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Archive for February, 2010

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Lindsey Graham on climate warming: “I am doing something different”

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

In a previous post, I mentioned that it’s worth listening to Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to understand what might move conservative politicians towards a serious conversation about climate warming.

Tom Friedman does just that in Sunday’s NY Times.

Graham’s reasons for taking climate change seriously: politics, jobs, and legacy.  His story is unusual and refreshing:

“I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it. They are not brainwashed. … From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them. You can have a genuine debate about the science of climate change, but when you say that those who believe it are buying a hoax and are wacky people you are putting at risk your party’s future with younger people.”

….And for those Republicans who think this is only a loser, Senator Graham says think again: “What is our view of carbon as a party? Are we the party of carbon pollution forever in unlimited amounts? Pricing carbon is the key to energy independence, and the byproduct is that young people look at you differently.” Look at how he is received in colleges today. “Instead of being just one more short, white Republican over 50,” says Graham, “I am now semicool. There is an awareness by young people that I am doing something different.”

Posted in behavior, climate economics, energy, solutions | No Comments »

Cell phones and your health

Saturday, February 27th, 2010


Environmental Working Group (EWG) has updated their information on cell phone radiation and potential health risks.

As I alluded to in a previous post, conducting human health risk analyses for things like cell phone radiation exposure is difficult because it’s hard to determine how much exposure is too much, and it takes years to see what health effects might show up.

The research below suggests that links between cell phone radiation and health are now becoming evident.

And with more than 4 billion cell phone users worldwide (2/3 of the human population), we are unintentionally conducting one of the largest epidemiological studies of all time.

Learn more from EWG:


Photo credit: / CC BY-ND 2.0

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Posted in health, risk analysis, technology | 2 Comments »

Al Gore weighs in on the state of climate change

Saturday, February 27th, 2010


…in an op-ed piece in today’s NY Times.

Excerpts (links his):

[T]he scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

….The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.

….Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically….Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach.

Updates: There is a wide range of opinion on the IPCC these days:


Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Posted in climate change science, climate economics, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, communication and framing, energy, policy, sustainability | No Comments »

Can “tree sweating” buffer Europe against future heat waves?

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010


Trees can have a big impact on climate in many ways, as we have been tracking over the past few weeks here at Global Change.

Changes in species ranges, such as the shift of boreal forests northwards into barren-ground tundra, can lower albedo (reflectivity) in winter, thereby warming regional climate.

Last week, we also saw how trees can act as methane chimneys that release this greenhouse gas produced in swampy soils.

In another study, we saw that rising CO2 in the atmosphere can cause forests to grow faster such that they become nutrient starved—especially by soil nitrogen.  This causes tree growth to slow.  Unfortunately, we saw that most models of climate change (which assume forests are removing CO2 from the atmosphere) don’t take nutrient limitation into account, so scientists are expecting forests to soak up more CO2 than they probably will.  This means that atmospheric CO2 rise (and warming) will likely be worse than expected—maybe by as much as 0.5 degree by 2050 and 1 degree by the year 2100.

A further study indicated that increased deciduous forests in the Arctic can increase transpiration (water flow from soils to the atmosphere through plants).  This extra water vapor in the atmosphere might act as a greenhouse gas and cause climate in high latitudes to warm by an extra 1 degree C.

In the OnlineFirst issue of Climatic Change (this article is open access), Su-Jong Jeong and colleagues explore other possible forest impacts on climate.1

Specifically, they focused on heat waves in Europe and asked whether forests might be able to help alleviate the impacts of them.

Here’s the idea:  In a warmer world with more CO2, forests grow more and there is higher leaf area.  This leads to more transpiration.   When plant leaves lose water, this acts to cool the plants a lot like sweating does in animals (because the transition of less-energetic liquid water to more-energetic water vapor requires heat input, which comes from the plant).   This results in cooler trees and cooler landscapes.  Subsequent rainfall from all of this water vapor could supposedly cool landscapes further.

