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(Re)insurers against climate change

If I were to pick a business that would have a strong interest in warding off the catastrophic effects of global warming, I'd probably think insurance companies. So it makes sense that the re-insurance industry -- from what I understand, basically the insurers of the insurers -- has voiced its stake in the matter. More surprising, though, might be its optimism.

Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, is one of the big businesses that have a special interest in the result of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December. Right now, Munich Re is fairly optimistic about the result, says Chief Scientist Peter Hoeppe.

"If China, India and the US stand by their commitments, I’m really optimistic," Peter Hoeppe says to the Bloomberg news agency. "The two degree goal includes all the actions that need to be taken."

And if the big emitters don't stand by their commitments...well, let's just say that there's not likely an insurance plan for that scenario.C

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How many lightbulbs does it take to change global warming?

Well, many. But, according to the S-G, it can make a big difference:

Recently, I visited an ambitious project to promote energy-saving lighting in China. By phasing out old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs and introducing a new generation of lighting, China expects to cut national energy consumption by 8 per cent.

This can have a profound global impact. Consider this: lighting accounts for 19 per cent of world energy consumption. Scientists say we can reduce that by a third or more merely by changing lightbulbs.

Sure, it's one thing to use the nifty-looking CFL bulbs in your own house, but one house times...China...makes for a lot of energy saved.

(image from flickr user TheRogue under a Creative Commons license)

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How to stop desertification?

Build a giant wall.  6,000 kilometers long.  Made out of sand.  Stuck together with bacteria.  No, seriously.

"The threat is desertification. My response is a sandstone wall made from solidified sand," said Mr Larsson, who describes himself as a dune architect.

The sand would be stabilised by flooding it with bacteria that can set it like concrete in a matter of hours.

Take his word for it; he's a dune architect.  And desertification is not something to mess around with.  It's poised to affect over 2 billion people in 140 countries if left unchecked.  But with a gigantic, bacteria-reinforced dune wall, buttressing a "Great Green Belt" of trees, unchecked it will not be.  As long as we can figure out minor details like politics, funding, and where to obtain "giant bacteria-filled balloons."

If this seems similar to ad hoc geo-engineering schemes of righting the climate, well, it does to me, too.  Except that I'm more comfortable building walls to stop desertification than, say, attaching tubes to giant zeppelins that pump the air full of sulfur dioxide to block the sun and cool the planet.

(image from flickr user John Spooner under a Creative Commons license)

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This is what climate change looks like (II)

flooding in Namibia

(Flooding in Namibia. Photo credit: potjie)

The Australian government recently issued their 2009 report on climate change, subtitled “Faster Change and More Serious Risks.” Australia is the developed country being hit hardest by climate change – currently in the form of prolonged drought – so they have a special interested in the topic. It’s a grim report.

You might have guessed from the subtitle - the major point of the report is that change is happening faster than predicted. While many uncertainties in the science remain, they all point to faster change. There is no hope that climate change will slow down, or even conform to previous models. We are also on the verge of irreversible long-term feedback loops, after which there will be nothing we can do to stop the changes. None of that is new, but they’ve got an impressive array of data backing up their conclusions. New to me was a genuinely terrifying graph demonstrating we can go back a thousand years and still never see average temperatures like what we’re seeing now.

As though to confirm the conclusions of the Australian report, we have three major flooding situations currently going on. In Benin, 20,000 people have been displaced by heavy flooding along the Southern coastline. Namibia’s cereal harvest is down by 60% because of flooding, and half a million people fled their homes in Assam, India, because of early onset of monsoon season. In every case, observers are reporting that the floods are earlier in the season and more severe than ever before.

Welcome to the future.

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What climate change looks like–Dengue Fever

Dengue fever is painful, unpleasant, and contagious. It used to be limited in its geographic area – a tropical disease. That is changing. We’ve seen a steady spread of dengue’s territory over the last 30 years, and dengue prevalence has increased by three thousand percent over the last fifty years.

The National Resources Defense Council just released a report on dengue fever’s spread in the United States. They found that “mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue have spread into at least 28 US states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, and even states as far north as New York and New Hampshire.” That’s right – a tropical disease in New Hampshire. Now might be a good time to buy stock in mosquito repellant and screen doors.

In case you were wondering: dengue is also known as breakbone fever, and it’s an infection spread by mosquitoes. (Not the same kind of mosquito that spreads malaria, because that would be too easy). Its death rate is not that high, but it spreads quickly. It is a very, very painful illness – thus the name “breakbone”. And some unlucky cases develop a complication called Dengue hemorrhagic fever, which has a death rate of 2.5%-10% and is just as unpleasant as it sounds.

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This Is What Climate Change Looks Like

flooding in Namibia

(Flooding in Namibia. Photo credit: potjie)

The Australian government recently issued their 2009 report on climate change, subtitled “Faster Change and More Serious Risks.” Australia is the developed country being hit hardest by climate change – currently in the form of prolonged drought – so they have a special interested in the topic. It’s a grim report.

You might have guessed from the subtitle - the major point of the report is that change is happening faster than predicted. While many uncertainties in the science remain, they all point to faster change. There is no hope that climate change will slow down, or even conform to previous models. We are also on the verge of irreversible long-term feedback loops, after which there will be nothing we can do to stop the changes. None of that is new, but they’ve got an impressive array of data backing up their conclusions. New to me was a genuinely terrifying graph demonstrating we can go back a thousand years and still never see average temperatures like what we’re seeing now.

As though to confirm the conclusions of the Australian report, we have three major flooding situations currently going on. In Benin, 20,000 people have been displaced by heavy flooding along the Southern coastline. Namibia’s cereal harvest is down by 60% because of flooding, and half a million people fled their homes in Assam, India, because of early onset of monsoon season. In every case, observers are reporting that the floods are earlier in the season and more severe than ever before.

Welcome to the future.

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Obama at major emitters meeting

POTUS' statement at L'Aquila:

He said the U.S. - with its "much larger carbon footprint per capita" - now means to lead by example.

"The United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities," Obama said. "Let me be clear, those days are over."

And he prodded others to follow.

The question is, which comes first, the prodding or the emissions reductions?

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Two cannot be the only number to fight climate change

The world's largest carbon emitters, meeting at the tail end of the, er, rather tumultuous G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, look like they're going to take an unfortunate step backward (or at best sideways) in the rapidly dwindling months before global climate negotiations in Copenhagen begin in December. The promises of these countries have gone from, a year ago, a pledge to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 -- albeit passing over the very relevant detail of specifying 50% of levels from which year, 1990 or 2005 -- to an agreement to drop all numbers whatsoever from this year's text.

Instead of set targets, the 17-nations in the forum, which is chaired by U.S. President Barack Obama, will acknowledge the "broad scientific view" that global warming must not be allowed to exceed two degrees centigrade, these officials said.

Ignore the scare quotes -- they are de rigueur for the Wall Street Journal. If global temperatures increase two degrees centigrade, we are beyond serious trouble. The point of these summits is to figure out how to ensure that from happening, and dodging the tough question of what targets to set does not help solve that problem in the least.

The blame here, of course, is diffuse. Developing countries like India and China don't want to commit to stringent reductions just when their economies are booming, and poor countries are worried they won't be able to afford the new technologies that such adaptation will necessitate. I'm going to have to pin good deal of blame on countries like the United States and Japan, though, which have more or less conceded that they are not going to be able to even try to hit the more ambitious targets. Candor is appreciated, but I fail to see how lowering the numbers -- let alone leaving them out entirely -- will spur developed economies to bring about the admittedly costly changes of ensuring that the planet doesn't boil over.