Monday, July 31, 2006

Monday (noon) mash

Getting caught up on some climate news:

Hurricanes: A paper in last week’s Science suggests the reported trend in hurricane intensity over the past thirty years could be an artefact of changes in the technology used to measure hurricane winds (also see news coverage). It is not disputing the increase in Atlantic Ocean temperatures or the warmer water = fuel for hurricane theory, rather questioning the dependability of the observed wind data. I imagine there’ll be a bit dispute about whether the paper is correct or not. Regardless, it is a good reminder that we always have to think about measurement techniques and how they may have changed over time (the #1 reason sea level rise is probably under-reported in Kiribati).

Dead Zones: Scientists are reporting the growth of a large hypoxic or “dead zone” off the Oregon Coast that is killing fish and other marine life. The emergence of the low-oxygen waters is related to winds and warm weather delivering the nutrients that promote algae production. The difference between this and the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” is the source of nutrients: in the Gulf, the nutrients come from the Mississippi River, off the Oregon coast, deeper nutrient-rich water is bring brought to the surface.

Climate change and plant life: If you’re interested in the how climate change could affect plant growth and the like, take a look at the series of presentations made available by the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centre for GHG Accounting (which is just now closing up shop after seven years).

Finally, "Mum, can I have a raise in my allowance?": The British Environment Secretary has proposed using trade-able personal carbon emissions ‘allowances’ to reduce emissions (reported in Nature and ENN). It’s a clever idea, but would be a tough sell in North America.


Friday, July 28, 2006

Size of the Dead Zone

The "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, the area of low-oxygen waters fuelled by nitrogen from the Mississippi River, is expected to be 17,353 km2 this summer according to scientists at NOAA and a consortium of Louisiana Universities.

The Mississippi dumps a massive amount of nitrogen, largely in the form of the soluble ion nitrate, into the Gulf each spring. It promotes the growth of a lot of algae, which eventually sinks to the bottom and decomposes. This consumes much of the oxygen in the bottom waters, making life tough for bottom-dwelling fish and creatures like shrimp.

The nitrogen mostly comes from farms in the Midwest and central US, particularly from practices like applying lots of fertilizer to corn (you can read a bit about this on my site). But the amount that ends up at the mouth of the Mississippi in a given year also a lot to do with the weather. To put it simply, if it rains very hard in the Corn Belt, more nitrogen leaches out of the soil and runs into the rivers and streams.

The group of scientists is able to roughly forecasts of the extent of hypoxia each year based on the amount of nitrate measured in the Mississippi River during the spring [together with data from the previous year, since nitrogen also gets recycled in the coastal sediments]. My own work is examining whether you can take these forecasts back a step further, by looking at the rainfall in certain places.

The way to combat the Dead Zone is to reduce the input of nitrogen in the Mississippi. It won't be easy. Nitrogen levels probably need to be reduced by 50-60%. That means changing the way crops are grown - something I talked about in the "Surf or Turf" study - and/or embark on an extensive wetland restoration program.

Otherwise, in a given year, there's always a chance that a hurricane will strike the area, and the strong wind and wave action will mix up the waters and replenish the bottom with oxygen (as Ivan did). But let's not hope for that.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Amidst pages of reporting on the insanity in the Middle East, today's NY Times has an op-ed piece by Peter Doran, whose research on Antarctic temperatures trends has been misinterpreted and misused by the media and by those skeptical of climate change for several years (non-subscribers can read it here).

Doran's work reporting cooling in parts of Antarctica and other studies reporting "thickening" of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have been twisted by groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute to argue that global warming is not a concern (including the very entertaining "CO2 is life" campaign that aired in, hmm, only 14 states, randomly chosen I'm sure).

The NY Times article clears up some of the confusion.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The greening of Wal-Mart

A good deal of ecology and other “systems sciences” is devoted to understanding if systems (ecosystems, political systems) are controlled from the top down (the top predator, the government) or from the bottom up (the ants, the people, not to sound too Marxist here). Often, it is a bit of both. The government can never be too far ahead of the people, and vice versa.

Which brings me to the “greening” of Wal-Mart, that enemy of small businesses, labour activists, urban planners, environmentalists, and people who simply prefer walking or cycling to the store (it’s exhausting just riding across a Wal-Mart parking lot).

After a couple years of bad press and opinionated documentaries, the retail giant has undertaken a huge sustainability initiative. Before you roll your eyes, think about the numbers. It is the largest retailer in the world and the largest food distributor in the US. A decision by the Wal-Mart executives about not just what the stores sell, but how the company operates, could really transform the energy, food and transportation industries.

