Sunday, February 27, 2022

Portugal’s past, Putin’s future

It is increasingly possible that President Vladamir Putin’s war in Ukraine could be his downfall, not so much because of sanctions imposed by the West, but because of condemnation by his own people. That’s what happened in Portugal during this country’s colonial war in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Portugal’s conflict in the last colonies of its empire ended with the revolution of 1974 when elements of the army, with the approval of the Portuguese population at large, ousted the dictatorship established by Antonio Salazar. The dictatorship was replaced by democracy.

It is predicted that if the war in Ukraine continues for much longer, Putin’s autocratic rule in Russia will plummet. It’s already dropping. Protests in Russian cities involving thousands of citizens outraged by the invasion of Ukraine have continued despite many arrests, but so far no evidence has spilled out of significant opposition to the war from within the Russian military.

While Portugal willingly gave up its long-held empire, Putin seems determined to rebuild the former USSR, the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a major part. He could hardly be more different in character from Salazar. Portugal’s dictator lived simply and shunned publicity. Putin, 69, seems to be steeped in hubris. He lives luxuriously, mixing closely only with billionaire cohorts. 

Like Salazar, Putin had a successful university education. He went on to hold important national positions, including head of the KGB, and yet many have described his interest in Ukraine as an “obsession” and seriously questioned a mindset that seems lacking in  rational thinking.  

Although perhaps not able to play a major role in Western sanctions against Russia, the Portuguese government has expressed solidarity with NATO, of which it is a 1949 founding member, and the European Union which it joined in 1986.

Russia’s potential retaliation for Western sanctions is causing alarm in parts of Europe, particularly Germany, dependant on imports of oil and natural gas from Russia. Less discussed but nonetheless important, especially in drought-stricken countries like Portugal, is the fact that Ukraine is the main supplier of maize and Russia the main supplier of wheat to Europe.   

While Portugal is not dependent on Russia oil and gas, a positive alternative for countries facing cuts in energy imports would be the promotion of greater efforts to further develop clean energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro-power in line with the climate change needs.

Ukraine has a population of over 44 million, more than four times that of Portugal. Huge numbers of refugees have already fled to Poland and other neighbouring countries. The number is expected to reach four million. Many are expected to make their way to Portugal, which has been home in recent years for between 40,000 and 50,000 Ukrainians registered as Portuguese citizens or issued with official residential permits. 

Thankfully, for all Ukrainians and everyone else in this country, Portugal is recognised internationally as one of the most peaceful countries on Earth.     

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Cooperation not conflict if we hope to survive climate change

So much aggression across the world is making it increasingly difficult to focus even here in peaceful Portugal on the biggest threat of all to the future of humanity: climate change.

The arguing over Ukraine, now getting close to all-out war, atrocities in Afghanistan, mass killings in African nations, Islamic terrorism, child abuse within the Catholic Church, cyber attacks from China.... this plus the worldwide economic crisis and the COVID pandemic have been diverting attention from the symptoms we are already experiencing of a potential climatic calamity.   

Overcoming the issues discussed but left unresolved by last November’s COP26 conference in Glasgow remains mankind’s greatest and most urgent challenge. It needs intelligent cooperation not absurd confrontation. 

Alarming new studies show that droughts and sea level rises due to climate change are threatening life in the United States more than ever before, just as they are in Portugal.  Even more alarming is the fact that internationally not nearly enough is being done about it.

“Climate change-induced extreme winter drought devastates crops in Spain and Portugal,” just about made it into the international news headlines last week .“This year, amid record low levels, or no rainfall at all, farmers in both Portugal and Spain, who are growing produce for all of Europe, are worried that their crops for this season will be ruined,” reported  Euronews.

Portugal has had little rain since last October. Since the end of January, 45% of the country has been experiencing ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ drought. Rainfall from the beginning of October to the end of January was less than half the annual average for that four-month period. Water levels in the country’s reservoirs are dropping significantly and there are no reassuring forecasts for heavy rains in the months ahead. Every bit as worrying as growing sufficient agricultural products for human consumption and grass for livestock is providing domestic supplies of fresh water in urban areas. Sufficient winter precipitation prior to the normal dry summer is crucial, but Portugal is not getting it. 

