Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A good tool for calculating your emissions

If you're looking for a carbon calculator, try this one put together by the Berkeley Institute for the Environment (thanks to Atmoz for the tip). Unlike most of the calculators out there, it does more than multiply the # of miles your drive and fly by some factors and spit out in answer. It considers several forms of transport, home heating and electricity, the food you eat and even how you spend the rest of your money, then compares your results to the American and world average.

My estimated personal emissions in the past year were nothing to be proud of, thanks almost entirely to twice flying halfway around the planet and back. Coming back always gets you. I take little solace in the fact that my emissions total was still less than the average American, even in the transport category. Instead, I take two lessons: a) studying the effect of climate change on the environment often contributes to the problem, no surprise there, and b) transportation is so stunningly inefficient in this country that someone can circle the planet twice and still produce less greenhouse gas emissions than the average American.

As for the calculator, my only beef is the, er, beef. Emissions from consuming red meat and consuming dairy are similar (per $ spent), so a lacto-ovo vegetarian may end up with similar or higher food-related emissions than a regular at Mel's Char Palace. From all the research we've done, dairy is much more efficient, in terms of the grams of feed required to create a gram of food, for the simple reason that milking doesn't kill a cow. This point that seems to be missed a lot; the source of greenhouse gas emissions from meat is not the animal itself, but all the energy that went into growing the crops that are then fed to the animal.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Still no lake beneath Darfur

As Chevy Chase would say, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

In case you missed it, there is no miracle lake lying under the sands of Sudan. Unintentional or not, the development of the lake story is like a case study in Spin 101.

First, a (presumably unintentional) misleading press release. Second, some seriously sloppy media coverage. As the Columbia Journalism Review puts it "no reporter stopped to ask, is there water in the lake?" Third, the initial story finally gets the deserved, well-researched debunking in Nature, but it is too late, it is last week's news already. The result: the real story receives virtually no media attention.

I'm surprised the science blogosphere hasn't been screaming more about this. Wonder how all those scientific mistruths, like the crazy arguments used by climate change 'skeptics', entered the public conscience? Here you go. Ancient Lake Darfur, Exhibit A.


Dead Zone in Gulf is third largest since 1985

Though I'm reticent to link to any news article under the cable-TV-news-ish heading "Planet in Peril", CNN reports that this summer's Gulf of Mexico dead zone has been measured at about 20, 460 km2 in size. That makes it the third largest since measurement began in 1985.

The hypoxic zone was expected to be unusually large this year because of the high flux of nitrogen -- the nutrient that fuels the high productivity on the continental shelf that leads to the consumption of oxygen from the bottom waters -- from the Mississippi River this spring. The blame can likely be placed on the weather and possibly even the increase in corn planting (due to high prices / ethanol demand).

Now off to grab my cape. The planet is in peril.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

The mythical lake beneath Darfur

A news article in Nature mercifully explains the reality behind these crazy new stories about a "lake" underneath Darfur.

It is not a lake. Despite what was reported last week, nobody is going to drill down a few metres under the sand and find a massive body of freshwater. What the Boston University scientists found, using ground-penetrating satellite observations, was essentially an underground depression that signifies that a body of water likely existed underneath northern Sudan at sometime in the past.

Every aspect of the publicity of this story was disturbing.

First, the press release from Boston University was misleading, at best. It should have been explicit, right up front, that the scientists discovered a dry ancient lake bed beneath the sands, and hope that water from that lake might still be found in the adjoining rock.

From Nature:

The media's portrayal of a lake that actually contains water now stems from the way the Boston group presented its claims, says Mohamed Abubuker, an official at the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources in Khartoum. "The general public in Sudan, and even some very high-ranking officials, came to believe that what has been discovered is literally a lake — perhaps even with fish in it," he says. "The way El-Baz presented his efforts helped consolidate this misconception. It was like a political rally for a presidency run-up rather than
a scientific portrayal of facts."

El-Baz contests this allegation. "It is incomprehensible for anyone to think it is a physical lake," he says, adding that he consistently made it clear that his argument was that the lake's water would have seeped through the sandstone substrate to accumulate as groundwater, and that drilling the sandstone under and around the ancient lake could yield fresh water.

