Friday, July 30, 2010

Climate Change is Happening Now

Climate change is real and it's happening now. In the early decade, climate change was presented as a phenomenon that was underway, but whose real effects wouldn't be noticeable by the general public for decades, perhaps even for a century or more. Predictions were often forecast for "2100" or "by the end of the century." It's nearly impossible for humans to imagine time on that scale. It's common to think in terms of generations, "my children, my grandchildren," but beyond that, humans care little about what might happen a century from now.

But not to worry, we will no longer have to strain to imagine a future world with an inhospitable climate. Climate change is already well underway and it's noticeable effects are happening now. Two recent stories from the world press highlight the immediate catastrophic effects of global climate change.

(1) The first report, that global average temperatures have gone up every decade since the 1980s, is a searing set of facts that counteracts a recent notion, propagated by some climate change skeptics, that there has been no additional warming since 1998. The report on global average temperature rise over the last 40 years is not a prediction, its a fact. It has already happened. And it's not based on climate change prediction models, it's based on direct observation. From CBC News:

A new report by 300 scientists has flagged the past decade as the hottest on record and compiled 10 "unmistakable" indicators that the world is getting warmer.

But the scientists mostly stayed away from discussions about the cause.

The 2009 State of the Climate report released Wednesday by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration combines data on temperatures, humidity, sea levels, sea ice, glaciers and spring snow cover going back to 1940 or 1850, depending on the type of data.

Results of the study

The study found recent decades have seen increases in:

Air temperature over land.
Sea-surface temperature.
Air temperature over oceans.
Sea level.
Ocean heat.
Temperature in the troposphere, the "active-weather" layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface

At the same time, there has been a decrease in:
Arctic sea ice.
Spring snow cover in the northern hemisphere.

In addition, the calendar decade of 2000-09 was the warmest of the last five decades, and that each of the last three decades was warmer than the one before. Overall, the temperature has gone up a little over 0.5 C over the past 50 years.

Deke Arnt, co-editor of the report and chief of the NOAA Climatic Data Centre's Climate Monitoring Branch said that while this doesn't seem like a lot, it has "already altered our planet."

The report cites recent extreme weather events in different parts of the world, including heavy rains and flooding, record heat waves and severe droughts, along with melting glaciers and sea ice.

"When we follow decade-to-decade trends using multiple data sets and independent analyses from around the world, we see clear and unmistakable signs of a warming world," said Peter Stott, one of the report's 300 contributors, in a statement.

Stott is head of Climate Monitoring and Attribution for the Met Office Hadley Centre in the U.K., one 160 research groups in 48 countries, including Canada, that contributed to the report. CBC News was unable to reach any of the Canadian co-authors.

The report, published annually in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society since 1990, does not include climate model projections.

(2) The second report Is even more chilling: that 40% of the phytoplankton of the ocean has disappeared over the past century, especially since the 1950s, and can be directly attributed to warming ocean surface temperatures and ocean acidification. From the Independent, UK:

By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Thursday, 29 July 2010S

The dead sea: Global warming blamed for 40 per cent decline in the ocean's phytoplankton
Microscopic life crucial to the marine food chain is dying out. The consequences could be catastrophic

The microscopic plants that support all life in the oceans are dying off at a dramatic rate, according to a study that has documented for the first time a disturbing and unprecedented change at the base of the marine food web.

Scientists have discovered that the phytoplankton of the oceans has declined by about 40 per cent over the past century, with much of the loss occurring since the 1950s. They believe the change is linked with rising sea temperatures and global warming.

If the findings are confirmed by further studies it will represent the single biggest change to the global biosphere in modern times, even bigger than the destruction of the tropical rainforests and coral reefs, the scientists said yesterday.

David Maisel meets NASA

The past few decades have seen an increase in 'art photographers' interested in environmental subjects. A number of them, such as David Maisel (responsible for the image Inspiration AZ, 4 from the series The Mining Project shown here) document large scale degradation of the landscape by taking photos from the air. It is interesting to compare this work with photos taken by NASA from space as part of the Earth Observatory project. Both share a similar documentary and consciousness raising orientation. Which do you find most moving? The Maisel image made explicitly and intentionally for this purpose or the NASA image which was taken automatically and selected after the fact for this purpose?

Escondida Copper Mine, Atacama Desert, Chile as rendered by the NASA Earth Observatory.
The Escondida copper-gold-silver mine produces more copper than any other mine in the world (1.483 million tons in 2007), amounting to 9.5% of world output and making it a major part of the Chilean economy. The mine is located 170 kilometers (110 miles) southeast of Chile’s port city of Antofagasta, in the hyper-arid northern Atacama Desert at an elevation of 3,050 meter (10,010 feet) above sea level.

This astronaut photograph features a large impoundment area (image center) containing light tan and gray waste materials (“spoil”) from of the Escondida mine complex. The copper-bearing waste, which is a large proportion of the material excavated from open pit excavations to the north (not shown), is poured into the impoundment area as a liquid (green region at image center), and dries to the lighter-toned spoil seen in the image. The spoil is held behind a retaining dam, just more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) long, visible as a straight line at image lower left.

