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Dirty Palm Oil, the Climate Change Beast in Our Midst

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I've been in the manufacturing business long enough to be able to say this: The cheaper the product, the bigger its environmental impact.

Cheap products you find at dollar stores does not mean that that they were cheap to make. It usually means that a lot of corners were cut to save on the true costs of manufacturing those products. Those "savings" that we see always end up in environmental impacts that are seldom costed or traced and therefore no one cares except for victims of climate change.

If we go back a mere 20 years, rivers and lakes in north America were so polluted that they weren't fit to swim in, never mind drinking from them. All rivers lead to the oceans, unfortunately, and as manufacturing in North America started to create real environmental impacts on our lives like dead zones , we shifted our heavy footprint to countries like China and Bangladesh. Out of sight, out of mind.

Unfortunately, neither climate change nor industrial pollution recognizes national borders. From the folks that depend on mussels to make a living to the bread basket of America in Kansas, we are all feeling the impacts of climate change. Iconic landmarks like Yosemite National Park will be changed forever as climate change affects us all in its disturbing embrace.

Going through the reactions to the recent IPCC reports on climate change, a couple of statements stuck in my mind though and I highlight them here.

The first one was the statement by Rajenda Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the financial markets are humanity's only hope for mankind. Financial markets Mr. Pachauri, are mostly about making money for a select few, not saving the planet.

A classic example of this is how many pension funds and big banks invest in a publicly traded company that was ranked as worst in the whole world, Wilmar Group. Notable among their investors is TIAA-CREF which handles the retirement savings of hard working American teachers and professionals. Should they continue to keep their investments in Wilmar even though Norway's wealth fund has dumped Wilmar and other palm oil growers to make a statement against deforestation?

The other article that stood out was the talk of carbon trades and offsets. Schemes like Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) are in my opinion, nothing more than than a confirmation of our unwillingness to tackle climate change head on. As the author points out : "Relying on market based instruments to address climate change is to doom the fight to failure"

The only instrument we need to fight climate change is in every person's hands. It's in the money we spend as consumers which is the only way corporations make their profits. It's in who we choose to direct our pension funds that will allow us comfortable retirements that will not be threatened by extreme weather.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans railed against the destruction of Appalachian Mountains for coal to power our homes when they saw the environmental destruction. Many more stand up against tarsands oil today to protest its heavy emissions. All this is done as we do not like what we're seeing from the effects of climate change.

Meanwhile, we welcome its twin, dirty palm oil, into our homes and relish its smooth texture in our donuts and age-defying skin creams. If that's not enough, we could soon be transporting ourselves with it if we follow the European direction, which is supposed to provide better air quality over Europe while completely ignoring the fact that we all share the same atmosphere!

Why pick on palm oil? It's just as big and just as bad as tarsands oil but so few are aware of the earth changing impact it carries if left unchallenged. Awareness has to grow and along with it, I hope we see similarly sized protests against it. I quote from this excellent article to give you an indication of how bad it can be if we say and do nothing today.

"To limit the world to 2 degrees of warming, we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases between now and 2050. Indonesia's peatland carbon alone, if released as CO2 in the atmosphere, is equivalent to one-third of the remaining carbon budget."

Palm oil plantations are the single biggest reason for Indonesia to disturb its peatlands. The threat to global warming is so ominous that it has been called a carbon time bomb. It is a contentious issue and the palm oil growing countries Malaysia and Indonesia which produce more than 80 percent of the global supply, recognize that. The two countries recently signed a pact to conceal critical information on the annual forest fires that happen in Borneo and Sumatra to create more palm oil plantations.

It is unacceptable for these two countries to try and hide evidence from these forests fires and what they could mean to all of us in terms of global warming.

What we must do as global citizens concerned with climate change, is to acknowledge this beast among our midst. It is unacceptable for one single food crop to want to use up a third of the carbon budget left. Unlike dirty tarsands oil, there are solutions that will let us have our cake and eat it too, but these do not fall in the cheap range. It costs money to filter smoke and water wastes from plantations to prevent more pollution but these are costs we cannot ignore today for the sake of higher returns on investments in bad companies or cheaper consumer goods.

We have to let the brands we buy from know that we are concerned and that we will stop buying their products if they continue to use carbon belching raw materials. We have to let those investment companies that handle our retirement funds know that we do not want to invest in funds that drive deforestation and will leave only a scorched earth for us to retire to.

Just as we're telling the U.S. government to say no to tarsands oil for its excessive emissions, we must also say no to the emissions from dirty palm oil. European countries including the United Kingdom, France and Germany have acknowledged the beast and formed proactive policies to control it. Its time the US joins them and protest emissions from palm oil cultivation.

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