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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
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Scientists have raised the alarm over unprecedented ocean heat. Since mid-March, global sea surface temperatures have been higher than at any time since records began in the 1980s, fuelling concerns about the pace of human-caused warming.
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The meat and dairy industry is trying to present a “greener”, friendlier image through different advertising methods – including some “borrowed from Big Oil” – according to two recent articles published by the climate-focused investigative outlet DeSmog.
Much of east Africa continues to be gripped by devastating drought, with aid agencies reporting that one person is dying of hunger every 30 seconds in the region. An analysis found that the drought was made at least 100 times more likely by climate change.
Unseen ocean heat
‘UNCHARTED TERRITORY’: Since mid-March, global average sea surface temperatures have been higher than at any time since records began in 1982, fuelling concerns that Earth is entering “uncharted territory” because of climate change, the Guardian reported. Global sea surface temperatures reached 21.1C at the start of April, topping the previous high of 21C in April 2016, according to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Guardian added that these temperatures typically dip towards the end of April after reaching their annual peak in March or early April, but that temperatures have remained high this year for the first time since records began. The record ocean heat has “scientists scratching their heads”, Prof Mike Meredith, a researcher from the British Antarctic Survey, said to the Guardian. He told the publication: “The fact that it is warming as much as it has been is a real surprise and very concerning. It could be a short-lived extreme high, or it could be the start of something much more serious.”
EL NIÑO INCOMING: The Guardian noted that the world is currently on the cusp of an El Niño, a periodic natural phenomenon in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects many regions, causing a warming impact globally. “But the El Niño system is yet to develop, so this oscillation cannot explain the recent rapid heating,” the publication said. However, Axios reported that some climate scientists do think the pulse in ocean heat could be related to El Niño – specifically, the transition to El Niño from La Niña, the climate pattern that acts as El Niño’s opposite. Axios said: “When a La Niña event gives way to an El Niño, as is happening now, large amounts of ocean heat that had been lurking beneath the ocean surface is drawn upwards, according to Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. The result, Mann told Axios via email, is ‘a sizable increase’ in tropical Pacific and global ocean surface temperatures during the transition.”
STEP CHANGE: The ocean surface temperature spike is likely to also reflect the fact that, since the last major El Niño in 2016, global average surface temperatures on land and sea have increased because of climate change, scientists told Axios. It reported: “This means the 2023 El Niño is elevating global average temperatures from a higher starting point, making it easier to set records. This is like a basketball player playing on a court with a steadily higher floor, making it easier to dunk the basketball.” BBC News also reported on how the spike in ocean temperatures could represent the impact of El Niño combining with human-caused climate change. It reported: “Some research has shown that the world is warming in jumps, where little changes over a period of years and then there are sudden leaps upwards, like steps on a stairs, closely linked to the development of El Niño.” Several scientists contacted by BBC News were “reluctant to go on the record about the implications” of such step changes, according to the article. It added: “One spoke of being ‘extremely worried and completely stressed’.”
What’s the beef?
‘MISLEADING’ ADS: Across two recent articles focused on the advertising by meat and dairy producers, the investigative outlet DeSmog alleged that companies are striving to show that a “greener, more benign version of industrial animal agriculture is within reach”. One article claimed that these companies rely on industry-funded science, future technological solutions and slick marketing campaigns promising “climate-smart” products. Scientists and campaigners are concerned that the industry is “overstating its potential for transformation”, the article added. The piece mentioned research which said that global food consumption alone could add almost 1C of global warming by the end of this century, three-quarters of which is driven by meat, dairy and rice.
CLIMATE-FRIENDLY BEEF: In a second article, DeSmog also took a closer look at beef advertising, including a public relations campaign from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). In recent years, the US trade organisation has run a “multi-pronged PR campaign about how beef is actually a climate-conscious food” through advertisements in newspapers and on social media, the outlet said. The publication said the NCBA did not reply to a request for comment. Meanwhile, a piece in the Guardian offered an insight into an online training course created by the NCBA. Students on the course heard, according to the article, “multiple misleading – but scientific sounding – narratives about beef industry sustainability” and appeals to proactively engage with beef consumers about environmental topics. Again, the NCBA did not respond to requests for comment, the newspaper said.
