Sunday, November 30, 2008

Farming the oceans

An NY Times article a couple weeks back included this snapshot of global fisheries decline, based on data compiled by the experts here at the UBC Sea Around Us Project. The image tells the story of the article, a story not repeated often enough. Without a drastic change in management, we are nearing the end of the wild harvest in fish.

The world is in the middle of phase transition from wild harvest to farming, similar to what happened with land animals. The depletion of the natural resource itself is driven in part by the rapid transition to an energy-intensive farming industry. Consider the proportion of wild fisheries required to support fish and animal feed:

Nearly one-third of the world’s wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world’s fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil. (To make matters worse, as much as a quarter of the total wild catch is thrown back — dead — as “bycatch.”)

A substantial proportion of the wild harvest is used to maintain marine aquaculture of carnivorous species like salmon. It is wildly inefficient, the marine equivalent of farming wolves rather than herbivorous cattle. This is why many experts conclude that the future for pescetarians is probably the blander, lower-on-the-food-chain species like tilapia and catfish. Continued consumption of popular favourites like tuna and salmon could only happen with drastic improvements in fisheries management.

Marine aquaculture shares many of the shortcomings of industrial animal agriculture. A high input of energy (fish meal, animal feed) is required per unit of food production. Also, a large proportion of the natural resource base (wild-caught fish, agricultural land) must be used to produce the inputs. Finally, research concludes that shifting towards less energy-intensive options (lower on the food chain or "closer to the sun", effectively the same statement) would help sustain the natural resource.

The two forms of farming are now also highly intertwined. As the quote above notes, fish meal from wild-caught fish is including in animal feed. And one suggested solution to high energy demands of aquaculture is to produce fish feed from common feed crops like corn and soybeans.

Sure, fish did not evolve to eat grain. Then again, neither did cattle.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Commerical ship uses the Northwest Passage

GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut (CP) — CBC News is reporting that a commercial ship has travelled for the first time through the Northwest Passage this fall to deliver supplies to communities in western Nunavut. The broadcaster says the Canadian Coast Guard says the MV Camilla Desgagnes, owned by Desgagnes Transarctik Inc., transported cargo to the hamlets of Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak from Montreal in September.

Brian LeBlanc of the coast guard told CBC he believes it's the first commercial cargo delivery from the east through the Northwest Passage, which normally is impassable due to thick ice.

Louie Kamookak, the director of hamlet housing and public works in Gjoa Haven, said deliveries usually come from the west. He said the vessel brought municipal equipment, including a sewage truck, as well as provisions for the local co-op stores.

Waguih Rayes, the general manager of Desgagnes Transarctik's Arctic division, said it used the MV Camilla Desgagnes because it is a super ice-class vessel. Mr. Rayes went along on the trip and didn't see “one cube of ice.”


Friday, November 28, 2008

Climate change's third rail

After a fisheries seminar this morning, someone asked what key issue the research and conservation community was missing. The immediate answer from a senior colleague was meat consumption.

Given how growing feed and raising livestock is responsible for a large proportion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite amazing that we don't talk about it more. An article in the Vancouver Sun last month asked a few of us why. Here are some of the explanations:

Dale Marshall, a climate-change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation:
"Food is something that's very personal," Marshall said. "I think there may be a reluctance to start talking about people changing what they eat. When you start telling people to sell their car and jump on the bus, that's a little more out there. But when you start talking about diet and what they eat, that becomes even more personal. So that raises some difficulty in organizations not wanting to go there."

Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment: "It's a difficult sell. We're a culture that eats a lot of meat. Unlike in Europe, where it's often a side dish, for North Americans, unfortunately, it's the main attraction. So that's a problem. But I agree, eating less meat would be a big step."

Matt Horne, acting director of the B.C. energy solutions program for the Pembina Institute, said by asking people to reduce their meat consumption, you're asking them to make a real change in their lives. And even though the consequences of not making such changes are calamitous, people are still reluctant to make them. By contrast, buying a fuel-efficient car instead of an SUV is simply a different means to the same end, Horne said. You can still get from A to B.

