Saturday, October 31st, 2009
Nicolette Niman has a column today in the NY Times, “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” in which she argues that meat production, especially beef, has gotten a bad rap because of its climate change impacts. However, as she points out, not all meat production is the same in terms of its greenhouse gas production, similar to an earlier post that not all conventional farming is alike.
Niman’s family runs a livestock ranch network that is more humane and sustainable than your typical factory farm (you might be familiar with their pork products). They have been featured in recent analyses of food ethics by Peter Singer.
She makes a number of good points, showing how conventional meat production contributes to climate change in ways that sustainable livestock farming doesn’t:
I think most people would agree that switching from an industrial mode of meat production to locally grown, more-organic, free-range modes of production is a good thing. If all livestock animals were raised and killed humanely, raised on healthy, locally sourced foods, and sold with minimal processing and transportation, this would be a large step forward in terms of reducing both climate warming and animal cruelty (warning: this video is graphic).
Nevertheless, a conversation about food, global change, and sustainability should have acknowledged major challenges with animal-based food systems—even ones that are more sustainable:
Sustainable meat production is a good step forward, but it’s potentially more complicated with respect to global change than Niman portrays it.
Related post: Are conventional farmers always conventional?
Friday, October 30th, 2009
Several folks have asked me about climate change skeptics/deniers/contrarians. Why does the media give them air time, and why are they considered legitimate sources of information?
Many have argued recently that Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book, SuperFreakonomics, is the most recent version of contrarianism disguised as balanced analysis of climate change:
(1) Eric Pooley, a columnist with Bloomberg, was one of the folks to make the initial call out the day the book hit store shelves.
(2) Next came Paul Krugman’s NY Times blog, further calling out Levitt and Dubner as contrarians with a series of hard-hitting blog posts, including this one.
(3) David Roberts at Grist then added comparisons to the longstanding climate warming skeptic, Freeman Dyson, taking some serious shots at the media (sorry Jon Stewart fans, you may not like what you hear).
(4) In one of his longest posts ever, Joe Romm at ClimateProgress (who was also one of the vocal folks initially calling out Leavitt and Dubner) picked up Roberts’ and Krugman’s analyses yesterday and examined further the two questions above, showing how and why the media often enables these folks (with more bad news for Jon Stewart fans).
(5) In a letter yesterday at RealClimate, scientist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert (one of Levitt’s colleagues at the University of Chicago) shows how easy it would have been to get the science right in SuperFreakonomics.
Related post: SuperFreakonomics ignites a SuperStorm of criticism
Friday, October 30th, 2009
A full-throated debate at the NY Times today.
As I’ve alluded to before, my main criticism is that the technology advocates need to get out of their bubble and consider the social implications of these technologies as well as social forces that cause famines in the first place—namely, poverty and poor food distribution. You can increase yields as much as you want, but if people can’t afford or gain access to food, they will starve.
Related post: Food and population defy simplistic portrayals
Friday, October 30th, 2009
In “Hot, Flat, Crowded—And Preparing for the Worst“,1,2 (subscription required) Mason Inman lays out how Bangladesh is already coping with climate change.
Bangladesh is being hit with multiple kinds of challenges:
Bangladesh is striving to become a global showcase for climate change adaptation. Earlier this month, its government approved a wide-ranging strategy for dealing with climate change that includes ramping up civil engineering projects to control flooding and protect farmland from rising sea levels. Researchers here are also testing crops that better tolerate floods and drought. Realizing that time-honored approaches to living off the land no longer suffice, Bangladesh has implemented more community-level projects than any other country to gird people for climate shifts.
The World Bank estimates that as much as $100 billion a year is required to prepare people in vulnerable areas for climate change. That’s assuming the world gets its act together to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. If not, says disaster expert Ian Burton of the University of Toronto in Canada, “then the cost of adaptation is going to be enormous.”
It would be interesting for someone to estimate what the more-catastrophic adaptation cost scenarios look like compared to mitigation costs. This would make it clear what it costs to mitigate now vs. trying to adapt later when it’s more difficult to do so (if at all possible by that point).
We essentially have four choices:
(1) mitigate now, adapt now
(2) mitigate now, adapt later
(3) mitigate later, adapt now
(4) mitigate later, adapt later
#1 will likely be the least expensive option in the long term, and it will help us sustain the fewest impacts in the near term. It gives us the most flexibility in terms of how we shape the future, and it buys us the most insurance against catastrophic change. The Stern Review suggested global mitigation costs of 1-2% world GDP (about $600 billion-1.2 trillion/yr). That number goes up the longer we wait. A recent Congressional Budget Office estimate of the Waxman-Markey House bill for a U.S. cap-and-trade program was $22 billion/yr (roughly the cost of a postage stamp per day for the average American household) by the year 2020.
By eliminating the up-front costs of adaptation, #2 might appear to save money, but if we don’t adapt to change we are already committed to, the costs associated with warming impacts may be large as we lose coastal real estate and farmland, sustain infrastructure damage from more severe storms and flooding, lose crop productivity, and face public health concerns from things like heat waves. This option is like refusing to pay a few hundred bucks a year for homeowners insurance but then having to pay several hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild after a fire.
#3 doesn’t make much sense because we will end up spending twice on adaptation—once to confront near-term changes we are already committed to and once again to deal with (or at least attempt to deal with) conditions getting much worse. Moreover, mitigating later may be too late to avoid potentially dangerous temperature rise, and it reduces our chances of lowering atmospheric CO2 if climate change is irreversible over hundreds of years.
#4 is truly a losers game. Ecologically, socially, and economically, it would likely be catastrophic in all terms.
An ounce of prevention may indeed be worth a pound of cure.