BIG OIL TACTICS: The second DeSmog article outlined other tactics it said the NCBA “has borrowed from Big Oil”. It alleged that the organisation and other similar groups are financing and promoting the work of certain academics and fostering “uncertainty and doubt” around clear evidence. DeSmog also claimed these organisations use “slick PR and ad campaigns” to show the industry as a solution to climate change, “rather than a contributor to it”. The piece said that a pot of US public funds, known as Checkoffs, help fund research that comes to more environmentally-positive conclusions about meat, among other actions. One part of a funded initiative aimed to inform audiences “on how beef is sustainably raised today”.
East African crisis
‘FORGOTTEN FAMINE’: Much of east Africa continues to face the devastating impacts of an ongoing drought that has stretched for more than two years and the resulting famine. A frontpage story in the Daily Mirror reported that one person is dying every 30 seconds from hunger in the region, according to the Red Cross aid agency. A separate report from the Daily Mirror listed the stark statistics of the drought, saying: “Around 120 million people in northern Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan are struggling without the food they need to survive. That’s twice the population of the UK. Last year 43,000 people died in Somalia alone. Over 22,000 of them were babies and children under five.” In an accompanying editorial, the Daily Mirror described the crisis as the “world’s forgotten famine” and said the role of climate change “cannot be ignored”.
‘DIRE’ SITUATION: In its most recent update from Ethiopia on 24 April, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the situation in the country “is still extremely dire and the urgency to further scale up the humanitarian response is high”. It added that spring rains have returned to the region, but “only provided temporary solace through replenished surface water sources and rejuvenated pasture” without having a “long-term impact on the restoration of livelihoods”. The report said: “The same rains have caused floods leading to destruction of shelter, houses and public infrastructures, livestock deaths and further displacements.”
CLIMATE’S ROLE: An analysis released on 27 April concluded that east Africa’s drought “would not have happened” without climate change. The research found that the combination of failed rains and high temperatures, which left soils dry, over the two-year period from January 2021 to December 2022 was made at least 100 times more likely by human-caused climate change. The findings are the latest in “attribution science”, which has linked human-caused climate change to deadly floods in west Africa, damaging cyclones in southern Africa and record heat in the US, among hundreds of other extreme weather events. The analysis was widely covered by the world’s media, including by the New York Times, Al Jazeera and Farmers Review Africa.
LOSS AND DAMAGE: In its coverage of the study, Carbon Brief spoke to Mohamed Adow, director of the Power Shift Africa thinktank in Kenya, who said the findings reinforce why climate change is “the world’s biggest and gravest injustice issue”. He added that such disasters highlight why it is “so important” for developed countries to pay for the “loss and damage” caused by climate change, such as the loss of lives during a drought. At the last UN climate summit, COP27, a historic deal was reached to set up a specific fund for loss and damage. “We need to see countries paying into it so that financial support can urgently reach those on the frontlines,” Adow told Carbon Brief.
News and views
COD IN THE ACT: More than half of the EU’s delegation at two important fishing talks in the past year was made up of industry lobbyists, the Guardian reported. The newspaper noted that the bloc also recently objected to an agreement by coastal nations in Africa and Asia to restrict the use of certain types of floating fishing nets, which contribute to plastic pollution and overfishing of yellowfin tuna. Critics described the EU’s objection as “neocolonialism”. At the last meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, 24 of the EU’s 40-member delegation were listed as “advisers”, but analysis showed they are industry lobbyists, the Guardian said. A European Commission official told the paper that industry representatives have “no decision-making responsibility” at the meetings.
AMAZON AMBITION: US president Joe Biden pledged $500m towards protection of the Amazon rainforest over five years, calling for “other nations to set ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gases and limit global warming”, the New York Times reported. However, the paper continued, the pledge will need to be approved by Congress, “where Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to international climate assistance”. The Brazilian Report noted that “obtaining US support for the Amazon Fund is one of the main stated goals” of Brazil’s environment minister, Marina Silva. Silva said that US participation in the fund will have a “catalysing effect” on other nations.
