Thursday, December 31, 2009

Copenhagen: One Big Step ..... Sideways

With all the ink (both literal and electronic) that has been spilled over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, it is stunning to me how little understanding there is of what happened there. Structurally, Copenhagen was supposed to be the next big step forward -- the place where the post-Kyoto Protocol would be agreed on. Thus, on one level, the widespread disappointment that emerged when this didn't happen is understandable. But to anyone who has followed the negotiations closely, it has been clear for years that Copenhagen wasn't going to deliver its promised result. So, while I'm not surprised by the general public reaction, I am both surprised and concerned at the lack of understanding among the 'experts'.

To understand the significance of what happened at Copenhagen one needs to stop thinking of the negotiations as a linear process and start focusing on the negotiating positions of the US and China -- the two largest contributors to global emissions, neither of which is bound by the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. On December 17, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the details of a US proposal aimed at 'breaking the impasse' in the existing negotiations. That proposal had two key provisions: 1) support for an initiative to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries to help them mitigate the impacts of climate change and 2) pressuring developing countries to agree to emissions cuts along with the industrialized world for the first time. The Chinese response is succinctly summarized in Mark Lynas' article "How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room" which documents how "China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame."

In short, the negotiations broke down over a dispute between the two largest emitters on the nature of the path forward. But understanding that dispute requires a bit of history. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change divides the nations of the world into two categories: developed countries (Annex I countries in Kyoto Protocol jargon) and developing countries. This division reflects a philosophy that emerged from a decade of discussion between the global North and global South which culminated in the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future). The Brundtland Report popularized the term 'sustainable development' as a mechanism for squaring the equity circle that divided the North and the South: development would still be possible, but that development must be sustainable. This, in practice, was interpreted as meaning that the developing world (which was already enjoying the benefits of development and was disproportionately responsible for the existence of global environmental problems) should go first in remediating those problems. This is the logic for the structure of the Kyoto Protocol. Developed countries (Annex I countries) were expected to commit to binding targets while the developing countries were not covered by the protocols and were not expected to make any emissions reductions prior to 2012 when Kyoto expired. While not part of the formal Kyoto agreement, the general expectation was that a) the Annex I countries would fulfill their commitment and b) the next major agreement (i.e., the Copenhagen agreement) would broaden the number of countries included in Annex I to include some of the developing countries that were not covered by Kyoto.

Viewed in the context of this history, the US proposal aimed to divide the developing world into two camps: a) China and other rapidly developing countries (who would be expected to commit to emissions cuts) and b) the rest of the developing world (which would receive a large amount of aid and not be expected to make emission cuts). The Chinese response was designed to maintain their status as a developing country not expected to make emissions reductions.

In both cases, these countries are responding to internal political pressures. The Obama administration knows that it has no chance of getting an international agreement ratified by the Senate unless it covers China. The politics of this have been clear for over a decade. In 1997, by a vote of 95 to 0, the Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which stated that the Senate would not ratify Kyoto if developing countries were not required to participate on the same timetable. Thus, the Obama administration was attempting to divide and conquer the developing countries in a strategic move aimed at getting an agreement that could be ratified by the US Senate.

From the Chinese point of view, it is unreasonable to expect China and other developing nations to commit to emission reductions at this point when the US has not formally agreed to emissions reductions (i.e., to 'go first' as expected by the UNFCC process) and many of the Annex I signatories have failed to meet their Kyoto commitments. In contrast to some, however, I don't think the Chinese are global warming deniers. They are well aware of the climate change models and the significant implications they have for China -- particularly in relation to agriculture and the melting of the Himalayas. They are just bargaining hard -- primarily so they can continue to generate power by whatever means possible in order to maintain the economic growth that is necessary to stave off internal social unrest.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem: the two largest global emitters are not covered by the current agreement. The US wants the next agreement to cover both. China wants it to cover only the US. Copenhagen didn't make any appreciable progress towards resolving the problem. It did, however, bring a fundamental problem that has been hidden in the depths of negotiation out into the open. Unfortunately, comparatively few people seem to have noticed.

(Individuals interested in the Chinese government perspective on their role in the Copenhagen talks can get that information here.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Richard Alley: The Biggest Control Knob: Carbon Dioxide in Earth's Climate History

As the holidays conclude and the new year beckons, its time for a bit of summing up and a new beginning.

Today's post highlights a recent talk by Richard Alley, author of The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future and Chair of the National Research Council's report on Abrupt Climate Change. We'll close out this segment on climate change with our take on the events at Copenhagen. Stay tuned.

Alley's talk, available here, surveys data covering millions of years in order to clearly, interestingly and entertainingly show how CO2 is a key part of the Earth’s climate regulatory system or -- in Alley's terminology -- how CO2 is the 'biggest control knob.'

Friday, December 18, 2009

Spencer, Durkheim and Ostrom

I admit to being on a bit of an Elinor Ostrom kick at the moment -- in part because there is a clear (if unexplored) link between her work and a fundamental (if rarely talked about anymore) debate in early sociology. I'm talking about the debate between Spencer and Durkheim over the relationship between contracting individuals and society. Spencer argued that society emerged out of rational individuals entering into contracts with one another. Durkheim spends a significant chunk of The Division of Labor in Society arguing against this view (see, in particular, Book 1 Chapter 7 'Organic Solidarity and Contractual Solidarity'). According to Durkheim society necessarily preceded contracts because a specific social fact, trust that the other party would honor the contract, was a necessary precondition for entering into that contract.