Dennis Cunningham, a project officer with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, suggested it could be a funding issue. He explained that when environmental groups apply to governments or large corporations for money to produce an education program, the funding organization can dictate the priorities such a program should take. And no government wants to risk offending a powerful agriculture lobby by telling people to eat less meat - even if it's good for them.

Sarah Cox of the Sierra Club of B.C. tried to conflate eating less meat with encouraging people to eat locally produced food, something the Sierra Club does do. But Donner said they're entirely different things, and that if one were to choose between eating less meat and eating locally produced food as a more effective way to reduce your carbon footprint, there is only one choice: eat less meat.

He believes the real reason green groups are so shy about discussing meat consumption is that there's an image associated with being a vegetarian or vegan they want no part of. "Environmental organizations often and unfairly have this image of vegan or vegetarian hippies," Donner said. "So if they were to come out and say 'We don't want you to eat meat,' it might reinforce that image and not win over the people they want to win over."

Is meat consumption the third rail of climate change mitigation?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The times they are a-changin'

Barack Obama's recorded address to the US Governors' climate change summit is marks a complete about-face in US policy and philosophy on climate change. If only Obama would stop talking about "clean coal"...


Monday, November 17, 2008

New Scientist on the coral reef crisis

This article from the October issue of New Scientist looks at some of the latest thinking on actions that could help coral reefs withstand climate change. It includes common suggestions like protecting areas that are less prone to bleaching (e.g. places with natural upwelling of cooler waters) and more radical ideas like artificially pumping up cooler waters, transplanting more temperature-tolerant zooxanthallae, or transplanting corals themselves to higher latitudes. The fact that scientists are even suggesting the extreme ideas tells you the scale of the threat posed by climate change.

The writer Mark Schrope was kind enough to grant me a final, important thought:

There is no doubt about the most crucial measure, though. "It will all go for naught if we don't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," says Donner. "We are frittering away time. This all has to start now."


Saturday, November 15, 2008

I'll have the corn, with a side of corn

It is no secret that corn is a major ingredient in animal feed, food oils, and a wide range of food products. A new paper shows that most fast food can in fact be chemically traced back to fertilized feed corn.

The idea behind the paper is relatively straightforward.
The authors use the breakdown of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in a variety of fast food - burgers, chicken patties, french fries, etc. - to trace the ingredients and feed back to their source. The only thing missing from this fascinating study is an analysis of the drinks. Whether a cola or "iced tea", the drinks available at most fast food restaurants all have the same two main ingredients: water and high-fructose corn syrup.

The analysis works because of some well-documented patterns in the distribution of carbon and nitrogen isotopes.
Corn has a predictably low concentration of carbon-13, because of a strong bias against this "heavier" isotope of carbon during photosynthesis. So much so that if you measure the relative proportion of the carbon-12, the more common isotope, and carbon-13 in the tissue of one of us corn-fed North Americans, you'll find much less carbon-13 than you would in the tissue of a more rice-fed Asian person [and definitely less than in the tissue of a hunter-gatherer from the last ice age]. The basic chemistry shows that North Americans are built from corn.

Nitrogen isotopes also come in handy. They can be used to determine whether chemical fertilizers were used in raising the crops that were fed to the animals or used to create the french fry oil. Fertilizer nitrogen tends to include less of the nitrogen-15 than naturally derived soil nitrogen, because the processes that make nitrogen available in the soil bias against the heavier isotope. So by combining the nitrogen and carbon isotope results, the authors are able to trace fast food items back to their origin:

From the entire sample set of beef and chicken, only 12 servings of beef had 13C < 21‰; for these animals only was a food source other than corn possible. We observed remarkably invariant values of 15N in both beef and chicken, reflecting uniform confinement and exposure to heavily fertilized feed for all animals. The 13C value of fries differed significantly among restaurants indicating that the chains used different protocols for deep-frying: Wendy’s clearly used only corn oil, whereas McDonald’s and Burger King favored other vegetable oils; this differed from ingredient reports

