Thursday, April 17, 2014

King Coal Is Dying a Slow Death in America

by Tara Lohan, originally published by Alternet,

You’ve seen the photos or read the stories.

In some of China’s cities you can’t even see the sun.

People walk down the streets wearing surgical masks.

Tourists pose for photos in front of fake landmarks since the real ones are obscured.

China’s economic salvation might end up its undoing... and ours. The country’s prosperity is clouded in a thick haze of smog belched from coal-burning power plants.

In cities choked by pollution and a world coming to grips with the realities of climate change, what future does coal really have? Is this prehistoric energy source headed for extinction? Or will we hang on to it and risk the same fate?

While China’s hunger for coal seems insatiable - it gobbles up 4 billion tons a year, about half of global supply - the story is different in the U.S.

Here, coal’s share of electricity production has fallen from nearly 53 percent in 2000 to below 40 percent today. Coal companies face economic hardships, dwindling market shares and increasing regulations.

But don’t dance on King Coal’s grave just yet. The industry may continue to limp along for decades, with little growth, but lots of greenhouse gas emissions nonetheless.

“No one wants to say it - but the U.S. coal industry is in the process of slowly and quietly folding up shop,” said Richard Heinberg, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and author of many energy books including, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis. “It won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen this decade. But it’s certainly not a growth industry.”

Coal’s future hinges on how a few key things play out in the next few years: public pressure, regulations, exports, technology, friends in high places, and most importantly, the amount of economically recoverable coal.

200 or 20 Years?

How much coal do we have left? It depends on whom you ask. The Energy Information Administration says that “estimated recoverable coal reserves” give us about 200 years worth of coal. But not everyone agrees with that figure.

A report by Leslie Glustrom for Clean Energy Action says that, “The belief that the U.S. has a ‘200 year’ supply of coal is based on the faulty reporting by the EIA of U.S. coal deposits as ‘reserves.’ Most U.S. coal is buried too deeply to be mined at a profit and should not be categorized as reserves, but rather as ‘resources.’”

Glustrom relied on many studies, including information from the United States Geologic Survey. The USGS has examined coalfields across the country and their numbers weren’t quite as rosy as the EIA.

Take the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana; it’s the country’s single biggest source of coal. The USGS found about 1 trillion short tons of coal resources there. But of that, the agency’s research deemed that only “25 billion short tons of coal resources met the definition of economically recoverable resources".

That may seem like a lot, but the U.S. currently produces 1 billion short tons a year, of which about 40 percent comes from the Powder River Basin - which give the region just over 20 years of coal.
The crux is not really how much remains underground but how much is profitable to extract.

“If coal can’t be mined at a profit, not much of it will be mined,” wrote Glustrom. “It is unclear how long the U.S. coal industry will produce large quantities of coal and at what price, but the current financial distress of U.S. coal mining companies could lead to significant changes in U.S. coal production in less than a decade.”

That doesn’t mean that we’ll run out of coal in 10 years, simply that mining it will start becoming a losing bet for coal companies. It’s easy to see how that could happen.

Natural gas prices have already edged coal out of some key markets and the prices of renewable energy are falling. Renewables are already becoming cost competitive in some places. Just like with oil and gas, the cheap and easy coal is gone. Production costs are rising and that’s being passed on to utilities. The prices that utilities have to pay for coal has increased about 7 percent a year since 2004.

Tough Economic Road Ahead

From a business perspective, being a coal company these days is not easy. Writing for Greenpeace, Kelly Mitchell declared it the “beginning of the end” for coal.

“Peabody (BTU) and Arch (ACI), the largest U.S. coal companies, have lost more than 75% of their peak value since 2011, as coal struggles to compete with renewable energy and gas,” she wrote. “170 new coal plants representing $450 billion in capital investment have been canceled. Few utility companies are taking a gamble on new coal generation; those who have are in financial trouble.”

If you don’t believe Greenpeace, how about Deutsche Bank. In 2011, one of the company’s executives, Kevin Parker, wrote that “Coal is a dead man walkin.’" When it comes to coal plants, “Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them ... and the economics to make it clean don’t work,” he elaborated.

Deutsche Bank isn’t the only big finance company with concerns about the economic future of coal. Research by Goldman Sachs concluded, “Earning a return on incremental investment in thermal coal mining and infrastructure capacity is becoming increasingly difficult.”

Last summer Goldman Sachs downgraded its price forecasts for coal by 13 percent for 2014 and 11 percent for 2015.

“We believe that thermal coal’s current position atop the fuel mix for global power generation will be gradually eroded,” its report for investors stated citing three reasons: environmental regulation, competition from natural gas and renewable energy, and gains made in energy efficiency.

Regulatory Hurdles

The biggest indicators of how steep the slide will be for coal is likely regulation. So far the climate legislation that the fossil fuel industry feared would come to fruition under Obama’s reign never made meaningful strides in Congress.

But Obama did announce upcoming regulations last year from the Environmental Protection Agency that would limit pollution coming from power plants. Expect to see more details of this in June - and Republicans (and perhaps some coal state Dems) fighting tooth and nail against it.

So far the EPA has proposed limiting coal plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour and 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour for gas plants.

If these regulations do see the light of day, it will make it almost impossible to build large, new coal-burning power plants (which now crank out about 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour) unless they use some technology to capture and store carbon (more on this below).

Already we are seeing a transition away from old, coal-burning plants, thanks in part to new regulations set to limit mercury and other toxic emissions. The EIA reports that at least 60 gigawatts of capacity will be retired by 2020 (and 90 percent of that by 2016).

For perspective, the total generating capacity of all 1,308 coal plants functioning in 2012 was 310 gigawatts. For the past several years, the EIA reports, most of the retirements were smaller, inefficient plants (an average size of 97 megawatts), but the planned upcoming retirement of plants will be much larger, with the average size being 145 megawatts.

Greener Pastures Overseas?

With dimming prospects in the U.S., coal companies are increasingly looking overseas where they can fetch higher prices for their product to balance the rising costs of production.

In the last decade, coal exports have nearly tripled - we’re now sending around 100 million short tons abroad each year according to the EIA (by the way, we still also import coal from Colombia, Indonesia and Canada).

Half of the coal ships to Europe, a quarter to Asia and the rest to South and North America, much of that passing through ports in Virginia, Maryland and Louisiana. But Asia, particularly China, is viewed as one of the biggest markets for growth.

And, since the late 1990s, the biggest mines in the U.S. have been out west in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin. That has made ports on the West Coast a prime target for coal exports.

A few years ago the export market through the Pacific Northwest looked hot. There were six proposals in the works, but changing market conditions sent coal prices falling and suddenly three plans were scrapped. Environmental and community health groups have teamed up with other concerned residents to block plans for the remaining three terminals.

“Communities along the rail lines are recognizing that they will get all the impacts, but none of the benefits,” said the Sierra Club’s Cesia Kearns. “The mining, transport, and burning of coal hurts communities every step of the way.”