Ostrom has spent a lifetime analyzing diverse situations in order to get an empirical answer to the conceptual problem Durkheim and Spencer argued over: what are the factors that increase the likelihood that participants will gain trust in others and reduce the probability of their being taken for a sucker in an interaction. Among the items she's identified are the following:
• Communication among participants
• Reputation of participants is known
• High marginal returns
• Entry and exit capability
• Longer time horizon
• Agreed upon sanctioning mechanisms

An interesting and relatively brief (28 minute) overview of Ostrom's work is available in the lecture she gave on acceptance of her recent Nobel Prize: Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Leaked Internal UNFCC Document: Global Temperatures Will Rise by More than 2 Degrees Celsius

Leaked Internal UNFCC Document: Global Temperatures Will Rise by More than 2 Degrees Celsius

The UNFCC, the UN agency that is holding the climate conference in Copenhagen, has stated in a leaked document that the climate mitigation actions proposed by countries at the summit, if implemented, will result in a 3 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures.

"A confidential UN analysis obtained by the Guardian reveals that the emissions cuts offered so far at the Copenhagen climate change summit will lead to global temperatures rising by an average of 3C.

The analysis seriously undermines the statements by governments that they are aiming to limit emissions to a level ensuring no more than a 2C temperature rise over the next century, and indicates that the last 24 hours of negotiations will be extremely challenging.

A rise of 3C would mean up to 170 million more people suffering severe coastal floods and 550 million more at risk of hunger, according to the 2006 Stern economic review of climate change for the UK government - as well as leaving up to 50% of species facing extinction. Even a rise of 2C would lead to sharp decline in tropical crop yields, more flooding and droughts."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Evaluating Climate Policies

With all the different proposals flying around in Copenhagen, how does one go about sorting out the good ideas from the bad? A number of delegates are using C-ROADS a policy screening simulation model designed by the folks at Climate Interactive. Climate Interactive are using it at COP15 to provide dynamic updates of the consquences of different policy proposals. An updated figure is shown in the figure below.

On the Climate Interactive website they write:
how close do current proposals bring the world to climate goals such as stabilizing CO2 concentrations at 350ppm or limiting temperature increase to 2°C? The challenges of adding up proposals that are framed in multiple ways and the difficulty of determining long-term impacts of any given global greenhouse gas emissions pathway are just as present for citizens as they are for policy makers and political leaders.

With these facts in mind, our team is tracking the proposals under consideration and using the same climate change simulation available to policy-makers to report our estimate of how close ‘current proposals’ come to realizing climate goals. And we are aiming to do it in real-time as the summit unfolds.

Calculations in the Climate Scoreboard are made in C-ROADS, a scientifically reviewed climate simulator built using the system dynamics methodology that is designed to aggregate the proposals of 15 countries and country groups and calculate the climate impacts such as carbon dioxide concentration and temperature. C-ROADS was built by Sustainability Institute, Ventana Systems, and the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Follow these links to understand more about C-ROADS, explore its site, read the scientific review, read the reference guide, read user quotes, read the “Frequently Asked Questions”, or experiment with the online, CO2-focused, three region version, C-Learn.

To view more Scoreboard results beyond the temperature values shown in the “widget” image, view the table of proposals, download a PowerPoint file with graphs, consult the “Frequently Asked Questions” and view an Excel file that includes a table of references for the proposals, lists our modeling assumptions, and shares C-ROADS output for the proposals.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cooperation vs Competition

With Elinor Ostrom winning the Nobel Prize in Economics it is tempting to think that theorizing about cooperation is gaining traction relative to theorizing based on self-interest. But even that didn't prepare me for Matt Funk's claim, in On the Origin of Mass Extinctions: Darwin’s Nontrivial Error, that cooperation was as fundamental as he suggests. Here's the abstract.

Darwin's "Origin" launched evolution into theoretical orbit and it continues to influence its course. This magnum opus detailed a tenable solution to the most fundamental problem of human existence,and although this Promethean vision contains a few minor errors, there is one nontrivial error which misguides several crucial developments – not only in the evolving structure of evolutionary theory, but across the entire spectrum of science, including politico-economics. This problem has led theorists to mistakenly favour earth-based inputs over cosmic inputs, to over- emphasize biological evolution, and to under-emphasize stellar evolution. These perceptive, methodological, and logical errors have, in turn, emphasized the significance of the individual “struggle against competitors” over the cooperative “struggle against inclement environments”, and thus fashionable theories relating to Global Warming, The Problem of Sustainable Economic Development, and The Tragedy of the Commons have been erected upon false and sandy foundations and suggest evolutionarily unstable solutions. And to this point, in light of the discoveries presented here, we conclude that largely redirected global threat mitigation efforts will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation if long-term human survival is to be achieved.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Resilience and the Geography of Unemployment

In light of the discussion of resilience and its relation to policy, it is interesting to consider the current unemployment situation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 31 million people currently unemployed -- that's including those involuntarily working parttime and those who want a job, but have given up on trying to find one. In the face of the worst economic upheaval since the Great Depression, millions of Americans are hurting. "The Decline: The Geography of a Recession," as created by labor writer LaToya Egwuekwe, serves as a vivid representation of just how much. Watch the deteriorating transformation of the U.S. economy from January 2007 -- approximately one year before the start of the recession -- to the most recent unemployment data available today. Original link:

What, from a resilience point of view, does the map show?
Is it, as it appears to be, a depiction of a spreading shock to the system? Or is unemployment, as the economists say, a lagging indicator? In which case we are observing not the shock, but something more akin to an aftershock. In either case, the map shows that the consequences are not uniform. But, in contrast to the previous discussion about appropriate policy, discussions about how to cope with the problem are largely at the national level rather than local or regional.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Poverty, Gender, Vulnerability and Resilience.

