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Building Dams in Patagonia Will Not Mitigate Climate Change
By Patrick J. Lynch
In the Patagonia region, climate change presents a direct threat to human health and the environment. More than 90 percent of Patagonia's glaciers are receding, endangered marine species are shifting migration ranges as the ocean warms and in some rural communities the water table has dropped so far below historical levels that water is now being trucked to people's doorsteps. These dwindling resources like glaciers and rivers need legislation to protect them and regulate uses that could accelerate their loss.
But perhaps the biggest threat to Patagonia's rivers comes under the cloak of climate change policy. This policy is designed to favor construction of large dams in the region under the guise of cutting carbon emissions. New studies question whether Chile has to accept dams as a solution to climate change, given that a study from Stanford University shows the country could achieve 100 percent renewables without building a single additional dam. But current policy is based on models developed before other renewables like wind or solar were competitive and under a legal regime that dates back to the 1980s, long before mitigating climate change was universally recognized as a priority. The consequence is that some of Patagonia's biggest rivers are still at risk, despite the dual role they play as effective tools in mitigating climate change and as economic drivers for the region.
From Paris to Patagonia
In late 2015, the world's leaders met in France and reached a global climate agreement known as the Paris agreement. As part of the agreement, 189 out of 196 governments made specific, measurable commitments to reduce carbon emissions. These voluntary commitments, labeled INDCs- Intended Nationally Determined Contributions- differ for each country; some are more ambitious than others. Chile's INDC is modeled on a carbon intensity target, which aims to reduce emissions per GDP unit 30 percent below 2007 levels by 2030 and shift energy production to renewable energies. The plan is rated "inadequate" by the researchers at Climate Action Tracker.
The problem for Patagonia is not that these emission cuts aren't ambitious enough, but rather that corresponding energy policy looks at large dams as if they are the right answer to climate change. In 2015, the Ministry of Energy concluded Chile could achieve 70 percent renewables by 2050, which will help meet the goal of 30 percent emissions reductions. While the ministry studied different scenarios, all of the models assumed large dams would be part of the mix. Most of these large dams would be located in the south, where powerful rivers rule supreme and could run turbines year-round—albeit less and less each year. One of the many consequences of climate change in Patagonia is a pronounced drop in precipitation, which must be factored into any discussions about proper water use and management.
The Futaleufu River.Jakub Sedivy
For many, more troubling than a policy that prioritizes large dams is a policy that is designed to give companies a roadmap for which watersheds should be dammed first. In 2014 the Ministry of Energy commissioned a watershed mapping study, currently in Phase II. The study assesses watersheds from the Maipo basin near the capital of Santiago to the Yelcho basin in Patagonia, home to the world-renowned Futaleufú River, which in the past has been targeted for hydro generation. This effort has triggered alarm in these communities, where local leaders are joining together to denounce both the study and the confusion generated by having a regional government that supports conservation and tourism and a national government that appears to prioritize dams.
This policy of mapping watersheds for energy generation predates what is referred to as the HydroAysen case. In 2014, this controversial dam project in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia had its permit invalidated. The invalidation came after years of campaigning, including research procured by the Council for the Defense of Patagonia, a coalition of Chilean organizations including international partners such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, debunking a myth that Chileans need to accept dams to keep the lights on. It also triggered a response from the private sector to seek government assurances for future dam projects, which resulted in the launch of the watershed mapping study that same year.
Prior to the HydroAysen case, it was logical for policymakers to assume as a foregone conclusion that large hydro would play a major role in Chile's future. For many years the question being asked in Chile wasn't whether its rivers would be dammed, but rather which ones would be first. In 2010, Chile's first minister of the then-new Ministry of Energy announced that hydroelectricity was the country's "main richness in terms of energy resources". Now that the conversation has changed and other renewable technologies are both cost-effective and competitive in the energy market, policymakers can be more ambitious in calling for the protection of Patagonia's rivers while also being pro-development.
Ultimately, getting to 100 percent renewables and no new dams would require major changes to Chile's regulatory framework, which still benefits large development projects like dams and coal plants. The latest debate surrounds revisions to the Electricity Law. When the law was passed in 1983, large-scale dams were seen as less controversial than they are today. With so many many gigantic, glacial-fed rivers, dams would have been the only form of renewable energy that was feasible for wide scale implementation. A new bill to revise the law is being criticized for promoting large infrastructure projects like dams in Patagonia, despite being hailed as a tool to promote nonconventional renewable energies (NCREs) like wind and geothermal.
Six watersheds being prioritized by Chile's energy ministry for hydroelectric development.
According to Juan Pablo Orrego, director of the Santiago-based environmental group Ecosistemas, the proposed bill would create development zones from Santiago to Aysen, which he and others are calling "sacrifice zones." According to Orrego, the bill would make it easier to build transmission lines for use in shipping energy generated from Patagonia to other parts of the country or even across the border to neighboring Argentina. "Oddly enough, the bill is supposedly designed to promote NCREs, but in reality it is just promoting more megadams."
These legislative moves, which are in keeping with a pro-dams energy policy, run counter to new research showing better alternatives.
