Statesman of the melting North: A conversation with Ólafur Grímsson

Ólafur Grímsson

Former president of Iceland and current Distinguished Fellow through Conservation International’s new Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship, Ólafur Grímsson. (© Arctic Circle)

Editor’s note: After 20 years as president of Iceland, Ólafur Grímsson stepped down last year as the longest-serving democratically elected head of state in the world. Under his leadership, Iceland embraced its role on the world stage as a living example of both the impacts of climate change and the promise of climate action. Now as chairman of the Arctic Circle, a network of international dialogue on Arctic issues, and a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at Conservation International, Grímsson is working to advance a new model of social change — one that relies more on mass mobilization than on government decree.  

Tomorrow, marchers will gather in Washington, D.C. and across the United States to raise awareness about climate change. Human Nature sat down with Grímsson to discuss melting glaciers, 100 percent clean energy — and the changing nature of political movements and local action.

Question: How is the Arctic experiencing the effects of climate change? What evidence do you see in Iceland? 

Answer: In Iceland, we have the largest glaciers in Europe, and we have been studying them for more than half a century. And so we do not need to go to international conferences to realize that climate change is happening. Prior to the Paris climate conference in 2015, I flew the president of France, François Hollande, in a helicopter to one of our fastest receding glaciers. I let the helicopter land not at the edge of the glacier but where it was when I was born. And then I let the president of France walk across the black sands and the wet rocks and this area for almost half an hour so that he could personally experience how fast that particular glacier had receded just during my lifetime.

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My ‘aha!’ moment: It started with a stove

Cookstove in North Sumatra

Kasiaro Kalawa and Maslan Lubis use a fuel efficient cookstove in Nanggar Jati village in Tapanuli Selatan, North Sumatra. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the latest post in an occasional series called “My ‘aha!’ moment,” in which CI staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. For Hank Cauley, senior vice president for CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, the journey began with a stint in Somalia and a groundbreaking stove. Read other posts in this series.

I was a kid in the time of the oil embargo back in the ’70s; it really just struck me as a big deal. It led to a decision and interest in energy issues, but energy in the sense of the really critical engineering side. That’s why I went into chemical engineering, which is really about heat and mass transfer, and so you really become good at thinking about energy issues.

I ended up working for an engineering consulting company here in the D.C. area, and did a lot of work with alcohol fuels back then. But I was just bored out of my mind. I like living on the edge, so since I had a couple thousand dollars in the bank, I quit and went to work for a small nonprofit doing what was called “appropriate technology.” They needed someone to go to Somalia to do some building projects in the refugee camps, so I went out there and started building some health clinics and schools. Before I left, they said, “You should see if there’s an opportunity to do something with stoves.”

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Europe moves to restrict import of unsustainable palm oil

Oil palm cultivation in Malaysia.© Benjamin Drummond

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution aiming to limit the import of palm oil that has caused deforestation. The Parliament also called for new sustainability criteria for palm oil entering the European market. The Parliament’s report, while not binding, could pave the way for binding legislation in Europe that could reshape the palm oil industry.

In a recent interview, Human Nature spoke with Cecile Schneider, a European policy manager at Conservation International (CI), about the report and its ramifications for one of the most widely used commodities in the world.

Question: It seems that Europe has been especially active on trying to ensure sustainability of palm oil. Can you give us some context?

Answer: Palm oil is nearly ubiquitous in consumer products but it has been linked to deforestation; about 80 percent of deforestation worldwide is caused by unsustainable agricultural expansion. Of course this has negative impacts for the climate, for biodiversity and critical habitats as well as for human health.

But by importing these products — which include not just palm oil but beef, soy, maize, rice, cocoa and timber — the European Union (EU) is part of this problem. Between 1990 and 2008, for example, the EU was the leading importer of products linked to deforestation — causing an area of deforestation at least the size of Portugal.

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3 reasons for optimism this Earth Day

Elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust center in Kibwezi, Kenya. New findings are changing what we know about how protected areas work. ©Charlie Shoemaker/Conservation International

This Earth Day (April 22), you could be forgiven for feeling gloomy about the state of our planet.

No human who has ever lived has seen the things we’re seeing now: Rising temperatures are melting glaciers, bleaching coral reefs and putting islands at risk of vanishing. Pollution is clogging our coasts. Wildlife face mass extinctions.

Humanity has never faced challenges on this scale — but we’ve never had the tools we now have to solve them. With that in mind, here are but a few reasons to be hopeful this Earth Day.

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Got ‘climate change fatigue’? Watch this

Tired of hearing about climate change? That’s normal. A new miniseries explains why, and what we can do about it. Photo: Sumatran tiger. © Vi Chu

As “big” problems go, climate change is in a class of its own: maddeningly complex, almost intangible, and bespeaking a kind of dread that makes you just want to stop thinking about it.