I'm posting this from St. Andrews, NB because St. George doesn't have internet (in my part of town). It's my contribution on this International Day of Action for Climate Justice, part of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

I have been researching "definitions of resilience" for my dissertation the Transition Towns movement in Canada. About a month ago, I contacted Rob Hopkins of Transition Towns UK, who put me in touch with Neil Adger of the (now infamous) University of East Anglia Center for Climate Change Research. This resulted in an email exchange with Rob, Neil, Katrina Brown and Helen La Trobe. I've been so swamped with course work I didn't have a chance to review them until now—but this post is a summary of those messages. In addition, Neil sent me a copy of the chapter, "Vulnerability and Resistance to Environmental Change." Co-authors Neil Adger and Katrina Brown gave me permission to post the chapter to this blog. If I figure out how to embed the document, I'll post it over the next week.

I told Neil I had been looking for a definition of "resilience" to use in my research. The first thing he wrote to me was "a good theory is better than a good definition":

"In response to your major points, let me say that you need to explore resilience as both an emergent system property – i.e. something you can observe independently, as well as resilience as a normative social goal." (Neil Adger.)

A discussion ensued about the many definitions and normative goals of resilience. An emerging question for me, and for the others, was whether "maintaining system stability" (i.e. sustainability) becomes "rigidity" or "resistance to change." Resistance to change, or "stability at all costs," can keep a system stable and keep people and communities intact for a short duration, but in the long run, it becomes counter-evolutionary, that is, it is maladaptive to changes that need to happen, either for normative social reasons or as a response to environmental shocks.

“The message of resilience is more radical for policy-makers than that of sustainability. The agenda implied by resilience actually challenges some widely held tenets about stability and resistance to change that are implicit in how sustainability is formulated in environmental and social policy arenas around the world. Promoting resilience means changing, in particular the nature of decision-making to recognise the benefits of autonomy and new forms of governance in promoting social goals, self-organisation, and the capacity to adapt. In a policy world focussed on resilience there is less scope for global blueprints, which are high on central control but low on equity – such blueprints create their own vulnerabilities and render some problems and issues invisible [3]. Promoting resilience is concerned with the knowledge required to facilitate robust governance systems that can cope with environmental changes and social, demographic and democratic transitions.” (Neil Adger)

"Resilience is not about promoting growth or change for its own sake. It is about promoting the ability to absorb shocks and stresses and still maintain the functioning of society and the integrity of the ecological systems. However, resilience also requires communities and societies to have the ability to self-organize and to manage resources and make decisions in a manner that promotes stability. Most important of all, resilience requires societies to have the capacity to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and risks. These objectives give generic guidance on how to promote sustainability at different scales.” (Helen La Trobe)

In human communities, it becomes very difficult to sort out what kind of change is "good in the long run", even though initial shocks are disruptive, and what kinds of change are damaging and maladaptive. As a bright line example, stepping down capitalist production and trade would cause serious shocks and disruptions to many communities in the over-developed world, but in the long run would slow climate change and help us adapt to a post-fossil fuel economy. On the other hand, Hurricane Katrina was a sudden ecological shock that was severely detrimental to poor people of colour in New Orleans and offered few opportunities for beneficial adaptation.

Which brings us to the next topic. Neil Adger and Katrina Brown's chapter on "Vulnerability and Resilience to Environmental Change" looks at several examples from cultures around the world that have experienced different kinds of ecological shocks: economic and environmental. To quickly sum it up, poverty and gender are factors which significantly effect a community's ability to adapt to shocks. In an example from Cameroon, "structural adjustment" policies led to a reduction in government employment and sent thousands of city dwellers back to the rural agricultural areas. Men who re-ruralized adapted well by growing cash crops. Women who had traditionally done farming became excluded from the land, and were relegated to producing household services and cottage crafts. The men prospered (relatively speaking) and the women suffered severely, There were other examples in the article which showed that women and the children they care for are more severely impacted by ecological shocks and less able to mount a beneficial adaptation to change. The power differential between men and women is a factor affecting resilience.

By the same token, there are several examples in the article which show that poverty makes people unable to adapt to serious ecological shocks, whether resulting from climate change, loss of water, farmland or other natural resources, political and economic shocks, etc. In other words, systemic poverty and powerlessness caused by race, gender, and economic exploitation sets poor people up to be devastated by ecological shocks, such as hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, floods and fires.

That is why today's protests in Copenhagen, the International Day of Action for Climate Justice, is such a powerful statement of this profound truth. Europeans and North Americans, as well as Indigenous and People of the South, who are protesting today in Copenhagen, have intuitively understood this profound truth: adaptation to climate change is possible only with the achievement of equity and justice around the world. The elimination of poverty and equitable access to resources and decision-making are fundamental conditions for adapting to climate change. The over-developed world needs to ratchet down its capitalist conquest of the world, share its resources, stop emitting any more carbon and greenhouse gasses, phase out fossil fuels, and share appropriate technologies and self-empowered development strategies with the South.

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere .....

