Saturday, August 25, 2012

James Price Point: Environmental Significance Ignored in Failed Impact Assessment

James Price Point S34964
James Price Point S34964 (Photo credit: yaruman5)
by Malcolm Lindsay, PhD Candidate at University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

The proposed Browse Liquefied Natural Gas Hub at James Price Point (known locally as Walmadany), 50km north of Broome, has created one of the most fiercely fought environmental and indigenous battles currently occurring in Australia.

Despite the existence of alternative brown field sites (such as Karratha), the State Government prefers James Price Point even though it is likely to be a far more expensive option (an estimated $15 billion) for joint venture partners Woodside, BP, BHP, Shell and Mitsui/Mistubishi, and tax payers.

The James Price Point option is also far more pristine, biodiverse and ecologically significant, with a rich indigenous connection to country. The area is abundant with indigenous songcycle pathways, burial grounds, the Lurujarri Heritage Trail, calving Humpback whales, dugongs, dolphins, abundant fishes, coral reefs, seagrass, remnant rainforest, dinosaur trackways and breeding bilbies.

The area is so ecologically and culturally rich that it was recommended for National Park protection by the Australian Academy of Sciences and the National Parks Board of WA in 1962; the WA Environmental Protection Authority in 1977 and 1993; the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management in 1991; the Broome Shire, Department of Land Administration and WA State Cabinet in 2000; and the Broome Planning Steering Committee in 2005.

This is all at odds with the state premier Colin Barnett’s description of the area as an “unremarkable” piece of coastline.
Despite all the recommendations for protection, James Price is the state government’s preferred option. It therefore requires an environmental impact assessment of whether the gas hub could proceed without significant, severe and long lasting impacts on the local environment.

The WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) recently completed an initial assessment. A further assessment is due from the Federal Environment Minister at the end of the year. The WA EPA based their assessment on the Strategic Assessment Report (SAR) prepared by the state government for the project, giving the project the green light.

As the proposed gas hub is one of the largest industrial projects in Australia’s history and will become the largest gas hub in the world, one would expect the environmental impact assessment to be well considered, comprehensive, robust and based on sound science. Unfortunately the EPA’s assessment fell far below these expectations.

Major issues occurred in the assessment process itself. The state government recognised that - due to the scale and complexity of the project - they’d need a high level of confidence in the science underpinning the SAR. They recommended establishing a peer review process. This didn’t happen: only the minority of the science was scrutinised and only when major inadequacies were revealed by independent and citizen scientists.

This leaves little confidence and much uncertainty in the quality of the SAR’s science on which the EPA based their assessment. When the assessment was undertaken, four out of five EPA board members had to be excluded due to conflicts of interest, leaving a “quorum” of one.

As three of these conflicted members were excluded only months before the completion of the five year assessment, there was ample opportunity for their conflicts to influence the process.

Despite these procedural issues, how did the EPA justify impacts to the significant ecological communities and species of James Price Point? For brevity I will focus on two of the most significant ecological features of the area.

One of the most striking and significant ecological features of the James Price Point area is the monsoon vine thicket that occurs behind the coastal dunes. This little-studied remnant rainforest is incredibly diverse, containing 25% of all plant species from the Dampier Peninsula and up to 70 species of ants.

This rainforest also contains one of the highest densities of bush tucker and medicinal plants in Australia and is therefore critically significant to the local indigenous people. Poor fire management, weeds and land clearing have led to fragmentation and declines in these communities. The communities are currently under assessment for federal listing as a threatened ecological community.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Scientists Wary of Wearing Their Hearts on Their Sleeves - Is This What We Really Want?

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...
Flowchart of Scientific Method (Wikipedia)
by Dr Susan Lawler, Head of Department, Department of Environmental Management & Ecology at La Trobe University, The Conversation:

A reader complained that my last column about the environmental damage caused by super trawlers was too emotive.

We agreed about the facts, but not about how to frame them.

I tried to ignore this comment, but it kept bothering me, and for different reasons on different days.

After some rumination, and conversations with colleagues, I have decided to address it. Must serious conservationists avoid using their hearts? Do we do better science when we only use our brains? Is our advocacy for the planet best framed in dry factual statements? I think not, and my reasons are varied.

Reason one: science communication often suffers from a lack of emotive content. Yesterday, a colleague sent me a link to an article called three tips for science communication, in which the author complains: "It dismays me how scientists - so full of passion and creativity - sometimes make the wondrous mundane, and the story of their work stripped of emotion.”

Part of my life’s goal is to share my enthusiasm for science and the species with whom we share our planet, and being told that I need to be wary of wearing my heart on my sleeve is frustrating. I want to keep my heart where it belongs, right here in my chest, but I want it to be part of my work.

Otherwise, how can I convince non-scientists that I speak from a place of truth and honour? My integrity is firmly embedded in my passion for this thing called life.

Reason two: science is more fun than most people realise. I know from personal experience that scientists are passionate, emotional creatures. We get really excited about apparently esoteric stuff, but when we explain it, we get our students, friends and families excited too.

I have often been on field trips where we meet unique, endangered creatures, and the students do not realise how special the moment is until the senior staff’s excitement becomes apparent. If scientists do not share their emotional responses, they are not truly teaching.

Scientists, like everyone else, do better work when they put their whole person, body and soul, into their work. The world needs more people to learn and use the scientific method, but this won’t happen if people think they have to check their hearts at the door. If we portray ourselves as merely walking brains, how are we going to convince others to join us, and become scientists, too?

Reason three: my environmental students are afraid of being labelled as greenies. I think this is the crux of the problem. Young people who want to save the planet and protect our environment enrol in a degree in science so that they will have the knowledge and credentials to make a difference. But to do this they feel they must reject the extremes of some in the environmentalist movement.