Escondida means “hidden” in Spanish, and it refers to the fact that the copper ore body was buried beneath hundreds of meters of barren rock, and the surface geology gave no signs of its presence. Instead it had to be located by a laborious drilling program following a geologic trend—an imaginary line hundreds of kilometers long established by other known copper finds—with which Escondida lined up.

Escondida produces mainly copper concentrates. Assisted by gravity, the concentrates are piped as slurry down to the smaller port of Coloso just south of Antofagasta, where they are dewatered for shipping. The mine began operating in 1990.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How We Wrecked the Oceans by Jeremy Jackson

In this TED talk, Jeremy Jackson, a coral reef ecologist, explains how three factors--overfishing, pollution and climate change, each destroyed the coral, fish stocks and ocean life, and how those three factors continue to interact in a positive feedback system to destroy ocean life.

Never let a serious crisis go to waste .....

It seems those famed Nigerian spammers have been listening to the Obama White House. Gulf residents have recently been targeted by phishing emails, apparently from Nigeria, claiming to be from BP CEO Tony Hayward. According to Reuters,
the e-mail promised that by replying to it, and providing personal information, the person would become the recipient of $500,000 in "grant funding from BP."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

David Harvey on the Financial Crisis

A wonderful animated summary of the current financial crisis based on a talk by prominent social theorist David Harvey (whose web site has a variety of other interesting things, including a 13 part lecture series providing a close reading of Marx's Capital.

For those who want more, the full lecture on which the animation is based is available here. Another of Harveys' talks, Capitalism and Development, is available as a podcast from the BBC, as described below.
"Capital is the lifeblood that flows through the body politic of all those societies we call capitalist, spreading out, sometimes as a trickle and other times as a flood, into every nook and cranny of the inhabited world", writes David Harvey, the world's most cited academic geographer. He gives Laurie a radical critique of what governs that flow of capital and what causes the crises which, he claims, will increasingly disrupt that flow with alarming rapidity. Modern economics has buried its head in detail but ignored the systematic character of capital flow, he claims, and it is time for a restore an understanding of how capital works.
Also on Thinking Allowed is the Cambridge development economist Ha-Joon Chang. In his analysis the detailed global programmes on international development amount to little more than poverty reduction, and the rich world is keeping the less developed countries poor in the name of free trade.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sea level rise

A nice illustration showing the implications of various amounts of sea level rise. Click on the image for a larger view.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peak Phosphate?

Over the past decade or so awareness of peak oil has grown and a significant number of websites devoted to the issue have developed, including (among many others) The Association for the Study of Oil and Gas, the Peak Oil News and Message Board, The Postcarbon Institute's Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, Life After the Oil Crash and Hubbert's Peak.

A recent article in the Guardian draws attention to another, potentially equally problematic, issue -- the peaking of phosphate production.
Phosphate production is predicted to peak around 2030 as the global population expands to a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050. And unlike oil, where there are renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels, there is no substitute for phosphorus, according to the US Geological Survey. ...

"Our primary source – rock phosphate – is mined for use in fertilisers and that's expected to peak around 2030. It means that right at the time we need to be doubling our food-growing capacity to feed the rising global population, we'll be starting to run out of phosphorus. It's a nightmare scenario."

The article goes on to suggest policies aimed at recovering phosphate from organic waste currently sent to landfills as a way to augment rock phosphate.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Migration in China: A Model for Climate Migration?

Following up on the report of the climate change migration study, I'd like to examine the migration issue further. The Globe and Mail published a story on China's new treatment of migrant workers from the countryside who work in Beijing. Migrants are being locked down in gated communities that prevent them from going through the city overnight. However, it also locks them into squalid conditions with no access to the city's resources. The lock-down is so tight that many migrants complain they can't get to their jobs in the morning, or get home before the gates close at night.

From the Globe and Mail:

"Now China is gating off low-income villages, where migrant labourers from the countryside (the people who built those expansive villas) live in near squalor. The newly erected fences and nighttime curfews are designed to hold in the residents, and the criminality that supposedly emanates from these communities. “Enhance the idea of safety and reduce illegal crimes,” reads a red banner hanging over the main road to one such village south of Beijing, home to some 7,000 migrants

That road into Shoubaozhuang is guarded 24 hours a day by two uniformed guards and partially barred by an accordion gate that closes tight at 11 p.m. each night. Until 6 a.m. the next day, the residents are sealed in. Only those with passes are allowed to come and go, their movements recorded by a video camera stationed over the entrance.

It’s one of 16 villages around Beijing that for the past two months have been locked down at night, under a program local authorities call “sealed management.” They say the aim is to get a better handle on the millions of migrant workers who have moved to the Chinese capital in search of work, and who often end up living in poor, dirty and rapidly growing places like the villages south of Beijing, some of which have seen their population grow tenfold in recent years."