Communities are concerned about traffic delays (particularly for emergency response vehicles) from mile-long coal trains, health impacts from coal dust, increased particulate matter from diesel engines, and the possibility of derailment.

The coalition opposing coal exports in the Pacific Northwest is getting a boost from the market.

“Asia was supposed to be the next frontier for U.S. coal producers, a glimmer of hope for a sinking industry,” wrote Rob Davis for the Oregonian. “But the market is shifting underfoot, calling the terminals’ profitability into question. For investors, they’ve become bets that markets will bounce back.”

It’s a steep bet.

Technology, the Savior

One of the only things that can save coal will be new and improved technology. However, there is no technology on the horizon that will improve mining yields, said Post Carbon Institute’s Heinberg. The only way to get more value from hard to reach coal seams would be underground coal gasification.

“It involves burning coal underground in situ and siphoning off gases that contain combustibles like methane,” he explained. “That can be applied to seams too thin or too deeply buried or underneath oceans that would never be mined commercially.”

It hasn’t been done to any significant scale yet and if it was, “It would be a horrendous thing from a climate standpoint,” said Heinberg.

Where coal has its greatest chance of market resurgence is with technology that comes during the burning. Carbon capture and sequestration (CSS) has been the holy grail of the coal industry for years. If you’ve ever heard someone mention “clean coal,” that’s likely what they were referring to.

In a recent article for National Geographic Michelle Nijhuis captures our current conundrum: Coal is “the dirtiest, most lethal energy source we have. But by most measures it is also the cheapest, and we depend on it.”

She admits that coal can never be clean, but perhaps, she wonders if it can be “clean enough.” By this she means to “prevent not only local disasters but also a radical change in global climate.” Her story appeared just after a feature in Wired declaring that “clean coal” is the future.

But there’s a few problems. CCS technology relies on capturing carbon dioxide and piping it to someplace where it can be injected underground - the goal being to cut the greenhouse gas impacts associated with coal.

The first problem is that coal is not just dirty when it’s burned; mining coal is dirty and deadly. Mining communities have been found to have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory and kidney problems. They suffer from air and water pollution.

Areas of Appalachia are subjected to bombardment from explosives as mountains are leveled, streams buried, and some of the most diverse temperate forests in the world are obliterated. Coal dust also threatens communities along rail lines and near processing plants.

Remember the chemical spill from a coal-related company that contaminated the drinking water for 300,00 people in West Virginia in January? These are all local disasters, and none of them would have been prevented by CCS.

The other problem with CCS is that technology still has serious doubters - and serious costs. The first such plant in the U.S. is expected to come online this year in Mississippi. But the Kemper County Energy Facility has been fraught with problems, especially when it comes to cost overruns.

Suzanne Goldenberg writes for the Guardian that Kemper is expected to remove about two-thirds of its carbon dioxide emissions - this puts it on par with natural gas power plants (which are cleaner but not clean).

However, she writes, “the economics are still not in favour of carbon capture, even with Kemper's example, because of the high capital costs, industry analysts said.” The cost of building Kemper has now reached $5 billion.

With coal already having trouble competing in the market, the added costs that will be associated may make widespread deployment of CCS untenable. “Given the direction of the trends, even a 10 percent cost increase for electricity for coal with CCS is a deal killer,” said Heinberg.

Of course, there is always the possibility that we’ll continue to subsidize the coal industry, even when it is not cost-effective and goes against the best environmental health and science we know.

What About the Climate?

Even if the U.S. and other countries manage to significantly cut the amount of coal they burn, China remains the big X factor when it comes to the climate.

“Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its estimate of the allowable total cumulative global CO2 emissions between 2012 and 2100 to prevent the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius ... if China’s coal use continues to increase as predicted, by 2040 China will have consumed more than a third of that global budget,” wrote Eric Larson for Climate Central.

“Combined with the U.S. and the rest of the world, China’s emissions have the planet on a path to surpass the global budget by 2040.”

If we head beyond the "global budget," expect to see the effects of catastrophic climate changes.

Of course, China has had some help getting to where it is. “We are largely responsible for it,” said Heinberg. “We get to reduce our carbon emissions or keep them steady in the wealthy industrial world by outsourcing manufacturing to China, which makes all our cheap plastic stuff by burning coal.”

But China is trying. It has to. “Pollution levels are becoming economy threatening,” said Heinberg. China is trying everything in the book: CCS, nuclear, renewables, and shale gas. The country just announced it would close 1,700 small and inefficient coal plants. It’s a step in the right direction, but a small one.

“One way or another they have got to get off their reliance on coal, but frankly they don’t know how to do it,” added Heinberg.

In the U.S. he believes it can be done with a combination of public pressure and market forces. And when it comes to the public pressure, he believes opposing export terminals and demanding full cost accounting for coal production (no more ignoring the environment and health impacts).

“I think we have to keep the pressure up from the standpoint of public policy. If we just wait for the market to take care of it the market will do it in a savage way,” said Heinberg. “We’ve waited too long already for a gentle transition to a post carbon future. The longer we wait, the longer we rely on market forces to make the transitions, the worse it gets.”

One thing is certain, we don’t have any longer to weigh the options. Coal burning is our biggest contributor to climate change. Scientist Michael E. Mann wrote in Scientific American,“If the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036.”

Smoke emissions image via shutterstock. Reproduced on with permission.
About Tara Lohan:  

Friday, April 11, 2014

Uncertainty Isn't Cause for Climate Complacency – Quite the Opposite

by Ben Newell, UNSW Australia and Michael Smithson, Australian National University
If we’re not certain that the problem’s there, then … we shouldn’t take actions which have a high severity the other way.
This was the response from David Murray - then chairman of Australia’s Future Fund, now head of the government’s financial system inquiry - when asked about climate change in an ABC interview in November 2011.

On the face of it, his rationale might sound reasonable, and Murray is certainly not alone in voicing this kind of opinion. But our research shows that his logic isn’t right.

Our analysis shows why greater uncertainty about climate change increases the likelihood that the real-world effects will be at the more severe end of the scale. In other words, uncertainty should not be a reason for doing nothing. It should be an even stronger call to action.

The dangers of uncertainty

Let’s briefly leave aside the fact that the case for action on climate change has grown significantly stronger in the two-and-a-half years since Murray made his remarks. Despite the growing urgency, the idea that we should wait for more certainty is still a popular one.

Should we wait for more certainty? Our analysis says no.

In two papers published in the journal Climatic Change (see here and here), we and our colleagues present an analysis of climate uncertainty and what it means for how the climate system might evolve over the coming decades.

Our analysis focused on uncertainty about “climate sensitivity”: the warming ultimately expected in response to a doubling of carbon dioxide levels relative to pre-industrial times.

The table below summarises the potential consequences of different amounts of warming, given different policy responses (for simplicity, climate sensitivity is divided into values of “below 1C” and “2C or above”).

Weak warming would create only limited adverse consequences, whereas stronger warming would have serious impacts.