I can illustrate the problem with a conversation I had about a year ago. I rang someone (in government or industry, I forget the exact issue) and introduced myself as a conservationist. The person on the other end began with, “You people”… and began to tell me what I thought, almost none of which was true.

When I managed to break in and explain that I was a scientist who had been doing research in the area and had hoped to offer some useful suggestions, the individual calmed down and said, “Oh! You mean that you are a conservationist!” … as if I should have said so. Except that I had.

Conservationists are therefore somewhat twitchy, and as a group we are schizophrenic. We feel compelled to express our concerns about the environment in a way that distances us from other people who care about the environment. Some of us work from a scientific framework, base our arguments in logic, and seek solutions that are acceptable to society.

Others are looking for fundamental changes to society as we know it, and are willing to take radical actions including vandalism. Most environmentalists are somewhere in between.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

INTERVIEW: Christine Milne: The Economy Must Serve People and Nature, Not Vice-Versa

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 13:  Newly appoint...
Newly appointed Greens leader, Christine Milne (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
by Professor David Bowman, Professor, Environmental Change Biology at University of Tasmania, The Conversation:

Christine Milne, Senator for Tasmania and leader of the Australian Greens, was a crucial part of the Multiparty Climate Change Committee that designed Australia’s Clean Energy Future package.

Since taking over from long-time leader Bob Brown earlier this year, Senator Milne has focused on business and on rural and regional communities - not the Greens' traditional strong points.

David Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology at the University of Tasmania, spoke with Senator Milne about climate change, the triple bottom line, a new economy and whether there is really any point to the Greens.

David Bowman: In two years time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be about 400 ppm. According to the Greens' policy documents, the world should have an atmosphere with 350ppm. Many scientists think that we now probably have crossed very major thresholds which will have all sorts of unforeseen and possibly unforeseeable consequences. So really the question for a politician is, how do you prosecute your case if your opponents don’t believe in that?

Christine Milne: Well, we continue to do so, but it is extremely frustrating to know what you do know and to take the science seriously and to have people say to you that it’s wildly exaggerated, it’s not true, and so on, when they haven’t even tried to read the science. They’ve made a decision to reject or ignore the science because it suits their world view.

Denialism has much more to do about values and world view than it has to do with actually understanding the science. So we should have been using the social sciences a lot sooner than we have been to work out ways of talking to people’s value systems rather than to their intellectual capacity.

I went through a period where I became deeply despondent about the consequences of what’s going on with global warming, and my rational mind said to me, it’s too late, that we’re on a trajectory for four to six degrees of warming.

But 350ppm is much better than 450; we argued the point through the Multiparty Climate Committee, because the $23 price is based on a 550ppm trajectory. If we’d gone with 450, the price would have been over $50, and they wouldn’t even countenance the idea of doing any Treasury modelling around what a price would need to be to deliver 350.

So I went through a very bleak phase of thinking we’re just not going to make it as a planet - well, the planet will make it, but how humans survive and how ecosystems survive is another thing.

And I’ve gotten through that by just simply taking the view that one has to keep arguing for it and doing everything we can, because it will be better than it otherwise would have been. Your optimism has to be there. Maybe we will gain momentum if enough people get to that point.

David Bowman: How do you articulate a vision when, as far as I can tell, everything at the moment is about the fear of debt, the fear of costs, and - because it’s rained - it seems in Australia that climate change has just disappeared? You’re trying to take on two almost impossibly difficult arguments at once. One is to convince people of the seriousness of the global change problem. [The other is] an alternative economic model which just doesn’t seem to have any political support from anybody out there.

Christine Milne: In terms of the new economy, the problem in Australia is that it’s almost impossible to bring about a change in the order of things when the vested interests fight like partisans to keep their vested interests in place. Those who believe in the new order are only lukewarm in their support of the new order. [As Machiavelli says], humankind doesn’t believe in new things until they’re actually delivered.

When I took over the leadership, one thing I wanted to do was to build a constituency in progressive business. For the first time in Australia we now have a critical mass of businesses - most of them small and medium-scale businesses but nevertheless a critical mass - which depend collectively on embracing a low-to-zero carbon economy: everything from architects designing green buildings, new building product, town planners, energy efficiency, the renewables space to environmental health.

But they are terrified to speak out. They’re all terrified that if they speak out, and there is a change of government, that they will be punished accordingly, and that they will fail to gain access. That the government programs which benefit them - for example, the renewable energy target or the like - will be significantly changed to their detriment.

The full transcript of David and Christine’s interview is available here. In addition to what you’ve read, they discuss: genetically modified crops; land grabs in the developing world; how locally based agriculture can provide food security; uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal; how Tasmania could have (and maybe still can) provided a model for a post-resource Australia based on brains and high-quality products; how the tax arrangements from the clean energy bills are funding green buildings; the Coalition’s quiet backdown on the NBN; and how convening a panel of experts can help a government change its mind while saving face.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life in the Slow Lane Pushes Turtles Towards Extinction

Eastern long-necked turtle (D Naidoo)
by Kylie Williams, PhD Candidate at Charles Sturt University, The Conversation:

Turtles are great evolutionary survivors. With their iconic shells and ponderously slow pace of life, they have plodded through 220 million years of natural selective pressures.

In the face of forces that have ended many living lines - including dinosaurs - the overall turtle solution of being gently inoffensive yet well protected has held strong.

But now, a combination of human-induced changes has created a downward spiral so powerful that - without strategic intervention - much of the great turtle lineage will have disappeared by the close of the 21st century. Nearly half of all turtle fauna are threatened or extinct in the wild.

Australia is not immune from these global trends: six of our freshwater turtle species are listed as nationally threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Recent research has also highlighted that other turtle species may soon find themselves added to the list.