Chris Jordan recently returned from a photographic trip to the Midway Atoll, located near the Pacific Trash Vortex (an area of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas where the ocean currents accumulate garbage). While there he photographed the decaying body’s of dead albatross chicks full of plastic they had consumed.

While Jordan's photography has always focused on environmental matters, the current work packs much more emotional punch. His earlier work, like the image shown below, tended to be cool, rational reflections on the scale of human impact. Packing Peanuts (2009) is a 60x80" depiction of 166,000 packing peanuts, equal to the number of overnight packages shipped by air in the U.S. every hour.

Here is a closer view. Other images can be viewed on his website.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Social-ecological systems in classical sociology

Recent scholarship on socio-ecological relationships has focused on the conjoined nature of the socio-ecologial systems. This idea contrasts with sociology's traditional focus as captured by Durkheim's methodological dictum: social facts should be explained only through reference to other social facts.

It turns out, as shown by Dario Padovan's in an interesting article The Concept of Social Metabolism in Classical Sociology, that the separation of the natural from the social was not taken for granted by early sociologists. According to Padovan ....

"Among early sociologists the concept of social metabolism was widely adopted. At that time it was used to describe the same process: the exchange and transformation of matter, energy, labor and knowledge carried out between the social system and the environmental system. But it did have various different meanings. For some authors it was one concrete way in which society was embedded in cosmic evolution, which simultaneously offered models to help understand how the social system functioned; for others it was a way of describing the exchange of energy and matter between society and nature, that which permitted the reproduction of the social system and of the social achievement needed for human advancement, for others again, social metabolism was one way in which society could renew its elite. I would say this concept was the product of sociological organicism and when sociology became more rationalist and individualist, it lost this perspective which linked society with its environment."
The article goes on to discuss the specific ideas of a variety of early sociologists, both known (Spencer, Comte, Ward, Pareto) and largely forgotten (Lilienfeld, Schaffle), and a few biologists (Haeckel).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Conferences, Conferences, Conferences !!!!


The Environmental Studies Association of Canada will be having its 2010 annual Conference from May 31st to June 1st, at Concordia University in Montreal as part of the CFHSSC Congress 2010. The theme of the conference is ‘Sustainability in a Changing World’. Information on the conference available at the ESAC conference page includes a call for papers (see below), forms for proposing a paper or a panel, and (for students) a travel subsidy form. If you wish to propose a paper or a panel or apply for a travel grant, you need to download the appropriate file and submit it to Dr. Shirley Thompson. The deadline to submit is December 21st, 2009.

This conference aims at exploring a large range of issues that include climate change, food security, natural resources, millennium development goals, environmental health and environmental literacy. We particularly seek to include delegates from different disciplines – political sciences, anthropology, sociology, economics, international development and geography. ESAC expects this conference will stimulate a critical and constructive dialogue among its participants. As such, we encourage you to submit paper and panel proposals relevant to the theme of this conference.

Suggestions for certain themes of interest this year are:

• Gender and the environment
• Climate change
• Environmental health
• Food resources, food security or food sovereignty
• Environmental literacy and environmental education
• Sustainable Livelihoods
• Greenwashing
• Environmental Management Systems
• Ecoproducts and ecoservices (e.g., ecotourism)
• Consumption
• Waste or Zero waste
• Millenium development goals
• Documentaries, participatory video and photovoice regarding sustainability issues.

Abstract submissions (300 words) should be sent in by December 21st 2009. The abstract should include a description of your object of study, your theoretic frame, your methodology of research, your conclusions and the importance of this area to sustainability. All papers will be evaluated by a ESAC conference committee and acceptance emails will be sent out in early February.

You must be an ESAC member in good standing to present a paper or panel at the conference. All presenters must also register for the congress. Registration begins in March 2010. Travel grants will be available to student ESAC panel participants (see travel grant form). You must fill out and submit the form before the due date to be eligible for a travel grant.

2) The Sustainability Conference

Those wanting to escape the Canadian winter, you need to act quickly. The SIXTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ENVIRONMENTAL, CULTURAL, ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY is being held at the University of Cuenca, Cuenca, Ecuador on 5-7 January 2010.

The International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability aims to develop a holistic view of sustainability, in which environmental, cultural and economic issues are inseparably interlinked. It works in a multidisciplinary way, across diverse fields and taking varied perspectives in order to address the fundamentals of sustainability.

If you are unable to attend the Conference in person, virtual registrations are also available which allow you to submit a paper for refereeing and possible publication in the Journal.

The deadline for the final round in the call for papers (a title and short abstract) is 15 December 2010. Proposals are reviewed within two weeks of submission. Full details of the Conference, including an online proposal submission form, may be found at the Conference website.


For those who plan long in advance rather than on the spur of the moment, here is the announcement from the Resilience 2011 Organizing Committee.

We are pleased to invite you to “Resilience 2011 -- Resilience, Innovation and Sustainability: Navigating the Complexities of Global Change.” Following the highly successful Resilience 2008 Conference held in Stockholm last year organized by the Stockholm Resilience Center, ASU has been asked to organize the follow-up conference in 2011. The School of Sustainability, the Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU have agreed to meet this challenge.

As a result, we are now inviting you to ‘hold the date’, March 11-16, 2011, for this major international conference, at which we expect colleagues from a wide range of disciplines and all parts of the world. The conference will be held at the Tempe campus of Arizona State University. Please visit for complete details regarding the conference and check back periodically for updates.


A thoughtful response to the claim the data have been cooked.