“Climate change is the policy problem from hell,” says Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in a new video miniseries that kicks off today. “You almost couldn’t design a worse problem for our underlying psychology or the way our institutions make decisions.”

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Coffee sector brewing plans to save your morning cup

A coffee farmer in Chiapas, Mexico.

A coffee farmer in Chiapas, Mexico inspects coffee berries. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

In 10 years, the question may not be where you get your morning cup of coffee — but if.

Demand for coffee is soaring as the effects of climate change in the tropical forests and farms that produce coffee berries likely become worse. Increased climate variability could slash the world’s suitable coffee-growing area in half, disrupting not only our morning routines, but the income of millions of farmers who grow coffee.

To ensure that the coffee sector can produce a sustainable supply of joe in the future, Conservation International’s (CI) Sustainable Coffee Challenge unveiled a new plan of attack at the Global Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle this month.

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Study spawns new method to curb overfishing

Man carrying fish

Man carrying freshly caught fish in Timor Leste. (© UN Photo/Martine Perret)

Editor’s note: A new paper in Conservation Letters offers a clearer picture of whether the ocean’s fisheries can continue to feed humanity into the future, providing a new method to help fisheries managers maintain healthy fish stocks and make the best use of the fisheries people depend on.

In this interview, Jack Kittinger, senior director of fisheries and aquaculture at Conservation International (CI) discusses the impact of the research with two of the paper’s lead authors, Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Elizabeth Selig of the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.

Question: Your research found that more than half of global fish stocks are overfished, or fished “too hard” to produce their maximum sustainable yield (the maximum level at which they can be routinely fished without being depleted). What were your key findings?  

Andrew Rosenberg (AR): A famous fishery scientist, John Gulland, once said, “Fisheries management is an endless argument over how many fish are in the sea until all doubt is removed, but so are all the fish.” In order to manage marine fisheries as a renewable source (i.e. one that we can continue fishing from in perpetuity), it’s important to get regularly updated information on the “status” of stocks of fishable species.  Managers need to know if they’re currently catching an excessive amount of a certain type of fish, what we refer to as “exceeding the productive capacity of the stock,” or, on the flip side, if a larger harvest is possible.  

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‘Surf and turf’ can have carbon footprint of cross-country road trip: study

Mangroves, Indonesia

Mangrove rehabilitation center in Bali,Indonesia. (© Conservation International/ photo by Sarah Hoyt)

Dining out? You may want to think twice before ordering the “surf and turf special.”

The carbon footprint of a steak and shrimp dinner — were it to come from shrimp farms and pasture formerly occupied by mangroves — is the same as driving a small car across the continental United States, according to a new study.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, quantifies the full impacts of mangrove deforestation and puts it in terms of the consumer end product.

Mangrove forests have major implications for global climate because they can store up to 10 times as much carbon as a similarly sized area of rainforest. When those systems are degraded or destroyed for other uses, that carbon is slowly released back into the atmosphere. What was not fully understood — until this study — was the full carbon footprint of food production in mangrove areas; other studies did not include the full effects of deforestation into their analyses.

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What we’re reading: Hardships and hope in Peru; new research on forests and water

Palm swamp forest

Buritzal palm swamp forest in Peruvian Amazon. (© Amazon-Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world.

  1. First, the bad news: Peru’s breakneck economic growth raises cost of catastrophe

The story: The South American country is “increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters as its population and infrastructure expand,” Bloomberg News reported. Record-breaking rains caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon are flooding coastal areas in Peru, washing away infrastructure. Peru’s growth has caused urban areas to expand, Bloomberg reported, often with little planning or disaster prevention.

What’s next: Reconstruction from the flooding is expected to cause US$ 3 billion — and will include disaster mitigation to reduce vulnerability to future emergencies, according to Bloomberg. While options abound for using forests to help build climate resilience to flooding and storm surges, Peru’s next moves remain to be seen — and as Bloomberg notes, it could take years to assemble and assess.

Read more here.

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In Madagascar, rush for precious stones threatens a precious forest

Mantadia National Park

A stream runs through the forest in Mantadia National Park in Madagascar’s Zahamena-Mantadia Corridor. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

The discovery of sapphires in a remote part of eastern Madagascar has fueled an influx of people into the region, ravaging a protected forest that is home to unique wildlife while raising concerns over security and pollution.

According to the Associated Press (AP), tens of thousands of miners and traders in recent months have flooded into parts of the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor, a nearly 1-million-acre rainforest in the island nation, cutting down thousands of acres of forest to mine for gems beneath.

These forests, according to Madagascar’s environment ministry, are home to 14 endangered species of lemur and more than 2,000 species of plants found nowhere else. Conservation International (CI) has helped to manage this area since 1996, working with local communities and the government to reduce illegal logging and “slash-and-burn” agriculture, the two most common drivers of deforestation there.

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