Around the Murray River region for example, the Eastern Long-necked Turtle has declined in abundance by 90% since the mid-1970s, and no juvenile recruitment has occurred for over a decade.

Threats to Australian freshwater turtles are numerous. But collectively their potency lies in the ability to permeate every aspect of the turtle’s life history, from egg to adult.

The natural history of turtles involves high but fluctuating rates of egg and juvenile mortality balanced by repeated reproductive episodes over a very long lifetime, in which threats to adult survival are low. That is, young turtles die easily, but many more are born, and once they reach adulthood they have a good chance of living a long life.

Unfortunately, we have sent this selective regime awry in many places. Eggs and young are being depleted, but adult mortality is also increasing.

The wondrous shell that has been so successful at holding back nature’s vicissitudes is no match for motor vehicles, and adult turtles frequently become road kill victims as they disperse throughout riverine and wetland habitats. They are also struck by boats, drowned in fishing nets and die in falls from weirs.

During the recent “millennium drought”, there were reports of mass turtle mortality as historically permanent wetlands dried up: a harbinger of what may become commonplace under climate change predictions.

And in the lower lakes of South Australia - where salinity rose during the drought - many turtles perished after becoming entrapped by massive growths of estuarine tubeworms on their shells.

Mortality rates in the egg stage appear to be even bleaker: over 90% of them are dug up and eaten by European foxes around the Murray River. Feral pigs fulfil a similarly devastating predatory role in more northern regions.

The unique life history traits of turtles also serve to mask the extent of threat to populations. Their longevity means that adults can persist in regions at relatively high levels for decades. But these apparently healthy populations may in fact be imperilled by chronic reproductive failure.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Carbon Farming: A Solution to Global Land Degradation and Poverty?

Soil erosion in a wheat field near Pullman, USA.
Soil erosion on a US farm
by Professor Edward Barbier, Professor of Economics at University of Wyoming, The Conversation:

Today, nearly 1.3 billion people - almost a fifth of the world’s population - live on “fragile” agricultural land.

Just one-third of the rural poor in developing countries live on productive agricultural land.

Fragile land is the main challenge facing environmental sustainability and poverty eradication in the developing world. But a solution could come from Australia: carbon farming. 

Reduced soil security is likely to damage food security in the future, particularly in developing countries. Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative may provide a model for other countries as they look to find ways of managing degraded land.

Since 1950, the estimated population in developing economies on “fragile lands” has doubled, due to both an increase in these lands and growing rural populations. These marginal environments are prone to land degradation and less suitable for agriculture. They are upland areas, forest systems and drylands that suffer from low agricultural productivity, and where it is difficult to farm intensively.

Extremely poor families living on marginal lands have very few productive assets: just their land and their unskilled labour. Land degradation is a serious threat to their livelihoods. It often mires them in an irreversible “poverty-environment trap”.

The rural poor clustered in fragile environments could improve their livelihoods through carbon farming. This is a payment scheme that allows farmers and land managers to earn credits by storing carbon or reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their land.

These credits can then be sold to pay for a variety of carbon storing activities, such as reduced tillage, biogas, drip irrigation and afforestation.

Such initiatives are spreading across the developing world, including China, Brazil and Africa, with major development agencies such as the World Bank getting involved.

But the most important and ambitious of these initiatives is occurring not in developing countries, but in Australia.

Carbon farming in Australia

Since September 2011, Australia has been implementing its Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI). Under the auspices of the CFI, the government’s Carbon Farming Futures plan will provide AU$429 million over the six years to encourage carbon farming across Australia.

The Government will buy carbon credits from farmers and landholders who undertake carbon-saving measures such as storing carbon and revegetation. Farmers might eventually earn credits for implementing new carbon storing activities including planting trees, reducing livestock methane emissions, and managing natural habitat.

For now, however, Australian farmers seem more curious about earning credits from altering existing cultivation and farmland management practices so soils hold more carbon.

The Australian policy experiment with carbon farming is instructive. It gets to the heart of questions about whether carbon farming can make a difference in halting global land degradation:
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Monday, August 20, 2012

When the Media Won’t Report the Environment, It’s Time to Rethink News

Nature (Photo credit: @Doug88888)
by Adjunct Professor Freya Mathews, Adjunct Professor, Environmental Philosophy at La Trobe University, The Conversation:

The news treats nature as a backdrop to the dramas and delights of human life.

In the 21st century, our dramas are driving nature’s destruction, and that destruction threatens an end to our delights.

But the news carries on regardless, relegating nature to the background. Isn’t it time for a change?

One night a couple of years ago (March 11, 2009, to be exact) I listened to the news on ABC Radio National at 10.00 pm. The headline was about a gunman in southern Germany. The last item concerned a rugby league player charged with sexual assault. Tucked in between, amongst miscellaneous items, was an item about the acidification of the world’s oceans due to absorption of carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

A recent study had shown that the shells of certain microscopic marine animals (foraminifera) are growing dramatically thinner as a result of the acidification of sea water. It is largely through the mechanism of these organisms, whose calcium carbonate shells sink to the ocean floor when the organisms die, that the oceans sequester atmospheric carbon. So the thinning of the shells will reduce the oceans’ effectiveness as a carbon sink.

Moreover, since these tiny animals help to constitute the base of the marine food pyramid, anything that compromises their survival threatens to compromise the entire pyramid. As the Radio National reporter put it, the thinning of the foraminifera shells, which is no longer merely a matter of hypothesis but has been established, might cause the entire fabric of marine life to unravel.

This item was not the headline. It was presented as less important than a gunman shooting several people in Germany, and as comparable in importance to a footballer being charged with sexual assault.

