No favours for coffee farmers in Lima climate flop

My local railway station now boasts more staff selling coffee than tickets. Indeed, the best cappuccino in Winchester is to be found at a kiosk installed on the windswept wasteland of Platform 1, despite countless genteel establishments within the City.

During that pause at the station while the machine works its miracle on the beans, I’m always amused to sense the proximity of some of the world’s most topical problems – private sector management of public transport (doing a terrible job), the Eastern European migrant workers staffing the kiosk (doing a great job) and the ill-fated coffee beans, doomed by climate change to fail to meet exponential global demand for more cappuccinos.

Currently in crisis brought about by drought, rust (fungus) and berry borer (beetle), Latin American coffee growers might have hoped that the Peruvian venue for this year’s round of UN talks would crank up the action plan on climate change. Alas, the process moves inexorably towards an international agreement to do nothing very much in no particular hurry.

Coffee is significant because the plant is unusually sensitive to temperature change and erratic weather. Furthermore, the best beans grow in inland regions of East Africa (Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia) where warming may exceed the global average. The most recent IPCC report highlights the impact of climate change on coffee, warning that “the suitability for coffee crops in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador will be reduced by more than 40%.” I doubt that coffee growers subscribe to the collective wisdom that two degrees of warming is “safe”.

It’s therefore very possible that people even of my (middle-aged) generation will live to see the endgame of this particular impact of climate change. Will we shrug our shoulders and switch to tea? Will we be willing to pay more for lower quality, leaving pure Arabica coffee as a luxury for the rich? Will we allow the uncertain science of genetic modification to gain access through the soft underbelly of desperation for caffeine?

Who will be the winners and losers of this sorry case study of the Anthropocene living up to its name? In Ethiopia, where coffee has deep cultural significance, 95% of the national harvest is grown on small farms of less than five hectares. These farmers lack the financial or spatial capacity to adapt – already there’s news of a recent Saudi investment in 22,000 hectares of coffee plantation in Ethiopia.

It’s also difficult to imagine how wider African interests can remain in control of the coffee economy. Just two months ago, scientists announced the decoding of the Robusta genome, a stepping stone to the genetic secrets of Arabica beans. It may not be long before patents are sought for adapted strands of DNA, the applicants likely to be limited to a very small number of agribusiness corporations which are not based in Africa.

This picture of a scramble for coffee’s land and DNA, probably occurring under the radar of public awareness, may be speculative but it’s based on the solid precedent of maize, rice and other staple food production. These emerging scenarios go to the heart of the concept of climate justice which argues that countries which have contributed least to carbon pollution will be the biggest losers from the consequences.

Restitution of climate injustice was clearly framed in the original 1992 Convention on Climate Change, both in practical measures (steep emissions cuts by the richer countries together with financial support for adaptation) and in principle (“common but differentiated responsibilities”). The annual COP meetings, charged with implementing the Convention’s goal of stabilising the climate, have failed, and will continue to fail, because these richer countries have lost the political will to negotiate the delivery of their obligations. Instead they devote their energies to emasculating the Convention.

The story of coffee may underpin one of the early chapters in the history of dysfunctional global governance in the 21st century.


Drought in Brazil may hit your coffee mug, from CNN

From Mexico to Brazil, climate change threatens coffee growers in Latin America, from Unside Down World

How climate change will brew a bad-tasting, expensive cup of coffee, from The Guardian

Science Cracks Coffee’s Genetic Code. Up Next: Frankencoffee, from Bloomberg Businessweek

Ethiopia: Coffee sector performs below potential – Briefing Note from Ecobank

Climate Justice Briefing

Greenpeace audit should focus on governance

My instinctive sympathy is with the fall guy in last week’s story that Greenpeace International has fired a member of its Amsterdam finance team for losing 3.8 million euros on “an ill judged contract aimed at managing foreign currency exchange costs.”