The Open Mind blog recently addressed another skeptic argument, the notion that the past decade has seen a decrease in global temperature.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

COP 15: Let's all follow along

The 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (bureaucratically known as COP -- for Conference of the Parties -- in recognition of the countries that were 'parties' to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) started today in Copenhagen. While most of the delegates spent the day cooling their heels in line (4 hours to register!), a variety of developments took place that were of interest.

1) Greenpeace activists scaled the roof of Canada's Parliament and unfurled banners. Shots of the event are here, videos here. They are posted in chronological order with the last footage being the first you encounter -- so be sure and go to the last page to view the earliest (and most interesting) footage from the beginning of the action.

2) Canada got noticed in the 'Fossil of the Day' award.

3) The US Environmental Protection Agency issued an 'endangerment finding' that greenhouse gases are a health issue and, hence, the EPA can regulate them administratively -- that is without congressional approval. This is the big club that the Obama administration hopes will spur Congress into action.

For those of you wishing to follow along on the two week journey that the negotiations will involve, Time has a listing of the 5 things to watch for at the conference. There are a number of options for following along and determining whether or not they occur -- from the traditional to the virtual:

A) Real-time updates on Twitter are available here.
B) Lots of the events are being webcast. Check out the list here.
C) The Climate Action Network puts out a daily newsletter.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Human Side of Disaster

The current issue of the Disaster and Social Crisis Research Network Electronic Newsletter has just been released. It is edited by Eduardo Runte, a former graduate student in Sociology at UNB whose MA thesis dealt with the experiences of electrical linemen during the ice storm of 1998. Eduardo is now in the PhD program at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. The contents of his thesis are summarized here and a description of his PhD work, dealing with the social processes involved in the creation of safety, can be found here.

The newsletter has a blurb for a new book by Thomas Drabek, The Human Side of Disaster, which it describes as follows:

When disaster strikes, people react, and usually, fear levels rise. Temporarily, however, one motivation supersedes all others: survival of self and those nearby, especially loved ones. Based on the author’s years of research and teaching experience, The Human Side of Disaster scientifically evaluates human responses in the face of disasters. This examination informs emergency managers and response teams and teaches them how to anticipate human behaviors in-crisis.

The book begins with four scenarios based on interviews and real events that introduce the human side of disaster. The stories examine how attention to, or lack of, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation affect outcomes. Each subsequent chapter refers back to the original Experiences chapter and provides insights that can be applied not only to events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods, but also to man-made threats including industrial accidents and acts of terrorism. The author explores how people’s responses can be predicted, the long term effects of disaster on the psyche, and the key issues involved in recovery.

A balanced interpretation of research, results, and experience, the book demonstrates how traditional warning methods and high-tech systems can work together to improve communications, evacuations, and reconstruction efforts. It highlights the role of the human element in any disaster situation and demonstrates how to use that element as part of a planned disaster response.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Future of Flight

It's hard to grasp the scale of the commercial aviation business. Most of us don't fly that often and when we do there seem to be way more planes sitting on the ground than taking off. This personal perspective prevents us from appreciating the real magnitude of the operation -- something that these two videos really convey (be sure to view them in full screen mode for the full effect!)

Once you understand the scale of the operation, the environmental consequences become more apparent. As the Suzuki Foundation notes:
Jets account for somewhere between 4 and 9% of total human impact on the climate. .... A special characteristic of aircraft emissions is that most of them are produced at cruising altitudes high in the atmosphere. Scientific studies have shown that these high-altitude emissions have a more harmful climate impact because they trigger a series of chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that have a net warming effect. The IPCC, for example, has estimated that the climate impact of aircraft is two to four times greater than the effect of their carbon dioxide emissions alone.

Thus, comparisons such as the one below, which represent the comparative impact of carbon dioxide emissions alone and show air transport to have essentially the same impact per kilometer traveled as car transport, understate the impact of air travel.

Whatever happened to Conservation?

In a brilliant book, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, noted historian Samuel Hayes connects the emergence of the conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt with the rise of a technocratic elite convinced that their knowledge could benefit the world. Governments created departments of Forestry, Fisheries, Natural Resources, Agriculture, etc. all populated with technocrats aiming to do what they saw as the morally correct thing: conserve resources for the benefit of all by avoiding unnecessary waste. It is stunning to realize how far the technocrats of today have drifted from that vision.

The image on the left shows an oil storage tank. Everything looks normal. But, an infrared view of the same tank taken at the same time, shows the tank is leaking methane. This is the sort of thing that drove the original conservationists batty -- the unnecessary and unproductive waste of valuable resources. Leaks like this -- from wells, storage tanks, and pipelines -- are commonplace and few companies do anything about them despite the fact that the EPA has evidence showing such fixes to be cost effective.

Given that nobody is seriously monitoring this, it is hard to get a real estimate of the problem. However, the EPA estimates a total of about 3 trillion cubic feet. This amount has the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States. As people have begun to pay attention, government scientists and industry officials have come to the conclusion that the real figure is almost certainly higher.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Book: William Catton Returns with "Bottleneck"

George Mobus, Assoc. Prof. of Computing Software Systems at the Univ. of Washington Tacoma does a lengthy review of William R. Catton's Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse. The book is posed as a sequel to Catton's 1983 book, Overshoot, which has become a classic of literature in environmental sociology. The review is posted at The Oil Drum.
Warning: this book does not have a happy ending.