I listened to the 11pm news bulletin, but it had been dropped by then. I was left in stunned disbelief at the way our news media are registering and representing the unfolding chronicle of our planet’s actual - no longer merely prospective - ecological collapse.

What, I wondered in despair that night, is going on? Are we all completely mad? Are we more interested in the drunken behaviour of a footballer than evidence of the unravelling of the entire system of life in the ocean? Have we no moral imagination whatsoever outside this mind-numbingly narrow frame of gunmen and footballers?

There are no historical precedents for our current failure to grasp the moral significance of the ecological collapse of the biosphere.

Isn’t it time to examine the criteria of significance that guide the daily construction of “the news”? The news has, after all, assumed the status of supreme arbiter of significance in our society: almost everyone stops everything at least once a day to listen to the news. No other source of information currently enjoys such prestige and currency.

But isn’t this prestige being squandered, if those who construct the news focus generally on items of relative triviality while ignoring the literally earth-shattering changes that are occurring at an accelerating pace all around us?

Images spring irresistibly to mind of people in the brightly lit lounges of the Titanic gossiping animatedly about scandals in politics and religion while around them the vast forces of nature are closing in.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Think Globally, Act Selfishly: How Utilitarian Environmentalism Can Backfire

Photo: Jon Fingas/Flickr
by Brandon Keim

Earnest, well-meaning environmental messages are supposed to be ineffective relics of a bygone age, when bumper stickers still worked and treehuggers hadn’t realized that self-interest speaks louder than Mother Earth ever could.

But don’t put that Save the Whales t-shirt on eBay just yet.

In experiments published August 12 in Nature Climate Change, psychologists found that telling people about carpooling’s money-saving benefits seemingly makes them less likely to recycle.

In short, appeals to self-interest backfired, accidentally encouraging people to behave selfishly in other areas.

Constantly encouraged to care about nature because it'll save money, people could forget it's possible to just care.“These results reveal the potential for self-interested concerns to inhibit pro-environmental behavior,” wrote the researchers, who were led by Laurel Evans and Greg Maio of the United Kingdom’s Cardiff University.

In the study, 80 Cardiff University undergraduate students were each asked to read statements on a computer about carpooling. Some learned that it saved money, others that it’s good for the environment. A control group learned neither.

The students also filled out paper questionnaires about unrelated topics, which they were told to dispose at the session’s end. Unbeknownst to them, this was the experiment’s purpose, and a microcosm of environmental tensions: Would they use a recycling basket inconveniently located under another table, or a general waste bin at arm’s length?

Among those students “primed,” as psychologists say, with a message of carpooling’s self-transcending benefits, 89 percent recycled. Of the group that learned about the cost saving, just 50 percent recycled, as did 49 percent of the control group.

In a second version of the experiment, some students were told that carpooling is environmentally friendly and that it saves money. Their recycling rates were still just 50 percent, while 83 percent of those told only about environmental benefits recycled. Forty percent of a control group and just 15 percent of the cost-savings group recycled.

Percentage of students who practiced recycling after being psychologically primed with environmental messages emphasizing self-interest (far left) or the self-transcending value of nature (far right). Image: Evans et al./Nature Climate Change

While the findings are preliminary, involving an artificial situation and demographically unrepresentative participants, they’re also intriguing.

Some researchers have argued that precisely this pattern of behavior would appear in response to bottom-line-based environmental marketing campaigns, which try to accommodate both narrow self-concern and broader community well-being.

This tension isn’t unique to environmentalism, write Evans and Hahn, but may reflect human nature: Studies show that when people are encouraged to be self-interested, they become less helpful, even if there’s no reason why they can’t be both.

With mainstream environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy pushing utility, rather than nature’s intrinsic value, as a rationale for conservation, there’s another danger: Over a long period of time, appeals to self-interest can change how people see themselves.

“The erosion of a green self-identity over time is a threat,” write Evans and Maio. Constantly encouraged to care about nature because it’ll save them money and time, people could forget it’s possible to just care.

Citation: “Self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour.” By Laurel Evans, Gregory R. Maio, Adam Corner, Carl J. Hodgetts, Sameera Ahmed and Ulrike Hahn. Nature Climate Change, August 12, 2012.
Brandon is a Wired Science reporter and freelance journalist. Based in Brooklyn, New York and sometimes Bangor, Maine, he's fascinated with science, culture, history and nature. (Twitter | Google+)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Role Of Trees In Climate Change

Alaska forest - trees
Alaska forest - trees (Photo credit: blmiers2)
by Ian R Harlock

There can be no doubt amongst anyone that studies the environment as a whole that climate change is now a reality and has contributed to rising temperatures on a global scale.

And as the temperature increases, even by a fraction of a degree, these small but significant variances can influence natural evaporation events to such an extent that the timings and underlying nature of plant growth itself is being changed forever.

But climate change does not only alter the basis of plant life, it also changes the fundamental dynamics between pests and disease as well as the very foundations of the animals that can live and thrive in different areas of the globe.

Such changes have had huge implications for those working within the agriculture industry that have found their farms and ranches much less profitable and viable than ever before and the species and varieties of animal they are able to farm much different to those they have experienced in the past.

As the problem of climate change has predominantly been caused by burning fossil fuels and deforestation, by carefully reintroducing more trees into the areas that have been most greatly impacted, we can in fact start to re-absorb some of the CO2 that has been emitted and slow down the process of climate change that we have experienced over recent years.

However, the benefit of introducing trees into the environment is not exclusive to the CO2 absorption they provide. In addition, planting sustainable woodland on agricultural land has become a way for many to seek an alternative income source that is much less influenced by changes in the environment and can provide a stable way of living into the future.

This combination of trees and agriculture, commonly known as Agroforestry may well be the solution both in terms of environmental issues and also economic challenges that many landowners now face.