Consequences of different policy choices under different climate impacts. Lewandowsky et al. 2014

Current estimates of climate sensitivity converge on 3C, with a range of about 1.5C to 4.5C. The key question is: what is the implication of this uncertainty? What would happen if the range of uncertainty were bigger or smaller?

The figure below (which involves simulated data) gives us an idea.

Chances of 5C warming (red line) in response to distributions of estimates centred on 3C warming but with differing uncertainties.The top left panel shows the least uncertainty, and least chance of exceeding 5C, the bottom right shows most uncertainty and most chance of exceeding 5C.

As the simulation shows, growing levels of uncertainty would make extreme outcomes more likely, even if all the forecasts are centred on an estimate of 3C temperature rise.

So more uncertainty means a higher chance of seriously adverse outcomes. But that’s not all - a wider spread of probability also makes it more difficult to prepare for an outcome that is slap in the middle of that spread.

Why does it work this way?

Perhaps the simplest way to think about it is to realise that uncertainty cuts both ways. One cannot only focus on the lower end of predictions about the impacts of increasing temperature; one has to consider the whole range.

For instance, if you can predict with absolute certainty that sea levels will rise by 50 centimetres, then it is a simple matter to build a levee that can cope with this.

But as soon as there is uncertainty about that estimate, it has a knock-on effect for mitigating action.

We have found (also discussed here) that only a relatively small amount of uncertainty in estimates of sea level rise means building a levee almost twice as high as the one in the no-uncertainty scenario, to cope with the wide spread of possible outcomes.

Ignoring the implication of this uncertainty means that a town or city’s flood risk will necessarily grow.

If we take the same attitude to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then we can see how the problem of uncertainty necessarily drives the world towards more serious warming. Our ultimate conclusion is this: the more uncertainty there is about the evolution of the climate, the more urgently we should act.

Why people dislike uncertainty

Decision theorists have long been fascinated by how people react to uncertainty or ambiguity when facing choices.

In 1961, a decade before he found fame by making the Pentagon Papers public, US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg demonstrated the famous paradox that people dislike choosing options when they are not sure about the probabilities involved. In contrast, they are far more likely to take a risk when the exact odds of success are known - even if those odds are low.

This “ambiguity aversion” might therefore explain why Murray and others resist action to address the climate problem (although it might also be noted that risk is far more readily embraced in other spheres of public life, such as business and foreign policy).

Science, of course, is beset with ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, it might be said that anyone who demands certainty of scientists doesn’t really understand how science works.

This problem crucially applies to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As Fordham University psychologist David Budescu and his colleagues have shown, people struggle to interpret correctly the language of uncertainty used in IPCC reports.

For example, readers regularly underestimate what the IPCC means by the words “virtually certain”, and overestimate the meaning of “unlikely”.

These difficulties of interpretation and aversion to ambiguity are significant challenges to those trying to communicate climate change, because they reinforce another barrier to action on climate change: the idea of “status quo bias”.

People overwhelmingly prefer the status quo to any alternatives, especially if those alternatives are unfamiliar or uncertain.

No excuse to do nothing

Overcoming these issues is incredibly important. As we have shown, ambiguity aversion is not an excuse to do nothing or to delay action. In fact, our analysis shows that if we are uncertain, there is even more reason to act.

More worrying is the active promotion of uncertainty as a means of spreading this aversion more widely. In his 2011 Quarterly Essay, La Trobe University politics professor Robert Manne took aim at elements of the media he said were deliberately sowing doubt:
In failing to see or refusing to admit the simple distinction between the basic theory of the science of climate change that is consensual (which of course does not mean unanimous) and those parts that are necessarily uncertain and subject to vigorous debate, great mischief and public confusion has occurred, either through calculated deception or an incapacity for clear thought.
To disregard the warnings and hide behind uncertainty is to buy into a false sense of security. Indeed, it is because of these “necessary uncertainties” that the time for clear thought and, more importantly, urgent action is now upon us - without a shadow of doubt.

The Conversation
Ben Newell receives funding from the Australian Research Council, including an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant partnered with the Department of the Environment.

Michael Smithson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Inside the Prison Walls of Consumerism

by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists:

jail cells

There’s a shopping mall in San Diego that used to be a prison. Restored, repurposed, and redecorated, it’s hard to imagine that this place once imprisoned hundreds of inmates.

One might argue, however, that it’s a different kind of prison now. A voluntary incarceration, caged by the invisible walls of consumption.

This might sound hyperbolic, but it’s an apt analogy. After all, consumption isn’t the problem; compulsory consumption (consumerism) is the problem.

We’ve trapped ourselves by thinking that consumerism will make us happy, that buying shit we don’t need will somehow make us whole.

We’ve gotten good at fooling ourselves, too. We’ve overdecorated the jailhouse walls - walls we’ve built around ourselves - and we’ve made our cells so comfortable that we’re terrified to leave. But a prison cell with a view is still a prison cell.

As the Globe Warms, We Get Hot Air From Politicians

by John Passant, En Passant:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on climate change writes Michael Kandelaars in Red Flag.

Written by more than 240 experts from 70 countries and citing more than 12,000 scientific references, it is the most comprehensive analysis of the state of our knowledge about climate change - and the starkest confirmation yet about the extent of global warming.

Despite the scientific consensus and dire warnings of the need for immediate action, politicians continue to fiddle while the planet burns.

“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change”, said Rajendra Pachauri, chairperson of the IPCC. As global temperatures increase due to continued greenhouse gas emissions, extreme weather events are becoming commonplace.

A hotter planet will result in island nations being submerged by rising sea levels; decreased global food production; larger floods; increased numbers of environmental refugees; increased rates of extinction of animals and marine life; and the worst is yet to come.

AR5 specifically describes Australia as headed for enormous changes over the next 80 years. Across the country we will experience hotter and more frequent heat waves, more bushfires and an increase in heat-related deaths and hospitalisations.

If you thought last summer was bad, the report warns that by 2100, parts of Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland could experience up to 192 days per year above 40 degrees.

Longer and harsher droughts are expected, with rainfall to decline by up to 40 percent in south-east Australia. The rest of the country will experience an increase in extreme rainfall and flooding. It gets worse.

The report cites a projected increase in diseases carried by water and food: up to 335,000 new cases of bacterial gastroenteritis each year by 2050 and outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever in a hotter Australia.

Increased heat stress and disease will disproportionately affect remote Indigenous communities. Rising sea levels threaten to displace many Torres Strait Islanders and the inhabitants of many islands in the South Pacific such as Kiribati and Tuvalu.

AR5 paints a frightful picture of the future of our planet, yet the response of governments and the rich makes you think they’re living on Mars.

Abbott dismissed the report, stating, “Australia is a land of droughts and flooding rains. Always has been, always will be.” He claimed that he will “take strong and effective action to deal with climate change … you’ve got to have smart policies, not dumb policies.”

Yes, smart policies. Like expanding coal seam gas fracking in Queensland - a technique which has resulted in such severe contamination of water resources in one part of the United States that residents can set their tap water on fire. Great way to save on your heating bill!

