Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mass extinction coming soon?

The possibility of a new mass extinction (the sixth) is always good for a weekend post. Easter bunnies anyone?

Putting an estimation on the arrival at between 300 and 22,000 years gives us little breathing room - the scientists need to tighten up on their sensitivity analysis a little.

Are We At The Start Of A New Mass Extinction? [Environmental Graffiti]

According the World Conservation Union, 51% of known reptiles, 52% of known insects and 73% of known flowering plants are under threat. Many species will become extinct before they are even discovered. In the United States, there are approximately 1,300 endangered species. In 1993, the eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that we lose approximately 30,000 species a year. We now face the loss of entire genera, and it appears we are the culprit.


Many scientists believe that we are actually in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. If this is the case, it will be the first such mass extinction that was not caused by a physical activity such as volcanic activity or a meteor. This mass extinction will be caused by living organisms, and the cause is more of a serious problem than one of its major contributors – global warming. If all species currently threatened actually become extinct, we can expect the sixth mass extinction to properly arrive within the next 300 to 22,000 years.
Click the link to read more.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Unexpected consequences - illegal logging in Russia

The ban on logging in certain areas of China in 1997 following damaging floods has led to a massive increase in illegal logging in Russia. The break up of the Soviet Union only exacerbated the problem.

The Diplomat reports.

This is a standard "tragedy of the commons", "property rights", "weak institutions and rule of law", "corruption" problem. There is no simple solution.

Russia’s Far East Forest Mafia [The Diplomat]

The vast forests of Russia’s Far East are being plundered. Prompted by rising Chinese demand for timber and enabled by a culture of official corruption and fear, environmentalists say a Russian forest mafia is stripping the region of rare and valuable hardwoods, a trade that threatens the world’s last remaining populations of Siberian tigers.

In China, timber is processed into finished consumer products such as veneers, picture frames and wooden toilet seats, many of which end up on shelves in the West, the endpoint of a pernicious and largely unacknowledged global market chain. Despite statements of concern from the Russian authorities, the logging industry is ‘now beyond federal control, and overrun by criminal gangs’, according to Dark Forest, a recent TV exposé of the official corruption at the heart of the trade.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Humanities and climate change

From the inbox:

Humanties Professors at Stanford look at climate change under the banner of "human experience".

Humanities Scholars Shed New Light on the Past, Present, and Future of Environmental Change

At first glance, Stanford University history professor Richard White might seem an unlikely source for fresh perspectives on today’s environmental debate. But White—a humanities scholar whose research focuses on American history—believes that looking back at events of the past often gives keen insights into what has shaped the present, as well as offering glimpses of what the future holds.

White’s examination of the expansion of railroad system in the American West during the 1800s, for example, revealed an unexpected and lingering ecological downside. While creating a brief economic boom for dozens of cities at the time, many of the regions that were developed have been in economic and environmental decline for years.

“Americans tend to focus on the environmental disasters of other countries and point out the ways in which they had environmental catastrophes,” White said. “You sometimes forget that we in the United States also have a history which has many of the same elements.”

White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, is just one of a number of humanities researchers at Stanford who feel that current-day environmental issues should be considered by a range of scholarly disciplines, including those in the humanities and in the sciences.

Scholars from the University’s philosophy, literature, and history departments are contributing to interdisciplinary discussion through their publications and in academic workshops and research groups. They stress that their unique perspectives are valuable because science alone can’t completely address the massive problems of global climate change, industrial pollution, food shortages, and vastly unequal living standards in Western and developing nations, none of which can be fully understood without considering their complex historical and cultural legacies.

With input from colleagues in academic disciplines from the economics to medicine, humanities professors across campus have created a variety of opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion about the environment. Graduate students, too, are working alongside faculty members in several workshop groups and research teams. In all these cases, their aim is to paint a more detailed picture of the nuanced reality of the past, present, and future of environmental change.

“You might be able to do scientific studies about what is happening,” White explains, “but if you want to know why it’s happening, how it’s happening, the political background, and what to do about it, then you’re into the humanities and social science research.”

Researchers consider the following questions:

Philosophy Raises Questions of Environmental Ethics

Multi-Disciplinary Conversation Inspires and Informs

Digital Humanities Projects Uncover the Roots of Environmental Change

Research Predicts “Climate Migrants”


Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Hatwell paper " new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009"

An interesting paper that I should have blogged on a long time ago:

The Hartwell paper "new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009"

From wikipedia:

The Hartwell Paper calls for a reorientation of climate policy after the perceived failure in 2009 of the UNFCCC climate conference in Copenhagen. The paper was published in May 2010 by the London School of Economics in cooperation with the University of Oxford. The authors are 14 natural and social scientists from Asia, Europe and North America, including Mike Hulme, Roger A. Pielke (Jr), Nico Stehr and Steve Rayner, who met under the Chatham House Rule.
Hartwell House, where the meetings took place.

The paper argues that "decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic."

It emphasizes human dignity as a necessary guiding principle for climate policy: "To reframe the climate issue around matters of human dignity is not just noble or necessary. It is also likely to be more effective than the approach of framing around human sinfulness – which has failed and will continue to fail."

It has three main objectives:

* 1. Energy access for all
* 2. Clean energy
* 3. Dealing with climate change

The ultimate goal is "to develop non-carbon energy supplies at unsubsidised costs less than those using fossil fuels


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Recycling: "It could be you or could it?"

This simple video is strangely emotionally powerful or I am just going soft in my old age?