By identifying the correct types of trees that thrive in the local area and focusing on planting them in sufficient numbers, land owners not only establish protection for the environment but also take back control their personal livelihood.

Furthermore, the shade of forest trees can provide habitats to a number of diverse forms of wildlife which can bring back a natural equilibrium to the land and the roots of the trees are able to trap sediments and nutrients into the soil, enabling further plant life to thrive within the canopy provided.

While the trees are growing, the natural barriers that they provide can also ensure that the wild stock on the land are preserved and have a greater opportunity to thrive than ever before.

Though clearing agricultural land for forestation would be economically enviable for the farmer if they are planting for carbon absorption alone, by planting the right types of timber that provide a high sell on value to the land owner, this combination of agriculture and forestry could mean that trees themselves could be both a short-term and long-term solution to the challenges we now face.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: New Film by Josh Fox - The Sky Is Pink

Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marce...
Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marcellus Shale Formation for natural gas, from Pennsylvania Route 118 in eastern Moreland Township, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Alexandra Brunel

I've just seen Josh Fox's June 2012 short film (URL at the end) about the oil and gas fracking industries' fierce lobbying to open up the New York City watershed to high-pressure gas extraction.

Using both personal and scientific arguments, delivered in a powerful, quietly emotive voice, Josh shows us how these industries spend millions on PR, and on "lobbying" that some might think looks a tiny bit like bribery, to convince Americans to trust them with the power to pollute our lands and water sources for short-term financial gain.

The risks, in brief

The fracking process introduces a ferociously toxic chemical cocktail into the ground. All these chemicals must travel, under pressure, through the crumbling rock and through the layers we get our water from, via unreliable and possibly short-lived concrete casings with steel liners.

Each well requires millions of gallons of water to complete, much of which, afterward, permanently, becomes toxic waste. Some of this is carried away by road but in many areas it's cheaper to leave it deep in the ground under our feet. And they do.

Longer-term losses

I grew up in Central New York - in Madison County, a region of small farms and towns - areas hit hard by the recent financial crises. People are scared about the future, and the offer of thousands of dollars for the rights to lease your under-used agricultural land must seem like manna from heaven if you're about to lose your home.

But in the medium term, the leasing companies will ensure that these homes will be worse than lost. If we don't halt fracking, we'll lose our landscape to ugly, poorly regulated industrial development, and we'll lose clean water and air. We'll even make the rock itself toxic. None of these bode well for the health or happiness of our children and their descendents.

If you're not furious already, here's one final point: why are these companies willing to pay so much for the leases? The answer is this: they're securing a chunk of our future earnings. As long as we depend on fossil fuels, every family has to pay whatever price the industry demands. Every year, this increases. In the UK, gas prices have risen by 40% in three years.

My home town

As a child I played on the Marcellus shale. I learned first-hand how it crumbles and fractures, harbours fossils and secrets. Sweet drinking water came from shallow wells because the impermeable shale underlies the earth at only a few meters' depth.

Deep snows fall here. Melt-water comes off the hills, soaks the upper layers of soil, and drains off the surface of the shale into rivers, streams and lakes that feed livestock, crops, and families.

I grew up in Madison County, north and west of the area they're talking about in this new film. But look at the map of 2010 leases already under consideration or arranged by that year, in my home county.

Note how, by 2010, the threats this film discusses had already crept north from Pennsylvania, where - unlike New York, so far - regulations and controls have - to some extent - limited their reach.

And note especially wells already marked as "abandoned" - a worry, when Josh and his experts show us in this movie that it's possible or even likely that 50% of new wells will fail within thirty years.

PR and The Sky Is Pink: a historical perspective

In 1926, the great American political reformer Upton Sinclair published a novel, Oil!, about the oil industry and how it, and the financial institutions, took control of the media and politics of the period to push through oil development worldwide.

It's a fascinating, sympathetic and surprisingly modern book that lays bare how Americans were persuaded to elect those who had only their own interests at heart. These interests became more and more powerful as the century unfolded. It's arguable that they're even more powerful now.

Sinclair was not one for easy answers. He wrote at a time of huge political turmoil worldwide, and although he was sympathetic to reform, he was alert to propaganda and human weakness, whatever its source.

Disinformation and mis-information is one of the chief tools of power. As Josh shows in this new film, today this pro-fracking crusade has been delivered for management into the hands of PR professionals. In a near-incredible irony of history, we learn that these hands belong to the very same professionals who told us for years that tobacco was harmless, while concealing internal memos that proved otherwise.

Then he shows us some internal memos from the gas companies.

If this new film doesn't put ice in your cocktail, I don't know what will. Do watch it, consider it, and if you're inclined, get involved in opposing this threat before it - literally - undermines our future.

Watch now: The Sky Is Pink

If you live in the UK, please see the Frack Off website for latest news about UK action. More about fracking in my blog about what happened when I decided to go for it, as a writer and environmentalist. And other things.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

You Dirty Rat: Fossil Fuel Fires Up Global Warming

by Mike Nemeth

Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist an...
Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist and writer, attending the 2006 Stanford Singularity Summit via an HDTV telepresence system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The temperature is a little warm.

The forecast for this early August 2012 day called for 111 degrees in Fresno/Clovis, Calif. where I live.

That's relatively common in this region, where 40 or more days above 100 is common for summer. But it appears more of the United States is in for similar treatment.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center says July was the hottest month in recorded history.

In fact, its State of the Climate report says, January through July was the warmest first seven months of any year on record for the contiguous United States. The national temperature of 56.4 degrees was 4.3 degrees above the long-term average, with only the Pacific Northwest, which was near average, bucking the trend.

And of course Alaska's a bit cooler. My friend Steve likes to post data on his runs in Anchorage's scenic Kincaid Park. The latest was 55 degrees. Sweltering.