An article in the Washington Post provides some of the numbers:

“Wal-Mart has reduced its fuel use 8 percent by preventing its trucks from idling, saving $25 million over the past year while cutting 100,000 metric tons of emissions. It recently began buying organic cotton, and all 3,700 of its U.S. stores are using energy-efficient light bulbs. Wal-Mart is so big that a slight reduction in the packaging of one of its toy lines saved the company $2.4 million last year by cutting trucking costs, while saving 1,000 barrels of oil and 3,800 trees.”

I recommend reading the press release about the experimental superstore recently opened in McKinney, Texas (any Texans out there? I’d love to get a first hand account). The store features a wind turbine, solar panels, an urban forest, a wildflower meadow, pervious pavement (to allow runoff to infiltrate to the soil), water conservation initiatives, etc:

“To supplement the energy this store needs to operate, Wal-Mart has installed a 50-kilowatt wind turbine. The energy it produces will reduce the electricity consumption of this Supercenter by approximately 5 percent–enough energy to power 10 average size homes.”

Ok, it’s just one small turbine, but it makes you think. First, Wal-Mart stores themselves are bloody huge, and reducing their energy use is significant. Second, experiments like this could set an important precedent, for other retailers and for the market as a whole.

Let's say the chain goes full bore in the use and sale of use of energy efficient light bulbs. More will be manufactured, the price will drop, other retailers will also sell them, and in a few years, presto, the curly fry bulbs are the norm.

Personally, I don't like much of what Wal-mart does or represents, the pressure on smaller retailers, the drawing business away from downtown, the support of a car-based culture, the labour practices, etc. There is, however, no denying the huge potential for change when one company, like Wal-Mart, has such a disproportionate influence on our way of life.

Does that mean the system is top-down? The irony is that opposite may be true in this case. The primary reason Wal-Mart embarked on a "sustainability initiative" is that grassroots activism about the company's labour practices and the societal impact of the stores led to lots of bad press and bad financial projections for the company. Those at the top do need to change, no doubt, but perhaps the initiative can come from the people.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Monday morning mash

Lots out there to read today:

The author of the study reporting that “Not a single paper in a large sample of peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 refuted the consensus position (on climate change)” defends herself and the study from attacks in the LA Times.

It’s good to see Reuters CNN address the oft-asked and always unanswerable question “is the heatwave due to climate change?” even if they still quote someone from the George C Marshall Institute (like you can’t ask an actual scientist to explain the difference between a one-off event and a trend?). The “heatwave” in question is really a series of heatwaves (in Europe and much of the Midwest and western US).

The media response is inspired in part by the latest NOAA climate update reporting that the first half of 2006 was the warmest in the US since records began in the 1890s. Exact rankings, which year was #1, are not really important, but almost every media organization botched the story… missing that Jan-June was the warmest ever in just the US, but the sixth-warmest worldwide.

And, if you’re interesting in the ongoing argument about the “hockey stick”, check out this post on realclimate last week. Frankly, I find the constant discussion and re-analysis of the 1000-year temperature reconstruction graph ridiculous, especially after the NAS report. Besides, even if there were a couple decades in the 1300s that were 0.2 Celsius warmer than the 1990s, that does not change the avalanche of evidence that the recent warming is in large part human-induced, and that it will accelerate without an effort to seriously reduce GHG emissions. Even Edward Wegman himself, the author of the latest report, basically agrees.


Friday, July 21, 2006

C'mon, you can say it, cli-mate ch-an-ge

The Congress plans to investigate whether Bush appointees edited of government reports on the scientific evidence for climate change. It's about time. From the NY Times:

"A House committee will examine accusations that political appointees in the Bush administration edited government reports on global warming to raise the level of uncertainty about research that points to a human cause. The Republican and Democratic leaders on the Government Reform Committee sent a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality requesting documents by Aug. 11 on the activities of Philip A. Cooney, a former lobbyist for the petroleum industry with no science background who edited climate reports while chief of staff of the environmental council. Mr. Cooney resigned last year shortly after the revisions were described in The New York Times."

ABC news also has a story about the climate change goings on in Washington. For the most part, it is terribly written and edited, an embarrassment for a major news organization ("Scientists told the House committee that humans are causing most of the earth's warming and the planet is 8 degrees to 10 degrees hotter than it was thousands of years ago."... uh, yeah, that was the last ice age... safe bet the scientists were arguing humans ended it). But the story does raise one important point about the future emissions from the many new coal-burning power plants that in the works. There are two important lags in slowing climate change. One, that the emissions today affect the atmosphere for some time. Second, that you can't change the energy infrastructure overnight. I'm surprised people aren't screaming more about the need to integrate carbon capture and storage technology into these new plants.

