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The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…


Posted in biodiversity science, communication and framing, environmental ethics, nature and culture, policy, population, race and class, science advocacy, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Are global energy supplies inadequate to slow human population growth?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

When we think of human population change and resource use, it’s easy to assume that more people will consume more resources, such as water, energy, and food. An important corollary is that resource limitations will limit population growth.  Thomas Malthus was perhaps the most influential proponent of this idea.

However, several factors complicate this story:

(1) Affluence is a multiplier such that more people in a wealthy, high-consumption society lead to a disproportionate use of resources compared to people in poor countries. As my recent article on global change in Nature Knowledge shows,

the populations of China and India are roughly 1.32 and 1.14 billion people, respectively — about four times that of the US. However, the energy consumption per person in the US is six times larger than that of a person in China, and 15 times that of a person in India. Because the demand for resources like energy is often greater in wealthy, developed nations like the US, this means that countries with smaller populations can actually have a greater overall environmental impact. Over much of the past century, the US was the largest greenhouse gas emitter because of high levels of affluence and energy consumption. In 2007, China overtook the US in terms of overall CO2 emissions as a result of economic development, increasing personal wealth, and the demand for consumer goods, including automobiles.

(2) Interestingly, resource limitations may actually inhibit our ability to slow population growth.  Yes, you read that right.  A new paper by John DeLong and colleagues in this week’s PLOS One (open access) argues exactly this.  Here’s why:

Influential demographic projections suggest that the global human population will stabilize at about 9–10 billion people by mid-century. These projections rest on two fundamental assumptions. The first is that the energy needed to fuel development and the associated decline in fertility will keep pace with energy demand far into the future. The second is that the demographic transition is irreversible such that once countries start down the path to lower fertility they cannot reverse to higher fertility. Both of these assumptions are problematic and may have an effect on population projections. Here we examine these assumptions explicitly. Specifically, given the theoretical and empirical relation between energy-use and population growth rates, we ask how the availability of energy is likely to affect population growth through 2050. Using a cross-country data set, we show that human population growth rates are negatively related to per-capita energy consumption, with zero growth occurring at ~13 kW, suggesting that the global human population will stop growing only if individuals have access to this amount of power. Further, we find that current projected future energy supply rates are far below the supply needed to fuel a global demographic transition to zero growth, suggesting that the predicted leveling-off of the global population by mid-century is unlikely to occur, in the absence of a transition to an alternative energy source. Direct consideration of the energetic constraints underlying the demographic transition results in a qualitatively different population projection than produced when the energetic constraints are ignored. We suggest that energetic constraints be incorporated into future population projections.

I love these kinds of unexpected outcomes that make us think more critically about simplified assumptions when it comes to the drivers and impacts of global change.

DeLong, J., Burger, O., & Hamilton, M. (2010). Current Demographics Suggest Future Energy Supplies Will Be Inadequate to Slow Human Population Growth PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013206


Photo credit: wili_hybrid

Posted in climate change science, energy, population, sustainable development | 1 Comment »

How much would climate change if we used existing infrastructure to the end of its life?

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Here’s an interesting thought question:  How much would global temperature warm if we used only the existing energy infrastructure (i.e., power plants, furnaces, motor vehicles) until these machines reached the end of their useful lives?  Once they died, they would be replaced by devices that did not emit CO2.

Steven Davis and colleagues addressed this question in the current issue of Science:

We calculated cumulative future emissions of 496 (282 to 701 in lower- and upperbounding scenarios) gigatonnes of CO2 from combustion of fossil fuels by existing infrastructure between 2010 and 2060, forcing mean warming of 1.3°C (1.1° to 1.4°C) above the pre-industrial era and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 less than 430 parts per million. Because these conditions would likely avoid many key impacts of climate change, we conclude that sources of the most threatening emissions have yet to be built. However, CO2-emitting infrastructure will expand unless extraordinary efforts are undertaken to develop alternatives.

Their analysis suggests that CO2 emissions would decline linearly from 35 gigatons/year in 2010 to less than 5 gigatons/year in 2050, with the majority of the remainder being non-energy emissions from things like cement manufacture and land use changes.

On a personal level, this would mean replacing your current furnace, car, and electricity sources with ones that emitted no CO2, so we’re talking upwards of 15-20 years for a personal vehicle, 20-30 years for a furnace, and 50+ years for power stations, depending on the age of these items.  The average power plant age in the U.S. is 32 years compared to 12 years in China and 21 and 27 years in Japan and Europe.