These authors argue that this mechanism can actually cause  forested regions in Europe to cool by 1 degree C, thereby potentially lessening the impacts of future heat waves.

Wait a minute, you might be asking, I thought you said that transpiration causes climate to warm?   That’s a good point, so let me try to clarify.  In the Arctic example above, the researchers were focusing on water vapor as a potential greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.   In the Jeong article here, they are focusing on the effects of water evaporation on the temperature of tree leaves at the surface of the earth.

It’s an interesting idea that’s not particularly new.  However, there are several potential challenges with the Jeong article that I didn’t see addressed:

  • When the water vapor from trees condenses into liquid clouds and rain, this process gives off heat (because we are going from a more energetic gaseous form to a less energetic liquid form).  This warms the atmosphere wherever condensation happens, which presumably would also be Europe.
  • If increased transpiration is a general feature of European forests in a warmer world, and water vapor remains persistently high in the atmosphere, it can act as a greenhouse gas like the Arctic paper above suggests.  This, too, will warm rather than cool climate.
  • And, finally, heat waves are often accompanied by droughts when transpiration is generally low because trees are water stressed.  This diminishes the cooling effect and can actually cause landscapes to warm as tree leaves warm up and release heat rather than water vapor.

1Jeong, S.J et al (in press) Potential impact of vegetation feedback on European heat waves in a 2 x CO2 climate. Climatic Change
DOI 10.1007/s10584-010-9808-7


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Posted in climate change science | No Comments »

Energy breakthrough? Have fuel cells for the masses finally arrived?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Huff Post is running a story on a recent 60 Minutes piece about a new kind of fuel cell—the “Bloom Box” —that is already powering companies like Google, Fed Ex, and EBay (click on the link for video of this story).

It runs on natural gas, and two of these little boxes (about the size of a shoe box combined) could conceivably power your entire home.

Estimated cost: $3,000 for off-the-grid electricity.

It will be interesting to see if these are commercially viable and what else Silicon Valley has in store over the next five years.  Along with electric cars, which roll into showrooms in a matter of months, we are on the cusp of some pretty big technology transformations.

Update:  An educated guess from one of my colleagues, Andy Price, in the energy business:

I hope I am wrong, but the Bloom Box looks like it suffers from the same problem that all fuel cell companies are suffering from: their systems are really expensive per KW.

If Ebay paid $700,000 to $800,000 per unit for 5 units, as was suggested in the story, this would be $3.5 to $4 million. If they saved the stated $100,000 in 9 months this would be a 26 to 30 year payback – and with a fuel cell using natural gas you still need a natural gas pipe and have associated carbon emissions.

If Bloom can somehow deliver the dramatic cost reductions that they claim
this could start to look more attractive but until Bloom provides additional
details, it looks like more hype than substance. Many other well funded
companies including UTC, Honda and GE are working on similar technology and none have been able to deliver the big breakthrough. Yet.

Update 2Wired comes to a similar conclusion–too pricey.

Posted in energy, solutions, sustainability, technology | No Comments »

Are business externalities really this big?

Friday, February 19th, 2010

How much does pollution (and other environmental impacts) from corporations cost each year?  These costs, borne by society rather than corporations, are called negative externalities.  An example is the cost of medical expenses and the loss of forests caused by air pollution.

The Guardian is running a story by Juliette Jowit suggesting that the total cost of externalities for the 3,000 largest companies in the world could be as much as $US 2.2 trillion in 2008.  As the story points out, that’s a lot:

  • more than the economies of all but 7 nations
  • about one third the value of the profits of these companies

Excerpts (links by Jowit):

Later this year, another huge UN study – dubbed the “Stern for nature” after the influential report on the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern – will attempt to put a price on such global environmental damage, and suggest ways to prevent it. The report, led by economist Pavan Sukhdev, is likely to argue for abolition of billions of dollars of subsidies to harmful industries like agriculture, energy and transport, tougher regulations and more taxes on companies that cause the damage.