Or how about that ingenious policy of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to shut down 30 fire stations and sack 300 firefighters after recent bushfires?

With more people needing to visit hospital suffering from heat stroke, what better time to start cutting back on health care and charging people $6 per GP visit? Best of all, Abbott will stop the Great Barrier Reef being destroyed by warmer temperatures by getting the coal companies in there to destroy it first. Clever!

Back to reality. The steps needed even to mitigate the effects of climate change aren’t being taken, let alone any serious action to prevent climate change. The future laid out in AR5 is where we’re headed, but it’s not inevitable and it’s not too late.

What is needed is not a simple policy change, but an urgent radical change in the way our world works. For all the rhetoric about the efficiency of capitalism, this system of profit above all else is the biggest barrier to saving the planet.

The technology already exists for a world based on 100 percent renewable energy. Research by the Melbourne Energy Institute has shown that a 200km by 200km square of solar panels - .05 percent of total land space - would produce enough energy to power the whole of Australia. Include the use of wind and hydroelectric power, and the potential is enormous.

These are the sorts of “smart policies” that should be implemented, yet it is the mining companies and coal plant owners who have everything to lose from it.

Let’s start by taxing Gina Rinehart’s $20 billion and BHP’s recently announced $8 billion profit, and fund renewables that way. If the system is geared towards upholding the profits of these corporations to the detriment of the planet, then the system needs to go.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Building Resilience: Beekeeping in the Paso del Istmo

A poster of bees and wasps
Bees and wasps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Richard Joyce, Paso Pacifico Meliponiculture Intern, One Percent for the Planet:

A lean man past middle age, Francisco Cerda still goes to work most days of the week at a limestone quarry in Las Mercedes, an area of the Paso del Istmo near the Costa Rican border.

His house is rustic and similar to many in the region.

Approaching it, we pass a well, an outdoor shower, and a large basin for washing clothes.

Scrawny dogs lie sprawled on the ground, and chickens peck at insects in the shade of a mango tree.

The house´s walls are made of rough boards with large cracks, and the smell of wood smoke drifts from the kitchen.
Our eyes are drawn to dark specks darting in and out of logs hanging horizontally from the eaves of the house´s metal roof. They are bees, and they are why we are here.
Francisco owns hives of jicote manso, a species of stingless bee that has been kept by people in Central America for millennia. The word jicote comes from the Nahuatl word xicotl (meaning bee or wasp, and manso means docile in Spanish). 
Francisco used to have over forty hives, but when violence broke out in the region during the 1970s, his family immigrated to Costa Rica, leaving the bee colonies behind. When Francisco returned home after the war, only about five hives remained.
Today, he cherishes those hives, marking the age of each hive by the birth dates of his grown children. Stingless bee honey is traditionally given to pregnant women as their due dates approach, maybe as a nutritional supplement or maybe just as a sweet indulgence!
My coworker Marcos and I have been visiting Francisco´s home every week since the end of January, expressing Paso Pacifico´s interest in conserving native bees, explaining the process for dividing hives, and catching bees in Ziploc baggies in order to collect pollen samples from them. 
Initially, Francisco seemed skeptical about our project, but it soon became clear that the maintenance of stingless bee populations was a concern that we shared.
Francisco has noted the increasing scarcity of jicote manso, attributing the population decline to the conversion of forest to teak plantations and the proliferation of both feral and domesticated Africanized honey bees. 
His hypotheses are quite plausible, likely compounded by pesticide use and overharvesting of honey from the forest.
The plight of bees likely sounds familiar to you; with some regularity, we read in the news about colonies collapsing and fruit orchards being left without pollinators. 
Honey bees support many livelihoods and pollinate many crops, but with thousands of bee species in the Americas, it is shortsighted to focus exclusively on the preservation of honey bees. 
Reliance on a single pollinator species makes us vulnerable, and honey bees are not great pollinators for all plants. For example, they do not perform buzz pollination, a mechanism needed by crops such as tomatoes.
At the very end of March, Francisco, Marcos, and I moved a colony of jicote manso from a rotting log hive to a brand new box hive. The brood combs were of modest size, but so far it seems that the bees are adapting well to their new home. Perhaps by working with them, we can build our resilience together.
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Toxic Secret Buried in Many City Gardens

Maple Community Gardens
Maple Community Gardens (Photo: donkeycart)

Liana Aghajanian is TakePart's weekend editor. 
Her work has appeared in,, Los Angeles Times, and full bio

Maybe more people than we thought long to be urban Martha Stewarts, or perhaps folks are just tired of spending an entire paycheck on high-priced organic food.

Whatever the reason, city dwellers are embracing gardening en masse - but many aren't aware that the rich black soil they're dropping seeds into may contain toxic metals and chemicals.

According to a recent study, urban gardeners aren’t prone to inspecting the soil they’re planting those tomatoes and pepper plants in - and that's a huge mistake, because toxins make their way into the produce.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future conducted surveys of 70 urban gardeners across Baltimore and found “low levels of concern and inconsistent levels of knowledge about heavy metal and organic chemical contaminants,” as well as limited knowledge about effective ways to reduce exposure.

The urban gardening movement has grown rapidly over the last five years, with 2 million new city gardeners getting their hands dirty, according to newly released figures by the National Gardening Association. That's a lot of potentially contaminated tomatoes.

Brent Kim, a program officer at the center, told NPR that once gardeners find a plot of land where they want to plant, it's important to learn its history:

"What's now an empty plot or a backyard might once have been a parking lot, a gas station or the site of a chemical spill", he says. "Knowing the site history will give you some clues about what might be in that soil," he says.

Once you know the history, share it. After all, it is a “community” garden, right?

Inside Urban Green, a blog on modern methods of growing food, calls soil contamination a “dirty secret” of urban gardening unknown to city dwellers who are not in the inner circle of community gardeners: "Who educates recent immigrants and low income people? From my experience the answer is no one."

Heeding the warnings and taking precautions against soil contamination don't mean you shouldn't indulge a budding green thumb, however.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a thorough fact sheet on reusing potentially contaminated soil for growing a sustainable urban garden.

It recommends using raised beds, adding a thick layer of organic matter that can provide a physical barrier to contamination, and removing all the contaminated soil and replacing it with a new batch before you begin.

You can even conduct a formal environmental assessment (called a brown field assessment), for which the government is willing to provide a monetary grant, according to the EPA.

Contact your regional United States Department of Agriculture Service Center to find out how to go about testing your soil. Though you can use home test soil kits, these aren’t as comprehensive when it comes to detecting chemicals found in urban soil. 

Local city officials can connect you with soil testing labs in your city that can provide detailed analysis of your soil. The Department of Agriculture also provides information on soil testing labs in your area.
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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Grizzly Outlook for Hunted Bears in Canada

Bear in Yellowstone
Bear in Yellowstone (Photo credit: tomkellyphoto)
by Kyle Artelle, Simon Fraser University

This month marks the re-opening of the controversial trophy hunt for at-risk grizzly bears in the province of British Columbia, Canada.