The new studies in the US have reported not only on mega-droughts in California and the rest of the southwest, but on sea level rises all along America’s vast coastline. We know all about sea level rises along Portugal’s west and south coasts. They are threatening to flood and perhaps submerge many communities causing social and financial ruin, not least to tourism.

Longer and hotter heat waves prompting more widespread wildfires are among Portugal’s other major concerns in connection with climate change, which is why mandatory spring land clearing is already underway throughout the country from north to south. 

Yes, we know about the ever-present danger of desertification as Portugal is one of Europe’s most vulnerable countries to climate change because of its geographical location. This is all so distant from the minds of egomanias such as global warming denier Donald Trump and Ukraine obsessed Vladimir Putin, but global leaders must focus much more on supporting, not destroying, the future of life on planet Earth.  


Saturday, February 5, 2022

Climate change is dramatically changing birdlife across Europe


By contributing to global warming, humans are causing major disruptions to birdlife in Portugal and all over the rest of Europe as well as Africa.

For one thing, the annual northward bird migration between Africa and Europe, which traditionally starts this month, is being impacted. Migrants are arriving earlier, staying longer, and in some cases not returning south.

Ornithological studies show that the imbalance has been rapidly increasing and will continue to do so as the planet warms up.

Normally, more than two billion birds have been flying epic journeys from sub-Saharan and southern Africa in spring, and back again in autumn, a total of anywhere between eight and more than twenty thousand kilometres. But these are not normal times. Global warming and increasing desertification has been changing habitats and food availability in Africa, thus making Portugal and all other European spring and summer breeding grounds even more attractive than they used to be.

Studies forecast that many of the commonest migrants will continue to spend as much as two months longer in Europe before returning south in the autumn or winter - and that an increasing number may cease to be long-distance travellers ever again.

A lot of storks and swallows, which are particularly familiar species in Portugal, have given up tackling the hazardous crossing southwards across the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert. They find the year-round environment here is more than adequate.

House martins and cuckoos are among the first and most obvious arrivals here in February and March, but instinctively they are finding it is not worth the effort when Winter environments and food supplies are more plentiful in Europe nowadays compared to a couple of decades ago.

Migrants prepare for departure by consuming as rich and abundant a diet as possible. Even so, there is still a strong possibility of exhaustion on the way. Not only that, they have to depend on their instinctive but still not fully understood ability to navigate over vast distances.

While greater numbers of normally migratory individuals are residing here, Bird International and the RSPCA reckon the overall population of birds in Europe has decreased by around 600 million since 1980. Most of them are common species such as sparrows, starlings and skylarks. Many have been wiped out by agricultural developments, land clearance, air pollution and insecticides. The research shows that some other species have increased by roughly 300 million, hence the net figure of 600 million. The equivalent population decrease over the same period in the United States and Canada is estimated to be more than two billion.

 Complicated as all this may seem, nature is simply being forced to adapt as best as possible in line with Charles Darwin’s theory on the survival of the fittest. In this regard, recently published research using data collected over decades shows that some bird species are adapting to global warming by losing weight, slimming down and slightly extending their wing lengths in order to be more efficient in cooler climes.

Bids that prefer relatively high-altitude living are moving higher in hilly or mountainous areas if warming temperatures demand this. Waders in Portugal and elsewhere will have to find alternative wetlands because of droughts created by climate change. The Portuguese Institute of Meteorology says the current drought here, which started last November, has worsened and now 54% of the country is experiencing moderate drought, 34% severe drought and 11% extreme drought.

Mammals and plants are having to adapt too. Some mammals are slimming down and growing longer noses, ears and tails. Fewer seed-eating birds nowadays mean that plants are suffering because of a lessening of seed distribution.

In contrast to native European birds and mammals, so many humans are obese. The world’s human population is increasing. Climate change is not getting the attention it needs. According to the British Museum of Natural History, of the 544 bird species in Europe, 71 are currently threatened with extinction and 34 more are vulnerable. Humans are likely to become extinct too if they don’t mend their aggressive ways, focus more on nature conservation and keep temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.