World Watch Magazine: March/ April 2005


Washington, D.C.—Climate change is already disrupting food production in some of the world's major breadbaskets, and more erratic weather, severe storms, and shifts in growing season lengths will handicap the world's farmers in coming decades, writes Brian Halweil in “The Irony of Climate” (World Watch magazine, March/April 2005).

“Archaeologists suspect that a shift in the planet’s climate thousands of years ago gave birth to agriculture. Now climate change could spell the end of farming as we know it,” writes Halweil, Worldwatch senior researcher and author of the recently published book, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket. “As plant scientists refine their understanding of climate change and the subtle ways in which plants respond, they are beginning to think that the most serious threats to agriculture will not be the most dramatic: the lethal heatwave or severe drought or endless deluge. Instead, for plants that humans have bred to thrive in specific climatic conditions, it is those subtle shifts in temperatures and rainfall during key periods in the crops’ lifecycles that will be most disruptive.”

Halweil writes that climate change might be the best argument for preserving local crop varieties around the world so that plant breeders can draw from as wide a palette as possible. More diverse farms will cope better with drought, increased pests, and a range of other climate-related jolts. And in addition to potentially mitigating the negative effects of climate change on crop yields, local production reduces reliance on fossil fuels needed for shipping commodities from afar. The article notes that a basic meal of meat, grain, fruits, and vegetables using imported ingredients can easily generate four times the greenhouse gas emissions as the same meal with ingredients from local sources.


Can a conservative politician who once owned a Hummer for every day of the week forge a green transportation future? In “California Drives the Future of the Automobile,” writer Annie Birdsong explores the steps taken by America’s most gas-guzzling state—and its forward-thinking governor—to develop a “hydrogen highway” to reduce petroleum consumption. “Shifting the state’s transportation system, including its 10,000 retail gasoline outlets, away from petroleum and toward alternative fuels would be a milestone for California—and for the world,” Birdsong notes.

She continues, “California currently leads the United States in gasoline consumption; its 30 million cars, trucks, and buses guzzle more than 40 million gallons each day. These mobile sources accounted for nearly 60 percent of the state’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2003, and more than 90 percent of Californians live in areas where air quality fails to meet federal standards.”

According to Birdsong, California’s new Hydrogen Highway Network legislation is a start, but challenges to the use of hydrogen as an alternative to petroleum remain. “The credibility of the hydrogen dream depends heavily on the analytic assumptions used, and the speed with which that dream is realized—or shattered—will be determined by the policy choices governments make.”


The March/April issue of World Watch heralds two new features—Talking Pictures and Groundwork. This month’s Talking Pictures features the plastic bag: with tens of billions discarded every year, the bags wind up serving many uses, a few of which can be seen in this unusual photo essay.

Groundwork explores some of the key foundations of sustainability laid by our intellectual forebears. This month, Director of Research Gary Gardner explores the idea of sharing “the commons”—“valuable resources which have no gatekeeper to restrict access, and which can be used up.”


Old vehicles are a valuable resource: recycling the materials in a typical car can save 1,134 kilograms of iron ore and 636 kilograms of coal—hence the push to make cars easier to disassemble and recycle. A typical car also accounts for 1.2 million megajoules of energy during its lifetime—about 12 times the annual energy used by the average U.S. household. And roads and parking spaces bury staggering amounts of land (often cropland) under asphalt: 0.07 hectare (0.18 acre) per car in the United States, for a U.S. total of over 16 million hectares (61,000 square miles).


Ocean Census Reveals How Little We Know: New data from a global survey of the world’s oceans is revealing how little is known about marine ecosystems. In November, scientists with the 10-year Census of Marine Life announced that 106 new species of fish were discovered in 2004 alone. The high rate of discovery will likely continue as the “information seaway” becomes increasingly sophisticated, with scientists now relying on everything from unmanned submarines to electronic tags that track the movements of open ocean species.

China, the WTO, and the Environment: China’s membership in the WTO is having profound environmental impacts, particularly in agriculture, forestry, aquaculture, automaking, energy, and textiles, according to a report by the Chinese government. China’s accession to the WTO offers a unique opportunity to drive ecologically sustainable development, but likewise forewarns of an acceleration of ecological damage if environmental concerns are not addressed.

The Price of Hunger: Hunger kills more than 5 million children each year, or about one child every six seconds. Although hunger primarily afflicts the poor, it’s actually a very expensive problem for everyone else as well. According to the latest edition of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual State of Food Insecurity, “A very rough estimate suggests that these direct costs add up to around $30 billion per year, over five times the amount committed so far to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.”


Aid and Comfort

Official U.S. aid pledged for tsunami relief as of December 2004 — $35 million

Official U.S. aid pledged as of January 2005 — $350 million

Estimated funds (mostly private) budgeted for Bush inauguration — $30–50 million

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Japan official tsunami aid pledge — $500 million

Sweden official tsunami aid pledge — $75 million

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Sweden tsunami aid pledge per capita — $8.33

Japan aid pledge per capita — $3.93

U.S. aid pledge per capita — $1.19

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Sweden total foreign aid, 2003 — $2.1 billion

As share of GDP — 0.7 percent

Japan total foreign aid, 2003 — $8.9 billion

As share of GDP — 0.2 percent

U.S. total foreign aid, 2003 — $15.8 billion

As share of GDP — 0.14 percent

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U.S. estimated sales of Botox (to eliminate facial wrinkles), 2003 — $540 million

U.S. spending on all cosmetic procedures, 2002 — $7.7 billion

U.S. sales of pet food and supplies, 2003 — $18.9 billion

U.S. sales of Prozac-type antidepressants, antipsychotics, and

sexual dysfunction drugs (e.g., Viagra), 2003 — $20.3 billion

U.S. spending on potato chips and other salty snacks, 2002 — $22 billion


Sources: U.S., Japanese, and Swedish tsunami aid pledges: various news sources. Estimated Bush inaugural spending: Per-capita aid pledges: calculated with population data from CIA World Factbook and U.S. Bureau of the Census. Foreign aid totals and GDP shares: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Spending data: lifestylestat.php, except drug sales from and pet food/supplies data from