It’s encouraging to know that it may be possible to avert serious climate change without having to shut down existing infrastructure right away (especially long-lived fossil fuel power plants) but only if we plow significant funding into developing and implementing carbon-free technologies to replace them.  However, Davis et al. acknowledge that this is a tall order:

[T]here is little doubt that more CO2-emitting devices will be built. Our analysis considers only devices that emit CO2 directly. Substantial infrastructure also exists to produce and facilitate use of these devices. For example, factories that produce internal combustion engines, highway networks dotted with gasoline refueling stations, and oil refineries all promote the continuation of oil-based road transport emissions. Moreover, satisfying growing demand for energy without producing CO2 emissions will require truly extraordinary development and deployment of carbon-free sources of energy, perhaps 30 TW by 2050. Yet avoiding key impacts of climate change depends on the success of efforts to overcome infrastructural inertia and commission a new generation of devices that can provide energy and transport services without releasing CO2 to the atmosphere.

Davis, S., Caldeira, K., & Matthews, H. (2010). Future CO2 Emissions and Climate Change from Existing Energy Infrastructure Science, 329 (5997), 1330-1333 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188566

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs

Posted in climate change science, energy, solutions, sustainable development, technology | 1 Comment »

The outlook for biodiversity conservation

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

This week’s issue of Science includes a special section on biodiversity.  A review article by Michael Rands and colleagues, Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010, summarizes the current approaches and challenges for conservation.

Here is an excerpt describing their outlook for the future:

The challenges of addressing the social and behavioral contexts for biodiversity conservation are daunting. We are far from including biodiversity in our conventional measures of well-being, which focus on wealth creation and internationally
recognized estimates of GDP. Although there have been attempts to redefine these (including, for instance, the Human Development Index and green national accounts), the mainstream view of well-being and of national development remains focused on narrowly defined economic growth. Furthermore, the current recession only strengthens the emphasis on growth. The transition to sustainability will not be easy, but it is central to securing a future for biodiversity. Conservation strategies, in concert with other environmental policies, must address seemingly intractable and politically unpalatable issues. In both developed and emerging economies, we need to reduce the carbon and material throughput demanded by current patterns of production and consumption if we are to create viable and democratically acceptable trajectories of contraction and convergence in resource use. In parallel, we must recognize that successful human development agendas are underpinned by functional ecosystems, and by biodiversity. This is the year in which governments, business, and civil society could decide to take seriously the central role of biodiversity in human well-being and quality of life and to invest in securing the sustainable flow of nature’s public goods for present and future generations.


Photo credit: Feuillu

Posted in biodiversity science, nature and culture, sustainable development | No Comments »

Extreme climate and the vulnerability of least-developed countries

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010


Happy New Year, everyone.  Sorry for the lag in posts, but there wasn’t a lot happening in the news or journals over the past week.

A few years ago, I saw a talk by Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in economics) who argued that we need to accelerate the economic development of poor countries so that they are able to cope with climate change.  This analysis is interesting, if not fraught with additional challenges, such as development in a carbon-based energy world hastening the very problem to which these nations are attempting to adapt.

In an article1 in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Anthony Patt and colleagues argued that the need for assistance by Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is dependent on vulnerability, which, in turn, depends on both exposure to climate change and how socioeconomic factors affect the sensitivity of LDCs to climate change.

To assess this hypothesis, they first examined how deaths caused by disasters (floods, droughts, and storms) varied across the level of development in several LDCs.  They used the UN Human Development Index—HDI, a composite metric of income, education, and life expectancy—as a proxy for development.

Here’s what they found…


Posted in climate adaptation, climate economics, policy, race and class, risk analysis, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

Ecosystem stewardship: sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

That’s the title of a new article1,2 by Terry Chapin and colleagues in a forthcoming issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Human actions are having large and accelerating effects on the climate, environment and ecosystems of the Earth, thereby degrading many ecosystem services. This unsustainable trajectory demands a dramatic change in human relationships with the environment and life-support system of the planet. Here, we address recent developments in thinking about the sustainable use of ecosystems and resources by society in the context of rapid and frequently abrupt change.

To deal with these challenges, they advocate “ecosystem stewardship,” which has three core principles.  Here are excerpts of these principles (slightly condensed/adapted by me); please check out the paper for details:


Posted in climate adaptation, nature and culture, policy, risk analysis, solutions, sustainable development | No Comments »

When the levees break, we’ll have a more sustainable landscape again

Thursday, December 10th, 2009


We don’t ordinarily think about climate change and land use change as being a synergistic threat to society.  However, the combination of impervious surfaces that increase runoff, declining wetlands, levees, and more severe storms pack a quadruple whammy that could lead to some major flooding in the future.  From the cool adaptation work done in Keene, NH, we know that much of our infrastructure (roads, bridges, culverts) can’t handle the added stress of streams and rivers with higher discharge.  We’re looking at a potential nightmare of increased costs associated with infrastructure damage.