"In the sequel, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, Xlibris Corporation, he drops the part about we can evade the worst. The subtitle says it all. Now he concludes that it is already too late to mend our ways and somehow avoid the collapse of civilization. Indeed the main title refers to an impending collapse of the human population. An ecological bottleneck (also called a population bottleneck) is where radical changes in the environment of a species causes a die-off of all but the most hardy of the population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. Of course there may be no sufficiently hardy individuals left or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to produce a new population. In that case the species goes extinct.

Catton's arguments for why this is the most likely outcome for humanity boil down to something I have written about in my blog for several years now. It is the rate of change that matters as much as the degree or magnitude of change when it comes to shocking a population. If we look at the rate of climate change due to anthropogenic forcing, or the rate at which our fossil fuel energy sources are depleting, or the rate of aquifer depletion, or the rate of population increase, or the rate of consumption increase per captia in the developed and developing worlds, or... You get the picture. We are changing the world in ways unfavorable to human survivability more rapidly than we can either adapt or mitigate. And we have already passed the point of no return."

Visualizing Sociology

Many of the posts on this blog have featured stunning visual graphs and images to depict sociological ideas. With the Internet and sophisticated graphics software, this seems to be a growing trend in sociology. So I thought I feature a few sites that specifically address visual images in sociology.

Valerie Miller

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Homogenization of America

Diversity, whether social or ecological, increases resilience. When it is only this far between McDonald's restaurants in the US, one has to wonder how diversity is fairing! The greatest distance between 2 McDonald's is 107 miles in South Dakota.

Monday, November 23, 2009

NB Power sale

For those wanting to follow along on the debate about the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro Quebec, the Memorandum of Understanding outlines the terms of the proposed sale. It is obvious from the emerging public opposition that the Graham government has a basic problem: a lack of public trust. David Alward, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, is trying to reinforce that feeling. His Reply to the Speech from the Throne focuses entirely on the NB Power sale and leads with the trust issue (there was no mandate for the sale, not selling NB Power was part of the Liberal platform in the 2003 and 2006 elections) before he gets to his substantive criticism. The recent statement by the NB Auditor General, noting that the sale won't help the provincial debt, undermines one of the major arguments for the sale and, by doing so, legitimizes the lack of trust. The Liberals make their case here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Great Agricultural Land Grab

What do you do if your country has an increasing population, a lack of agricultural land and lots of cash? The standard answer coming from the CEO's of large corporations in the developed world is "give us money to develop more productive crops. We developed 'miracle rice' back in the 60's and with sufficient development funds we can save you again."

Increasingly, however, it appears that these countries are opting for an alternative solution: shopping for agricultural land in even less developed countries. When I visited my daughter last Christmas, she had this fascinating map up on her wall. Taken from an article in The Guardian, it graphically depicts the location of various land purchases made by several wealthy developing countries: China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emerits. Convinced they will not be able to provide the food necessary for their future populations, they have started to invest heavily in countries with historically unproductive agricultural lands like Sudan and Ethiopia, with the intent of using the land to support their burgeoning populations. A number of people have questioned the ethics of such actions since these African countries are already unable to feed their populations and, hence, can ill afford to use their land for export crops.

Thanks to the efforts of the folks at Grain and their related website (, these developments are receiving an increasing amount of attention. The recent NYTimes Magazine article 'Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism' provides a good overview of the issue.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Stewart Brand on 4 Environmental Heresies

Stewart Brand, the author of the Whole Earth Catalog, was one of the leaders of the 60's environmental movement. He has recently been rethinking his positions on cities, nuclear power, genetic modification and geo-engineering. His ideas (Cities are Green! Nukes are Green! Gene modification is Green! Geoengineering is Probably Necessary!) have recently been published in WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto a review of which is available here.

For the video inclined, he covers much the same ground in this TED talk.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Social and Natural Systems in the Decline of North America's Megafauna

One of the most striking characteristics of humans is that we are adaptive generalists. Unlike most species, which are adapted to specific ecological niches, humans have radiated out to populate virtually every land-based ecosystem on the planet. We can do this because we build shelters, transport food and otherwise make arrangements for the necessities of life in those parts of the globe that would otherwise be inhospitable.

It is this capacity, the ability to transform situations to meet our needs, that lies at the root of the interconnection between social and natural systems. The most obvious example of this interconnection is climate change, where humans are pumping the carbon stored in the ground as fossil fuels into the atmosphere and, hence, fundamentally altering both atmospheric chemistry and the global climate.

But what lies at the root of this human capacity? The standard answer is technology. Through technology we transcend the limitations and constraints placed on other species. But a recent article by Christopher Johnson in Science (Science 20 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5956, pp. 1072 - 1073) detailing the process of magafaunal decline in North America casts doubt on this account. Here is the story in brief:

Twenty thousand years ago, North America had a more impressive array of big mammals than Africa does today; by 10,000 years ago, 34 genera of these mammals were gone, including the 10 species that weighed more than a ton. Many other drastic changes occurred in this interval, all of which have been advocated as possible causes of megafaunal extinction. The climate flipped from cold to warm, then back to cold in a 1000-year chill (the Younger Dryas), before rapidly rewarming. There were more, larger fires, and the structure and species composition of vegetation changed drastically. People arrived, and the Clovis culture—with a characteristic style of beautifully crafted stone spear points—flourished for less than 1000 years. Some scientists have argued that an extraterrestrial object struck Earth ~13,000 years ago, triggering the Younger Dryas, starting fires, killing the megafauna, and putting an end to the Clovis culture. ....