This summer, I read Factory Girls: from village to city in a changing China by Leslie Chang. It's an ethnography of the lives of migrant women who work in the factories in city of Dongguan, souther Guangdong Province. The portrait of this process of migration, in which teenage women leave their farming villages and work in the cities, is mostly positive. The young women left a village life in which they had no chance for education, no chance for work that paid any sort of wage, and felt otherwise condemned to a life of rural poverty as the wife of a poor farmer. As terrible as the working conditions were in Dongguan, for them it was better than the prospects in their home villages.

That pattern of migration was different from the one described in the locked shantytowns of Beijing in that most of the young women lived in dormitories in their factories (and they paid for those accommodations from their monthly pay checks.) The young women were able to return to their home villages whenever they felt the need, if they were in-between jobs or relationships. Chang wrote that because these young people could always return to their home villages, Dongguan never developed the shantytowns that are now commonplace in Beijing. If migrants ran out of money, they simply went home until they got the chance to "go out" again. But most of them never wanted to go home outside of a holiday visit at the Chinese New Year.

And in yet another contrast, Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock (Feb. 11, 2010) spoke with David Satterthwaite, a Senior Fellow at IIED with the Human Settlements group, who has done extensive work with people in shanty settlements like those described in Beijing. David's take on shanty developments is that poor people are quite ingenious at building their own homes and solving their own problems. What they need is the assistance of governments to install the sewer and water infrastructure that they are not able to construct by themselves.

David also commented on the process of migration, and said that migration is actually an adaptive strategy. Families will often split migration so that some family members live and work in a city, while some live in rural areas, so that the family as a whole can access resources in one of several places: paid labor, food, child care, education, etc.

Whether migration becomes an adaptive strategy or a disaster seems to depend on the response of governments in the receiving territories. If migrants are locked down into squalid conditions, and constantly persecuted by police as "illegals", as is happening now to Mexicans in the southwestern United States, then migration will result in increasing rates of poverty, sickness, criminality and death. But if migrants are allowed to move about freely as their needs change, to connect to resources without being penalized for their status, migration may be a highly adaptive strategy for coping with catastrophic climate change.

Review: Managed Annihilation, An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse

On July 2, 1992 the Canadian government closed the northern Cod fishery to commercial fishing, putting 30,000 people out of work and signaling the end to what had been for 500 years the world's most productive fishery. By 2003, following more than a decade of rotating moratoria and other attempts to resuscitate the fishery, the spawning stock biomass was less than 1% of its historical level. Atlantic cod were placed on the Canadian endangered species list, shifting the specter of concern from commercial extinction to biological extinction.

In 2006 an article,Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services, appeared in Science suggesting that 30% of fish species had already collapsed and the remaining species of ocean fish would suffer a similar fate by 2050 (see chart at left). Studies of the Atlantic cod collapse identified a wide variety of causal factors, some of which were generic and potentially responsible for the collapse of other fish species (the logic of industrial capitalism, foreign fishing ships, greed, technology, incompetence), while other accounts adduced factors unique to the particular situation (the combination of merchant capital and location, Canada's failure to exert political control over the entire continental shelf, unusually cold water resulting from the North Atlantic Oscillation).

One group who appear in many accounts are the fishery scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the individuals charged with calculating the Total Allowable Catch used to define the size of the annual catch and aimed at managing the fish stock for perpetuity. As someone who has studied the estimates of another unseen resource (undiscovered oil), I'm particularly fascinated by this and highly recommend Chris Finlayson's excellent analysis of DFO fish stock assessments, Fishing for Truth.

But, while lots of people have dumped on the management practices leading up to the collapse, relatively little has been published about the practices of the past 18 years. That is, until the publication of Dean Bavington's Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse.

Bavington's account is heavily informed by concepts taken from the work of Holling and other members of the Resilience Alliance, particularly the critique of command and control natural resource management and the concept of socio-ecological systems. However, Bavington is an environmental historian while the major conceptual roots of resilience thinking come from ecological science. Thus, while both groups have a similar view of traditional natural resource management, the systems they would replace it with are markedly different.

Garry Peterson, from the Resilience Science blog, has provided the following description of adaptive management from a resilience perspective. (An listing of relevant resources can be found here.)
Adaptive management seeks to aggressively use management intervention as a tool to strategically probe the functioning of an ecosystem. Interventions are designed to test key hypotheses about the functioning of the ecosystem. This approach is very different from a typical management approach of 'informed trial-and-error' which uses the best available knowledge to generate a risk-averse, 'best guess' management strategy, which is then changed as new information modifies the 'best guess'. Adaptive management identifies uncertainties, and then establishes methodologies to test hypothese concerning those uncertainties. It uses management as a tool not only to change the system, but as a tool to learn about the system. It is concerned with the need to learn and the cost of ignorance, while traditional management is focused on the need to preserve and the cost of knowledge.