I also work in finance for an international NGO, fortunately a much smaller and less complex organisation than Greenpeace. We receive most of our income in euros and dollars, our corporate accounts are in sterling and our expenditure occurs in a mix of the world’s poorest countries. This is a classic profile for exchange rate losses.

There are common sense ways for small non-profits to manage the risks. By far the most important is to make sure that relevant financial skills are represented on your board and at the highest level of influence within the executive.

I’ve no inside track on Greenpeace International but this basic principle of financial governance appears conspicuous by its absence, at least on the evidence of an hour or two of surfing obvious reference material. The “complete independent audit” promised by Greenpeace to sooth angry supporters might usefully make a start with the senior management organisation chart? Notice anything missing?

greenpeace organisation chart

The Head of International Finance is off the chart to the right, reporting to the Organisational Director, three tiers distant from the Executive Director. That will surely change.

Occupancy of all the positions in the lower half of the organisation chart has been in flux over the last year or two, doubtless a further aggravation for the finance team. There are signs that a UK troubleshooter on NGO finance has been installed in Amsterdam for most of 2014.

At Board level, the Treasurer of Greenpeace International is Ed Harrington, whose financial credentials draw on senior management experience for San Francisco local government and utility bodies, not exactly the sharp end of multi-currency risks.

Somewhat better qualified is Steve Francis, an accountant from the European life assurance sector. However, it’s not clear from Greenpeace publications which of these two board members has direct responsibility for finance (and therefore for that hole in the organisation chart – and for currency risk management policy). Both will presumably make a decently hasty exit.

Full details of the hedging contracts will of course emerge from the audit, if not before. The extent of the loss appears surprising in relation to the amount of cash potentially available. Greenpeace International accounts suggest that the total face value of the contracts is unlikely to have exceeded 15-25 million euros. Losing 3.8 million sounds more like betting the farm than hedging risk.

All this is guesswork but, if I was a Greenpeace donor, I’d like to know which bank or currency trader was hawking such a toxic bundle of futures and whether that institution observed proper process for executing the customer agreement – and for disclosure of risks on the specific contracts.

The Independent in the UK reports that the Greenpeace finance employee obtained the necessary second signature on the trading contracts from a junior rather than senior colleague, this by implication being the sackable offence.

My imagination readily paints a picture of the context ……that there were foreign exchange losses of 600,000 euros in 2012 (for the normal reasons), creating pressure on the finance team to “do something”, a recognised slippery path to bad advice. The team member had become hardwired to coping with a vacuum of financial competence in the corporate hierarchy and instead turns to a colleague to make it happen. There but for the grace of God……

Greenpeace International has obtained the headlines it wanted – invoking speculation, bad bets and gambling by a rogue individual. The public story will probably end there. For the sake of the world’s most incisive environmental campaign group, I hope there’s a radical repositioning of finance within the governance structure.


Greenpeace International statement on foreign currency exchange losses

Greenpeace loses £3m of public donations after currency gaffes from The Independent


The sublime, the climate and Eleanor Catton

After a bad experience with Wolf Hall, I resolved never to buy door-stopper novels, not even those strewn with accolades, without first trying out their authors in shorter form. Tuesday’s Man Booker prize for The Luminaries left me unmoved as soon as I saw Eleanor Catton struggling to hold up her 800-page tome for the cameras.

By Friday I was having second thoughts, my breakfast routine suspended by the riveting 1500 words that Ms Catton had delivered to The Guardian, describing her childhood in Christchurch. If such a treat of descriptive memoir could be dashed off in the 48 hours of post-award euphoria (surely it was dusted off the shelf!), what riches might there be in a polished novel?

The Guardian article explores the inadequacy of language to describe sublime human experience, taking the visual example of unspoiled landscape. As a native of New Zealand’s South Island, Eleanor Catton has had more opportunity than most to take up this artistic challenge.

Catton’s purpose here was confined to professional reflection on the boundaries of her craft. Inevitably, my own reaction jumped to the consequences. If our universal tool of communication is unable to capture the essence of humanity’s relationship with the natural world, is it any surprise that we’re trashing the place? If Eleanor Catton can’t articulate the ecstasy of natural beauty, how can we expect earth scientists to convey the significance of its loss?