Superheating the atmosphere

This temperature stuff is more than just fodder for oblique discussions of the weather. The ramifications are huge, and most scientists predict dire consequences should the trend not be reversed.

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben spells out the scenario in stark terms. In a piece for Rolling Stone, which has some of the best investigative journalism in the country, he highlights three numbers to watch.

The first is 2 degrees Celsius, which refers to the window the world has before it succumbs to significant effects of climate change. The second is 563 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which refers to the amount of climate warming pollutants that can be released before we hit that two degree threshold.

Carbon dioxide, public enemy

The third, and perhaps most significant McKibben number, is 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. That's the amount of carbon locked up in all the known reserves of oil and coal. Should those reserves be exploited and the fossil fuels burned, we'll be well on the path to universal environmental destruction.

The cost would be astronomical, the devastation unparalleled.

The path to dealing with this appears obvious. Or relatively. Fossil fuels stand as the most costly fuel on the planet. But society would prefer to kick the can to the next generation.

Who's the bad guy?

Pushing fossil fuels

McKibben says it's obvious.The bad guys are coal and oil executives.

"Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell," he says.

Unfortunately, the oil companies hold the enviable position of having more money than their critics. While BP reported a loss of $2.2 billion for the second quarter of 2012, it's still doing fine. That compares with net profit of $5.7 billion for the same period a year earlier.

The Associated Press reports BP's revenue for the quarter declined 9 percent and the company set aside another $847 million for the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster and cleanup, "taking the total provision to just over $38 billion."

Money is the game

Not a problem. BP can afford it. In fact, it's created an ad campaign that portrays the company in such beneficent terms, its past fades to distant-memory status.

Says Hamilton Nolan of "Remember how BP's relentless pursuit of profits at the expense of safety caused the Gulf of Mexico to be flooded with oil a little while ago? No. I don't remember that. Do you? Hmm. What I do remember is BP's absolutely awesome Olympic spirit!"

Earnings-wise, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil fared better with Shell posting second quarter profit of $5.7 billion, down 13 percent from the same period a year earlier, and Exxon showing $8.4 billion, down 22 percent, according to the New York Times. Reporter Clifford Krauss quotes Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson saying, "Despite global economic uncertainty, we continue to invest throughout the business cycle, taking a long-term view of resource development."

Talk like that drives McKibben nuts. "There's not a more reckless man on the planet," he says of Tillerson. He adds that Tillerson told Wall Street analysts he plans to spend $37 billion on a year on exploration through 2016.

Averting disaster

The problem is that oil companies hold the future of the planet in their hands, and as long as they keep making scads of money, they won't be backing away from extracting, refining and burning as much of their fossil fuel reserves as possible. McKibben says the only way to deal with this is to tax carbon, making alternative energy more economical.

Of course, alternative energy is currently struggling its way to fossil-fuel parity already. But it could use a boost.

In the meantime, McKibben says the best recourse is moral outrage for those who would like to stop this pell-mell push to global warming. Enemy No. 1 is not Jimmy Cagney, nor is it Snidely Whiplash (both personal favorites). It's a bunch of rich executives ruining the globe for a few dollars more.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Overfishing Leading to Disastrous Consequences and Hardships

English: Brendelen SO 709. Modern trawler, Ska...
Brendelen SO 709. Modern trawler, Skagen harbour, Denmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Norma Holt

It is no stretch of the imagination to forecast the death of all sea species in our lifetime.

In fact it is becoming ever more obvious every day.

As giant processing vessels now roam the oceans taking entire shoals of pelagic fish the future for all species is grim.

One of these vessels is due to arrive in Australian waters by the end of August and environmentalists are already protesting. This super trawler, the FV Margiris, is capable of operating 24/7 and video of its operations from within the vessel demonstrates the size of a single haul.

The fish run like a river through shoots that deliver them from the massive nets dragged behind the boat onto conveyor belts. They then pass through various processing events leading to their freezing, weighing, packing and stacking ready for export. The mechanisation requires few attendants and the stream lined process means that from a single haul the profits are enormous.

Such a vessel may account for the complete disappearance of fish in various parts of the ocean. Easter Island has now no fish or any sea life around its shores. The people have said that big ships were operating within sight and are the likely cause. Not a crab, prawn, lobster or even rock shell fish were visible in recent footage taken by National Geographic. Aside from what is missing from under the sea there are also no birds or other life, such as whales and dolphins, around as well.

The same scenario has happened off the coast of West Africa and around the horn of Africa. It is in the latter region that ex fishermen have turned to piracy to survive. Off the coast of Chile fishermen once took catches of anchovies but that has now ceased as the species no longer appears there.

These ships, of which there are now several, are raping the oceans for financial gain at the expense of everyone who depends on the sea for a living. Even worse the super trawlers are destroying the future for all. The fish they catch are now sold at huge profits to countries that can no longer fish for themselves, such as West Africa.

The question is how long can we tolerate this devastation? Is it not a case of stopping them now for our own sake? Anyone who enjoys fishing and eating a fresh offering from the sea must take note. The consequences will obviously be a dead ocean.

Read more about raping the sea and learn why we are killing the world

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Super Trawlers, The Juggernauts of the Oceans: Environmental, Economic and Political Devastation

by Dr Susan Lawler, Head of Department, Department of Environmental Management and Ecology at La Trobe University, The Conversation:

Protesters out on the weekend to stop the “super” trawler’s arrival (AAP)
Protests on the weekend in Hobart against the Dutch owned super trawler, the FV Margiris, have led to the Australian environment minister, Tony Burke, expressing some concerns. Greenpeace’s petition against the super trawler is clearly having an impact.