Scrutiny of this hunt was ramped up last year with new evidence that its economic benefits are small when compared with ecotourism.

Add to this further research that suggests hunting management strategies impose considerable risks to bear populations and it’s not surprising that concerns are being raised.

There is strong opposition from many indigenous groups, which have renewed calls for the government to respect tribal laws that ban the hunt on their traditional territories.

They are not alone - recent poll data suggests that 80-90% of citizens in the province, including hunters who target other species, oppose the trophy hunt.

Nevertheless, despite this opposition the hunt was not only re-opened but expanded on April 1st - what might have passed for an April Fools’ joke was instead presented as “science-based” management.

Protecting against over-kill

But our recent study casts doubt on this “science-based” management. We found that between 2001-2011, human kills of grizzly bears (of which four out of every five were from trophy hunting) exceeded government limits in half of all hunted populations.

We also found that hunt targets were not conservative because they did not properly take into account uncertainty in bear numbers, population growth rates, or poaching rates. This uncertainty is not surprising: counting bears accurately in their remote wilderness habitats is difficult, let alone studying how quickly they reproduce and replace lost individuals.

To address this we described a management approach that explicitly takes uncertainty into account. To keep the probability of over-kill below 5%, targets would need to be reduced by 80%, and one third of hunted bear populations would need to be closed to hunting.


Surprisingly, shortly after this study was released, the government instead announced plans to increase the number of bears to be hunted, and to re-open the hunt in two populations that had previously been closed because of over-kills.

Managers stated that “because we recognise inherent uncertainty in our population and harvest rate estimates, conservative mortality targets are used”. While the government used language reminiscent of the recent study, they decided to expand the hunt, contrary to its conclusions.

The minister in British Columbia responsible for managing the hunt came under fire repeatedly in the provincial legislature for this, and also for claiming in a press release that sustainability of the hunt was confirmed by another study, which was not the case. This raises the question - are “science-based” management decisions actually guided by science?

Science-based management?

Scientific research and enquiry is held up for external scrutiny through the peer review process. This ensures key scientific values: transparency, rationality, and reliance on rigorous evidence.

Scientists have no choice about this; if they want to publish their work in a credible journal, it needs to be peer-reviewed. Work that does not stand up to scrutiny gets rejected. But there is no such requirement for most wildlife management decisions, even those claiming to be “science-based”.

Although scientists might spend years gathering and analysing data, packaging it into a manuscript, and revising their work in light of reviews by independent experts, politicians can make “science-based” claims without any such checks. Not surprisingly this can and does lead to decisions guided more by politics than by science.

The infamous collapse of the cod fishery in eastern Canada in the 1980s comes to mind. And more recently, the science behind efforts to remove gray wolves from the US Endangered Species Act, and in the decision to cull badgers in the UK, has also been questioned.

A recent letter in the journal Science has pointed this shortcoming in “science-based” wildlife management, and following the letters' release, more stories of questionable science emerged. It seems examples of scientific shortcomings might be the rule, not the exception.

Fortunately, the well-established scientific publishing process can provide ways to improve management decisions: subjecting management decisions to the same outside scrutiny expected of scientists would be an important first step.

As well as making science management more rigorous and transparent, external peer review would have the added bonus of helping to bridge the long bemoaned science-policy gap.
The Conversation

Kyle Artelle works with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Earth 2 Oceans department at Simon Fraser University. He receives funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada through a Vanier Fellowship, and the Tula Foundation through the Hakai Network for Coastal Peoples and Ecosystems. 

He has previously received funding from the Anne Vallee Ecological Fund, the David Suzuki Foundation, the C.D. Nelson Memorial Foundation, and through an Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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Saturday, April 5, 2014

7 Reasons Bikes Are for Everyone, Not Just “Cyclists”

On the last Friday of every month, bicyclists ...
Critical Mass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , Yes! magazine:

This article originally appeared in Sightline and is reposted here with permission.

Traveling the world’s great bicycle cities, I fell in love with cycling. The ease, safety, convenience … (dreamy sigh).

But as my six-month love affair came to an end, I began to realize the reason for my infatuation: cities like those in Denmark and Holland simply make themselves lovable.

They don’t just build cycle tracks; they inject fun, whimsy, compassion, and even romance into cycling.

Certainly, many Americans love their bikes, but more of us would if we learned these lessons on cycling’s soft side from the world’s active-transport capitals.

1. Human powered is romantic

I bike home from work with my boyfriend almost every day, and it’s one of the best parts of my day. We talk about what we see along the way or what smells are coming from the Hostess Cake Factory.

When it’s sunny, we sometimes stop for a beer along the way. When it’s a crisp winter night, we stop and watch the ships pass under the Fremont Bridge.We don’t often talk about the way our transportation choices make us feel - physically or mentally. Maybe we should.

When it’s raining, we talk about what kind of soup we want to make for dinner. Biking together through the elements bonds us in a way that would never happen if we were strapped into a car.

Throughout my travels, I saw all kinds of romance on the cycle tracks - teenagers kissing at stoplights in Paris, older couples holding hands while pedaling in Amsterdam, and a post-wedding getaway bicycle in Copenhagen.

The average U.S. worker now spends about 48 minutes commuting each day. Despite the billions of hours we collectively spend commuting, we don’t often talk about the way our transportation choices make us feel - physically or mentally. Maybe we should.

2. You don’t have to be a “cyclist” to ride a bike

Recreational sub-cultures have owned cycling in North America for a long time. That’s starting to change, and it’s an important cultural shift.

“None of these people consider themselves cyclists,” Andreas Hammershøj from the Danish Cycling Embassy explained to me last June as we stood on a sidewalk watching swarms of Copenhageners pedal across the Dronning Louises bridge, as 10,000 to 30,000 do daily.

“These are just people getting to work, school, or the grocery store, ” Hammershøj said. It turns out there are Cascadians who, like Copenhageners, would like to get from A to B on their bikes but don’t ever want to ride a "century" (they might not even care to know what a century ride is). That’s fine.

You don’t have to identify with the recreational side of cycling to use a bike for transportation. Just ask Blake Trask, the Statewide Policy Director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. “I’m not much of a cyclist. I just ride my bike to work most days.”

3. Remember kickstands?

Henry Cutler, the Dutch-American owner of WorkCycles in Amsterdam, is convinced that urban cycling will explode once Americans get off high-performance bikes and on to bikes that are upright, comfortable, and utilitarian.

Why don’t bikes have kickstands anymore? “Americans ride bikes that are like race cars; Dutch bikes are like Honda Civics and mini-vans,” Cutler joked last July as I admired his fleet of practical bikes.

They come outfitted with child seats, baskets, bells, chain guards, and front and rear lights powered by your pedaling. Oh, and kickstands: Why don’t bikes have kickstands anymore?