The conclusion is an indictment of North American fast food:

Fast food corporations, although they constitute more than half the restaurants in the U.S. and sell more than 1 hundred billion dollars of food each year (18), oppose regulation of ingredient reporting‡. Ingredients matter for many reasons: U.S. corn agriculture has been criticized as environmentally unsustainable
(19) and conspicuously subsidized (20). Of 160 food products we purchased at Wendy’s throughout the United States, not 1 item could be traced back to a noncorn source. Our work also identified corn feed as the overwhelming source of food for tissue growth, hence for beef and chicken meat, at fast food restaurants. We note that this study did not include an examination of beverages served, which are dominantly sweetened
with high fructose corn syrup (21). In 2002, the European Union adopted Regulation 178 (11) requiring suppliers to trace the origin of materials used for production. At this time in the United States, such tracing is voluntary and seldom-invoked. Our work highlights the absence of adequate consumer information necessary to facilitate an ongoing evaluation of the American diet.


Tracking changes in CO2

The NOAA Coral Reef Watch program has a new "ocean acidification" online tool that maps changes in ocean chemistry brought about by rising carbon dioxide concentrations. The information is critical to understanding the long-term threats to coral reefs.

Here's a brief explanation (see NOAA's site for more):

Carbon dioxide dissolves in water - that's how you make a carbonated beverage. Around one-quarter to one-third of the CO2 emissions from human activity each year are absorbed by the oceans. The CO2 react with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), reducing pH in the process. That's where we get the term "ocean acidification".

The central concern for coral reefs is that this alters the balance of the common dissolved carbon compounds. The process of "buffering" the pH change consumes carbonate ions (CO3--) which corals and other calcifying organisms use to build their skeletons. So as CO2 levels increase, the proportion of ocean carbonate decreases, and the ability of corals to build reefs decreases. The slower-growing, weaker reefs are then more vulnerable to erosion. This can be seen today in parts of the eastern equatorial Pacific like the Galapagos, where corals do persist but naturally high carbon dioxide levels (from upwelling of high pCO2 deep waters) limit reef growth and ecosystem development.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fierce urgency of now (reprise)

If you are involved in marine or coral reef conservation, this is an opportune time. Not only does the incoming US President support serious action on climate change, he grew up in Hawaii.

When you are snorkeling through the coral reefs, you realize that a slight change in temperature or increase in sediment and runoff could end up destroying it all and making it unavailable for your children. That is something you worry about - Barack Obama

The urgent need for new messages and new policies to protect the world's coral reefs from climate change was discussed here, after July's International Coral Reef Symposium. So, all of you out there in the community, this really is your moment. What needs to be done? Imagine you're trapped in an elevator or on a basketball court with hoops-mad US President-elect Obama. What would you say?


Cuba survives Hurricane Paloma

This weekend, Paloma became the third Category 3 Hurricane to strike Cuba this season. If, that is, you include November 9th as a part of the "season". The 190 kilometre per hour winds and 6 meter storm surge damaged thousands of buildings in Santa Cruz del Sur. Yet, like with Hurricane Gustav back in August, Paloma caused no fatalities and few injuries in Cuba.

The civil defense and evacuation efforts in Cuba are without parallel. According to the Cuban government, 1.2 million people were evacuated in less than 48 hours. Trains and government vehicles brought 18% of the evacuees to government shelters. The remainder of the people took shelter in the homes of family and friends inland, what the Cuban newspaper Granma calls "the habitual gesture of solidarity".

Certainly, Cuba's government is not a shining example for the world. The news of successful evacuations are infected with government hyperbole, as the above Reuters photo suggest. Nevertheless, there is no denying that Cubans are in some ways far better prepared for extreme weather events than any other nations in the Americas. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Leaving politics aside, even the US should consider studying the Cuba's emergency management for any lessons that can be applied to management in democratic nations.