From a global perspective, Chile is tremendously fortunate. New studies show the country doesn't have to choose between coal—which contributes to global warming and has other social and environmental costs—and large dams, which bring their own problems. This new research could form the basis for future policymaking to address climate change, both by preserving freshwater resources and taking an ambitious approach to greening the grid.
In 2015, the NewClimate Institute in Germany analyzed the missed benefits of Chile's INDC. Researchers concluded that Chile could save $5.3 billion USD per year and create approximately 15,000 new jobs by implementing energy policies that aimed to hit 100 percent renewable energies, with no new large hydro. The NewClimate study was submitted to Chile's Ministry of Environment in mid 2015 by the Mesa Ciudadana de Cambio Climático, a Chilean coalition of more than 20 groups working to inform policymaking on topics like energy policy and climate justice.
Going further is Stanford University's Solutions Project, a global initiative to catalogue each country's energy roadmap with the goal of determining how the world can shift entirely to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. According to Stanford's analysis, Chile can achieve 100 percent renewables with just 6.7 percent coming from all forms of hydropower (and a whopping 54 percent from solar). These figures are far different from the Ministry of Energy's analysis, which started with assumptions many critics disagree with.
Kayak on the middle section of the Fuy River.Jakub Sedivy
Together, studies like those by Stanford and the NewClimate Institute show policymakers could be discussing ways for Chile to become a global leader by making sure energy policy and water conservation are both optimized for addressing climate change. The Stanford project's director, Professor Mark Jacobson, highlights the need for informed policymaking. "I believe that getting information into the hands and minds of people is the most significant barrier that needs to be overcome to grow large scale implementation of renewables." Better planning is needed not only for conservation but also to seek more ambitious emissions reductions and help the world achieve the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, as established by the Paris agreement.
Let Patagonia's Rivers Run
In Chile the protection of rivers has yet to become a national priority, but the tide is shifting. One solution is to establish new legislation that would protect rivers due to their wild or scenic value. This model has worked in other countries and could be an effective tool in Chile, where several rivers still flow to the sea or have sections that are still undeveloped. It could also be incorporated into the national plan for climate change mitigation, proposed by researchers at the University of Chile's Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR2).
Juan Pablo Orrego of Ecosistemas argues the need to pass deep reforms that are not biased in favor of large hydro development. "Watersheds that empty into the sea are incredibly important for climate change. Their estuaries produce coastal habitats that are rich in phytoplankton, which act as tremendous carbon sinks. If you seek other sources of renewable energy, you are actually combating climate change just by keeping the rivers wild."
The concerns of watershed advocates like Orrego echo an international consensus, as indicated in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. A scientific report presented during the Paris talks details how the goals include sustainable management of water resources. Specifically, target 6.6 focuses on "protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes" by 2020. But these ecosystems can't be saved if countries like Chile decide that large dams are still the answer to climate change. And in March 2016, the UN excluded large hydro-electric dams (defined as above 50MWs) from its global calculations of renewable energies. Though the reasons it gave were difficulties measuring large dams as they come online and political uncertainties, the move is seen as an attempt to narrow in the definition of renewable energies. The international debate concerning large hydro is important for countries when planning for carbon reductions.
Ralco dam at Biobio River.Roberto Araya
It remains to be seen whether the people designing Chile's national energy policy can adjust. In January 2016, the same Committee of Ministers that invalidated the HydroAysén permit upheld the permit granted to build Energía Austral's 640MW hydro project on Patagonia's Río Cuervo. One month prior, they upheld the permit for the Mediterraneo project on the Puelo River (see Map.) Together these approvals suggest a political unwillingness to reverse plans that were already in place, even though the plans may no longer be relevant or needed to shift to a 100 percent renewable target.
Pangue dam at the Biobio River.Álvaro Maurín
In economic terms, Patagonia's rivers are important for inland communities that depend on sightseeing and adventure tourism. And they are critical for coastal communities that thrive on the same marine ecosystems that act as carbon sinks. These communities need nutrients carried to the sea by unobstructed rivers. Going forward, better information about the locations of these rivers can help inform both the public and policymakers about what is at stake if this energy policy isn't turned around.
Rather than letting Patagonia's rivers be dammed, diverted or destroyed, Chilean policymakers could incorporate river conservation into the country's response to climate change. Doing so would demonstrate leadership over climate issues. By revising energy policy to exclude large hydro as a priority and establishing a river protection law similar to the "wild & scenic rivers" designation found in other countries, Chile could become a global leader on climate and ensure its rivers flow unobstructed from the mountains to the sea.
Patrick Lynch is an environmental attorney in Chile and participates in the Citizens' Committee on Climate Change, which presents renewable energy studies to the Chilean government. Since 2013, he has served as International Director for Futaleufú Riverkeeper, a Patagonia-based NGO. This article was supported by an EcoPatagonia reporting grant from Patagon Journal in partnership with Earth Journalism Network. More info here.
This article was supported by an EcoPatagonia reporting grant from Patagon Journal in partnership with the Earth Journalism Network.
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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