There are several processes both scientific and social which are vital components of adaptive management:

1. management is linked to appropriate temporal and spatial scales
2. management retains a focus on statistical power and controls
3. use of computer models to build synthesis and an embodied ecological consensus
4. use embodied ecological consensus to evaluate strategic alternatives
5. communicate alternatives to political arena for negotiation of a selection

The achievement of these objectives requires an open management process which seeks to include past, present and future stakeholders. Adaptive management needs to at least maintain political openness, but usually it needs to create it. Consequently, adaptive management must be a social as well as scientific process. It must focus on the development of new institutions and institutional strategies just as much as it must focus upon scientific hypotheses and experimental frameworks. Adaptive management attempts to use a scientific approach, accompanied by collegial hypotheses testing to build understanding, but this process also aims to enhance institutional flexibility and encourage the formation of the new institutions that are required to use this understanding on a day-to-day basis.

In contrast, Bavington argues for a total rejection of the managerial impulse and its replacement with a new philosophy aimed at living within the limits of existing ecosystems. Bavington's argument is nicely summarized by Graham Wynn in the book's preface:
... the book argues that when this untoward (albeit unintended) outcome became clear, in 1992, neither politicians nor fisheries scientists questioned the fundamental tenets of the managerialist impulse that had brought them to this point. Instead, they simply ushered in a new phase of managerial ecology, emphasizing risk and uncertainty in place of “the confident forecasting and control-oriented approach associated with [earlier] single-species scientific management” (p. 83).

According to Bavington’s thought-provoking account, for the last two decades, fisheries managers and the governments they represent have been abandoning their former roles as researchers and regulators seeking to ensure stability in the fishery in favour of encouraging fishermen to manage themselves. To this end, they have considered two substantially different approaches.17 Turning away, in one direction, from what have come to be regarded as the industrial, capitalist, state-led, and abstractly scientific shortcomings of earlier forms of management, they have acknowledged the value of Local Ecological Knowledge (without denying the worth of formal scientific understanding), recognized the importance of the fishing economy to the (generally small and scattered) places in which fishing families live, and envisaged the possibilities of effective community stewardship. Communitarian at its base, this approach seeks to empower local people and to reduce the socioeconomic inequities that are said to have resulted from the former management regime. Much discussed, it has not been widely implemented.

More effective, as an action strategy, at least, has been a second approach that (in Bavington’s words [p. 9]) seeks to achieve “‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’ through the self-organizing disciplinary power of the market’s invisible hand.” In pursuing this option, fisheries scientists and managers have discarded their conviction “that the conditions for manageability exist in the nature of cod and fishing people as natural laws passively awaiting discovery” (p. 114) and have re-envisaged managerialism “as a condition that must be actively engineered into the very nature of cod and fishing people” (p. 114). To put Bavington’s point bluntly, fisheries managers turned from attempting to manage wild fish to domesticating fish and managing fishermen. As a corollary, fishermen are encouraged to “act more like corporate ranchers and farmers than hunters” (p. 89). Rather than pursuing wild fish in the depths of the untamed ocean, they are now expected to become careful harvesters of marine biomass (or fish conceptualized as living property even before they are caught [p. 11]) from a sea that is ever more like the land – enclosed, owned, and fenced about with laws and limits. Conveniently, these strategies proved entirely congruent with prevailing neoliberal economic doctrines emphasizing the challenges of complexity, conflict, and uncertainty in economic systems: “As centralized, state-led command and control, bureaucratic rule-following, and proceduralism ... [fell from] favour, flexibility, coping, experimentation, and learning ... [rose] to take their place” (p. 107).

In practice, the line between these seemingly discrete courses of action has blurred. As Bavington notes, “participatory management under neoliberal influence has stressed the importance of using local ecological knowledge and achieving ‘buy-in’ from resource users to achieve consensus, avoid conflict, and permit ongoing economic growth” (p. 107). More to the point, however, is Bavington’s view that neither of these strategies, the communitarian or the neoliberal approach, is truly a significant step forward, because neither questions the ultimate “need for, or the usefulness of, management” (p. 10). And this is the crux of the matter. Managed Annihilation argues that both the colossal failure of natural resources management that became evident in 1992 and subsequent efforts to manage the fishery hold wider lessons for people too much given to framing the world as a set of problems that they have the capacity to fix. Managed Annihilation pleads for renunciation of “the holy grail of manageability,” the belief that all problems (including environmental ones) can be solved merely by exerting more effort, and obtaining greater efficiency, within the status quo order of advanced industrial societies. In the end, this book urges a new view of human-environment relations, one that would replace Western society’s long-standing drive to manage nature with a commitment to living within the limits of the ecosystems of which we are part.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The cheap flight search engine recently put up the following set of statistics about CO2 emissions.

There are a number of interesting comparisons here, though I'd feel more confident about their reliability if I knew their sources and how the calculations were made.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Migration and Climate Change

It is widely recognized that climate change has the potential to create mass migration as thousands or millions of people move to avoid the worst ravages of changes in the climate and sea level rises.

The World Bank policy paper described below proposes a number of policy strategies designed to enhance the prospects of the migrants and the communities they enter. In general, the perspective is economic, in the sense that the policies are designed to maximize the number of potential locations to which the individuals may migrate (i.e., their choices) and, hence, facilitate them making efficient decisions that will maximize their gains from the move.