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Krugman on climate change, the press and the republicans

Hot on the heels of my first post of today Paul Krugman joins in.

His main point and something hinted at in the previous posting is exactly this:

"Where do they find these people".

More to the point - why do they find "these" people when there are so many to pick from?

The Truth, Still Inconvenient [NYT]

So the joke begins like this: An economist, a lawyer and a professor of marketing walk into a room. What’s the punch line? They were three of the five “expert witnesses” Republicans called for last week’s Congressional hearing on climate science.

But the joke actually ended up being on the Republicans, when one of the two actual scientists they invited to testify went off script.

Prof. Richard Muller of Berkeley, a physicist who has gotten into the climate skeptic game, has been leading the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, an effort partially financed by none other than the Koch foundation. And climate deniers — who claim that researchers at NASA and other groups analyzing climate trends have massaged and distorted the data — had been hoping that the Berkeley project would conclude that global warming is a myth.

Instead, however, Professor Muller reported that his group’s preliminary results find a global warming trend “very similar to that reported by the prior groups.”

The deniers’ response was both predictable and revealing; more on that shortly. But first, let’s talk a bit more about that list of witnesses, which raised the same question I and others have had about a number of committee hearings held since the G.O.P. retook control of the House — namely, where do they find these people?

My favorite, still, was Ron Paul’s first hearing on monetary policy, in which the lead witness was someone best known for writing a book denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a “horrific tyrant” — and for advocating a new secessionist movement as the appropriate response to the “new American fascialistic state.”

The ringers (i.e., nonscientists) at last week’s hearing weren’t of quite the same caliber, but their prepared testimony still had some memorable moments. One was the lawyer’s declaration that the E.P.A. can’t declare that greenhouse gas emissions are a health threat, because these emissions have been rising for a century, but public health has improved over the same period. I am not making this up.

Oh, and the marketing professor, in providing a list of past cases of “analogies to the alarm over dangerous manmade global warming” — presumably intended to show why we should ignore the worriers — included problems such as acid rain and the ozone hole that have been contained precisely thanks to environmental regulation.

But back to Professor Muller. His climate-skeptic credentials are pretty strong: he has denounced both Al Gore and my colleague Tom Friedman as “exaggerators,” and he has participated in a number of attacks on climate research, including the witch hunt over innocuous e-mails from British climate researchers. Not surprisingly, then, climate deniers had high hopes that his new project would support their case.

You can guess what happened when those hopes were dashed.

Just a few weeks ago Anthony Watts, who runs a prominent climate denialist Web site, praised the Berkeley project and piously declared himself “prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” But never mind: once he knew that Professor Muller was going to present those preliminary results, Mr. Watts dismissed the hearing as “post normal science political theater.” And one of the regular contributors on his site dismissed Professor Muller as “a man driven by a very serious agenda.”

Of course, it’s actually the climate deniers who have the agenda, and nobody who’s been following this discussion believed for a moment that they would accept a result confirming global warming. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking not just about the science here, but about the morality.

For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But it’s terrifying to realize that this kind of cynical careerism — for that’s what it is — has probably ensured that we won’t do anything about climate change until catastrophe is already upon us.

So on second thought, I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race. 


The 25th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Accident

Given the events unfolding in Japan I have seen a large number of statistics being thrown around many of which explain the excellent safety record of nuclear often in light of the Chernobyl accident.

I believe it would be useful for the media to read this paper to get a deeper understanding of the short and medium term implications. Is 25 years long term?

The 25th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Accident
Date: 2011
By: Simmons, Phil

The nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986 is described and a summary of its immediate effects on people and the environment outlined. Then there is a summary of the important parts of the literature on diseases and deaths resulting from radiation and mortalities to date and the way mortality data became increasingly conservative over the years is discussed. Today, there is still uncertainty about future mortalities dues to long latency periods for many cancers however cancer deaths in Chernobyl affected regions are expected to be similar to non-Chernobyl controls. The major literature on environmental effects on wild species, forests, water and agricultural land are then reported with a brief discussion of remediation work and of current trends. Finally, contemporary perceptions of the Chernobyl accident are described in the context of popular anti-nuclear sentiment that prevailed in 1986, the immense publicity surrounding the accident and the natural tendency of people to exaggerate prospects of unlikely, yet extreme, events.


Communicating Climate Change

Climate sceptics remain "sceptical". The "significant" chance of "catastrophic environmental, social and economic consequences" during the next 100 years barely registers on the public's list of concerns.

Kevin Parton and Mark Mossison investigate.

This is an interesting topic of debate.

Communicating Climate Change: A Literature Review
Date: 2011
Parton, Kevin
Morrison, Mark

For climate scientists, climate change is a problem that has a significant chance of having catastrophic environmental, social and economic consequences during the course of this century. In contrast, public opinion seems to regard with scepticism the pronouncements on climate change that emanate from the scientific community. Why the difference? This is what our research project was designed to examine. Or to put it another way: Assuming that the scientific information is correct, and that without a dramatic change in technology (and policy to promote such a change) there would be a significant risk of man-made, global catastrophe, what must be done to communicate this urgent issue to the public? We have approached the analysis of this problem by reviewing the literature on communicating climate change. By organising the literature according to the role of the major groups of participants in the information transfer process, useful insights can be gleaned. These groups include scientists, business, the government, the media and the general public. This analysis leads to an overall model of the information transfer process that highlights various issues including the role that the media plays as a lens through which the public observes scientific results.