FOOD VIEWS: Corporate influence over the ways in which decisions are made about food systems is the “new normal”, according to a report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. The report, which focused on the influence of companies on the governance of food systems, said that policy and regulatory decisions will be “increasingly shaped by private interests” without effective action. It highlighted the ability for large agribusiness firms to lobby policymakers and regulators “in a bid to influence” rules that impact them. The report included a series of recommendations such as reducing the influence of companies on decision-making and improving the ability of civil society to “participate in food governance on their own terms”.
PALM OIL GAMBLE: India’s plan to expand domestic palm oil production fails to take into account how climate change is altering growing conditions in the country, according to research reported on by China Dialogue. India is currently the world’s biggest buyer of palm oil, but has plans to become self-sufficient by growing 1m hectares of palm oil by 2026, up from 350,000 hectares in 2019, according to the outlet. But a scientist told the publication that the government’s assessment of areas suitable for palm oil production fails to take into account recent research showing rainfall has declined over central and north India. Palm oil requires more water than other edible oils such as groundnut, sunflower or sesame; however, it also produces around five times more oil per hectare, China Dialogue added.
INDIGENOUS RIGHTS: The 22nd UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard about the impacts of so-called “green colonialism” and the need for “real and effective participation of Indigenous peoples” in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, a piece in the Guardian outlined. Issues around the transition to a low-carbon economy, such as mineral mining, were discussed by Indigenous leaders and other delegates at the summit, the newspaper said. Gunn-Britt Retter, from a group representing Saami people in Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland, told the summit: “We need to reduce CO2 emissions globally and we need to seek alternative energy sources, but we also need to protect the Indigenous cultures because we are the guardians of nature, which is part of the solution.”
OLIVE OIL PRICE SPIKE: Ongoing drought in Spain has pushed olive oil prices to record levels, with little chance of respite this summer, the Financial Times (FT) reported. Olive oil prices have surged nearly 60% since June last year, to roughly €5.40 per kilogramme, following on from a severe drought in Europe last year that ruined olive crops across the continent. Dry and hot conditions have this year continued to plague Spain, which produces half of the world’s olive oil, according to the FT. The country recently recorded its hottest April temperatures on record, when the southern city of Cordoba hit 38.8C, Reuters reported.
Land-use change is associated with multi-century loss of elephant ecosystems in Asia
A new study found that nearly two-thirds of elephant habitat across Asia has been lost since 1700, with the average habitat patch size dropping by 83%. Using data on present-day elephant habitat and land-use variables such as forest cover, scientists reconstructed the megafauna’s likely habitat back to the year 850. The researchers noted that this decline in habitat followed “centuries of relative stability” in habitat, and was “coincident with colonial-era land-use practices in south Asia and subsequent agricultural intensification in south-east Asia”. They conclude: “Societies must consider ecological histories in addition to proximate threats to develop more just and sustainable land-use and conservation strategies.”
The global contribution of soil mosses to ecosystem services
Soil mosses play a key role in sequestering carbon and supporting ecosystem services in habitats “ranging from Antarctic heaths to dry deserts”, a study said. Researchers looked at the global distribution, magnitude and drivers of the extent to which soil mosses influence different ecosystem services such as soil biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The study estimated that soils covered by mosses around the world can sequester 6.43bn tonnes more carbon in the soil layer compared to bare soils. Mosses are particularly useful in areas with low cover of vascular plants, such as ferns. The findings highlight the need to conserve soil mosses, researchers said.
Basin-wide variation in tree hydraulic safety margins predicts the carbon balance of Amazon forests
Trees across the Amazon have a wide range of resilience to drought, with trees in the southern and western parts of the basin at the highest risk of dying, according to new research. Scientists sampled nearly 550 individual trees across the Amazon and used climatological data to determine how different regions of the forest respond to drought. Because previous research has often focused on the forest in the central-eastern Amazon, they wrote, it “may underestimate Amazonian sensitivity to climate change”. The researchers concluded that continued warming is likely to “further threaten the already declining Amazon carbon sink”.
In the diary
Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected].
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