In this week’s issue of Science, Jeffrey Opperman and colleagues argue1 that our historical paradigm of flood control with levees needs to fundamentally change to  achieve a more sustainable socioecological system.

Their solution?  Tear down some of the levees to allow some floodplains to flood.  This can accomplish several goals:

(1) Flood risk reduction

  • Move to flood-tolerant activities in floodplains so that we don’t have to spend so much on disaster relief.
  • Storing water in floodplains takes the strain off downstream regions because floodwaters can naturally spill to where they are supposed to rather than swelling channelized rivers.  Small amounts of land can accomplish this—they cite a study of the Illinois River showing that a floodplain of 8,000 hectares would drop the likelihood of flooding 26,000 hectares of cropland by 50%.

(2) Increased floodplain goods and services

  • Several economic activities are conducive to periodic flooding:  pasture, timber, and flood-tolerant biofuel crops, such as willow.
  • Periodically flooded soils can also assist with reducing erosion and storing nutrients that would otherwise reach and pollute coastal oceans.

(3) Building resiliency to climate change

  • They argue that reconnecting rivers to floodplains can help us adapt to climate change in ways that are socioeconomically beneficial.  For instance, we presently have to keep some reservoirs partially empty to accommodate periodic flood waters.  But partially filled reservoirs can’t generate as much hydropower or provide as much drinking water.  If we used floodplains as a natural pressure relief valve, we can operate reservoirs closer to capacity and benefit economically.

Opperman and colleagues acknowledge that there are political hurdles, such as convincing some private landowners that flooding their land can be useful.

But there are creative solutions that have already been deployed.  They cite Sacramento as an example:  Some farmers allow their crops to flood, serving as a pressure-relief valve when rivers swell, thereby preventing more expensive damage.  In return, the farmers are compensated for their crop loss.  It’s a win-win situation that presumably costs less than dealing with infrastructure damage or having to build new infrastructure that handles greater flooding.

Another idea is to allow some of these areas to become wetlands and compensate people as part of a wetlands banking system to mitigate the loss of wetlands elsewhere.   This would most likely have several ecological benefits, including increasing habitat for wetland-dependent species such as waterfowl and other migrating birds.  It would also likely increase vegetation productivity and carbon storage.

It’s interesting to note that they don’t call for an end to economic activity or human use in floodplains.  Sure, we probably want to stop building McMansions in flood-prone regions.  However, there are several ways we can use floodplains for ecological and economic benefit.  These will likely require compensation, but in the long run, it’s cheaper than having to re-tool major infrastructure to handle greater discharge with climate warming.

1Opperman, J.J. et al (2009) Sustainable floodplains through large-scale reconnections to rivers. Science 326:1487-1488.


Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Posted in biodiversity science, climate adaptation, food and agriculture, risk analysis, solutions, sustainable development | No Comments »

In this week’s issue of Nature: What do radar, nuclear power, the Internet, and DNA have in common with technological innovation to decarbonize the economy?

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009


Most of the focus these days is on how we can mitigate climate warming by achieving specific reductions targets like 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.  Economists from McGill University, Isabel Galiana and Christopher Greene, are going to stir up debate in their latest paper1 in Nature by arguing that the current way of thinking about mitigating warming needs to be turned on its head.

Focusing on rapid emissions reductions, they say, may not be the best way to rapidly stabilize climate as cheaply as possible.  They even go as far as to say that climate can be stabilized at a 2 degree C warming even if most of the carbon reductions don’t happen until after 2050.

What’s the basis for their argument?  Technology-led approaches.  Let’s see what this means…


Posted in climate economics, energy, sustainable development, technology | No Comments »


Friday, November 13th, 2009

solutions (Small)

There’s a new website/journal called Solutions, edited by Bob Costanza, David Orr, Paul Hawken, and John Todd that’s worth looking taking a look at.

Posted in solutions, sustainability, sustainable development | No Comments »

This week’s good ideas in campus sustainability: 11/9/09

Monday, November 9th, 2009


Let’s take a look at five innovative and exciting ideas from Stanford University, City College of New York,  Western Michigan University, UC-Davis, and the University of Arizona…


Posted in campus sustainability, environmental literacy, environmental science, higher education, sustainability, sustainable development, technology, transportation, urban | 1 Comment »

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