Traditional farming can save threatened species, study finds

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Features associated with arable farming, such as hedgerows, are essential to keep several bird species alive. The Guardian reports 

Traditional farming methods are crucial for protecting a number of threatened bird species in the developing world, including bustards, cranes, ibises and vultures, a study has found.

Livestock grazing and features associated with arable farming – such as hedgerows – create environmental conditions that certain birds currently depend on for food, shelter and breeding, the authors report.

But as industrial farming methods eliminate these habitats, these species are threatened with extinction, said Hugh Wright, a researcher in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, and lead author of the study, published in Conservation Letters earlier this month.

“There really is no hope for these species if industrial farming continues unchecked,” he told SciDev.Net.

Although reintroducing or mimicking traditional farming techniques has had success in conserving wildlife in Europe, “conservation in the developing world has always focused on pristine forest ecosystems and has paid little attention to where farming might be beneficial,” Wright said.

The study found 29 bird species threatened by the decline of traditional agriculture in developing countries. This number could be much higher if all organisms, rather than just birds, are considered, as evidence from Europe suggests that traditional farming also benefits reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and even plants, Wright said.

Farmers can benefit too from protecting biodiversity since it helps to justify traditional agriculture and could prevent big agri-businesses from forcing farmers off their land, he added. Also, by offering farmers economic incentives to continue these beneficial practices, governments can ensure that conservation and development move forward together.

Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, agreed that traditional agricultural methods are a valuable conservation tool, but said that adopting techniques aimed at saving a few iconic species can disadvantage farmers.

“Applying low-intensity farming instead of industrial methods often pits livelihoods against conservation, and can impose limits on a region’s development,” he said.

Instead, he said that “land sparing” — where some areas are intensively farmed while others are left primarily for conservation — can lead to more wildlife and better crop yields.

There is no one strategy, but a “middle ground” that combines land sparing and traditional farming methods to suit local conditions could be the best conservation strategy, he added.

Wright agreed that a mixed approach can maximise biodiversity. “You need to assess which species you have, how feasible it is to protect them, what it will cost and social issues as well before coming up with a conservation strategy for an area,” he said.

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Link to abstract in Conservation Letters


Climate change : Study finds no grounds for climate sceptics’ concerns

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Independent investigation of the key issues sceptics claim can skew global warming figures reports that they have no real effect. The Guardian reports

The world is getting warmer, countering the doubts of climate changesceptics about the validity of some of the scientific evidence, according to the most comprehensive independent review of historical temperature records to date.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found several key issues that sceptics claim can skew global warming figures had no meaningful effect.

The Berkeley Earth project compiled more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources around the world and found that the average global land temperature has risen by around 1C since the mid-1950s.

This figure agrees with the estimate arrived at by major groups that maintain official records on the world’s climate, including Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, with the University of East Anglia, in the UK.

“My hope is that this will win over those people who are properly sceptical,” Richard Muller, a physicist and head of the project, said.

“Some people lump the properly sceptical in with the deniers and that makes it easy to dismiss them, because the deniers pay no attention to science. But there have been people out there who have raised legitimate issues.”

Muller sought to cool the debate over climate change by creating the largest open database of temperature records, with the aim of producing a transparent and independent assessment of global warming.

The initial reluctance of government groups to release all their methods and data, and the fiasco over emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in 2009, gave the project added impetus.

The team, which includes Saul Perlmutter, joint winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate, has submitted four papers to the journal Geophysical Research Letters that describe their work to date.

Going public with results before they are peer-reviewed is not standard practice, but Muller said the decision to circulate the papers before publication was part a long-standing academic tradition of sanity-checking results with colleagues.

“We will get much more feedback from making these papers public before publication,” he said.

Climate sceptics have criticised official global warming figures on the grounds that many temperature stations are poor quality and that data are tweaked by hand.

However, the Berkeley study found that the so-called urban heat islandeffect, which makes cities warmer than surrounding rural areas, is locally large and real, but does not contribute significantly to average land temperature rises. This is because urban regions make up less than 1% of the Earth’s land area. And while stations considered “poor” might be less accurate, they recorded the same average warming trend.

“We have looked at these issues in a straightforward, transparent way, and based on that, I would expect legitimate sceptics to feel their issues have been addressed,” Muller said.

Nevertheless, one prominent US climate sceptic, Anthony Watts, claimed to have identified a “basic procedural error” concerning time periods used in the research, and urged the authors to revise the paper.

Jim Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said he had not read the research papers but was glad Muller was looking at the issue, describing him as “a top-notch physicist”. “It should help inform those who have honest scepticism about global warming.

“Of course, presuming that he basically confirms what we have been reporting, the deniers will then decide that he is a crook or has some ulterior motive.

“As I have discussed in the past, the deniers, or contrarians, if you will, do not act as scientists, but rather as lawyers.”

