U216 environment: change, contest and response

U216 Environment: change, contest and response TMA U216 06 Question 1 Our responses to environments will not be effective until they take into account the complexities of the responses of environments. Environmental systems can be complicated. When responding to an environment we need to carefully assess how that particular environment might react. What might seem like a straightforward answer to a particular environmental problem can lead to unforeseen complications. This essay seeks to outline what environmental responses are and gives examples of anthropogenic responses to environmental problems that may not always have had the expected result. Responses to environments are generally thought of as people responding to environmental issues or problems. These responses can range from, seemingly paradoxically, doing nothing (an inactive response) through to a reactive response (possibly dealing with an emergency such as a nuclear accident and the ensuing clean-up operations) and finally to a proactive response (anticipating a problem or unwanted outcome and trying to prevent it from happening). Proactive responses are probably those with the most unpredictable outcomes and results as they contain an element of predicting the future. Inactivity can lead from a number of reasons, from simply not caring enough about an environmental change, from not having the power to do anything about it or to having the power to affect an outcome but not being sure exactly what the outcome might be. Environmental problems and the proposed solutions often have a substantial degree of uncertainty about them, especially when these proactive responses are taken. If we cannot be absolutely certain what an outcome will be for a proposed action, we must accept that some risk is inherent in every decision and subsequent action that we take. A process of risk assessment/ management must be undertaken which by it’s very nature cannot be absolutely certain. Uncertainties can come from inaccuracies, ignorance or indeterminacy and can be technological, scientific, environmental, political, social or economic in nature. They are particularly inherent in responses to environmental changes and generally tend to increase with the scale of the environmental problem and with the length of time being considered. It may, for instance, be relatively straightforward to predict the immediate effect of building a flood defence in an area, but predicting the changes in a system where you’re storing nuclear material over a few hundred thousand years is somewhat more fraught with difficulty. If an environmental decision is particularly difficult because of timescales or the presence of too many variables and if there is a chance that the proposed solution could actually make matters worse in the long run, would it be better to postpone the problem until scientific thinking and technology are more advanced? An example of a long-term environmental problem is the storage of radioactive waste from the nuclear industry. This waste remains potentially hazardous for many, many years, depending upon the decay rate, or half-life, of the particular radioactive isotopes involved. The half-life of plutonium 239 for instance is approximately 24, 000 years and it can remain a potential danger for around ten times this timescale. The storage of this waste therefore presents great potential problems over that timescale, as containment has to be guaranteed for thousands of years, possibly through huge environmental, social and political change. Long-term deep geological storage is the preferred option for most countries[1]. This basically means containing the waste (usually intermediate level) and burying it in deep caverns (between 250 and 100m) underground. Whilst this waste is undoubtedly well contained at present it would be a brave person that would guarantee that it would remain so for hundreds, let alone thousands of years. Future changes over this timescale are impossible to predict. Decay of the containment materials, movement of rocks and the presence of unknown fault lines could lead to a breach in the containment vessels and subsequent release of radioactive material. The lack of knowledge of the exact gas and water pathways through deep lying rock could then lead to a dispersion of this material, some of which could migrate upwards towards the surface. Even with much shorter timescales predictions of environmental outcomes may be inaccurate. When nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl incident hit Cumbria in 1986, residual radiation levels in grazing sheep were much higher than authorities had predicted. It became clear that the environmental pathways that the radiation was expected to take was not easy to predict. Some radioactive isotopes are soluble in water so would be expected to disperse, others are not and can be transferred by natural systems, such as water currents, and concentrate in a particular area. Predictions from scientific studies can be difficult to apply in every environment as the predicted pathways of substances can be affected by all sorts of variables, such as physical, biological and chemical factors. The government experts at the time predicted that radiation in the area would fall based on a series of experiments carried out at Harwell on the transfer pathways of caesium 137 in the ground, and assured locals that there was nothing to be concerned about. There were a number of uncertainties with the conclusions of the Harwell report however, which although correctly highlighted in the report itself, were either inadvertently or deliberately ignored by government officials. The differences between the test fields in the study and the Cumbrian landscape meant that the prediction that radiation levels would fall was in fact erroneous, and radiation levels in sheep actually rose as spring changed to summer, bringing about a government enforced ban on the movement of sheep in the area. Some environmental responses simply cannot be predicted; the case of CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons) being a good example. CFC’s are organic compounds that contain carbon, chlorine, and fluorine and were developed in the 1930’s as safe, non-toxic, non-flammable alternatives to dangerous substances like ammonia for use as refrigerants and aerosol propellants. They were regarded as new “ wonder chemicals” and their use grew exponentially over the years, little regard being given to the amount that was being sprayed or otherwise released into the environment. Their usage grew unchecked over the following years until scientists in the early seventies began to notice a “ hole” in the ozone layer above Antarctica. In 1974, studies showed that one of the elements of CFC’s, chlorine, could break-down ozone under the right conditions and it slowly became evident that the CFC’s were gathering in the upper atmosphere and being broken down into their chemical constituents thereby freeing the chlorine. Under favourable conditions, coincidently those in the upper atmosphere, this chlorine has the potential to destroy large amounts of ozone. As ozone forms a protective layer that prevents large levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun reaching the Earths’ surface, this had serious consequences for mankind, increased ultraviolet radiation would lead to increases in exposure to radiation and an increase in skin cancers. As this environmental outcome was discovered however, mankind as a whole took decisive action and the Montreal Protocol was adopted in 1987 to phase out these (and similar) chemicals by the year 2000. This was the first such global environmental agreement on such a large scale and has been largely seen as a success story. This global cooperation will be vital for the biggest environmental problem facing the planet at the moment, anthropogenic climate change. The basic mechanisms behind this, the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases leading to a trapping of solar heat within the Earth’s atmosphere is now well established. The exact extent and effects of this warming in the future on the other hand are not well understood however, is still vigorously contested by some and is the subject of continued modelling, research and refinement. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[2] for instance, shows a range of predictions for global surface temperature rise based on different computer projections (figure 1). [pic] The exact future changes seen in various locations of the planet are also uncertain, and generalities and likelihood of effects are given in the report such as it being very likely that cold days and frosts have become less frequent and hot days more frequent and likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation events have increased. There have been many recent occurrances that seem to back-up the predictions contained within the report. Recent weather patterns within the UK have been unpredictable and every month seems to have one aspect of weather being the most extreme “ since records began”. Flooding within the UK has been in the headlines for the whole of 2012, which contrasts with the continuing droughts in America and Russia. Whilst these lead to immediate hardships for the local populations they also have a devestating affect on food production. Unpredictable and extreme weather events will inevitably lead to decreased production and increased prices for food as farmers struggle to cope with rapidly changing weather patterns[3]. Decreased food production can then lead to the devestating effects of shortage and hunger, which in turn can lead to huge social and political upheaval. One of the possible ways of combating this is to produce flood or drought resistant crops. Traditional production methods may not be quick enough to cope with the speed of changes in weather predicted by some, leading to the adoption of genetically modified crops. Whilst these may be able to cope better with a rapidly changing climate there are fears that other, unpredictable effects may occur. There has been massive controversy with the introduction of GM crops into some countries with some studies suggesting that GM maize crops that produce toxins to kill pests can affect other non-target insects, such as the Monarch butterfly[4] and the green lacewing[5], which is beneficial to the crops as it eats pests. Other potential predicted effects of these crops are the leaching of toxins into waterways and subsequent risk to aquatic life, and a threat to the soil ecosystem that the plants are growing in. The long range transfer of pollen will mean that the effects of these crops will spread throughout the whole ecosystem once they are introduced. The direct implications on the health of humans eating these products are not well known at present and will probably only become evident after years of consuming them. There is also the danger that the use of these crops will simply result in the swapping of one pest for another, as insects evolve to overcome toxins in much the same way that bacteria have adapted to the widespread use of antibiotics. Long term plant-insect interactions are complex, and in a complex environment would be hard to predict if not subject to an extremely well constructed risk assessed. The potential for a truly disastrous unforeseen effect, say perhaps on a pollinating insect such as the bee, would have massive implications for human food production. How do we combat these potential effects of climate change? This is a global problem and cannot be tackled by one country alone. As befits the biggest problem ever to face mankind, it will take the co-operation of all of the industrialised countries around the world to combat its effects. Various treaties have been reached to counter the effects of climate change, notably the Kyoto Protocol, with which countries agreed to legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This treaty appeared to be a major step forward in the battle against global warming but the USA has not fully commited to it and several countries such as France, Russia and Japan have now pulled out of carbon reductions, citing that developing nations (notably China and India) do not have to sign-up to emission cuts[6]. Carbon reduction would be the solution to this particular problem but will the practicalities of the real world enable this to be reached. If different countries are involved with a transboundary solution, agreement must be reached by all parties or the project may be doomed to failure from the offset. The political and social objectives of one country may vary from that of another. Raising its people out of grinding poverty now may be more important to a country such as China than the predicted effects of climate change further down the line. It is clear then that the complexities of the responses of environments must be understood as fully as possible before our intended responses to environmental problems can have the desired effect. The examples given above range from the previously completely unknown effects caused by the release of CFC’s into the atmosphere, the potentially unpredicatable effects of a technology such as GM foods, the erroneous predictions of nuclear activity in Cumbria following the Chernobyl incident, the extremely long term predictions needed to store nuclear waste and the ongoing responses to anthropogenic climate change. The bigger the decisions to be made the more potential for unforseen events to occur. A need for an ongoing culture of environmental risk assessment and creative thinking in the light of new events and discoveries will become ever more vital. (2128 words) ———————– [1] http://world-nuclear. org/info/inf04ap2. html; accessed 27/08/2012 [2] Pachauri, R. K. and Reisinger, A (2010). IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). Geneva: IPCC [3] http://www. bbc. co. uk/news/business-19389224; accessed 27/08/12 [4] Prasifka, P. L., Hellmich, R. L., Prasifka, J. R. & Lewis, L. C. 2007. Effects of Cry1Ab-expressing corn anthers on the movement of monarch butterfly larvae. Environ Entomology 36: 228-33. [5] Andow, D. A. and A. Hilbeck. 2004. Science-based risk assessment for non-target effects of transgenic crops. Bioscience 54: 637-649. [6] http://www. smh. com. au/environment/climate-change/kyoto-deal-loses-four-big-nations-20110528-1f9dk. html; accessed 27/08/12 ———————– Fig. 1: Multi-Model Averages and Assessed Ranges for Surface Warming. IPPC Report 2007.