Sunday, December 23, 2007

As the World Warms

NY Times
December 23, 2007



Delegates to the recent United Nations climate talks in Bali decided they needed two years to formulate a plan for making “deep cuts in global emissions.” The earth’s changing climate seems unlikely to wait. The Op-Ed page asked four writers to report on the weather in their part of the world. Here are their dispatches.

The Olive Tree Doesn’t Lie


IT is a little weird to be getting briefed on the state of the world’s climate by an olive tree. And yet the Olea europaea has been telling it straight since long before ancient reporters scratched dispatches onto pounded bark. Watching my gnarled old Mediterranean tree season by season, I see the bad news fast getting worse. Our future food supply is at risk, olives and most everything else besides.

Some insist that scientific ingenuity will provide. Agribusiness touts miracle seeds and new techniques. Others find comfort in broad numbers, yearly precipitation figures and mean temperatures that have yet to plummet. Yet most food we eat relies on rainfall cycles and defined seasons. The point is not how much rain falls but when. And annual temperature averages hide a new reality: the patterns of hot and cold are changing.

My own farm typifies what I now see from Kalamata to California. I call the place Wild Olives because I bought it as an overgrown ruin that looked more like Angkor Wat than Provence. As we dug it out, a wayward bulldozer toppled a centuries-old tree near the front door. To the stalwart olive, it was merely root-pruning. It roared back, stronger than ever.

The routines around here go back to ancient Romans who planted our back hills with olive shoots in their baggage. Late each winter, the trees are cut back hard. In spring, buds cover the new wood. By fall, branches droop under the weight of green fruit. As they turn purplish black in December, the olives are pressed into oil to remember.

It is December now, and my trees should be heavy with olives. But they’re not. Like last year, rains fell at the wrong time, too hard or too soft. When it mattered, there was no rain at all.

A warming trend with freak cold snaps confuses plant metabolism and emboldens killer pests. Last January, my trees budded, convinced it was spring. Then it froze. In June, the Dacus fly bore into the fruit, causing it to drop off the tree.

Many olive growers are somewhere between disbelief and denial. In an old Tuscan grove, the proprietor assured me her trees were fine. A quick look suggested otherwise; most of her olives were pierced by telltale holes.

The Italian government predicts the olive crop for 2007 will be about 500,000 tons, 17 percent less than last year.

Truffle news is likewise calamitous, because of drought, combined with shifts in the soil. Italy’s beloved tartufi bianchi, those pungent white truffles, reached a record price in October of $7,500 a kilo. Black truffle season is starting in France, and bidding is headed skyward.

At the Saturday market in Draguignan, farmers who know each of their turnips personally see the signs in their fruit trees, wheat fields and vegetable gardens. Crops ripen too early or not at all. One grower I respect saw his cherries bloom too early and die in a cold snap. Underground streams are tapped out by mid-summer.

As it has routinely since 1988, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has sounded the alarm. Fortified with a Nobel Prize and alarming new evidence, it has dropped “ifs” and “buts.” Some argue that a few seasons do not define a trend. But each morning, my trees tell me the hard truths.

Mort Rosenblum is the author, most recently, of “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival.”

Who Moved My Glacier?

Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, Wash.

“WE don’t need no stinking G.P.S.,” said our guide. It was getting late. And dark. We were descending from the summit of Glacier Peak in the Cascade Range, and our guide wasn’t sure where we were. It was unfamiliar terrain — the kind we’re all going to have to get used to traveling through and living in.

“That thing has been wrong all day,” the guide said as I pulled out my global positioning system receiver. He was a total gearhead, and I had thought he might appreciate my nifty new Garmin Gpsmap 60CSx. But he said, “If you’re always looking down at that thing, you don’t see the territory.” He glanced at his compass and then stared at the rocky ridges poking through the gloaming.

Our guide was right. The G.P.S. could tell us the coordinates of our location on an abstract representation of the earth — to within 23 feet, it turned out, even under lowering clouds in blowing snow. The point appeared on a color screen version of the same United States Geological Survey topographic map that the guide carried in his pocket. But the G.P.S. could not tell us what happened to the glacier that was supposed to be underfoot, yet wasn’t. And that opened up a disorienting gap between the terrain we had expected and the ground we actually stood on.

The G.P.S. wasn’t wrong, though. The mountain was. Where the map, based on aerial photographs taken in 1984, had forecast gradual descents along the graceful slopes of glaciers, we had trudged down and up empty valleys, across volcanic rocks and glacial silt that sucked at our boots.

We compose our sense of territory by consulting the maps in our heads, the maps in our hands and the ground in front of us. When these things don’t match up, we get lost — which can be a wonderful opportunity for discovering new things about our world and ourselves. And climate change is forcing this upon us at every scale. Out West we are looking at wetter winters and drier summers, higher spring stream flows but for shorter periods, longer fire seasons and bigger fires, forests filled with dead trees and pest infestations, and species on the move everywhere. That’s just the big picture. Up close, the situation can be even more disorienting, and dangerous.

“It is not down in any map,” as Herman Melville wrote of Queequeg’s island home in “Moby-Dick.” “True places never are.” Maps have never had a one-to-one correspondence to our world, and they surely never will when mountains change faster than mapmakers can keep up with them. We will have to live by our wits as well as our instruments.

Eventually our guide pulled out his own G.P.S. receiver, a simpler model that gave only our coordinates. He found the spot on his tattered map and took a compass reading to find our direction. Like navigators of old, operating by sextants, astrolabes and compasses on a vast sea, we changed course by dead reckoning. After an hour of scrambling over lingering lobes of ice, patches of snow and volcanic rock, we made our camp at the foot of the dying glacier, just as night fell.

