December 26, 2013

Frackers Fight Back

It has been a potent argument in the case against fracking for natural gas that it is ruinous for water supplies, especially in arid regions like Texas. But a new study claims that fracking poses a far lesser threat to water than coal. In the summary of Bryan Walsh, Time’s environmental correspondent:  
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin collected water use data from all 423 of the state’s power plants. They estimate that the water saved by switching from coal to natural gas is 25 to 50 times greater than the amount of water used in fracking to extract the shale gas in the first place. In 2011, the researchers estimate that Texas would have consumed an extra 32 billion gallons of water if all its natural gas-fired power plants were instead burning coal. “The bottom line is that hydraulic fracturing, by boosting natural gas production and moving the state from water-intensive coal technologies, makes our electric power system more drought resilient,” said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the University of Texas’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the lead author on the study.

The study is a reminder that for all the focus on the water consumed in fracking or by farms through irrigation, one of the single biggest users of water is the power industry itself. Thermoelectric generation—that would be technologies like coal, natural gas and nuclear, which use heat to generate steam—account for approximately 40% of the freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. In arid regions and during droughts—like the historic 2012 drought, which at its height covered up to 65% of the U.S.—water can become so scare that power plants may need to reduce operations or shut down altogether. With population increasing—especially in fecund and popular Texas—and demand rising, the so-called “water-energy nexus” will be a growing challenge for decades to come.
But the huge amount of water used by power plants tends not to get the kind of attention that fracking does—probably because fracking, especially on a large scale, is relatively new, while coal and natural gas plants have been around for decades. (The Texas State Water Board estimates that hydrofracking accounts for less than 1% of total water use, while providing more than 10% of the state’s total economic output.) Fracking for oil and gas is also much more distributed than a centralized power plant is; if you live in Texas, chances are much better that you live closer to a fracked well than you do a power plant. Power plants—and the mining of the coal used in many of them—are out of sight, and thus they’re out of mind.
Still, the fact remains that Texas was a water-stressed state well before the first gas well was fracked, and the concentration of fracking in certain areas of the state can strain local water supplies. Water use for fracking in Texas is also growing rapidly, from 36,000 acre-feet in 2008 to 81,500 acre-feet in 2011. That’s why oil and gas drillers will need to start recycling frac water, or find substitutes that don’t need water at all, like the liquid petroleum gel made by the Canadian company GasFrac. Water is scarce now in Texas and its likely to be even scarcer in a hotter and more crowded future. Every industry—including oil and gas—will need to figure out a way to use our most precious resource more efficiently.

* * *
Bryan Walsh, “Fracking for Natural Gas May Help Us Save Water,” Time, December 23, 2013

Follow the Money

How far the climate change debate has been distorted by “dirty money”—that is, money provided by rich foundations and corporations directly interested in fossil fuel production—is a question taken up in a new study by Robert J. Brulle in the journal  Climate Change. The author, a professor of environmental sociology at Drexel University, identifies a range of foundations and think tanks that he calls “U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Organizations."  Then he matches them with their sources of funding. Brulle acknowledges that the majority of these organizations are “multiple focus organizations” and that “not all of this income was devoted to climate change activities.”   Still, he has clearly identified a network of funders and fundees who have thrown scorn upon the climate change movement, and he has demonstrated the intimate nexus of financial ties that exist within this network. His most unsettling finding is that unknown donors have recently assumed by far the most prominent role in funding the “countermovement.” However one understands these ties among conservative foundations and think tanks—a more innocent explanation is possible than the one Brulle offers—it is surely a travesty of democratic norms that those conducting such a big intervention in the debate should be allowed to do so anonymously.

The first pie-chart below shows the relative size of conservative public policy institutes—what Brulle calls the “Climate Change Countermovement Organizations.” The second pie-chart shows the conservative foundations that fund them.

 In perhaps his most interesting finding, Brulle shows the rise to funding prominence of Donors Trust and Donors Capital. Conveniently, these are “third party pass-through foundations” whose funders cannot be traced. In the following graph, we get a picture of changing “node strength,” which is “based on the assumption that a foundation’s influence in the funding network is a function of its overall grant-making levels.”
Notes Brulle:
As this graph shows, the overall percentage contribution of Donors Trust/Capital rapidly increased from 2007 to 2010. At the same time, the Koch Affiliated Foundations, which peaked at 9 % in 2006, declined to 2 %. The ExxonMobil Foundation effectively stopped publicly funding CCCM organizations in 2007. Additionally, funding by the Scaife Affiliated Foundations, the second largest funder of CCCM organizations, also declined from 14 % in 2003 to just under 6 % in 2010. Finally, Bradley Foundation funding slightly declined over this time period. The rapid increase in the percentage of funding of the CCCM by Donors Trust/Capital and the decline in both Koch and ExxonMobil corresponds to the initiation of campaigns by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace publicizing and criticizing both ExxonMobil and Koch Corporations as funders of climate denial. Although the correspondence is suggestive of an effort to conceal funding of the CCCM by these foundations, it is impossible to determine for certain whether or not ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations continue to fund CCCM organizations via Donors Trust/Capital or direct corporate contributions. However, it is important to note that a Koch run foundation, the Knowledge and Progress Fund, initiated a pattern of making large grants to Donors Trust in 2008.
 * * *       
Brulle promises a study of the influence of money on the other side of the debate as well. For a pdf of the paper, see Robert J. Brulle, “Institutionalizing Delay: Foundation Funding and the Creation of U.S. Climate Change Counter-Movement Organizations,” Climate Change (accepted November 19, 2013). Tip of the hat to Desdemona Despair.