What about people? It has long been argued that Clovis artifacts signal the first arrival of people in North America south of the boreal ice sheets and that the Clovis people were specialized big-mammal hunters who caused a crash of megafaunal populations from prehuman abundance to extinction within a few hundred years. This “blitzkrieg” scenario is supported by the fact that terminal dates on megafaunal fossils range from 13,300 to 12,900 years ago, which coincides almost exactly with the Clovis period. But the new data show that the megafaunal decline had begun more than a thousand years earlier. If people were responsible for that decline, they must have been pre-Clovis settlers. The existence of such people has been controversial, but archaeological evidence is slowly coming to light and is consistent with their arrival around the beginning of the megafaunal decline. It is beginning to look as if the greater part of that decline was driven by hunters who were neither numerous nor highly specialized for big-game hunting. Clovis technology may have been a feature of the endgame, possibly reflecting an intensified hunting strategy that developed once megafauna had become rare, possibly wary, and harder to hunt. ...

Before 14,800 years ago, the environment around the site studied by Gill et al. was an open savanna or parkland, probably with scattered spruce and rare broad-leaved trees growing over a short grass-dominated pasture, and almost no fi re. As the megafauna declined, woody biomass increased, mainly by growth of broad-leaved trees that had presumably been suppressed by the large herbivores. The result was a transitory spruce/broadleaf woodland, the like of which does not exist today. Big fires broke out ~14,000 years ago, and for the next few thousand years, major fires returned every few centuries. These changes were widespread: Fire increased throughout North America ~14,000 years ago, and the transitory “no-analog” woodland extended over a vast area.

In short, we begin with an ecosystem dominated by open savanna and numerous species of megafauna. Humans arrive, and apparently without the aid of significant technology, kill off the majority of the megafauna thus setting loose a cascade of ecological changes that ultimately result in the replacement of the savanna by a "no-analog" woodland. Thus we have a clear, early example of the interconnection of social and natural systems, but one that seems not to implicate technology as the fundamental driver.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What Global Warming?

We sure had a cold summer here in New Brunswick. I didn't even go swimming until the heat finally hit in August. Summer was unusually cold not only in this Province, but all over the United States. Isn't that proof that we're moving toward a cooling period?

Right . . . If you were in North America this year, you were in the spot with the most abnormally cool temperatures on the planet. Nonetheless, NASA reported 2009 as the hottest June to October temperatures on record, tied only with 2005.

"What makes these record temps especially impressive is that we’re at “the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century,” according to NASA."

But it was in the Arctic that temperatures were above normal by up to 5 degrees Celsius. Most of the surface warming is happening at the Poles, especially in the Arctic Circle, where Alaskan and Siberian permafrost, and Greenland's glaciers, are melting at ever increasing rates.

The problem is that temperatures in the temperate zone (like the US) have such a wide range of natural variability that it becomes difficult to sense--from every day experience--that the planet is warming.

But aside from increasing surface heat, the greatest global temperature rise comes from a warming of the ocean.

Still, it's easy to understand why people get confused. It also makes it hard to get the planet's largest carbon emitter, the United States, to do something about climate change when people are wearing sweaters on summer evenings in July.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Vandana Shiva on Transition Towns and Global South

Vandana Shiva on how Transition initiatives in the North can best help the South

Transition Berlin asked Vandana Shiva how Transition Towns of the North could help the people of the South. She said, surprisingly, that growing vegetables in the North would relieve some of the consumer pressure leading to the confiscation of land and resources in the South.

Climate Change and Agriculture in East Africa

In the context of the earlier post discussing expected changes in global agricultural productivity by 2050 (in which the southern hemisphere suffers hugely), it is reassuring to see the recent article "Adapting to climate change: Agricultural system and household impacts in East Africa" in the journal Agricultural Systems.

While East Africa is likely to be one of the least affected regions on the continent, the article notes:
Yields of staples like maize and beans will double in the region's highland areas as a result of rising temperatures, as warmer climates make crops mature faster.

But the reverse is likely to occur in both drier and more humid areas, with crop harvests decreasing significantly in these places.

In the worst-affected areas, the researchers recommend farmers keep more livestock, switch to more drought-hardy crops such as sorghum, or abandon crop cultivation altogether. New sources of income might include carbon sequestration, they say.

In areas where the effects of climate change are likely to be less severe and crop losses more moderate, the authors call for the adoption of new technologies and agricultural techniques — such as water harvesting — that will enable farmers to continue growing crops.

While it is somewhat comforting to know that mitigation techniques are plausibly successful in such the region, there remains the pressing issue of providing the resources necessary to make such adaptation possible.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Greening UNB

As you are probably aware, UNB is in the process redoing its strategic plan. Greening UNB is one theme in the 'Building a Better UNB' portion of the plan. Here is some information on how to participate in that process.

1) There will be a meeting Tuesday, November 17, at 2:00 p.m. in the Dean's Conference Room, #202, Forestry/Geology Building. This is a pre-planning session where people with interests in environmental matters will get together and brainstorm ideas for influencing the process in a positive direction. In the email I received, they requested that you let Liz Whamond know ( if you will be able to attend, but feel free to just show up.

2) On the Fredericton campus, the strategic planning process itself will commence with some break out sessions on December 4 and 5. Here are the details:

You are cordially invited to attend the Strategic Planning Breakout Sessions hosted by the University of New Brunswick on Nov. 20 & 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday) at the Hilton Hotel, Saint John or on Dec. 4 & 5 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday) at the Wu Conference Centre, Fredericton.