Jon Christensen is an associate director of the Spatial History Project of the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West at Stanford.

Chile’s Rising Waters and Frozen Avocados

Santiago, Chile

CHILEANS have long boasted of the untold riches of our lands, our fertile soil and our pristine air. For centuries we thought that our robust natural landscape and way of life served to compensate us for the geography that separated us from the rest of the planet. In this small country at the far edge of the world, we always believed that at the very least we were protected from plagues and epidemics.

But distance, it seems, does not protect us from climate change. While Chile has a blazing desert at its head, its feet lie beneath ice, with 7,000 square miles of continental ice masses and the hundreds of thousands of square miles of Antarctica that we claim. Compared to that of other countries, Chile’s contribution to the scourge of global warming is relatively low, at just 0.2 percent, yet we will pay a big price. Global warming is melting Antarctica, and as a result large quantities of water will inundate our coastline.

The beautiful Andean glaciers of southern Chile are also melting before our eyes. Latin Americans tend to exaggerate, but I don’t think I am overstating things when I say that for an environmentalist the sight of those breaking glaciers is as distressing as the collapse of Notre Dame would seem to a Parisian.

Here in Santiago, a few thousand miles from Antarctica, boiling hot temperatures have heralded the start of summer. This is, in general, a happy time of year, but it certainly feels eons away from my adolescent years when we sang along to “Here Comes the Sun” and warmed our souls with the hippie energy of “Let the Sunshine In.” Nowadays in Chile, the first thing people think of when they hear the word “sun” is “sun block.” We are advised to go to the beach only in late afternoon.

Because of this, Chilean victims of climate change have become addicted to Rabelaisian lunches beneath the shade and snore-filled siestas, all in the interest of killing time until sundown. Now, only at twilight do we summon the courage to hit the waves of the Pacific. But what we gain in health we also gain in weight.

The climate change has done serious damage to fruit and vegetable crops, most particularly my favorite, the “palta,” or avocado. An exporter I know told me that this season’s uncharacteristic frosts ruined 40 percent of his crop. Among farmers a feeling of apprehension has taken hold; the weather has always been slightly capricious, but of late it has become altogether unpredictable.

In 1545, Pedro de Valdivia, the conqueror of Chile, encouraged his fellow Spaniards to settle here because “there is no better place in the world in which to live, now and for generations to come.” A few centuries later, our national anthem reiterated this ecological zeal: “Pure, Chile, is your blue-hued sky ... Your fields embroidered with flowers are a joyous likeness of Eden.”

If tiny Chile does not persuade the giants of this planet to control their talent for destruction, in a few decades’ time the literary allusion that might best reflect our land will no longer be the “joyous likeness of Eden” of our national anthem but rather “paradise lost.”

Antonio Skármeta is the author of “The Postman” and the forthcoming novel “The Dancer and the Thief.” This article was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.

Searching for Local Heroes in China


AT my local supermarket, I’ve noticed an ever-growing number of imported goods stocked beside bottles of soy and oyster sauce: first it was New Zealand dairy products, then wines from Bordeaux; the latest craze is Italian olive oil. As a food writer and chef, I’ve watched with regret how Chinese diets are becoming more Westernized as the country booms.

I’ve also become worried that China’s newfound eating habits are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. While there are movements in America and Europe to reduce carbon footprints and eat locally grown foods, the Chinese are too enthralled with all the new choices to think much of the damage they are doing to the earth.

But in China’s rural heartland, away from wealthy urban centers, evidence suggests that climate change is already beginning to disrupt harvests: at a village near the Great Wall where my fiancé and I spend weekends, the corn farmers complain that the summer rains came six weeks late this year, while the winters are steadily becoming warmer. A stream that runs just beneath the crumbling watchtowers of the Great Wall has dried up, and the farmers say less snow is falling on the jagged brown peaks nearby.

Weather changes are affecting farmers across the country: this year China experienced its worst drought in a decade, affecting nearly 99 million acres of farmland, while tens of millions of farmers faced water restrictions. Meanwhile, heavy rains flooded southern Chinese farmlands in June, killing hundreds.

And China is expected to have increasing problems growing its own food. The United Nations reports that global warming could reduce corn, rice and wheat production here 37 percent after 2050.

A decade or so ago, the sole vegetable that many northern Chinese ate in the winters was cabbage, harvested in the nearby countryside and stored on back porches. Now, flush with cash, Beijing yuppies fill their refrigerators with vegetables from southern China, fruit from Southeast Asia, seafood from Australia.

In traditional Chinese cooking, meat is generally used in small quantities, but Chinese are now demanding more of it, leading to the clear-cutting of forests and increased methane emissions. As Chinese shun fruit and tea in favor of Oreos and Coca-Cola, more factories, many powered by coal, are churning out processed foods and drinks. I certainly understand how, after decades of Communist deprivation, the Chinese are eager to indulge in luxurious new ways of eating that seem mundane to Americans. But the Chinese should keep alive culinary practices that have sustained them for centuries.

Traditional Chinese chefs are some of the world’s most resourceful. They flavor with local ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns and pickled vegetables while making the most of the meat they use, down to the bones and cartilage. As the world warms, these chefs are following traditions that should be an example for China’s new class of rich young urbanites: by making do with what they have locally and being conscious of waste, they are preserving the planet as well as a great cuisine.

Jen Lin-Liu, a co-founder of a Beijing cooking school, is the author of the forthcoming “Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.”

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