Efforts to answer such questions are in full flow in the aftermath of the latest IPCC report on climate science. The UK Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Wolpert, lamented the “sense of ennui” amongst mainstream public reaction, warning a Royal Society meeting that “science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”.

My former colleagues, Anuradha Vittachi and Peter Armstrong, continue to engage with this topic through the lens of empathy, that most elusive human quality. For me, the empathy deficit arguably accounts for all catastrophic group behavior in our species, past and present. Can we learn more by teasing out its contribution to the failed response to climate change?

I’m not sure – but here’s the climate section of Anuradha’s interview with Sarah Woods, the playwright who performed her solo production of The Empathy Roadshow at the South Bank Centre last week. “It all boils down to space and time” she says about the ostrich tendencies of people and politicians.

It’s curious that Eleanor Catton’s article invoked this same concept of “time and space” in her striving to make linguistic sense of natural beauty. This is difficult terrain, grappling to hook up the fruits of our clever rational minds with the dark matter within, with too little time for the task.

We could do no worse than commission Eleanor Catton to tackle the embryonic genre of climate fiction.

Sarah Woods in conversation with Anuradha Vittachi at her London Empathy Roadshow. Click on YouTube for the full interview. From Hedgerley Wood.


Eleanor Catton: The land of the long white cloud from The Guardian

‘Science is not finished until it’s communicated’ – UK chief scientist – from RTCC

Climate Justice Tread Softly briefings

Data revolution tested by African growth riddle

The most embarrassing development data cock-up of the last decade was quietly laid to rest in the back pages of The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013, published on Tuesday by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Spooked by the exponential rise in food commodity prices in 2007/08, the FAO declared in 2009 that 80 million people would be added to the 925 million already unable to access sufficient food. Writers on development issues, myself included, couldn’t resist generous use of the “billion” word, now that the count of global hunger was reputedly in that vicinity.

In 2011 the FAO took a sabbatical from publishing its annual headline statistic, such was the absence of verifying evidence for its food crisis figures. Sure enough, in last week’s report, the charted trend for global hunger shows not even the slightest blip in its steady downward path over those notorious years of food price security progress to MDGsThe FAO’s text shrinks from conducting a post mortem on this debacle. In a section entitled: “What was the impact of price volatility observed over recent years?” we learn that:

recent data on global and regional food consumer price indices suggest that price hikes in primary food markets had a limited effect on consumer prices

Such a conclusion is too broad, typical of the oblique discussion in the report. Many of the world’s poorest households did experience real hardship from rising prices, to the extent that there were food riots in many countries.

However, in the spirit of an evident desire to move on, the important question now is whether future global hunger statistics will be more reliable if price volatility returns to haunt us.

The FAO would doubtless point to its improved understanding of the economics of price transmission. But there’s no substitute for hard data, in particular the challenge of overcoming the inordinate delay in gathering household data in the world’s poorest countries.

In Dignity For All, the UN Secretary-General’s report on the post-2015 agenda debated at the General Assembly last month, he refers to the “opportunity for a data revolution” driven by the forces of new technology. Positive stories of collating real-time data on living standards are emerging across Africa, invariably enabled by mobile phone technology.

There’s an immediate test for this embryonic revolution. Is Africa the continent driving global economic growth, as conventional GDP figures suggest? Or do these growth figures merely chart the booming demand for natural resources, the GDP froth incapable of penetrating chronic poverty?

Figures published in The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013 question this “Africa Rising” narrative.  With hunger falling everywhere else, the numbers in Africa continue to edge upwards:food security Africa SOFA13Also published last week was the Afrobarometer, a survey compiled from over 50,000 household interviews across 34 countries. It concludes: “we find little evidence for systematic reduction of lived poverty despite average GDP growth rates of 4.8% per year.”