“What we’re talking about is a completely new paradigm,” said Richard Mattison, Trucost’s chief operating officer and leader of the report team. “Externalities of this scale and nature pose a major risk to the global economy and markets are not fully aware of these risks, nor do they know how to deal with them.”

“It’s going to be a significant proportion of a lot of companies’ profit margins,” Mattison told the Guardian. “Whether they actually have to pay for these costs will be determined by the appetite for policy makers to enforce the ‘polluter pays’ principle. We should be seeking ways to fix the system, rather than waiting for the economy to adapt. Continued inefficient use of natural resources will cause significant impacts on [national economies] overall, and a massive problem for governments to fix.”

Another major concern is the risk that companies simply run out of resources they need to operate, said Andrea Moffat, of the US-based investor lobby group Ceres, whose members include more than 80 funds with assets worth more than US$8tn. An example was the estimated loss of 20,000 jobs and $1bn last year for agricultural companies because of water shortages in California, said Moffat.

Posted in climate economics, policy, pollutants | No Comments »

Marine protected areas help coral reefs too

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010


As mentioned in an earlier post, marine protected areas (or MPAs) are a great idea for eliminating fishing pressures and allowing fish stocks to recover.

It’s less well known whether these underwater reserves help preserve reef-building corals, which most fish and other critters depend on one way or another—for habitat or food.

In today’s online issue of PLoS ONE (open accress), Elizabeth Selig and John Bruno conduct an analysis of MPAs worldwide and conclude that these areas are able to stem the loss of corals.1

That’s good news.

However, they offer this conclusion in the context of several important caveats:

MPAs can play a critical role in the protection of coral reef ecosystems, particularly fisheries. Our results suggest that MPAs are also generally effective in reducing or preventing coral loss. Nonetheless, we were not able to assess their effects on other metrics of reef health including changes in other key taxonomic species, coral composition, richness, reef heterogeneity and other factors that could also indicate that there has been a decline in reef health. MPA benefits may appear modest in the short term, but over several decades could lead to large and highly ecologically significant increases in coral cover as the cumulative importance of small annual effects becomes more important and the number of years of MPA protection increases. However, it remains to be seen whether the observed benefits of MPAs are sufficient to offset coral losses from major disease outbreaks and bleaching events, both of which are predicted to increase in frequency with climate change. Given the time lag for maximizing MPA effectiveness, implementing new MPAs and increasing enforcement should help maximize the ability of MPAs to prevent future coral loss.

Who cares?  Lots of reasons:

  • Coral reefs are incredible ecosystems.  If you have never dived or snorkeled on a healthy coral reef, put it on your list of 10 things to do before you die.   My recommendations are the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Cayman Islands, Hawaii, and the islands of the Netherlands Antilles.  We owe it to future generations to preserve these ecosystems in the wild rather than in books and aquaria.
  • Reefs are incredibly species rich.  Protecting them protects a significant fraction of coastal marine biodiversity.
  • Reefs are very productive ecosystems that provide a food source and habitat for thousands of species.  Protect the corals, and you end up protecting many other species.
  • Many coastal communities depend on reefs for their livelihoods (e.g., seafood harvesting and tourism).  This makes reef management critical for economic as well as ecological sustainability.  But, as this article suggests, local management is challenged by the fact that global threats, such as ocean acidification, disease, and rising temperature impacts on coral bleaching, may trump what local people can control.

1Selig ER, Bruno JF, 2010 A Global Analysis of the Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Preventing Coral Loss. PLoS ONE 5(2): e9278. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009278


Photo credit:  One of my photos that you can see at my flickr site.

Posted in biodiversity science, nature and culture, sustainability | 2 Comments »

Science Magazine considers whether decreasing meat consumption can increase global food security

Saturday, February 13th, 2010


In this week’s special issue devoted to food security, Science asks what it will take to feed 9 billion people by mid century.

Food insecurity—the inability of people to feed themselves—may rise if food supply cannot keep pace with population.  This is a concern that goes back over 200 years to Thomas Malthus.

One theme shows up in a few articles:  Can reducing meat consumption help in the battle to feed more people?

