Archive for November, 2012

The Niger Delta

Monday, November 19th, 2012

There are a lot of environmentally wrecked places around the planet, sites we have known about for years. Generally they involve our efforts to extract stuff.

Of course environmentalists are frustrated that evidence – the photographs, videos and data on contamination and destruction – is largely ignored, but we shouldn’t be surprised. These are not rational times.

Another approach is through fiction, and a new and award-winning book, ‘419‘ by Will Ferguson, does it really very well.

Winner of Canada’s 2012 Giller Prize, this is an outstanding story.

The book is about Nigeria, framed by the emailed money-requesting scams we are so familiar with. (419 refers to the Nigerian law that prohibits such fraud). It is a terrific book, a tight and evocative tale of the harsh scramble that is life in Nigeria and how it can reach out to naive North Americans – well, in this case Canadians.

The oil fields along the coast of the Niger Delta are rich, exploited by many oil companies, subjected to minimal regulations (

A lot of the book takes place in the Niger Delta in Nigeria in west Africa, once home to many tribes living on the fishing the delta once provided. The destruction of the delta by the oil companies has involved mangrove destruction, air and water contamination, eliminated fisheries, militancy and the ‘Mosquito’ resistance and kidnappings for ransom, impressive levels of graft, and the complicity of the Nigerian government. As a result the history is one of destroyed cultures, far too familiar and horrible, and should never have occurred.

Natural gas is burned off as ‘flares’ wherever oil is drilled – but existing regulations on flaring are rarely enforced in Nigeria. The CO2 emitted by flaring in the Niger Delta is about equal to the CO2 emissions of Italy (nair

If improvements can occur, if the destruction is to be successfully reduced and even perhaps reversed, the spotlight on the Delta needs to be a bright and strong one. ‘419’ will be read for its absorbing plot of relationships, manipulation, scams and life-and-death events. But as well it evokes an environmental hell, one for which we are all to blame.

Many very fine non-fiction books have been written by fluent and lucid environmentalists. Books that should have influenced the political leaders of the world, books that should have scared them into action. They obviously didn’t. Probably they didn’t get read by the people who most needed to read them.

So let’s see where good fiction takes us.

The Niger Delta is a reasonable target – if it can be in part recovered, probably anywhere can. Responsible drilling, gas flares eliminated, contamination cleaned up, communities made part of the solution, government laws concerning environmental and cultural protection not just passed but actually implemented: is this too much to strive for?

It can’t be – though in his book Ferguson offers only the very slimmest of hopes.

Hurricane Sandy’s Sea Change

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Now, after Hurricane Sandy, some of our political leaders are finally speaking up more clearly about the impact of climate change.

The conversation is not just about restoring all that was damaged along the shores of New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island, and in lower Manhattan and in the surrounding boroughs.

It is also about preparing for more storms like Sandy, adapting to the new reality of higher sea levels, warmer sea surface temperatures, bigger storms, and more frequent ones. Finally.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said more than a year ago that he recognized that climate change is real and that human activity plays a role in these changes.

This week he said “I don’t believe in a state like ours, where the Jersey Shore is such a part of life, that you just pick up and walk away.” But then he still raised the possibility that homeowners in hard-hit coastal areas could decide to sell their property to the state for conservation.

Surfers Point, Ventura, CA is now protected by ‘managed retreat'(

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, in response to Sandy said “…I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”

And Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of NYC, wrote concerning Sandy: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Sea walls, levees and beach sand replenishment are temporary solutions at best, and building offshore walls and storm gates are hugely expensive.

Drawing of possible sea gates to protect Staten Island – intriguing but so very expensive (

Bloomberg again: “I don’t think there’s any practical way to build barriers in the oceans. Even if you spent a fortune, it’s not clear to me that you would get much value for it.”

There are many possibilities besides building levees, sea gates and walls. Constructing buffering oyster beds, sand dunes and wetlands are real options instead. Managed retreat – moving homes, businesses and roads out of the harms way is now as well an essential consideration.

Imagine a grassy network of parks and wetlands extending around lower Manhattan, with tidal marshes to absorb waves. (

Or imagine oyster beds growing on reefs of rock and shell, buffering and absorbing storm surges (

No one thinks that climate warming necessarily caused Hurricane Sandy – but it likely influenced its size and its path. The melting and warming Arctic has modified the flow of the Jet Stream which in turn influenced the path the hurricane took veering into the east of North America instead of out to sea.

Now it appears that the Arctic melt is proceeding even more quickly than any of the models have predicted. The sea will continue to warm and rise, and storm surges will be ever higher.

So now we have an opportunity to face reality, not just to rebuild what has been lost but to adapt in many ways to what is coming. With strong and non-partisan leadership emerging, we can prepare ourselves.

We may need to nourish these voices.