While this is an interesting perspective, it seems to me to underestimate and/or miss several key points. First, I am not convinced that the risk of violent conflict is minimal. If the aim is to maximize the options available to migrants, it seems odd to downplay what is likely to be one of the most significant constraints on their choices. Second, whether you compare countries (Laos vs. Thailand or Vietnam) or regions within countries (coastal China vs inland China) it is clear that one of the major keys to economic growth during the period of globalization was having access to the ocean (i.e., to cheap transportation routes). Even if one presumes that the era of globalization is coming to an end and development will take a different form in the future, it is likely that access to the ocean will continue to be a benefit. As such, the report fails to come to grips with the geographic character of the likely migration, i.e. that much of the migration will be out of areas affected by sea level rise.

Accommodating Migration to Promote Adaptation to Climate Change [PDF]

Jon R. Barnett

Michael Webber

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 5270

This paper explains how climate change may increase future migration, and which risks are associated with such migration. It also examines how some of this migration may enhance the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change. Climate change is likely to result in some increase above baseline rates of migration in the next 40 years. Most of this migration will occur within developing countries. There is little reason to think that such migration will increase the risk of violent conflict. Not all movements in response to climate change will have negative outcomes for the people that move, or the places they come from and go to. Migration, a proven development strategy, can increase the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change. The fewer choices people have about moving, however, the less likely it is that the outcomes of that movement will be positive. Involuntary resettlement should be a last resort. Many of the most dire risks arising from climate-motivated migration can be avoided through careful policy. Policy responses to minimize the risks associated with migration in response to climate change, and to maximize migration's contribution to adaptive capacity include: ensuring that migrants have the same rights and opportunities as host communities; reducing the costs of moving money and people between areas of origin and destination; facilitating mutual understanding among migrants and host communities; clarifying property rights where they are contested; ensuring that efforts to assist migrants include host communities; and strengthening regional and international emergency response systems.

Keywords: Population Policies, Climate Change Mitigation and Green House Gases, Health Monitoring & Evaluation, Climate Change Economics, Voluntary and Involuntary Resettlement

Friday, July 16, 2010

Climate Camp Comes to Canada

For the first time in North America, Climate Justice, a direct action climate change movement that originally started in the UK, is holding a Climate Camp in Dunham, Quebec, August 18-22, 2010. The lead organization is Climate Justice Montreal. Of course, one would expect that Quebec would be the site of the first Climate Camp, as Quebec, and Montreal in particular, is far more politically radical than many other Provinces and major cities in Canada.

Details about
Climate Justice Montreal and the upcoming Climate Action Camp are here.

From the Climate Justice Montreal website:

"This August, Quebec will play host to one of the first ever Climate Camps in Canada, bringing together activists from Canada, the United States and around the globe in a horizontal, grassroots gathering to learn, share skills, and continue building a powerful climate justice movement.

The camp will take place over two weeks in Dunham, QC southeast of Montreal, with the dates of August 18-22 set as “Convergence Days”. The Camp is focusing on the Enbridge Trailbreaker project this year, a transcontinental pipeline that would bring dirty tar sands bitumen to Montreal and beyond to Maine, eventually ending up on tankers heading to refineries in the Gulf Coast.

Check back here and at for more info."

I'll be gathering more information about the first Climate Camp and reporting here.

Climate Justice Montreal has released some statements about the Enbridge Trailbreaker Pipeline, the target of their first action.

Foreword from Climate Justice Montreal

Each day in Canada, the Athabasca tar sands transform the pristine boreal forest into a vast moonscape, through the largest and most destructive industrial project on the planet. Cannibalizing water, natural gas, trees and earth the tar sands are the single largest point source of non- tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions in the entire country.

The Trailbreaker pipeline, and others like it across North America, are being pursued in order to facilitate a five fold increase in tar sands size and production over the next 15 years. It will pump 200,000 barrels of dirty tar sands bitumen each day from Alberta to Portland, Maine. It crosses 5 provinces, a national border and 5 states, eventually loaded onto tankers to be shipped all the way to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

This project would endanger local ecosystems, wildlife, and human health,all while facilitating the expansion of the tar sands. This report will attempt to explain the local

and global impacts of this project, so that communities all along its path of destruction can stand up and stop it before this toxic nightmare becomes a reality – Climate Justice Montreal

Deepwater Drilling Design: Shell vs BP

Two Shell drilling experts, Joe Leimkuhler and John Hollowell, recently gave an exceptionally informative talk to the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The talk begins with some surprising statistics on the proportion of current US oil production generated from deepwater drilling and then proceeds to an overview of the technology and process of deepwater drilling. The heart of the talk, found around the 18 minute mark and again in the discussion period beginning at the 27 minute mark, describes the differences between how Shell designs and drills deepwater wells and how BP did. There is also some interesting discussion of drilling design requirements that the US government now requires but were not required/followed in the BP well.