There will be a breakout room for each of the nine white paper topics. You may choose to focus on one session or engage in any number of sessions, space permitting. You may spend an hour in a session, or up to a full day, depending on your interest and availability.

Facilitated by co-chairs from the UNB community, these sessions will focus on how the UNB community views UNB's strengths, challenges and its future related to each white paper topic.

Please RSVP to Melissa Dawe, Project Manager ( to indicate the date(s), times and sessions you plan to attend. Please also indicate if you plan to take advantage of transportation between Fredericton and Saint John. RSVP is not mandatory, but appreciated to help with room and food planning, and other logistics.

Additional details regarding the breakout sessions and background information will be available on the website at as they become available.

All members of the UNB community are encouraged to attend at least one of these sessions. Your insights are very important to the strategic planning process and the future of UNB. We look forward to seeing you there!

The Ebenezer Scrooge Carbon Reduction Plan

The Ebenezer Scrooge Carbon Reduction Plan

1. Am I obliged to give you a day off every 15th of December so you can go to Copenhagen to protest at the climate change conference? I suppose if I didn’t you would think yourself ill used.

2. The Middling Classes should buy as much stuff as possible so the Rich will be rich enough to afford all that expensive technology, like carbon capture and storage. So get back to work, you ungrateful slug.

3. Shut down the coal-fired power plants? Are you mad? Coal-fired power plants spew millions of tons of sulphur dioxide and ash into the air, which everybody knows causes global dimming. We should build as many coal-fired power plants as possible, at least one a week.

4. The poor should stay as poor as possible so the Rich can continue to be industrious. Any increase in consumption by the poor would only turn the rest of us into toasted Welsh Rabbit.

5. Climate change is caused by overpopulation. There are simply too many people on this planet, billions too many. Mass starvation is Mankind’s best Natural defence. If they are going die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

6. There is nothing more to be done about the mass migrations of Unfortunates driven from their homes by climate change. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

7. Binding reductions? Bah, humbug!

Copyleft 2009 Shaun Bartone

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Book: Thinking in Systems

A manuscript by Donella Meadows, the lead author of 1972's Limits to Growth, was published in August as a new book on systems theory called Thinking in Systems: A Primer. It's a posthumous publication (Meadows died in 2001) edited by Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute.

"In the years following her role as the lead author of the international bestseller, Limits to Growth—the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet— Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001.

Meadows’ newly released manuscript, Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life."

It's in paperback and available at Canadian booksellers for about $17.00.

Meadow's article, "Places to Intervene in a System" was first published in Whole Earth magazine in 1997, but received little attention. It is available to download here, reprinted by the software developer blog, Software developers picked up on her theory because it has implications for software modelling of complex systems.

UPDATE: I just read "Places to Intervene in a System" and I have to tell you, if you don't have the time or inclination to read anything else about systems theory, you should just read this article. It's 19 pages long, and it's the most brilliant analysis of how to pragmatically change systems, and fundamentally, how they work.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Historical Change in US Crude Oil Estimates

Shaun recently posted material noting that the IEA had revised its world oil reserve estimates downward and suggesting that the US had put pressure on the agency to keep them artificially high.

That post took me back to my long lost past, when I wrote my PhD dissertation on social factors affecting estimates of how much oil was left in the ground. The diagram at left shows some of the data from my dissertation, illustrating that the pattern of estimates fell into distinct historical periods. Each dot represents a particular estimate of how much oil is left in the ground in the US plotted against the year that the estimate was published. As you can see, revisions are a fairly common occurrence :+) And, as I argued, significantly political.

Unfortunately, I can't embed the pdf of the article on the blog. But anyone that is interested in can take a look at the original here. If you aren't at a location that will allow access to the journal, the citation information is: Gary Bowden, "Estimating U.S. Crude Oil Resources: Organizational Interests, Political Economy, and Historical Change" The Pacific Sociological Review (the journal changed its name, now it is Sociological Perspectives), 25(4): 419-448. October 1982.

Transition Towns and Resilience

The current issue of Resurgence magazine is timed to come out with the Copenhagen talks on climate change.

Inside is an article by Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins titled "Resilience Thinking. Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Whistleblower Says IEA Inflated Oil Estimates

An unnamed whistleblower at the International Energy Agency claims that the IEA's previous and current "World Energy Outlook" ('08 and '09) inflated the estimated amount of oil reserves in the world. The Guardian UK has the story, which includes a 3-minute audio segment by journalist Terry Macalister, a nice quick summary of the situation. The whistleblower inside the IEA says that the United States pressured the agency to make oil reserves look better than they really are to avoid panic in the markets and worsening of the financial crisis.

The current WEO states that world oil supplies can reach 105 mbd by 2030.

The whistleblower told The Guardian, "Many inside the organization believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90 million to 95 million barrels a day would be impossible, but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further.”

Currently, the world output is 83 mbd.

"A second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organisation was that it was "imperative not to anger the Americans" but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. "We have [already] entered the 'peak oil' zone. I think that the situation is really bad," he added." (Guardian UK)

An October report by the UK Energy Research Council says that world oil production will go into permanent decline before 2020, in less than ten years. UKERC is a consortium of academic partners from 15 different UK institutions. Its headquarters are based at Imperial College Londonand at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.

The World Energy Outlook '09 was just released today.