Friday, November 07, 2008

US Energy plans

Here's a general list of Obama's energy platform, courtesy of Robert Rapier a good source for expertise these issues. The initiatives on "clean" coal and ethanol will raise hackles. Canadians should take note of the "low-carbon fuel standard". If such a standard is implemented, it would affect importation of oil from extracted carbon-intensive oil sands. And that's one reason the Canadian Government has been quick to call for cooperation on a joint North American climate change strategy. [UPDATE: Surprise, the Globe and Mail is reporting that the oil sands is in fact the main reason for Canada's quick call for cooperation]

The list is after the bump:

Provide Short-term Relief to American Families

• Enact a Windfall Profits Tax to Provide a $1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate to American Families.
• Crack Down on Excessive Energy Speculation.
• Swap Oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to Cut Prices.

Eliminate Our Current Imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 Years

• Increase Fuel Economy Standards.
• Get 1 Million Plug-In Hybrid Cars on the Road by 2015.
• Create a New $7,000 Tax Credit for Purchasing Advanced Vehicles.
• Establish a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
• A “Use it or Lose It” Approach to Existing Oil and Gas Leases.
• Promote the Responsible Domestic Production of Oil and Natural Gas.

Create Millions of New Green Jobs

• Ensure 10 percent of Our Electricity Comes from Renewable Sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
• Deploy the Cheapest, Cleanest, Fastest Energy Source – Energy Efficiency.
• Weatherize One Million Homes Annually.
• Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology.
• Prioritize the Construction of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline.

Reduce our Greenhouse Gas Emissions 80 Percent by 2050

• Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
• Make the U.S. a Leader on Climate Change.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Keeping our eye on the ball

Leave it to the Onion to truly capture how people are feeling. Even living outside of the US, I find it impossible to have a conversation, let alone write a blog post, without coming back to Obama. Maribo will be back to talking climate science and policy soon!

Kobe Bryant Scores 25 In Holy Shit We Elected A Black President

LOS ANGELES—Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant had a typically solid performance from the field last night, scoring 25 points to propel his team to a holy shit, it's hard to believe these words are even gracing this page, but on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, the American people elected a black man to the office of the President of the United States.

Words really can't describe how…or what, or…. Wow.

Bryant, who got off to a slow start early, but managed to find his touch late in the third, incredible. A black president for a nation whose entire history has been haunted by the specter of slavery and plagued by racism since before its inception. That this happened in our lifetime is remarkable; that it happened within 50 years of a time when segregation was still considered an acceptable institution is astonishing. Absolutely astonishing. This is an achievement on par with the moon landing.

Bryant closed out the fourth quarter with eight points in five minutes.

"It was just a question of finding my rhythm, not forcing it, and playing within the offense," said Bryant, who also...a black man. President. Not the president of a community board, or the president of a business, but the president of the United States of America—the highest office in the land, the commander in chief, the de facto leader of the free world—is a black man chosen by a majority of his fellow citizens.

"This game shows you that free throws really do matter and [the great American Paradox—that is, the conflicting notion that a nation could be founded on the guiding principle that all men are created equal, but be built upon the backs of slaves—may not have been completely resolved on Tuesday night, but it was certainly resolved to an extent that would have been unimaginable to Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and most certainly Thomas Jefferson, and it was resolved by the combined will of the American people]."

"You also have to give the bench a lot of credit," Bryant added.

Lakers forward Lamar Odom also chipped in with 16 points and eight boards in the historic 349-162 Electoral College victory over the slumping Clippers, who are clearly missing the presence of former power forward Elton Brand—a Democrat, let alone a black Democrat, winning Indiana for the first time in 44 years? Florida? Ohio? Maybe even North goddamned Carolina? Are you fucking kidding? Is it absolutely confirmed that he won Virginia? Virginia, for crying out loud. Fucking crazy is what that is.

The 2008 league MVP was solid on the defensive end of the court as well, holding Clippers guard Baron Davis to just 12 points and when they called Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida for Obama, basically ensuring victory, that was a moment in which all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or party affiliation had to stand back and say, "Holy shit, this is actually going to happen. Holy shit.... Holy shit. Holy shit! Holy shit!"