Even the coverage and Sudanese response is all an honest misunderstanding, this is what happens publicity of science trumps the science itself. It is clear from the strong negative reaction from other geologists and scientists with expertise on the region that there are legitimate concerns about the study's conclusions:

Geologists argue that the rocks beneath and around the ancient lake are no more likely to hold water than those elsewhere in the Nubian aquifer. "Nearly everywhere it is present in Egypt the Nubian sandstone is water-bearing, so it is a matter of simple common sense that it would be the first place to look for significant groundwater reserves in Sudan," says Neil Sturchio, a geologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who describes the lake story as "hype".

There may actually be less chance of finding substantial water in the lake vicinity in northern Darfur than elsewhere on the aquifer. Although the porous, water-retaining sandstone aquifer is up to 3,500 metres thick at its northern fringes in Egypt, it thins to just a few hundred metres in northern Darfur, its southernmost reach.

Second, the press release begat these buoyant but almost comically naive stories about science saving Darfur. Even if Lake Superior was discovered five metres below the surface, it would not alone "bring peace" to the region. As was discussed here last week, the drying of the Sahel helped set the climate, there's a reason that word has dual meanings, for the current conflict. But it is not simple cause and effect. Opening a faucet won't end things tomorrow.

Is this merely a series of mis-communications? Is it a case of well-meaning people hoping to help an embattled part of the world? Or it it a case of scientists seeking publicity and of a hyperactive media not properly vetting stories? You tell me.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New online voice on coral reefs and climate change

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg's new blog Climate Shifts is a welcome addition to the online coverage of climate change and coral reefs. Ove is one of the world's top experts on the subject; his 1999 paper on climate change and coral bleaching (in the Aussie journal Marine and Freshwater Research) helped bring the problem to the attention of the public and other scientists, myself included.

The comments after recent post on the ridiculous documentary "The Great Barrier Reef Swindle" (not to be confused with the equally ridiculous "The Great Global Warming Swindle", how about the great title swindle?) reflects the contentious debate with the coral reef science community on the right way to discuss the existential threat climate change appears to pose to many of the world's reefs. Some experts think we're fixing the place settings on the Titanic, so to speak, by not screaming about the climate change threat more. Others disagree.

Our friend Caspar Henderson in the UK picked out the astute comment from Charles Sheppard, who literally wrote the book on Indian Ocean corals. I'll do the same:

I think the media (and some simple scientists it seems!) can’t grasp the difference between species extinction (as in Dodo, Sabre-Tooth Tiger etc) and ecological extinction (as in the system is too broken to work any more). One remaining oak tree in a clear-felled mud-scape is not species extinction of the oak, but the forest doesn't do foresty things any more.

I have recently returned (again) from a very heat stressed region of the coral reef world - Arabian/Persian Gulf - and dived for many hours on once rich reefs. I saw a live coral at intervals of perhaps 20 or 50 metres apart, the rest being dead. That is zero coral cover to the nearest whole number, but it is still not species-extinct. You would need to measure cover to about 0.0001% to register a positive number there. But then, to how many decimal places do we need to measure ‘dead’? Answer: to many, if you are looking to confirm species extinction, but none at all if you want to determine whether you still have a reef.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pros and cons of the US Senate Energy Bill

A couple provisions in the last month's US Senate Energy Bill - technically the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 - received most of the attention:

i) the increase in CAFE standards, and

ii) the renewable fuels standard.

It turns out both provisions have some quirky loopholes that were missed in much of the mainstream media coverage so far.

1. CAFE standards

With all the political hurdles, any change in CAFE standards is an accomplishment. As this well-researched article in Salon carefully explains, the actual goal -- that automobiles sold in 2020 average 35 mpg -- may not be worthy of that much praise.

First, it sets a rate of increase could be matched or surpassed without any policy:

It takes about a decade for the nation's vehicle fleet to turn over -- for new cars to replace old ones -- so any change to CAFE takes years to have a real impact on the average fuel economy of vehicles on the road... if you averaged the mileage of the most fuel-efficient cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans sold in the U.S. today, you'd already get a combined mileage of 31 miles per gallon... cars that Toyota sells in the United States almost meet the 2013 standard already, getting just shy of 35 miles per gallon... In Japan, the current average is 45 miles per gallon.