The super trawlers are boats that should never have been built. They are anti-sustainable in design and devastating in their implementation. This particular boat recently caused the collapse of fish stocks in West Africa such that Senegal has recently banned all super trawlers.

Ironically, the European owned boat processed these fish and sold them back to African markets, thereby raping not only the environment, but the economy, of their host nation.

But why such concern about a single boat? It would take 56 traditional African fishing boats a year to harvest the number of fish this boat can remove from the seas in a single day. A small crew of 40 people will get just one days wages for this fishing effort, as compared to the hundreds of local fishers who would have received wages for a whole year.

In Australia, the quota of fish allocated to this super trawler is half of the entire allowable catch in the area. This is economically unsustainable.

The by-catch, or random killing of non-target species, is much higher in the automated fishing operation of a super trawler than in any other type of fishing.

Dolphins and seals are killed directly, and the removal of vast quantities of red bait and mackerel impacts the ecosystems where these boats fish by destroying the food chain that supports tuna, sharks, seabirds and mammals. This is environmentally unsustainable.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Extinction Rate Now 877 Times Faster: North American Fish Extinctions May Double by 2050

by Before It's News:

Contacts and sources: Noel M. Burkhead, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Credit: USGS
From 1900-2010, freshwater fish species in North America went extinct at a rate 877 times faster than the rate found in the fossil record, while estimates indicate the rate may double between now and 2050.

This new information comes from a U.S. Geological Survey study to be published in the September issue of the journal BioScience.

In the fossil record, one freshwater fish species goes extinct every 3 million years, but North America lost 39 species and 18 subspecies between 1898 and 2006.

Based on current trends in threatened and endangered fish species, researchers estimate that an additional 53-86 species of freshwater fish may be extinct by the year 2050.

Since the first assessment of extinct North American freshwater fishes in 1989, the number of extinct fishes increased by 25 percent. 
“This study illustrates the value of placing current events into the context of deep geologic time, as rocks preserve an unbiased record of natural rates of processes before human activities began to alter the landscape, the atmosphere, the rivers, and oceans,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt.

“Freshwater fish are a good choice for analysis as their bones make clear fossil impressions, and their lake and river environments produce excellent stratigraphic sequences.”

The study’s author, Noel Burkhead, used an established method to compare the rate of extinction found in the fossil record with modern rates.

“Estimates of freshwater fish extinctions during the twentieth century are conservative, because it can take 20-50 years to confirm extinction,” said Burkhead, a research fish biologist for the USGS.

Extinction is a natural process, Burkhead explained, so examining its rate over a long geological timescale provides biologists with a benchmark for comparing current extinctions to background rate. The accelerated pace of extinction observed since the beginning of the twentieth century suggests human causes.

In North America, assessments of extinctions are conducted by the American Fisheries Society’s Endangered Species Committee, using categories to factor in a lag time since the last observation of the species.

The study used the categories “extinct” (species not seen for 50 years or more), “possibly extinct” (not been seen for 20 years or more), and “extinct in nature.” All these categories require that searches for the missing fishes must have been made by knowledgeable biologists.

“It is extremely rare that the death of the last individual is documented by biologists,” said Burkhead, “although it can happen when a fish only is found in a specific spring or caldera, and it dries up. That’s what happened with five species of desert pupfishes and the Alberca silverside - the last known fish to go extinct in North America.”

The Alberca silverside was found only in the Alberca Caldera, Guanajuato, Mexico; it went extinct when the caldera temporarily dried up in August 2006.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Life on the Edge (of Wildfire)

Colorado Springs Waldo Canyon fire
Remains of a house burned in Waldo Canyon fire (
In Colorado and the West, the most desirable real estate is also the most likely to burn.
When the Waldo Canyon fire ignited in the mountains near Colorado Springs this June, Cindy and Mark Maluschka started packing.

The evacuation zone mapped out by city officials ended two streets away from them, but the Maluschkas have seen fires spread faster than expected before.

The 2002 Hayman Fire - until this summer, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history - had come within six miles of their old home in the forested hills of Woodland Park.

But when they moved to suburban Colorado Springs, they thought they would be safe. In their new neighborhood, Cindy Maluschka says, "there were more streets, more services, and more distance from the forest itself. We certainly felt safer from a wildland fire."

Even so, as June’s Waldo Canyon fire spread, she and her husband gathered documents, family photos, and the tooth their daughter, Amber, had recently lost. They put a clothes basket in the little girl’s room. "Pack this with all your most important things," her mother told her, limiting the number of stuffed animals the six-year-old could bring to her grandfather’s house outside the evacuation zone.

When the fire blew up three days later, Cindy and Mark were back at the house, trying to get some work done, when officials suddenly issued a mandatory evacuation order. Cindy opened their garage door and could see the mountain on fire.

"I felt the heat," she says. "I felt the pressure. It was kind of like tornado pressure." They had 10 minutes to pack the last things they would save - computers and clothes - and get out.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Big Ag Spends Big Bucks to Keep GMOs in Your Food Secret

Image by Tim Luddy
by , Mother Jones:

(Yesterday I wrote about a related pet project of agribiz giants: bankrolling the deregulation of genetically modified foods. You can read that post here).

Remember that California ballot initiative, which will be voted on in November, that would require labeling of all foods containing genetically modified ingredients? I first wrote about it here.

Since GM corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton (the oil part) are processed into sweeteners, fats, and other additives that suffuse the US food system, the initiative would require the labeling of something like 80 percent of all non-organic processed food sold in supermarkets.

If the California initiative passes, it will likely force food processors to label food nationwide, since it would be costly and cumbersome to have one set of labels for California and another for the other 49 states.

And labels, of course, could prompt consumers to demand more GMO-free foods - and in turn push farmers to demand non-GMO seeds, imperiling sales growth for the Big Six.