Tom Fuculoro, author of the Seattle Bike Blog, got it right when he wrote recently that buying a bike ought to be more like buying a car. “Most people aren’t fascinated by the technical aspects of car engines; they’re sold by the sunroof or cup-holders.”

David Schmidt, owner of The Dutch Bike Shop in Seattle reports that the useful-bike trend is gaining steam. “Ninety percent of our clients haven’t ridden a bike since they were kids. They’re rediscovering cycling because it’s fun and simpler than driving. These aren’t the crusader commuters. They’re just people who want to start biking to the grocery store.”

4. Does your city have a bike culture?

North Americans all understand what “car culture” means, but it’s a term that increasingly comes with a negative connotation. Cars are now being called an “older generation technology.” Despite the billion-dollar marketing budgets of car companies, many millennials would rather not own a car.

Unlike car cultures, bicycle cultures are in demand. Many of the world’s most vibrant and thriving cities are going to great lengths to support their citizen cyclists because having a “bicycle culture” has suddenly become an asset and an important part of “attracting the types of workers that an innovation economy wants to attract.”

“Demographics is destiny," said Brian Surratt, business development director at the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, while speaking about the importance of developing a bike culture.

“People no longer relocate for industry. Industry relocates for talent. Seattle wants to be recognized as a bike-friendly city because it simply helps attract good talent. The most successful cities - economically, culturally, and socially - must compete for intellectual capital and talent.”

5. More cyclists encourage more compassionate roads

Numerous studies document the relationship between an increase in the volume of cyclists and an increase in cyclist safety. The relationship between these two factors is sometimes remarkably linear.

Odense, Denmark, embarked on an ambitious, multi-year cycling promotion campaign and saw cycling levels increase by 20 percent, while traffic accidents involving cyclists decreased by 20 percent.

Why? People behind the wheel become more accustomed to seeing people on two wheels on the roads. Also, it’s often the same people: drivers and cyclists are the same folks at different times of the day, or at least drivers are more likely to have cyclists in the family.

Driving “with your heart” becomes a much easier sell when citizens - like in Groningen, Holland - have friends and family members who commute by bike or on foot.

Lucky for us, cycling rates have increased dramatically in many American cities: bike commuting doubled in Seattle and tripled in Portland as a share of all commutes from 2000 to 2010, according to the League of American Bicyclists, while New York City's Department of Transportation reports that commuter cycling there doubled between 2007 and 2011.

This growth helps make roads a lot safer for everyone - even roads that lack cycling infrastructure.
6. We don’t have time to compensate

Most people reading this article are sitting in front of a computer. More and more of us are “knowledge workers” who sit in front of computers for much of our careers.

If you also choose to use passive forms of transportation such as driving or taking the bus, doctors recommend that you compensate for your sedentary lifestyle by “working out.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time in my schedule to compensate - and I wasn’t alone. The Center for Disease Control reports that 80 percent of Americans fail to meet federal guidelines for physical activity despite the $19 billion we shell out for gym memberships each year.

Why can’t activity just be engineered into our daily lives so that we can stay healthy without the added chore of working out?

Cycling has been the solution for me. I typically burn about 500 calories a day pedaling myself to the places I need to go, and going to the gym is never on the to-do list anymore. Having one less chore means I have more free time to spend with the people I love. 

7. Focus on women

Women are the “indicator species” of a city’s cycling ecosystem. Studies have shown that women are more risk-averse than men, so a profusion of women pedaling in a city shows that cycling feels safe there.

Women are also far more likely to participate in and benefit from cycling encouragement and training programs than men.

A study done in London showed that 73% of London residents who participated in on-road cycling training programs were women. The same study interviewed female cyclists and found that “cycling helps bolster a self-confident, independent identity” for many women.

An Australian study shows that cycling outreach and support events have a greater positive impact on behavior change among women than among men.

Why else is it important to get more women riding? American women make more major household decisions than men and can hence influence the entire family to get out of the car and on to bikes.

Some people also assert that more women cycling can contribute to a more visually pleasing urban environment.

None of these ideas are revolutionary. I’ve witnessed each across the world. What’s important is that sometimes it’s not just about infrastructure. Getting folks to fall in love with cycling will take more than signage and street paint (although those are important, too!).

What bicycling could really use is a good marketing department.

Christine M. Grant is the active transportation lead at Cascadia Consulting Group. You can learn more about her travels and see more of her pictures of great cycling cities on Shift, her personal blog.
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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Heart of Urban Resilience is Trust, Not Technology

Flooded London streets. Photo credit: marcus_jb1973
by Leo Hollis, Shareable:

A few weeks ago, my family and I drove from London to my family home in the southwest of Britain.

We were forced to drive because the train line that we normally rode, and that runs alongside the stunning coastline outside the Devon city of Exeter, had fallen into the sea during the terrible storms of January.

It is a uniquely picturesque stretch of coast: the track curls around bluffs and coves, and was first built by the quintessential Victorian engineer Isombard Kingdom Brunel.

For the first time in decades, the tracks had buckled and twisted in the storms, pounded by waves, leaving the counties of Devon and Cornwall cut off from the rest of the country. It will be months before the line is repaired, causing economic hardship and frustration.

As we drove through the countryside, the scars of the storm could be seen on all sides - rivers had burst their banks and miles of open fields had been transformed into wetlands, waters lapping at the edge of the motorway itself. Villages had been abandoned, farms devastated, crops ruined, and livestock lost.

At the same time, the blame game had started in earnest; politicians stood in Wellington boots and listened to people’s stories, making promises to do what they could. Everyone wanted to know whose fault it was, and why nothing was being done fast enough.

A few weeks later, the water continued to rise, even threatening to encircle London, as the upper reaches of the River Thames swelled and broke its banks. The homes of the outer suburbs of the capital fell before the Spring tide.

There were newspaper stories that predicted what would happen if the floods hit the centre of the city. At the same time, images were posted on Twitter to show the extent of the damage if the Thames Barrier, a flood prevention wall that spanned the estuary, had not worked.

The statistics were retweeted with a mixture of fear and amazement: The barrier had been used 150 times since it was first built in 1983, including 28 times since December 6, 2013.

It is no wonder that there was a new energy in the debate concerning the question of resilience, and how to ensure that if -- and when -- such disasters arrive again, we are more prepared. Politicians, agencies, and advocates are currently arguing over resources and methods.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced that he would repair the damage "whatever the cost," only for this promise to be negotiated down by his aides afterwards.

One thing is for certain, however: the discussion of ‘resilience’ becomes more urgent when the disaster arrives at your doorstep. Nevertheless, I can not help but feel ambivalence toward the word and, in particular, what it might mean to a city or community.

Like many concepts that start in the life sciences and get translated into the humanities, ‘resilience’ is a open-ended word. First developed by the Canadian ecologist C. S. ‘Buzz’ Hollings, the term was used to sum up something about the relationship between an ecosystem and complexity theory.

Hollings' original paper in 1973 looked at how an ecology can respond to disturbance, and how it might resist damage and swiftly bounce back to a ‘steady state’ vitality - how a forest regrows after a fire or the impact of a foreign species introduced into an ecosystem “so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks."