These guys clearly have an interest in maintaining the viability of deepwater drilling and claim that good well design, which BP didn't follow, would have minimized the liklihood of an accident and, if one occurred, would have provided a larger number of potential ways to close down the well early on. They are, however, up front that the specific cause of the accident is not yet known and, hence, they don't go so far as to say such accidents are impossible with Shell rigs. Everything considered, they come across as both honest and forthright.

That said, the details they provide are a sad testimony to anyone familiar with the sociological literature on technological accidents (e.g., Perrow's Normal Accidents or Vaughan's Challenger Launch Decision). The talk illustrates both a failure to incorporate the principals of design advocated by Perrow (e.g., independent and redundant components) and the malignancy of poor institutional decision making chronicled by Vaughan. Sadly, it took a second shuttle accident before NASA took Vaughan's analysis seriously. Hopefully the oil industry has a better learning curve.

If the above video doesn't work, you can find the original here: Aspen Ideas Festival 6392010 Audio / Video Library

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hans Rosling at TED

I'm a big fan of the TED talks and, in particular, Hans Rosling's presentations based on the software (Gapminder) he developed to display and analyze global change through time. In his most recent talk, Rosling makes the paradoxical observation that the world's population will grow to 9 billion over the next 50 years -- and only by raising the living standards of the poorest can we check population growth.

I like this talk for two reasons. First, Rosling's earlier presentations tended to focus on changes associated with the emergence of Asian economies and underemphasized the lack of change in Africa. This talk directly addresses that omission. Second, most current discussions of the planet's future focus on the dual challenges of climate change and energy. While these are certainly real issues, they overlook the continuing importance of population growth as a source of environmental strain. Rosling's talk makes the provocative point that the ecological footprint of the least developed nations will necessarily increase through time -- either because of increased numbers or because of the increased levels of economic development necessary for them to transition to a condition of reduced child mortality and, hence, reduced pressure for large families.

However, I'm not as optimistic as Rosling. At the end of the talk he presents the west as becoming the foundation of a new, more equitable, global economic distribution. I'm not convinced that the dominant western nations (read the US) are as willing to embrace that vision as is Rosling's native Sweden. Given that continued global economic growth is environmentally unsustainable, America's two chickens in every pot, two cars in every garage philosophy, coupled with the country's military might, could just as easily be used to insure that the US continues to get more than its share.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

NB to Hit GHG Emissions Reductions by 2012

There's something to cheer about this morning. In 2001, the four Atlantic Provinces, Quebec, and the six New England States promised to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses to 1990 levels by 2010. That promise was part of a regional climate change action plan. Although New Brunswick did not reach its promised emissions reductions by the proposed date of 2010, it is on target to reach its emissions reductions goal by 2012, according to David Coon of the Conservation Council.

"Meanwhile, New Brunswick's Conservation Council said New Brunswick had implemented much of what it agreed to and is on target to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2012.

The list includes significant reductions in methane releases from landfills and the retirement of a coal-fired power plant by NB Power. The council says the utility is also halfway to meeting its legal requirements to supply 10 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources."

David said that all the Provinces and States have made significant headway in meeting emissions reduction targets from power generation, but where they have failed is in the transport sector. The best piece of news in that sector is that the Provinces are planning to implement stricter auto emissions standards to bring down GHG's from cars and trucks. There are also planned incentives for electric and hybrid vehicles. The weakest policy by far is underinvestment in the public transit system. David praised the extension of bus service outside the Saint John city limits to the its close suburbs, but much greater investments could be made to increase public transit throughout the Province. (I listened to David Coons on CBC Radio 1 this morning.)

I'm still hoping they don't cut Acadian Bus service in Charlotte County and Mirimichi.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Downsized Detroit Becomes Beacon of Urban Farming

One-third of Detroit's land area has been depopulated, leaving "abandoned houses, vacant lots and vacant factories," according to a story in the Guardian UK. Swaths of razed house lots are being taken over by city residents and farmed in small plots for vegetables, fruits and bee-keeping. There's even a million-dollar 40-acre commercial farm near the downtown that has begun operations. Most of the food is grown cooperatively and is available to neighbourhood residents for free at harvest time. The coop gardeners are worried about the takeover of their plots by commercial farming and have formed their own coalition of cooperative gardens to protect their right to farm. Thus far the two business models are doing well side-by-side. A short video by the Guardian interviews a cooperative farmer and a bee-keeper. The video is interesting because it encapsulates the growth and decline cycle of what was once a sprawling metropolis, and it shows that people can survive both ends of the cycle. Interestingly, Los Angeles has begun a Transition movement that is doing the same kind of work. While LA has not experienced the same kind of decline as Motor City, Detroit has become a model for dealing with urban de-growth and decline which some expect to be a common occurrence in other large US cities.

The resurgence of urban farming in Detroit was the one of the central solutions put forward at the US Social Forum which was held in Detroit in June, 2010.