1Inman M. (2009) Hot, Flat, Crowded—And Preparing for the Worst. Science 326:662-663.
2Bowdoin people can access the article here.
Thursday, October 29th, 2009
As Yale 360 indicated in June, a new report by the United States Global Change Research Program suggests that we are in store for many more summers like 2009. Their projections of daily temperatures show that much of the South will be hotter than 90 degrees F for almost half of the year. As temperatures warm, we can expect to set more record high temperatures.
In a forthcoming article in Geophysical Research Letters,1,2 Gerald Meehl and colleagues asked a simple question: What is the ratio of record high temperatures to record low temperatures, and how will this change over time with climate warming?
Based on temperature data from across the U.S. between 2000-2009, they found that the current ratio is about 2:1, meaning that we are breaking twice as many record high temperatures as we are record low temperatures. Using climate models to predict U.S. temperatures over the coming century, they estimate that the ratio will increase to 10:1 by 2025, 20:1 by 2050, and 100:1 by 2100.
Because this is a ratio, we need to be a bit careful how we interpret these data. You can increase this ratio two ways: by high temperature records outpacing low temperature records (increase the numerator), or by dramatically reducing the number of low temperature records without many new high temperature records (decrease the denominator).
Either way, we’re in for hotter weather. This kind of study will hopefully influence climate adaptation efforts now, especially in helping cities deal with heat issues among elderly populations. The heat waves in Chicago (1995) and France (2003) are vivid reminders. As I mentioned in an earlier post on adaptation, no more Hurricane Katrina responses.
1 Meehl, G.A. et al. (2009) The relative increase of record high maximum temperatures compared to record low temperatures in the U.S. Geophysical Research Letters (paper in press).
2 Bowdoin people can access the article here.
Wednesday, October 28th, 2009
Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post today suggests that the tide of opinion in the Senate may be turning against climate change naysayers.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, committed climate-change denier, found himself in just such a position Tuesday morning as the Senate environment committee, on which he is the ranking Republican, took up legislation on global warming. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was in talks with Democrats over a compromise bill — the traitor! And as Inhofe listened, fellow Republicans on the committee — turncoats! — made it clear that they no longer share, if they ever did, Inhofe’s view that man-made global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
“Eleven academies in industrialized countries say that climate change is real; humans have caused most of the recent warming,” admitted Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “If fire chiefs of the same reputation told me my house was about to burn down, I’d buy some fire insurance.”
Wednesday, October 28th, 2009
Why are San Francisco and New York light years ahead of the rest of the U.S. in terms of effective and well-used public transportation systems?
In the latest issue1,2 of Technology and Culture, Louise Nelson Dyble argues that the legacy of mass transit was forged decades ago as cities wrestled with how to deal with rail and automobiles and as municipal constituencies wrestled for power gained through revenues like toll roads. What’s emerged, she argues, is a system of antagonistic transportation silos, with public transport as an especially weak and ill-funded silo. This model has failed.
One of her main points is that cities with successful mass transit systems have modes of transport that interact, not just physically but financially. Specifically, cities like SF and NYC use revenues from toll roads to fund mass transit, especially in ways that make linking roads and public transportation more convenient.
Here’s part of her conclusion as an excerpt:
It may seem natural for the debate about transportation infrastructure to be divided along the lines of modal preference, with conservatives and free-market advocates supporting traditional automobile-oriented projects, and environmentalists and social-justice advocates calling for investments in mass transportation. But this alignment is by no means inevitable. It represents patterns that were established early in the twentieth century during another critical period of technological, economic, and social transformation that are now deeply inscribed into political culture, policies, and organizations at all levels of government. Institutions manifest history—they perpetuate the values and relationships at the time of their creation and at critical moments in their development. They shape the decision-making process and determine who must be supplicants (mass transit riders) and who has entitlements (drivers). There may presently be a rare window of opportunity to reorganize and reconceptualize transportation financing and administration in the United States. With regime change in Washington and an economic crisis spurring enormous new federal spending, it is critical that policy makers heed the long-term institutional implications of their actions. By changing the way transportation policy is defined and implemented, they could realize improvements that endure far longer than anything made of concrete and steel.
1Dyble, L.N. (2009) Reconstructing Transportation: Linking Tolls and Transit for Place-Based Mobility. Technology and Culture 50(3): 631-648.
2Bowdoin people can link to the article here.
Wednesday, October 28th, 2009
Nowhere is the intersection of nature and culture more apparent than in tropical communities developing around forestry. One of the outcomes of opening the forest to logging is the expansion of killing wild mammals for food—sometimes primates closely related to humans, such as gorillas and chimpanzees. This is known as the bushmeat trade. And logging roads provide easy access for legal and illegal hunters.
Although bushmeat hunting often makes the news (examples 1, 2, 3), we seldom hear about the underlying demographic and social factors that interact with bushmeat harvests. Learning more about these factors can empower us to develop sustainable solutions that slow or halt the loss of biodiversity.
In the Early View edition1,2 of Conservation Biology, Poulsen and colleagues examined the interaction between logging towns and bushmeat harvests in Congo.
For six years, they followed animal harvests and meals to see what controlled the rate of bushmeat harvests.
Their results were interesting…
Tuesday, October 27th, 2009
How much of a difference could households make? According to Dietz et al., they are
By altering behaviors at home to reduce emissions, they call this kind of rapid response a “behavioral wedge,” analogous to the other kinds of carbon reduction wedges proposed by Pacala and Socolow.
What kinds of reductions are possible?
Here’s what they found (ranked from highest to lowest behavioral plasticity, with emissions reductions in megatons of carbon in parentheses):
This paper is a great example of why sociology and psychology are critical to the current conversation on climate change.