Also in politics, the Canadian government has put together a new environmental strategy that will be announced in the fall. The report in the Globe claims the new strategy will address smog-forming pollutants, greenhouse gases and adaptation to climate change. I'm skeptical that the Harper government will put together a plan with any teeth (i think the Globe editors are as well, given the sarcastic "thorny green issues" in the headline). After all, this is the government that recently removed all references to "climate change" from the official government climate change site (the new text is downright comical, like something out of the Onion; you can read more about this on desmogblog). But, hey, nothing I'd like more than to be wrong about this.

The one good thing Canadians can take out of this mess: in that in the effort to appear more environmental (and have a chance at a majority in the next election), the Harper government will at least take real action on smog-forming pollutants and perhaps some other environmental concerns. Climate change, well, I'd think to put together a policy, you must be willing to use the words.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Atlas of the changing environment

The UN Environment Programme released this really amazing collection of presentations about global environmental change called "One Planet, One People: Atlas of the Changing Environment". The terrific collection of satellite imagery, aerial photos and figures depicting of environmental change can be viewed on the website (and downloaded free of charge).

I strongly recommend taking a look. My favourites are "Water and Lakes" (no surpise) with the before and after images from places like Lake Chad, the Dead Sea and the Marshlands in Iraq, the "North America" slideshow, with images depicting the sprawl of Las Vegas, oil drilling near Fort McMurray, Alberta (the tar sands) and what snow geese have done to the shoreline of Hudson's Bay, and the "Latin America" slideshow depicting the extent of deforestation in central and South America.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Canadian PM Stephen Harper - or Steve, as President Bush called him last week, to the consternation of Harper's mother - has stumbled upon a short explanation of his government's approach to Kyoto.

I'd call it a "talking point", if I did not hate that term for further greasing the side of politics towards nothing more than marketing (seriously, you use "talking points" when working the sales floor at a stereo store, not when discussing international policy). Anyway, here's one wording of Harper's explanation, from the G8 summit:

"We [Canada and the UK] don't differ on the philosophy of climate change. Our differences are the facts that our two countries are presented with," he told a news conference with Blair.

"Prime Minister Blair's government has taken steps over the years to reach its targets. The previous (Liberal) government of Canada did not do that and has put us in a position where they're not attainable. That doesn't mean we're abandoning the process. Canada is fully engaged."

The political equivalent of a child's 'not my fault, he started it.'

The funny thing is, on the surface, it's not a bad argument. Canada is in a difficult position because the Chretien government chose a target without proper consultation with the provinces and then made a lame effort to meet that target.

The problem is that the refusal of the now-ruling Conservative party to support action on Kyoto and emissions reductions in the past is a prime reason it became so difficult to meet the targets. It is like wasting tons of time complaining there you cannot finish some work before a deadline, then when it is not finished, saying, see, I told you we couldn't finish it.

If the government were truly "engaged" in the process, they would not have cancelled the existing emissions reductions programs and they would have developed a national greenhouse gas emissions reductions plan. Instead, the PM's statement is empty rhetoric.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Betting on climate

In a country enamoured with poker (next on ESPN: the World Series of Go Fish) and the almighty, er, once-mighty dollar, the idea of betting on global warming was inevitable. If you can lay a bet in Vegas on no only who will win the Super Bowl, but who will win the coin toss at the Super Bowl, it is only a matter of time before bookmakers are taking odds on the year a wave first makes it right across Funafuti Atoll.

As far as I know, the bookies aren't taking bets yet. But some financial heavy hitters are gambling on warm, catastrophic weather this summer.

Bloomberg news reported last week that hedge funds are now investing heavily in hurricane-related catastrophe bonds sold by insurance companies, which are looking to raise money after last year’s rough hurricane season. In other words, predicting a lot of Atlantic hurricane damage could make some people a lot of money.

I love this Gordon Gekko-ish quote from a hedge fund manager: "Our expert models tell us last year's estimates of hurricane risk need to be raised by 50 percent. That outlook is a great opportunity."

This is creepy even for a hedge fund, which from my rudimentary understanding of the investment world already lean just a bit toward the wrong end of the charitable-donation / mugging-an-elderly-woman-in-a-wheelchair continuum. Are investors out cheering reports of anomalously warm mid-Atlantic ocean temperatures?


Friday, July 14, 2006

Global warming documentary on Sunday

The documentary "Global Warming: What You Need to Know", hosted by Tom Brokaw, is on the Discovery Channel on Sunday night at 9 pm (anyone here have cable?). It features interviews with a number of scientists including Michael Oppenheimer and Steve Pacala from Princeton, footage from the Arctic, the Andes and the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, and discussion of what the average person can do to reduce emissions.