The undefeated Lakers came into Wednesday night's game against the Clippers with a 3-0 record, and looked to continue their dominance in states like New York, California, and Massachusetts, but Bryant looked to get Lakers center Virginia involved early, and as recently as four years ago, it would have been unfathomable that citizens there would vote for a Democrat, let alone an African-American.

"We see the election of a black president, and Pau Gasol's good shooting night, as a positive sign of things to come," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. "It's still early in the season, and there are a lot of things we need to work on, but I'm a product of the '60s, a baby boomer, so I'll blame our lull in the third quarter on me thinking back to the race riots during the civil rights movement, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the separate but equal laws that plagued this nation, and how I thought then that in a million years we would never elect a black president. The fact that I am even saying these words is pretty fucking incredible."

"Kobe works well when he remains poised and trusts the triangle offense," Jackson added.

Two hundred thousand people of different races and ages—some crying, some cheering, all overjoyed because of the racial barrier they helped break down—were in attendance at Chicago's Grant Park for Wednesday's game, and stayed through the night, laughing, singing, cheering, and high-fiving even after the Lakers game was over and they won Colorado and the election was officially in garbage time.

Said Lakers forward Barack Obama to the entire world on his team's victory: "Yes, we can."

Fucking right we can. We did! We really did! I don't mind telling you I spilled out into the street along with all my joyfully screaming neighbors and danced right there to whatever songs anybody wanted to sing, including—and I can't believe we actually did this, but compared to electing a black man to the presidency, absolutely nothing is unbelievable anymore—an impromptu version of "God Bless America," which is the least danceable song in the world, but fuck it, we sang and danced to "God Bless America," and I'll bet you anything that no one there ever meant it more.

"I just wish that my mother, father, and grandfather could have seen this," said 52-year-old African-American Mark Booker, a Lakers fan who called this the single greatest moment of his entire life. "We won. We won. We won."


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Canada awaits Obama's leadership on climate

From the Canadian Press. Maybe the new Conservative cabinet reads Maribo?

[Preface: It is rather fanciful to claim the Conservatives nascent cap-and-trade plan is similar to president-elect Obama's proposed cap-and-trade system that features auctioned carbon permits. The timing of these remarks from the Foreign Affairs Minister suggests the Conservatives hope to get credit for working with the universally-popular Obama to create a North American climate change initiative, even though in reality, they would simply be swept up by a plan put in motion by the US. Either way, it is a good start]

OTTAWA – Canada hopes to negotiate a North American climate-change deal with U.S. president-elect Barack Obama and will begin working on the file within weeks, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said today. Meantime, officials told The Canadian Press the Harper government has been waiting for the departure of President George W. Bush to work with his successor on an integrated carbon market.

While states and provinces have been cobbling together a patchwork of approaches to climate change, federal officials said they have been eyeing a continent-wide solution for some time.

Cannon confirmed the issue will be a priority. He said the Conservative government will make Canada's positions on the environment known to the incoming Obama administration.

"We will be able to tackle this file on the North American level – on a continental level," he said.

"Over the coming weeks I know my colleague Jim Prentice, minister of the Environment, will be active on that file. I see that in a positive light."

The climate file offers a glimpse of the political benefit the Harper government could draw from an Obama presidency.

Liberals have been expressing hope for months that Obama's election might herald a progressive tidal wave across North America that would propel them back to power.

But even at an Ottawa election party where Liberals celebrated Obama's victory, several predicted that the prime minister will align himself closely with the new occupant of the White House.

They cited the climate issue as an example where the Conservatives have taken flak for repudiating the Kyoto Protocol – but could actually win plaudits by twinning their approach with Obama's.

The Conservatives plan to lower greenhouse gases three per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 – or 20 per cent from 2006 levels over that same period.

Obama has set a similar objective of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.