The relationship between GDP growth and poverty reduction is too important to wait five years for the machinery of household data collection to grind out an answer. Prizes await the organization that can successfully combine technology with the traditional skills of development intervention to solve this nagging riddle of development economics.


all charts are sourced from The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013

So how many of the world’s people are hungry – From Poverty to Power

Food Security Tread Softly briefings

Loss of old certainties hobbles IPCC

I’ve just blown a large quantity of dust from my copy of the very first Assessment Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990. I see that it cost me £19.95, yet I’m not aggrieved to observe signs that 336 of the 337 pages of scientific prognosis have never seen the light of day.

Sir John Houghton ©C3W

Sir John Houghton ©C3W

That single page Executive Summary played a small part in settling the compass of my life, which at the time was in search of direction. Presumably written by the redoubtable Working Group chair, Dr John Houghton, the Summary’s opening words – “We are certain” – conveyed what I expected from a report endorsed by “most of the active scientists working in the field.”

Two more confident sub-headings frame the Summary: “We calculate with confidence” and: “Based on current model results, we predict”

In just 300 words, policymakers preparing for the 1992 Earth Summit could appraise the causes of climate change, the projected rise in temperature and sea level, and the range of uncertainty. The frightening speed of what was happening in relation to natural planetary cycles was enough for me, then as now, to conclude that we have an existential problem on our hands.

Scientists working in 2013 on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report must look at Houghton’s text rather as the safety design team at Jaguar Land Rover might view the E-Type. The Physical Science Basis Summary published for policymakers last Friday contains no such helpful phrases: “we are certain” or “we predict”. Instead, the opening page introduces the topic of “probabilistic estimates of quantified measures of uncertainty.”

The text is weighed down with introspective statements validating the core concept of anthropogenic global warming by reference to observed change. Whereas the First Assessment Report allocated just one of its eleven sections to the question: “Has man already begun to change the global climate”, its successor devotes the first 11 of 19 headline messages to self-justifying evidence that the climate system is already behaving unnaturally.

I’m not sure that my 1990s self would have made it as far as page 14 where the section on Future Climate Change finally begins. Its opening headline offers the underwhelming news that “continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming.”

I’ve no doubt that the structured communication of uncertainty developed by the IPCC since 1990 represents an improvement in the scientific method. But the imposition of formulaic degrees of confidence in findings and likelihood of projections has been disproportionate to the overwhelming scale of the problem.

It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time that the precautionary principle in ecosystem management has been imposed so rigorously on the scientific method and so negligently on the unfortunate planet, for whose benefit it was adopted by politicians in the Rio Declaration of 1992.

The irony is that the sloppy science and clunky computers of the First Assessment Report produced results which have stood the test of time. Each of the confident predictions for 2100 in that 1990 Executive Summary would not look out of place in the Fifth Assessment projections; the temperatures are a little high and the sea level rise a little low. There’s even a prescient aside in the text warning that “the rise (in temperature) will not be steady because of the influence of other factors.”

The science of climate change is therefore marking time, in contrast to its cause. We all know what’s gone wrong – the failure of the political process in the so-called great democracy of the United States to counter the power of fossil fuel interests.

The IPCC agenda is now driven, not by contemporary anxiety about a sustainable planet, but by media campaigns of dubious partiality. Friday’s publication even analyses periods beginning with the infamous hot year of 1998, reducing the IPCC to the level of its critics. Many of the projections are suspiciously tepid, like a tray of hot canapés that has been hawked around a large room.

We can’t go on like this. The IPCC scientists have done a heroic job in standing their ground against the attack dogs, proving that their work and their methods are sound. But it’s time for the UN to take a careful look at the role of the IPCC, in the context of broader global environmental change – and of its milestone decision last week to pull together disparate programmes into a set of Sustainable Development Goals to take effect from 2015.

Summary for Policymakers from Fifth Assessment Report

Summary for Policymakers from First Assessment Report

Climate Justice Tread Softly briefings

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