Erik Stokstad’s news feature (subscription required)1 provides a nice lead:

The United States, for instance, has just 4.5% of the world’s population but accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that most people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages just 80 grams. Those numbers suggest that people living in the United States and other wealthy nations could increase world grain supplies simply by forgoing that extra burger or chop.

However, he interviews researchers and cites studies that raise a number of issues potentially complicating this story…


Posted in behavior, food and agriculture, population, solutions | 2 Comments »

How much energy to make a meal?

Friday, February 12th, 2010


Science Magazine (subscription required) is running a special issue this week on food security.  There are so many articles, it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s go with an interesting, visible example from a news article showing that different meals can require vastly different amounts of energy to make (click on this link for a nice downloadable color figure).

(1) Beans: Amount of energy needed to grow, package, transport, and cook (what I assume to be one serving) in Sweden.  Note, a megajoule is one million joules, or about 240 dietary calories—the amount of energy in almost 2 cans of soda:

  • Brown beans (8.9 megajoules, 2,127 dietary calories)
  • Yellow peas (5 megajoules, 1,195 dietary calories)
  • Imported soybeans (7.9 megajoules, 1888 dietary calories)
  • Imported brown beans (11 megajoules, 2,629 dietary calories)
  • Imported canned beans (20 megajoules, 4,780 dietary calories)

Bottom line: Commercial canning is energy intensive and food miles matter.

(2) A single meat-based dinner

Amounts of energy to grow, package, transport, and cook each meal:

  • Dinner 1 (19 megajoules, 4541 dietary calories to make)
    • Beef (9.4)
    • Rice (1.1)
    • Greenhouse tomatoes (4.6)
    • Wine (4.2)
  • Dinner 2 (6.1 megajoules, 1457 dietary calories to make)
    • Chicken (4.37)
    • Potatoes (0.91)
    • Carrots (0.5)
    • Cooking oil (0.3)
    • Tap water (0)

Both of these dinners yielded about the same dietary energy to the eater:

  • Dinner 1: 2.52 megajoules, 602 dietary calories
  • Dinner 2: 2.60 megajoules, 621 dietary calories

This means that dinner 1 yields about 13% of the energy required to make it, whereas dinner 2 yields about 43%.

Bottom line: It takes three times more energy to make dinner 1 than dinner 2.  More energy use with conventional agriculture means more fossil fuel use and more climate warming.

Science 327: 809  DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5967.809


Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Posted in energy, food and agriculture | 2 Comments »

The humanities are key to environmental messaging

Friday, February 12th, 2010


It’s been an incredibly busy week, which explains the dearth of posts.  But good things are happening, which I look forward to sharing.

As most of you know, there’s an energetic, ongoing debate about environmental messaging.  With polls showing waning interest in climate warming as a serious issue, there’s  a sense that the battle is being lost.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s often assumed that climate change science speaks for itself.  All we have to do is publish good science and show the public a bunch of data, and this will lead to a collective consciousness demanding action on climate warming.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

One main problem is the failure to connect with people on a personal level.  Thinking about the environment is not just about climate or wild nature; it’s about human nature, human experience, the intersection of nature and culture, how we interact with one another—things squarely in the domain of the social sciences and humanities.  In order for society to connect with contemporary environmental issues, it’s critical that these voices become part of this conversation.

Yesterday, we brought back to campus Bowdoin alum Paul Miller (a.k.a., DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) to perform his major work, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica.

Paul’s work is a beautiful illustration of how one artist has been able to put a human touch on climate warming.  His show was packed with a hyped-up audience that cut across a wide swath of young and old.

Try doing that with a science seminar.

Amanda Little reminds us that there are no silver bullets for solving climate warming, only silver buckshot.   Paul’s work (and the work of other popular artists like him) is a great example of one of those buckshot.


Photo Credit:  Tiffany Gerdes, Bowdoin Orient

Posted in behavior, communication and framing, nature and culture, polar ice, solutions | 2 Comments »

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