Both targets fall well short of Kyoto, an international agreement ratified by 180 countries, including Canada but not the U.S., that sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Obama and Harper plans would rely in part on a cap-and-trade system.

Cap-and-trade systems place a ceiling on greenhouse gases and allow participating countries, provinces and states, or companies to buy and sell emissions permits within that cap.

Participants who don't meet the emissions targets can buy credits from those with a surplus instead of reducing their emissions.

The idea is to gradually lower the ceiling to control emissions. The Conservatives pledged in their 2008 election platform to work with the U.S. and Mexico to develop and implement a continent-wide system between 2012 and 2015.

Cannon said the next White House and the Harper government could easily work together on environmental issues. "There are a lot of similarities between the positions put forward and our position. This augurs well for a North American approach on environmental issues – specifically on climate change."

An internal Environment Canada briefing prepared in April compares Canada's regulatory requirements with those in major U.S. global-warming legislation that could become law under Obama's administration. The briefing says a "rough comparison" of the bi-partisan U.S. Climate Security Act and the Conservatives' Turning the Corner plan ``suggests that the two pieces of legislation are comparable."

The Canadian Press obtained the briefing under the Access to Information Act. The document, dated April 14, says Canada will seek a shared carbon market with the U.S., once Washington sets out its own regulations.

"If a greenhouse-gas regulatory regime and offsets system is developed in the United States, cross-border trading in emissions credits and offsets will be pursued," it says.

Another federal official close to the issue said Ottawa has been in a holding pattern for some time, expecting that only in a post-Bush era would there be movement toward a continental system like the one in Europe. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has hinted at that himself. At a G8 summit in Germany last year, he said it's difficult for one country in a shared economic space to set steep targets while its neighbour doesn't.

"We didn't want to go too tough on targets with Bush in the White House," said the federal official. "Because then if they (Americans) didn't follow, it would place Canadian industry at a disadvantage."

In the absence of a continental or national carbon market, regional schemes have popped up. The Western Climate Initiative, a coalition of four Canadian provinces and seven U.S. states, plans a regional market to trade carbon emissions. And earlier this year, the Ontario and Quebec governments agreed to forge ahead with an interprovincial carbon trading system. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he would like the program in place by 2010.


What can you say

I'm not smart enough, eloquent enough, wise enough, nor have I struggled enough in life or, for that matter, been on this planet long enough, to put into words the significance of Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election.

Courtesy of the NY Times:

5 November 2008

Senator Barack Obama, Chicago

Dear Senator Obama,

We join people in your country and around the world in congratulating you on becoming the President-Elect of the United States. Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.

We note and applaud your commitment to supporting the cause of peace and security around the world. We trust that you will also make it the mission of your Presidency to combat the scourge of poverty and disease everywhere.

We wish you strength and fortitude in the challenging days and years that lie ahead. We are sure you will ultimately achieve your dream making the United States of America a full partner in a community of nations committed to peace and prosperity for all.


N R Mandela


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Looking south

With the media even on the cold side of the 49th parallel also obsessed with Tuesday’s US election, Canadians may have missed the news that we have a new Environment Minister. Industry Minister Jim Prentice, a possible future Harper successor, has been shuffled over to the Environment portfolio.

Ignoring the basic fact that climate change does not belong solely under the jurisdiction of a ministry or department or organization labeled "environment", a mistake that diminishes the scale of the issue and is made far, far too often in Canada and around the world , when you combine the Prentice cabinet re-assignment with the political response to the ongoing economic crisis and the sorry spectacle of a Liberal leadership campaign on the heels of the defeat of Dion and the Green Shift, it is safe to say that we can say goodbye to whatever faint hope there was that the Conservative Party would announce, or be pushed by the opposition into announcing, a real plan for reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions. It’ll be a surprise if the Conservatives do anything to implement or enforce the vacuous emissions-intensity based plan announced during the last session of Parliament, let alone assemble a plan with any teeth.

Unless, that is, there is pressure from the next US administration. Times sure have changed.