Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for August, 2013

Environmental films at RIFF film festival

The Reykjavik International Film Festival, commonly known as RIFF, starts on September 26. As usual, it will be a mix of new films from lesser-known directors, music films, documentaries, etc. There are often some excellent films shown. And the good news is that documentaries account for a growing proportion of films shown, and the focus this year is on films on environmental, human rights and quality of life themes. The films that have been confirmed can be found here. Many sound interesting, though I won’t be seeing the American film Pandora’s Promise, which is about the potential of nuclear power to save the world, although admittedly it also tackles opposition to the power source and the nuclear accidents that have occurred! Other films include Greedy Lying Bastards, on the people who deny climate change is due to human behaviour; TPB Ark: The Pirate Bay away from Keyboard, which covers the founders of Pirate Bay; My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, on daily life in Helmand; and the slightly humourous Expedition to the End of the World, about a voyage by a team of Scandinavians to look at the melting icebergs in North Greenland.

That just covers a fraction of the films that will be shown at the festival, which runs till October 6. It looks very promising. Last year, a lot of film screenings got sold out, so it’s best to buy tickets in advance nearer the time.

For those not living in Iceland who happen to be reading this, WOW Air have just announced a special deal for festival-goers from London, Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris. It’s only for 3-4 nights, though.

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Fukushima – the ongoing disaster

A few days after the tsunami and earthquake happened that caused the meltdowns at Fukushima in Japan, I told a friend “We won’t get to know the whole story”. And we didn’t – and probably never will.
The storage tanks that are now leaking 10 tonnes of radioactive water per day were only built to last five years, and hence were not built to a high standard. An official from TEPCO, which operates (or perhaps we should say ‘operated’) the Fukushima plant, said that the release could have been happening for 30 days before being detected.
Various websites, such as ENE and SimplyInfo (which is linked to the Fukushima Project), publish alarming updates very frequently. The ENE site has a column of related updates on one side – these are equally alarming, as they show what we are not being told.

It will be interesting to find out if cancer rates have increased in the Fukushima vicinity. Masao Yoshida, who was superintendent of Fukushima at the time of the tsunami and who initially directed 50 staff to try and minimise ensuing damage, died in July of oesophageal cancer. And pools of water in the storage tanks release as much radioactivity in one hour as a person working in a reactor is allowed to be exposed to over a five-year period.

The situation is likely to get worse, not better.

Link between climate change and increased violence

This has nothing to do with Iceland, but is interesting nonetheless.

A multidisciplinary group of researchers from the University of California, led by Solomon Hsiang, have discovered a link between increasing temperatures and increasing bouts of violence. A press release about the study can be read here, but this is a summary of it. As a pacifist and environmentalist, I feel the results are interesting.

Because the nature of climatic events differs across locations, the authors had to develop a standardized method to carry out the research and thus they converted climate changes into location-specific units known to statisticians as standard deviations. They found that a standard deviation shift of 1 towards hotter conditions caused the likelihood of personal violence to rise by 4% and intergroup conflict to rise by 14%.

The authors found similar patterns of conflict around the world that were linked to changes in climatic, such as increased drought or higher than average annual temperature. Examples include spikes in domestic violence in India and Australia; increased assaults and murders in the United States and Tanzania; ethnic violence in Europe and South Asia; land invasions in Brazil; police using force in the Netherlands; civil conflicts throughout the tropics; and even the collapse of Mayan and Chinese empires.

The researchers examined various aspects of climate such as rainfall, drought or temperature, and their associations with various forms of violence within three broad categories of conflict:

  • Personal violence and crime such as murder, assault, rape, and domestic violence
  • Intergroup violence and political instability, like civil wars, riots, ethnic violence, and land invasions
  • Institutional breakdowns, such as abrupt and major changes in governing institutions or the collapse of entire civilizations.

The findings of the study suggest that a global temperature rise of 2 °C could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50% in many parts of the world.

The results proved all three types of conflict exhibit systematic and large responses to changes in climate, with the effect on intergroup conflict being the most pronounced. Conflict responded most consistently to temperature, with all 27 out of 27 studies of modern societies finding a positive relationship between high temperatures and greater violence.

However, the authors point out that conflict is a complex subject and they are not claiming that climate is the only or primary cause of conflict.

Geothermal energy and hydropower – are they really eco-friendly?

I’ve just had an article published in the Icelandic magazine Iceland Review on whether or not Iceland’s main energy generators – geothermal heat and hydropower – are really environmentally friendly. Basically, geothermal energy is unpredictable and needs to be handled gently and power plants expanded slowly to ensure that the energy reserve remains sustainable and without negative consequences. These include the production of too much hydrogen sulphide (H2S), generation of earthquakes (when reinjecting waste steam to the ground to recharge the system) or overexploitation of the resource, which can mean that less energy is produced than anticipated. All of these have happened at the Hellisheidi power station 30 km east of Reykjavik.

On the other hand, the use of geothermal energy for district heating is generally sustainable.

I’ve already written about some of the problems that hydropower can involve, both in this blog and in an Inter Press Service article. Space limitations prevented me from delving deeper into this, but issues such as the impact of cutting the silt and deposits from the river below the dam and how that influences the coastline and coastal ecosystems need to be addressed. What worries me is that the Planning Agency decided that expansion of the Burfell Hydropower Plant in South Iceland by 140 MW does not need an EIA done on it. OK, the power station already exists and the environment has already been damaged to a degree, but I feel that some aspects could be investigated further before expansion goes ahead.

Late last year, the national power company Landsvirkjun set up two pilot windmills near the Burfell site to assess the potential of wind energy in Iceland. They are very pleased with the results – which should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited Iceland as it is a windy country. Wind energy is now seen as a third potential energy source for Iceland.

Of course, wind energy has it’s problems too, but I won’t talk about that here – at least not yet.

Humpback whales and scientific whaling in Iceland

Clearly, some people are optimistic by nature. Iceland’s hunting of fin whales has been in the limelight as no one will transport the meat to Japan and the meat that had gone to Rotterdam and Germany has now been returned to Iceland. Nevertheless, last heard (a few days ago), 75 fin whales had already been caught this season – more than had been caught previously over a whole season.

Twenty-seven minke whales have been caught so far this summer. The Association of Minke Whale Hunters has complained that minke whales are hard to find in Faxafloi bay near Reykjavik, which has always been one of their main haunts, and so the whaling boats have gone to the north instead. Now they say they have seen numerous humpback whales on their travels, and they want to start catching them as well. Sverrir Daniel Halldorsson from the Iceland’s Marine Research Institute says it would be sensible to start a five-year programme of scientific whaling of humpbacks, taking about 10 whales a year.

Iceland and Japan have practised “scientific whaling” in the past, but the meat and other whale produce was not thrown away. I guess the produce would be used within Iceland in this case, but if they want to start commercial whaling of humpbacks, there could be substantial overseas protests. But as I said to begin with, some people are optimistic by nature.