Second, the bill gives automakers one big out:

If the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration can show that it's not "cost effective" for automakers to meet the 35 mpg goal, then it won't have to require them to do so.

These new CAFE provisions may actually get weakened further by the US Congress (where Democratic lawmakers from the automobile-producing states hold some sway). Efficiency will increase a bit without regulation simply due to current market pressures. But, as our carrot-munching friend noted in a comment here, without tougher standards or regulation, people may not have enough incentive to shift from the "safer" large vehicles towards smaller more efficient vehicles.

2. Renewable Fuels Standard

The bill sets a new target of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. Opponents of corn-based ethanol cheered the "capping" of its production at 15 billion gallons.

As part of some ongoing research, a colleague and I read through the renewable fuels portion of the bill for the section on corn. Actually, we just searched for the "corn". Nothing. We tried "maize". Nope.

You see, there is no cap specifically on corn. The target is for 21 billion gallons of "advanced fuels". The remainder, 15 billion, can be conventional ethanol.
Flipping back to the beginning of Bill reveals that "advanced" means "fuel derived from renewable biomass other than corn starch." That's where the news of a 15 billion cap came from.

It'll be interesting to discover how this standard will be interpreted. Does a small conversion of corn cellulose or non-starch parts of the corn plant (i.e. relative to the use of the starch in the grain) allow corn-based ethanol production to be included as an advanced fuel? Will conventional fuels created from sorghum, a crop similar to corn grown in drier parts of the US, or from durum wheat be considered advanced fuels?

Perhaps the intent of the authors in structuring the Bill in this manner was benign. At the very least, the language is very curious.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Drying in Darfur

The recent UN Environment Program Report on the role of the environment in the Darfur conflict month came to this conclusion:

Environmental degradation, as well as regional climate instability and change, are major underlying causes of food insecurity and conflict in Darfur – and potential catalysts for future conflict throughout central and eastern Sudan and other countries in the Sahel belt. Setting aside all of the social and political aspects of the war in Darfur, the region is beset with a problematic combination of population growth, over-exploitation of resources and an apparent major long-term reduction in rainfall. As a result, much of northern and central Darfur is degraded to the extent that it cannot sustainably support its rural population.

The Sahel region of the Sudan, including Darfur, has been drying for decades. After reading the report, I obtained the available historical rainfall data from El Fasher in Darfur from the WMO. The anomaly (annual rainfall minus 1950-2004 mean) illustrates the story told in the UNEP report.

Rainfall from 1985-2004 (the last twenty years available) was 40% lower than rainfall in the 1950s and 1960s. As rainfall decreased, the agriculturalists moved into more marginal lands leaving less space for the nomadic pastoralists. This caused overgrazing in other lands and increasing conflict for land.

There are debates as to the cause of the decrease in rainfall. It is some combination of warming ocean temperatures (shifting the monsoon), possibly related to climate change, and feedbacks from land use change. Whatever or not human-induced climate change has played a direct role, Darfur is certainly an example of how climate change in general can contribute to conflict and human suffering.


No, please, you go first

The mixed reception to the Live Earth extravaganza points to curious lingering question about the public ability to take action on climate change. For all the “what you can do to fight climate change” lists, a survey published last month suggests the real problem is convincing people that individual actions will add up.

The report “What assures consumers on climate change?” published by Consumers International in June found that 75% of people in the US and UK are concerned about climate change but don't see how personal action would make a difference. The report was flavour of the day in the ADD-blogosphere a couple weeks back and forgotten far too quickly.

This conclusion from the report says something about what broad community events, like Live Earth, could maybe accomplish:

... th
e current strategy of using more information to shift individuals one-by-one from a position of concern to one of action, is having limited impact. Such approaches only work where individuals feel that they are acting as part of a community which reciprocates and endorses their action. This may mean their immediate community of like minded peers, their national community including government and big business or even the global community. To get people to act in the confusion of an information rich world requires that they see that others are acting.

I still think it should have been held on Labour Day.


The aftermath of Live Earth

Over the weekend, the Live Earth concerts took a rhetorical beating in the press. You may not like the style of reporting, but you have to admit news like this does have a point (not all the news was negative; One World has a good story about momentum being generated in China).