For Hollings and his colleagues, it was important to be able to measure the limits of this resilience, developing an ‘ecological economics,’ which now allows economists and environmentalists to calculate, for example, the costs of overfishing, the impact of waste on ecosystems, the gamification of climate change, if you like.

But does this way of talking about resilience also work for cities? On many occasions, the use of resilience in terms of the city has come to take prominence over the discussion of sustainability. This could be partly to do with the sense within the word that jeopardy is increasingly more likely than not.

While sustainability suggests that ‘If we do this, we might avoid disaster’; resilience, on the other hand, is more pragmatic and asks ‘When disaster occurs, how will we bounce back?’

This seems a realistic position to hold. We are facing an uncertain future as a result of climate change; disasters do seem to be happening all too often. But does our emerging notion of resilience, as a result, become an alternate way of thinking about disaster management rather than a longer term means to consider how to make our cities more robust and flexible in the face of uncertainty?

Resilience is now big business. And, as a result, the term can suffer from the allure of ‘solution-ism’ - the desire that, by doing something, all shall be well.

These solutions often take two forms: design innovation or technological promise of Big Data (a version of Hollings's original 'ecological economics'). In both cases, engineering offers the answer, often at a price, and resilience can be imposed upon a place through good architecture, space management, or the helpful collation of vital information.

Doubtless that this will see some good results, but it raises some important questions that this limited definition of resilience does not answer.

This kind of resilience is designed to be flexible, but it tends to be resistant to change. It can absorb disaster and be measured by how quickly it bounces back, but it loses adaptability; it does not learn from change.

Instead, it seems, it is constructed to get everything back to work as quickly as possible, not to evolve into something different. What it lacks is a social urban dimension, one that takes people into consideration.

Many recent natural events - from hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the winter floods and earthquakes in China - have shown that disasters are different for different people.

In the days after Sandy, while some in Staten Island were wading through the debris of their neighbourhood, others were taking their regular jog around Central Park. The image of the lights still on in the Goldman Sachs offices by Battery Park while the rest of the Lower Manhattan was in darkness sums it all up. Resilience is unevenly distributed, even in the same city.

This kind of inequality makes trust difficult to thrive, and trust is at the heart of a more social urban definition of resilience.

In Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating book about how communities come together in times of distress, A Paradise Built in Hell, she tells the story of what happened in 2005 in New Orleans after the levees broke, and the often overlooked acts of compassion and cooperation that spontaneously emerged out of disaster.

"When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered," she writes, "people step up - not all, but the great preponderance - to become their brother’s keeper."

In the same manner, after the first reports of the horrific state of the flooded counties of southwest England, followed by the endless blaming and counter accusations between politicians and government agencies, stories started to emerge of how communities were helping each other to get back on their feet.

As the organisers of told the Daily Telegraph: "People have offered up their homes, boats, waders, and even toys for kids. Others have volunteered their time and expertise. A group of farmers from the Netherlands have offered to bring over their tractors and boats. It’s restored our faith in humankind.”

This, surely, is a more robust way of thinking about how communities - and cities - bounce back. At the foundation of such adaptability is not some technological innovation, but trust - the essence of the understanding that the places where we live and the lives that we lead are shared experiences, rather than tradeable properties.

This kind of trust, however, is nurtured in equality. It is not, as some thinkers will tell you - such as Francis Fukuyama or Robert Putnam - based upon some social transaction or the reward for one kind of participation or other, but rather the dissolution of the difference between us and them. This is a resilience that is more that simple solutionism, but also promises transformation.
Leo Hollis is the author of the new book, Cities are Good For You: The Genius of the Metropolis.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Climate Policy: Could It Be the Boxing Prime Minister's Glass Jaw?

Abbott & Costello
Abbott & Costello? (Photo credit: twm1340)
by Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

Nine years ago, I spent long days inside Downing Street working with the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair on how to position his government on the global climate problem.

Blair was keen to work out the level of future climate risk, and - given that risk - how he could help develop domestic and international policies to address what he recognised as an unprecedented challenge.

We knew that traditional environmental policies just wouldn’t get the job done.

Tackling climate properly would involve radical changes to investment flows, technology development, and energy policy.

And the costs would have to be shared fairly within and between different nations.

We held numerous briefings with climate scientists, public servants, energy economists, environmental groups, lawyers and diplomats, all charged with the task of developing policies to make large-scale emissions cuts.

Blair seemed to have the enthusiasm and discipline of a focused child building a model rocket - asking others for help, then creatively and determinedly bringing together the glue, cardboard, glitter and bottle tops.

Looking back, 2005 was a big year for international climate policy. On January 1, the European Emissions Trading Scheme began.

In February the Kyoto Protocol came into force after Russia was persuaded to ratify it the previous November, giving the world its first active climate treaty (albeit a weak one).

And at the G8 summit in July, Blair became the first head of state to bring the issue to the top of the international diplomatic agenda.

Late that year, while Downing Street was preparing to launch the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, one of my senior colleagues asked him whether he had now perhaps “done enough” on climate change.

Blair’s answer was that you could never do enough - the task of developing effective climate policy would most likely be exercising political leaders for the next 50 years.

It has certainly exercised Australia’s political leaders. Although given that the current government’s stated priority is to wind back the current policy framework, they give little sense of wishing to invest terribly much political capital on seriously tackling the climate problem.

Urgency and complexity

I was deeply professionally and personally involved in Downing Street’s efforts, so my perspective is necessarily subjective.

But a key word used at the time - in private briefings and public statements - was “urgency”. Tempting as it would have been to delay given the wicked complexity of the problem, that would only have made the challenge even harder, more costly and probably less effective.

In Australia 2014, any sense of the need for an urgent policy response has stalled, despite this week’s reminder from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the threats we face - not to mention the warming already seen in Australia and the increase in extreme climate events.

Recent Australian experience makes bringing together the words “climate”, “policy” and “leadership” seem fanciful. Trying to reduce the risks of climate change and develop serious policy has been a poisoned chalice for two Labor Prime Ministers and a Liberal opposition leader.

We should not forget that Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership by a single vote, having made securing his party’s support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Bill a matter a fleeting personal principle.

Kevin Rudd was never at Blair’s craft table; he preferred the sandpit of international summits and stages, with his rhetorical hyperbole leaving something of a mess for others to clean up when his carbon pricing scheme was defeated by the Greens.

Julia Gillard was a masterful negotiator who managed to put a price on carbon and establish institutions such as the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which would give climate policy the stability and continuity required. Yet she struggled to explain it all to the voters, and was ultimately bested by the pugilistic and highly effective Abbott.

Abbott’s climate currency

Putting aside what one’s views might be on the global climate problem and Tony Abbott’s perspective on it, the current Prime Minister has, until now, been the master of using the climate issue to his own and his party’s benefit.

He owes his job and political reincarnation to his crude perspective on climate change. Deliberate diffidence on the science, mixed with playing to the gallery on carbon pricing, has served him well. So his response to this week’s IPCC warning was nothing if not predictable.