Declaration adopted by the Ecojustice People’s Movement Assembly at the US Social Forum, in Detroit, June 2010:

"Detroit is a window into the future. Through this window we see an inspiring site of deeply grassroots and living visions of a just and democratic community. Community resistance to corporate polluters in Detroit, including oil refineries, coal power plants and the world’s largest waste incinerator, continue to hold the frontline against the destruction of the planet. Meanwhile resistance to such corporatization strategies such as predatory lending, water privatization, prisons and police brutality are matched with equally powerful models of resilience; such as community gardens, cooperative economics, freedom schools and transformative justice. Detroit can be a model of the Just Transition to sustainable communities that we require; one in which exploitive jobs that cause ecological devastation and compromised health are replaced with meaningful work in our own interests; restoring our labor and our resources to the web of life."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Genetically engineered Atlantic salmon nearing approval

The New York Times reports that genetically altered salmon are nearing approval in the US. This would mark the first approval of a genetically modified animal and potentially pave the way for a variety of others. The fish is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon as well as a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. Normally, salmon do not make growth hormone in cold weather. But the pout’s on-switch keeps production of the hormone going year round. The result is salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years, though the company says the modified salmon will not end up any bigger than a conventional fish.

It is ironic that the salmon may be the first approval as the ecological objections to such fish are well documented and more straightforward than for other animals. Broadly speaking, the potential ecological impact of an undesirable modification affecting the ecosystem is a function of a) the amount of ecological disruption caused by the modification and b) the reproductive success of the modified animal. It is standard for scientists to argue about the potential for disruption. However, if the animal doesn't reproduce, then the disruption will not spread. This is why it is so curious that salmon are likely to be the first approved, because the reproductive advantage of being larger quicker is very well documented. Simply put, if the genetically engineered fish get out into the wild, they will outcompete the wild fish for mates, giving them a higher reproduction rate, with the result that the genetic modification will rapidly spread throughout the population of wild fish.

To preclude this possibility, the industry claims that it will a) produce only sterile females that can't reproduce and b) sell the eggs only to fish farms that are contained units operating on-land such that the fish could not escape into the wild. However, there are questions about the effectiveness of the sterilization procedures and it is doubtful that a regulatory process (which won't even be able to require labeling) would be able to limit the sale of the eggs to land-based fish farms. As noted in the Times,
Under a policy announced in 2008, the F.D.A. is regulating genetically engineered animals as if they were veterinary drugs and using the rules for those drugs. And applications for approval of new drugs must be kept confidential by the agency.

Critics say the drug evaluation process does not allow full assessment of the possible environmental impacts of genetically altered animals and also blocks public input.

“There is no opportunity for anyone from the outside to see the data or criticize it,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gwynne Dyer on "Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats"

Gwynne Dyer on "Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats":

Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian-born independent journalist from London, discusses his new book, "Clmate Wars" on Democracy Now. Dyer says that the Hadley Center on Climate Change now predicts that the world could warm by 4 degrees celsius by as early as 2060, just 50 years from now. Dyer claims that the Global South will begin to lose its capacity to grow adequate food for its people by 2036, mostly due to drought. Following this video, Democracy Now has him debate the pros and cons of geoengineering with Vandana Shiva. Both videos are posted here:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Climate change and Geoengineering

In an effort to avoid being painted as an alarmist, Al Gore excluded any detailed mention of tipping points in the movie An Inconvenient Truth. However, tipping points feature prominently in this recent update.

As the outlook has gotten gloomier and policy makers have been stuck in neutral, scientists have returned to the technological, geoengineering solutions initially proposed (and discredited) in the 1980's.

Now the NY Times has a round up of 4 new books that focus on the use of technology to deal with the climate problem.

By Eli Kintisch Wiley, $25.95, 288 pages.

By James Rodger Fleming Columbia University Press, $27.95, 344 pages.

By Claire L. Parkinson Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95, 432 pages.

By Roger Pielke Jr. Basic Books, $26, 272 pages.

Many of these ideas have been around for a long time and there are significant down sides to most of them. But they are getting renewed attention and lots of coverage in the popular press because the international community has been unable to create a structure that puts a realistic price on carbon. Desperate times lead to desperate measures.

Aside from the geek attraction factor (solving the problem with a shiny, technological silver bullet), these ideas are comparatively quick to implement and, in some cases, inexpensive. There is also the possibility that small island nations, faced with the existential threat of a rising sea, will unilaterally take such action themselves. In short, much as I hate to go down this path, it may be time to undertake small scale trials of some of these approaches in order to identify the problems and reduce the uncertainties. If you're going to make a pact with the devil, you should get to know him first and not cut the deal on the first date.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hippies in St. George: A Photo Essay

For my birthday on May 22, I attended the annual Hippy Clambake in St. George. It's put on by Harry and Martha Bryan, a couple of generous ex-pat hippies who left the US during the Viet Nam war 40 years ago. They live completely off the grid in St. George, NB. As you might expect, they are considered the local gurus of sustainability.

Harry and Martha built this piece of paradise on the Mascarene literally with their own bare hands. Harry is a boat-builder who hand-builds his boats from wood that he cuts in his own bicycle-powered saw mill, a truly astonishing achievement. Likewise, Harry and Martha built every structure on their property themselves. And there is nothing "backwoods" about the house, woodshop, boat launch, and other buildings on their property. Like his boats, everything is finely crafted and a beautiful place to spend time in.