Now it turns out that the prime-time Live Earth package on NBC had fewer viewers than a rerun of Cops and the animated film Monsters, Inc. Really. It seems like more people wrote columns criticizing Live Earth than tuned in to it on television.

Maybe the biggest problem with Live Earth was the timing. The date - July 7 or 7-7-07 - is pleasing the superstitious numerologists but otherwise impractical. Why hold the event in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere summer, when far fewer people here are watching television, surfing the internet or following current events at all? Any buzz generated by Live Earth was destined to wilt in the summer heat. Next time, hold the concert on Labour Day.

Then again, to paraphrase the voice in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will criticize.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Fires rage across the western US

Astounding. South Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona. The map on the left is the dewpoint across the US. It is high across much of the east, where we're enduring a stretch of humid weather (high of 36 C in Princeton today). But quite low out west, reflecting the dry conditions.

Has the epidemic of wildfires reached the point that we need to talk about the summer fire season the way we talk about the hurricane season? Should we be as concerned, or maybe even more concerned, about the migration to the edge of the national forests as the migration of people to the coasts in the southeast?


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Apparently there's a bunch of big concerts today. You can even sign a pledge.


Friday, July 06, 2007

The Poverty/Conservation Equation

I’m writing this on a flight back from South Africa, where I participated in a symposium (#18) on integrating poverty alleviation into conservation goals at the Society for Conservation Biology annual meeting. You read that right. Yours truly, who works at one of the world’s wealthiest universities, and lives in one of the wealthiest communities in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, flew many thousands of miles to Africa to lecture about poverty.

I tossed and turned about going. I was convinced by two things. First, that the meeting was held in Africa for the first time was a major triumph and presented a great opportunity for a lot of African scientists and conversation practitioners who would not otherwise attend an SCB meeting. Second, the line-up of participants from around the conservation world that were attending the symposium (hey, hypocrisy’s hip, everyone’s doing it!) was a sign that conservation was finally willing to address the, er, elephant in the room.

Conservation is based on a funny mix of actual ecology and unabashed romanticism of nature. The initial goals - save endangered species, etc. - while well-intended, often put the endangered wild horse before the cart. There’s no sense ‘saving’ the remaining orangutans if the forests in which they normally live are entirely replaced with oil palm plantation. The field matured. Species conservation gave way to habitat conservation. Hard science is now being used to set conservation goals, locally and globally, and to optimize the design of protected areas.

Now it’s time to take the next step. It is no secret that most of the world’s biodiversity hotspots targeted for conservation by international organizations lie in developing countries in the tropics. Not only is it unconscionable to protect the environment in developing nations without addressing the lives of the people, essentially modern-day colonialism, experience has shown it doesn’t work very well. In much of the tropics, conservation and poverty alleviation must go hand-in-hand

The symposium included presentations on things like uniting poverty measures and biodiversity measures to set global conservation goals, the development of a “water” poverty index, an analysis of the effectiveness of several African projects to meet environment and development goals, and various combined environment and development programs in countries like China (surprised me, too). My talk was a spin on the short paper “The inequity of the global threat to coral reefs”, I co-authored with David Potere here in the Office of Population Research. It was intended to provide some perspective from the marine realm.

For reefs, one of the problems is perception. To people outside the tropics, coral reefs are colourful, exciting, charismatic, part of our Disney-fied image of tropical paradise. In reality, there are hundreds of millions of people in some of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries that depend on coral reefs every day. My feeling is that this raises two issues, one of equity, one of efficacy.

First, though many of the threats to coral reefs originate in the developed world, it is poor people in the developing world that will pay the price. In the paper, we use climate change as an example. Like greenhouse gas emissions, both overfishing (for food or the aquarium trade) and tourism-oriented coastal development are paced by the developed world. When indigenous reef-dependent communities shift from subsistence living to the cash economy (i.e. start selling fish or relying on tourist dollars), whatever traditional systems of ecosystem management existed tend to get overwhelmed.

Second, nowhere is conservation more dependent on addressing poverty than in those same reef-dependent communities. Even if, as a conservationist, you didn’t care at all about the local population, protecting the coral reef from human pressure will require things like educating people, creating alternative livelihoods and reforming waste management, the very same things necessary to improve the health and wellbeing of the people.

Here’s hoping this is the start of a real change in the way we think about and practice conservation.