He “welcomed” the report, stated that it was consistent with advice that had been forthcoming from the organisation over many years, and used it as a means to remind people of his commitment to the government’s Direct Action plan. Job done, question answered. Time to move on to the next item in the diary.

It was the political equivalent of raising your bat above your head, letting the ball through to the wicketkeeper and, with a slight smirk and the briefest of looks, letting it be known that the bowling was hardly menacing.

Yet to perhaps stretch the cricketing metaphor, this bowler is rather like a genetic mix of Shane Warne and Mitchell Johnson: they won’t get you out every time, but when they do they can make top batsmen look like rank amateurs.

Direct Action not enough

Read the IPCC’s predictions and it is clear that potentially irreversible climate forces are at play. Yet Abbott, the master of climate politicking, would be wise to turn his attention to the political and policy risks of pursuing his current course.

The two-word Direct Action policy agenda largely consists of the A$1.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, which will allow the government to pick winners.

Even the best government officials are likely to make some expensive errors. Climate economist Ross Garnaut slammed it this week, joining Bernie Fraser and Ken Henry in the chorus of expert dissent.

It is truly a policy with no friends - even those who want the government to do less on climate change rightly see it as an expensive “big government” way to go about it.

Beyond our borders, the international push to reduce emissions will continue, through actions such as China’s significant investment in cleaning up its emissions-intensive energy network and its growing collaboration with the United States. Next year’s United Nations negotiations in Paris will focus on developing a stronger successor to Kyoto.

Australia, no matter what Abbott may wish, will have to be part of this, or risk being simply ignored by the international community.

From Abbott’s point of view that would be worse than attracting condemnation, because if Australia remains a pariah while the world pursues a low-carbon future, Australia will both miss out on economic opportunities and expose itself to the risk of the economic and trade rules being drafted by others.

Abbott’s political mentor John Howard knew how to deftly change tack in response to prevailing circumstances.

Unless he does likewise, and responds to the environmental, economic and political risks presented by climate change with the proper urgency, Tony Abbott’s domestic mastery of climate politics is unlikely to serve the climate, or the nation, well.
The Conversation

Nick Rowley does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Loss Adjustment" by George Monbiot

A Sand County Almanac
A Sand County Almanac (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian,

To understand what is happening to the living planet, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked, is to live “in a world of wounds … an ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise” (1).

The metaphor suggests that he might have seen Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People (2). Thomas Stockmann is a doctor in a small Norwegian town, and medical officer at the public baths whose construction has been overseen by his brother, the mayor.

The baths, the mayor boasts, “will become the focus of our municipal life! … Houses and landed property are rising in value every day.”

But Dr Stockmann discovers that the pipes were built in the wrong place, and the water feeding the baths is contaminated. “The source is poisoned … we are making our living by retailing filth and corruption! The whole of our flourishing municipal life derives its sustenance from a lie!” People bathing in the water to improve their health are instead falling ill.

Dr Stockmann expects to be treated as a hero for exposing this deadly threat. After the mayor discovers that re-laying the pipes would cost a fortune and probably sink the whole project, he decides that his brother’s report “has not convinced me that the condition of the water at the baths is as bad as you represent it to be.”

He proposes to ignore the problem, make some cosmetic adjustments and carry on as before. After all, “the matter in hand is not simply a scientific one. It is a complicated matter, and has its economic as well as its technical side.”

The local paper, the baths committee and the business people side with the mayor against the doctor’s “unreliable and exaggerated accounts”.

Astonished and enraged, Dr Stockmann lashes out madly at everyone. He attacks the town as a nest of imbeciles, and finds himself, in turn, denounced as an enemy of the people. His windows are broken, his clothes are torn, he’s evicted and ruined.

Yesterday’s editorial in the Daily Telegraph, which was by no means the worst of the recent commentary on this issue, follows the first three acts of the play (3). Marking the new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the paper sides with the mayor.

First, it suggests that the panel cannot be trusted, partly because its accounts are unreliable and exaggerated and partly because it uses “model-driven assumptions” to forecast future trends (what would the Telegraph prefer? Tea leaves? Entrails?).

Then it suggests that trying to stop man-made climate change would be too expensive. Then it proposes making some cosmetic adjustments and carrying on as before (“Perhaps instead of continued doom-mongering, however, greater thought needs to be given to how mankind might adapt to the climatic realities”).

But at least the Telegraph accepted that the issue deserved some prominence.

On the Daily Mail’s website, climate breakdown was scarcely a footnote to the real issues of the day: “Kim Kardashian looks more confident than ever as she shows off her toned curves” and “Little George is the spitting image of Kate”.

Beneath these indispensable reports was a story celebrating the discovery of “vast deposits of coal lying under the North Sea, which could provide enough energy to power Britain for centuries” (4). No connection with the release of the new climate report was made.

Like royal babies, Kim’s curves and Ibsen’s municipal baths, coal is good for business. Global warming, like Dr Stockmann’s contaminants, is the spectre at the feast.

Everywhere we’re told that it’s easier to adapt to global warming than to stop causing it.

This suggests that it’s not only the Stern review on the economics of climate change, showing that it’s much cheaper to avert climate breakdown than to try to live with it (5) that has been forgotten, but also the floods which have so recently abated.

If a small, rich, well-organised nation cannot protect its people from a winter of exceptional rainfall - which might have been caused by less than one degree of global warming - what hope do other nations have, when faced with four degrees or more?

When our environment secretary, Owen Paterson, assures us that climate change “is something we can adapt to over time” (6) or Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian yesterday, says that we should move towards “thinking intelligently about how the world should adapt to what is already happening” (7), what do they envisage?

Cities relocated to higher ground? Roads and railways shifted inland? Rivers diverted? Arable land abandoned? Regions depopulated? Have they any clue about what this would cost? Of what the impacts would be for the people breezily being told to live with it?

My guess is that they don’t envisage anything: they have no idea what they mean when they say adaptation. If they’ve thought about it at all, they probably picture a steady rise in temperatures, followed by a steady rise in impacts, to which we steadily adjust.

But that, as we should know from our own recent experience, is not how it happens. Climate breakdown proceeds in fits and starts, sudden changes of state against which, as we discovered on a small scale in January, preparations cannot easily be made.

Insurers working out their liability when a disaster has occurred use a process they call loss adjustment.

It could describe what all of us who love this world are going through, as we begin to recognise that governments, the media and most businesses have no intention of seeking to avert the coming tragedies.

We are being told to accept the world of wounds; to live with the disappearance, envisaged in the new climate report, of coral reefs and summer sea ice, of most glaciers and perhaps some rainforests, of rivers and wetlands and the species which, like many people, will be unable to adapt (8).

As the scale of the loss to which we must adjust becomes clearer, grief and anger are sometimes overwhelming. You find yourself, as I have done in this column, lashing out at the entire town.


1. Aldo Leopold, 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.

2. Read at






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