Protection money: cash raised to defeat California's labeling proposition

Cue a gusher of agrichemical cash into the effort to defeat the labeling initiative. This year through June 1, hundreds of thousands in donations had already bolstered the coffers of the astroturf group "Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored by Farmers and Food Producers," the Secretary of State's Office reports.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Why Are Carbon Footprints So Much Lower in Denmark?

English: World CO2 emissions by region from th...
World CO2 emissions by region from the Energy Information Administration (Wikipedia)
by Terri Coles

Do you know how your country's per capita carbon emissions compare with those of other nations?

Canada's annual per capita emissions were 17.9 tonnes in 2007, up 24.3 percent since Kyoto, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

The United States, once the world leader in emissions, is at 19.9 tonnes per capita, up 19.3 percent since Kyoto's 1997 ratification - but China is the new number one.

Their citizens' per capita emissions are less than the US numbers at 4.8 percent, but the country's total emissions are now more than those of the United States at nearly 6.3 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2007.

Other industrialized countries come in much lower than our Canadian numbers - like Denmark, for example, at just 10.4 tonnes per capita, actually down half a percent since 1997. What could account for the difference?

That's a question that economist and author Jeff Rubin looked at in his new book, The End of Growth. In an excerpt that ran in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, Rubin investigated Denmark's reputation as an environmental leader.

On first impressions - literally, as Rubin recalled seeing an impressive swath of offshore wind turbines while flying into Cophenhagen - it would seem that the country's embrace of wind power is behind its relatively small carbon footprint.

But as it turns out, those windmills, now part of Denmark's important energy technology exports, only provide 20 percent of the country's power. The other 80 percent, the same percentage as in China, actually comes from coal - a fuel 20 percent dirtier than oil and two times as dirty as natural gas.

What's different about Denmark?

The real difference maker for Denmark, Rubin argues, is that they use so much less energy overall - because it makes financial sense for them to do so. We could do this in North America too, he says, and see similar results.

For example, in Copenhagen energy for homes costs 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, two to three times the average North American price. Consequently, Danes have a strong incentive to conserve energy at home, in order to keep their power bills down - one that we simply don't have here, where energy reserves are strong and power is relatively cheap.

Denmark is also known for being a cyclist's dream, with some of the best bike lanes in the world in Copenhagen, and biking from place to place instead of driving is common. Rubin points out that this is in part because the costs of owning and operating a car are simply more expensive for Danes.

As with all of Europe, fuel prices are higher than in North America, but more importantly simply owning a car is costlier - the Danish pay a tax of up to 180 percent, depending on engine size, of a vehicle's sticker price.

Japan's new passion for setsuden

Denmark's policies are born out of necessity - they don't have their own significant hydrocarbon reserves to rely on, and importing fuel is expensive.

Japan is undertaking energy conservation efforts for the same reason due to the country's decision to shut down its nuclear reactors, which provided nearly a third of its power until recently.

As a result, Japan is now nationally focused on electricity conservation or setsuden, with efforts ranging from leaving AC off in office buildings to encouraging citizens to cut their energy consumption at home by up to 20 percent.

Because Denmark lacks both a significant energy or auto sector, politicians there don't have to worry about pleasing those industries, giving them more freedom to enact the policies that have kept the country's energy consumption low.

In Canada and the United States, the oil and auto industries are both subsidized by governments; however, until political will to make changes comes along, individuals still have the power to change their behaviours to mirror those of the Danes and Japanese - and that means economic savings in this part of the world as well.

How to cut your own carbon footprint

There are many ways to cut your personal carbon footprint. Use less energy at home: keep your thermostat lower, use your AC less often, and install a thermostat timer so you aren't wasting power at night or when you aren't home. Look into retrofitting your windows to make them more energy efficient, preventing you from losing heat or cool air.

When you need new appliances, look for Energy Star models. And take a hint from the Danish by reducing your reliance on driving. If you have two cars for your household, try to get down to one instead. Consider taking public transit to work instead of commuting by car, or look into options for carpooling. And get a bike - you'll save money on gas and get some extra exercise.

For what you can't cut, you can choose to offset by purchasing carbon credits. As a bonus, if you buy credits that originate in Canada, you'll be supporting efforts in this country to reduce emissions and increase energy efficiency. That means cleaner air for Canadians, and a lower footprint both personally and nationally. Maybe we can start to give Denmark a run for their money.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

U.S. Has Hottest Month on Record in July 2012, NOAA Says

by , The Washington Post:
Temps compared to normal in July across USA (RCCs)
In 118 years of U.S. records, July 2012 stands as king, hotter than any month previously observed.

NOAA reports today that the average temperature across the continental U.S. was 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average, 0.2 degrees hotter than the previous record set in July, 1936.

Link: July State of the Climate report from NOAA

Not only was the month of July unrivaled for its hot temperatures across the nation, but so too were the first seven months of the calendar year and the last 12 months.

In fact, the last four 12-month periods have each successively established new records for the warmest period of that length.

In this most recent 12-month span from August 2011-July 2012, every state observed warmer than average temperatures except Washington state, which was near average.

During July, some of the hottest temperature occurred in the Plains, Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. Virginia had its hottest July on record, a full 4 degrees above average. Maryland’s July was 3rd hottest on record. In 32 of the 48 contiguous U.S. states, July ranked among the top 10 hottest. At least 35 cities/towns had their hottest day on record (any day of the year).

Related: 2nd hottest July on record in Washington, D.C.; warmest year-to-date on record, 5th driest
Precipitation as percent of normal in July across USA (RCC)


The hot weather was intimately linked to the drought, which expanded to nearly 63 percent of the Lower 48 in July.

In a vicious cycle, high temperatures accelerated evaporation which dried up the land surface allowing it to heat up even more.

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