“As soon as they see evidence against their client (the fossil fuel industry and those people making money off business-as-usual), they trash that evidence and bring forth whatever tidbits they can find to confuse the judge and jury.”

Peter Thorne at the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites in North Carolina and chair of the International Surface Temperature Initiative, said: “This takes a very distinct approach to the problem and comes up with the same answer, and that builds confidence that pre-existing estimates are in the right ballpark. There is very substantial value in having multiple groups looking at the same problem in different ways.

“Openness and transparency is a must, particularly now with climate change being so politicised, but more to the point, with the huge socioeconomic decisions that rest on it.”

Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA who was at the centre of the Climategate incident, said: “I look forward to reading the finalised paper once it has been reviewed and published. These initial findings are very encouraging and echo our own results and our conclusion that the impact of urban heat islands on the overall global temperature is minimal.”

The Berkeley Earth project has been attacked by some climate bloggers, who point out that one of the funders runs Koch Industries, a company Greenpeace called a “financial kingpin of climate science denial“.

Muller points out the project is organised under the auspices of Novim, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organisation that uses science to find answers to the most pressing issues facing society and to publish them “without advocacy or agenda”.

Other donors include the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (funded by Bill Gates), and the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Lab. The next phase of the project will focus on warming trends in the oceans.

Some scientists were critical of the project and Muller’s decision to release the papers before they had been peer reviewed.

Peter Cox, professor of climate system dynamics at Exeter Universitysaid: “These studies seem to confirm the global warming estimated from the existing datasets, which is pleasing but not exactly a surprise to those of us who know how carefully the existing datasets are put together.

“It is surprising, however, that the authors believe that this news is so significant that they can’t wait for peer review, especially when their conclusions aren’t exactly revolutionary.”

Climate change : It could trap hundreds of millions in disaster areas, report claims

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Report says refugees forced to leave homes by weather caused by global warming may end up in even worse afflicted areas. The Guardian reports

Hundreds of millions of people may be trapped in inhospitable environments as they attempt to flee from the effects of global warming, worsening the likely death toll from severe changes to the climate, a UK government committee has found.

Refugees forced to leave their homes because of floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves and other effects of climate change are likely to be one of the biggest visible effects of the warming that scientists warn will result from the untrammelled use of fossil fuels, according to the UK government’s Foresight group, part of the Office for Science.

But many of those people are likely to move from areas affected by global warming into areas even worse afflicted – for instance, by moving into coastal cities in the developing world that are at risk of flood from storms and rising sea levels.

“Millions will migrate into, rather than away from, areas of environmental vulnerability,” said Sir John Beddington, chief scientific advisor to the UK government, and head of the Foresight programme. “An even bigger policy challenge will be the millions who are trapped in dangerous conditions and unable to move to safety.”

The scientists, in a report entitled Migration and Global Environmental Change, found that between 114 million and 192 million more people were likely to be living in floodplains in urban areas of Africa and Asia by 2060, partly as a result of climate change.

People who are trapped by warming – either because they cannot move from their homes, or because they have moved but are unable to find better places to live – will represent “just as important a policy concern as those who do migrate”, the report concluded. “Environmental change is equally likely to make migration less possible, as more probable.”

Last year, according to the United Nations, 210 million people – about 3% of the global population – migrated between countries, and in 2009 about 740 million people moved within countries.

But the scientists also said that migration should not be seen simply as a problem – in many cases, it is a sensible solution to the environmental changes caused by a warming climate, and can be managed if governments make adequate preparations. “Migration can be a good option – it is a way of adapting to climate change,” said Neil Adger, professor of environmental economics at the University of East Anglia. “We should be planning for migration pro-actively, to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place for people.”

He said that equipping cities in developing countries with adequate infrastructure, including access to clean water, sanitation and energy, was a key concern. Funds devoted to helping countries cope with the effects of climate change should also be spent with this in mind, he said.

Although the scientists who wrote the report declined to put an estimate on the number of people likely to be displaced, they said it was “undeniable” that migration would be a major factor, and one that would be potentially destabilising to established governments.

Previous attempts to put an estimate on the number displaced have met with controversy – a prediction by the United Nations Environment Programme that 50 million people would be forced to migrate by climate change by 2010 was attacked by climate change sceptics, who said there was no proof of how many of the 210 million people who moved across borders in that year had been forced to flee by environmental conditions.

The Foresight programme scientists said there were many factors influencing migration, but that climate change was likely to become a much more significant factor in the next 20 to 30 years.

Trying to stop migration from global warming may be the wrong approach, the scientists warned. Andre Geddes, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, said: “Policies that just seek to prevent migration are risky.”

Instead, governments should attempt to anticipate movement and find ways to improve conditions, both in the places people are likely to move to, and those they are likely to move from.

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