productive oil crop, palm oil is not going anywhere. But the world's endangered orang-utans and tigers certainly are. Research released this week argued that if the palm oil industry were to switch to soy beans or corn even larger tracts of forest
would be lost. In other words, the damage would simply be displaced. Activists' attempts to stem the environmental carnage has been piecemeal. Singapore's giant palm oil processor Wilmar announced on Monday that it would stop buying from suppliers accused of deforestation; a laudable declaration
even if it came only after significant pressure was put on the company to abide by standards it had set for itself five years ago.
The British may no longer have an empire worth mentioning but they do have a sun that hasn't seemed to set
in over a week. Those of us who are less latitudinally-challenged may make light of the '25-degree-Celsius-heatwaves' but this current weather event (into the 30's) requires a more serious look. The parched lowlands of Saddleworth Moor in the north of the country has burnt spectacularly this week; hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to fight a bushfire that looks similar to those in California or Australia. Sadly, such extreme weather events will only become more common for a country once famous for its incessant rain.
Speaking of rain, the monsoon has come to Mumbai. Locals are contending with flooded alleys, impassable roads, newly formed lakes and the threat of collapsing buildings. Rains have already claimed four lives
in a city that seems stuck halfway between a deluge and a deep sea (the Arabian Sea, that is). Despite the increasingly sophisticated modelling that goes into predicting the onset of monsoonal rains there is little that can be done to gird the city's slums, construction sites and shantytowns.
A major metropolis like Mumbai will invariably suffer deaths during the rains, but to its east an even greater tragedy is unfolding. In Bangladesh the refugee camps of Rohingya refugees escaping the pogrom in Myanmar are under serious threat
. 880,000 destitute refugees are crammed into just four camps along the border; these hastily erected villages cover the undulating hills and valleys of the wetland. Aid workers have spent months preparing for the monsoon (by levelling hills and relocating families) but the deaths have already begun. The elderly and the young are particularly at risk of being washed away; while everyone is prone to the dangers of wet-weather diseases like diphtheria and malaria.
Scientists have long warned that the collapse and rapid melting of the West Antarctica ice sheet could have devastating effects on coastlines around the world. While warmer ocean temperatures are indeed disrupting Antarctica's seasonal cycle, we've received a small piece of good news this week. It is now believed that the bedrock on which West Antarctica sits is rising far more rapidly
than previously thought. As the landmass rises it actually forces out the warmer seawater that had made inroads under the ice sheet. This phenomenon may slow the worst effects of a warming Southern Ocean - for now. Also from the continent this week: researchers published the coldest temperatures ever recorded: -97.6 degrees Celsius. This naturally sparked cries of, "how can this be possible if the globe is warming" from the section of the community seemingly without object permanence.
And yet, amidst all this mostly-dire news there is still hope. From the campuses of New Delhi
to the streets of Sheffield
people are resisting efforts to tear down trees. Actions that occur locally can prompt national and even international change. Norway has pledged millions of Euros to set up an Interpol task force to prosecute forest crimes, and Pakistan's quiet effort to plant hundreds of millions
of trees is receiving the attention it deserves.