The annual clambake is open to anyone in St. George, but most of the clambakers were friends of Harry and Martha from the States. The photos reveal a rainbow of elder hippies and young ecologists. Many of the younger party-goers came from Nova Scotia and other parts of New Brunswick to see the first ever Clambake Concert, featuring Old Man Luedecke from Halifax and Mary Katherine from PEI, both folk artists. Speaking of rainbows, Harry and Martha graciously announced and celebrated the 40th anniversary of a lesbian couple at the evening's concert.

I met Harry personally and introduced myself as a neighbour from down the road on the Mascarene. He very kindly welcomed me, despite being incredibly busy with his guests all day, and said "we'll be getting to know you better over the years," I never felt more welcomed anywhere I've lived.

For the rest of the photo esssay, please go to
my Facebook photo album "Hippy Clambake St. George."

The Upside of Down: Economic Crisis Curbs CO2

C02 emissions from rich western countries went down by a record seven percent in 2009 due to the global recession, except of course in the US. Steep declines in western emissions were offset by sharp increases from India and China. Overall, CO2 emissions remained unchanged in 2009. It will be interesting to see what China has to say about emissions as it hosts an extra session on Climate Change at the next G20 meeting in Seoul, S. Korea. From the Guardian UK, July 1, 2010.

UPDATE: According to a report at The Oil Drum, China is set to consume half of the world's coal for its power plants in 2010. China is also the world's top producer of coal, so they are consuming what they produce. However, if they intend to be a leader in the global campaign for climate change in Seoul, they will have a lot of explaining to do.

"The figures will come as a relief to the world's rich countries which – the US aside – are legally committed to reducing emissions by a collective 5.2% on 1990 figures by 2012. As it stands, says the Dutch agency, they are now 10% below 1990 levels, well below the Kyoto target level."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

5 Books that will change how you think

Everyone likes lists. Here's my list of 5 key books related to ecological sociology.

1. Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Ingenuity Gap: Can we solve the problems of the future?

I like this book for three totally unrelated reasons: 1) it provides a thorough and lucid introduction into complexity and the idea of complex adaptive systems, 2) it provides a conceptual alternative to the tired debate between the neo-Malthusian limits to growth types and the economic cornucopians by shifting attention away from physical scarcity and onto factors related to the supply of and requirement for ingenuity and 3) it illustrates a way of thinking about the future in terms of the ongoing operation of long term historical trends rather than the analysis of hypothetical events or predictions around specific technologies.

2. Lance Gunderson and Buzz Holling (eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations In Human And Natural Systems

A tour-de-force explanation of how complex adaptive systems operate. In contrast to the standard account which treats complexity as the product of a large number of factors all interacting with each other, Gunderson and Holling argue that complexity is the result of a comparatively small number of factors interacting within the constraints of a structured process consisting of hierarchically ordered adaptive cycles. They label this structure a panarchy.

3. E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance & Change: The character of the Industrial Revolution in England

A path breaking study of the Industrial Revolution by noted British historian E.A. Wrigley, this work returns energy to its rightful place at the center of our understanding of the emergence of modern economic growth. If you're looking for a single place to explain the phase shift from traditional economic growth (based on organic economies and characterized by Malthusian cycles of growth and collapse) to modern economic growth (based on a mineral economy and characterized by several centuries of uninterrupted economic growth), this is it.

4. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

Where Wrigley focuses on the underlying causes of the main phase transition in modern socio-ecological history, the emergence of modern economic growth, Tainter wades through thousands of years of history to generate a theory of why complex societies collapse. His key points: 1) human societies are problem-solving organizations, 2) sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance, 3) increased complexity carries with it increased costs per-capita and 4) investment in increased socio-political complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns and, as a result, societies collapse. Detailed notes on the book are available here.

5. Bill McKibbon, The Age of Missing Information.

Not his best known work, but still my favorite. McKibbon knows how to write and this book, which contrasts his experience of watching a week's worth of tv against his experience of a week spent alone in the woods, will have you laughing out loud. At its core, this is a McLuhanesque interpretation of the world and, specifically, an analysis of the social and ecological consequences of living in an age of missing information where our understanding of the natural world comes more from the images and ideas portrayed in the media than it does from the direct experience of nature. To go full circle, the ideas in this book dovetail nicely with those in the chapter titled 'The Big I' in the Ingenuity Gap.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

BP and the Press

Fearing bad press, BP is fighting back in some interesting ways. First, they have bought rights to the search term 'oil spill' and other related key words from Google and other search engines in order to direct internet users to their sight.

Second, they have started to produce smarmy content of their own that they place on the web. See, for example, Tom Seslar's blog entry, an entry that describes the importance of the oil industry and the beauty of the coastal marshes without mentioning the oil spill.

But such efforts inevitably generate responses, such as the one below from the Rachael Maddow show.

BP Press Release Theatre: Flying Higher from The Rachel Maddow Show on Vimeo.