I'm glad to see more global warming films on television, though I must admit they can make me feel for the Tuvaluans for a reason other than climate change. If the threat of rising seas was not enough, the Tuvaulans have to deal with all the writers, reporters, photographers and camera crews all hoping to capture life on world's lowest lying country. Don't be fooled by the images in the documentary: the main atolls of place like Tuvalu and Kiribati are not ideal tropical vacation spots. Yes, they are palm-lined islands fringed by colourful reefs. They are also hot, crowded, narrow strips of land with few resources, few amenities and even fewer places to dispose of waste (the photo is a beach in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati). You need to treat traveling to a Pacific atoll the way you should a national park: tread softly and pack out what you pack in. I'm very glad to see the plight of the small island nations in the Pacific publicized on TV. I just hope the film crew picked up after themselves.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

More on "surf or turf"

As someone who rarely if ever eats meat, and has done research on how vegetarian diets are better for the environment, I'm often expected to be a staunch defender of animal rights.

I’m not. The “surf or turf” study I mention below offers a utilitarian argument for reducing beef consumption. Most of the beef available in North America is grain fed, and less efficient, in terms on energy required and pollution created, to produce.

I have no problem eating well-produced grass-fed beef or wild game (in fact I would not complain if someone culled the flocks of geese that ruin the grass behind my apartment)… though having only eaten a few morsels of meat in the last year, my stomach might protest.

If you’re interested in the different sides of these and other issues, I suggest reading this old interview with Peter Singer, an ethicist and writer at Princeton, in Salon about his book “The way we eat”.

While I don’t agree with many of Singer’s arguments equating animal and human rights - you can probably guess which ones – they are always good for inspiring a lively debate. At a dinner/debate a few months ago, I made an inflammatory comment about the hypocrisy of one of the ethicists’ criticism of meat eating that drew the ire of the room (along the lines of “you oppose eating meat only because you can see it, the steak is there on the plate; no one is complaining about the building we’re in replacing the habitat of many species, nor how the road you drove in on interrupts wildlife corridors; it’s not a pure argument for animals rights, it’s a way of assuaging misplaced guilt”). Thankfully ethicists tend to be non-violent.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Surf or turf?

The university issued a press release this morning about my research into how shifting away from meat production could help alleviate the pollution that causes the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Take a look! The paper - "Surf or turf: A shift from feed to food cultivation could reduce nutrient flux to the Gulf of Mexico" - was published (online early) last week in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Why the shift in subjects? For my PhD thesis, I studied how the climate and land use (forest? corn-soybean rotation? wheat?) impact the loading of nitrogen into the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen in Mississippi River waters fuels the development of a large hypoxic zone, an area of extremly low-oxygen waters, in the Gulf each summer.

Among the conclusions from that research, is that the majority of the nitrogen comes from fertilizer applied in the central US, largely to corn. Most of the corn and other grains grown in the central US are sold for animal feed. It got me to thinking about the old adage that "eating closer to the sun" is better for the environment. The argument is that takes less energy (and causes less pollution) to raise a gram of vegetable protein, than beef protein, because of the various inefficiencies in the animal production chain.

I decided to do a quantitative test. Could shifting from feed to food production reduce nitrogen losses enough to minimize the size of the hypoxic zone? From there, I looked at a shift in diet and food production could be integrated with a more feasible nutrient management policy. The results was this study... and the end of years as a regular meat-eater.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Jim Hansen's "Threat to the Planet"

James Hansen from NASA has an article called "Threat to the Planet", ostensibly a review of the three recent climate change books The Weather Makers (Tim Flannery), Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Elizabeth Kolbert) and An Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore), in last week's NY Review of Books.

If you are not familiar with this weekly publication, it consists of analysis of topical (climate change, terrorism) or arcane (mid-18th century Prussian dance) subjects by leading scholars, disguised as reviews of new books. Though some of the articles are little more than intellectual chest-thumping that just screams for parody, others contain some of the best analysis of leading political issues.

In "The Threat to the Planet", which follows the tradition of barely mentioning the books being reviewed, Hansen articulates an important point about the need for both conservation and technology:

"To achieve the alternative scenario [slow/stop climate change] will require prompt gains in energy efficiencies so that the supply of conventional fossil fuels can be sustained until advanced technologies can be developed."

Those critical of conservation or energy efficiency measures as a central part of climate change mitigation should remember this point. Advanced energy technologies will be the long-term solution. We can probably all agree on that. However, given the time it will take to develop and implement such technologies, and the short time we have to begin serious emissions reductions in order to avoid dangerous changes in climate, conservation and energy efficiency measures are crucial in the short-term.