November 13, 2013

No Plan Bee

This piece from the Financial Times reviews the causes and implications of a “pollination crisis” resulting from an insufficient number of bees and other insects. Most fruits and vegetables and about three-fourths of all crops rely on these pollinators, which are under severe stress. Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at Sussex University in Britain, notes that in California, beekeepers that are needed to pollinate the almond crop are losing nests, tripling prices; in China, apple and pear farmers use children on stepladders to brush pollen on each flower, as pesticides have wiped out the bees. Goulson stresses that knowledge of the overall state of the world’s pollinators is quite limited—“we do not know how many pollinators we have, nor how their abundance has changed over time”—but is sufficient to indicate a grave crisis.
What is happening to our bees? The answer is complicated – but imagine the following. A flu epidemic sweeps the country, and you catch it. You feel awful but you struggle on, going to the shops to get food. The shop has closed down, and you have to walk an extra two miles to find an open shop. Exhausted and shivering, you buy some food and manage to eat some but it has been poisoned. Not enough poison to kill you if you were feeling well, but in this state?
It sounds a bit melodramatic, but it is a pretty good analogy for our poor bees. We have accidentally spread new parasites and diseases of bees around the world; for example, many bumblebees in the UK are infected with a gut parasite originally from Asian honeybees, while honeybees are being ravaged by the Asian Varroa mite. Modern farming has removed most flowers from the countryside, so pollinators have to travel further to find nourishment – and the range of foods available is restricted. Much is contaminated with a cocktail of pesticides; recent studies found up to 35 different pesticides in the food stores of honeybees. Small wonder, then, that pollinators are not thriving.
Global food production has been heading in an unsustainable direction for decades. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that we will need to double global food production by 2050 to feed the growing population. We continue to clear tropical forests to bring more land in to use, and we try to squeeze ever greater yields from existing land by heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, creating vast crop monocultures. Yet our efforts are undermining the ability of land to produce food. Agricultural practices are causing soils to be rapidly eroded – washing away in rain or blowing away into the sea – so that 40 per cent of farmed soils are already degraded, and some estimates suggest many countries will have little soil left within 60 years. Aquifers used to irrigate arid soils are fast being depleted. Salt build-up, from poor irrigation practices, is affecting 320m hectares of agricultural lands – an area the size of India.
Extreme climate events expected as a result of build-up of greenhouse gas emissions are likely to cause catastrophic crop failures. Wild fish stocks are being depleted; many have already collapsed. Species are going extinct at about 1,000 times the natural rate, many of which have vital roles in recycling nutrients, storing carbon, creating soil, controlling pests and, of course, pollinating crops. Bees may be canaries in the coal mine, warning us that we must find ways to produce food without destroying the environment on which we depend.
* * *
Dave Goulson, “There is no Plan Bee for when we run out of pollinators,Financial Times, November 8, 2013

November 7, 2013

Threat to Food Supplies

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, still under review but leaked to a climate skeptic, warns that rising temperaturees will pose great risks to the world's food supply in coming decades. From the New York Times:

In a departure from an earlier assessment, the scientists concluded that rising temperatures will have some beneficial effects on crops in some places, but that globally they will make it harder for crops to thrive — perhaps reducing production over all by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century, compared with what it would be without climate change. . . . The document is not final and could change before it is released in March.
The report also finds other sweeping impacts from climate change already occurring across the planet, and warns that these are likely to intensify as human emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise. The scientists describe a natural world in turmoil as plants and animals colonize new areas to escape rising temperatures, and warn that many could become extinct.
The warning on the food supply is the sharpest in tone the panel has issued. Its previous report, in 2007, was more hopeful. While it did warn of risks and potential losses in output, particularly in the tropics, that report found that gains in production at higher latitudes would most likely offset the losses and ensure an adequate global supply.
The new tone reflects a large body of research in recent years that has shown how sensitive crops appear to be to heat waves. The recent work also challenges previous assumptions about how much food production could increase in coming decades because of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The gas, though it is the main reason for global warming, also acts as a kind of fertilizer for plants. . . .
On the food supply, the new report finds that benefits from global warming may be seen in some areas, like northern lands that are now marginal for food production. But it adds that over all, global warming could reduce agricultural production by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century.
During that period, demand is expected to rise as much as 14 percent each decade, the report found, as the world population is projected to grow to 9.6 billion in 2050, from 7.2 billion today, according to the United Nations, and as many of those people in developing countries acquire the money to eat richer diets.
Any shortfall would lead to rising food prices that would hit the world’s poor hardest, as has already occurred from price increases of recent years. Research has found that climate change, particularly severe heat waves, was a factor in those price spikes.
The agricultural risks “are greatest for tropical countries, given projected impacts that exceed adaptive capacity and higher poverty rates compared with temperate regions,” the draft report finds.
If the report proves to be correct about the effect on crops from climate change, global food demand might have to be met — if it can be met — by putting new land into production. That could entail chopping down large areas of forest, an action that would only accelerate climate change by sending substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the air from the destruction of trees. . . .
* * *

Justin Gillis, "Climate Change Seen Posking Risk to Food Supplies: Science Panel Says Output May Drop 2% Each Decade, as Demand Rises," New York Times, November 2, 2013.

October 7, 2013

Too Big To Think About

In this essay at Tomdispatch, “The Age of Inhuman Scale,” Rebecca Solnit reflects on the difficulty of placing climate change in any sort of reasonable human perspective. She goes on to make a case for divestment and other forms of direct action against energy producers, a path I do not think I can follow. But in this extract, about a fourth of the original essay, she traces out brilliantly the radical sense of disproportion we feel in confronting things that are not only bigger than everything else, but “bigger than everything else put together.”
* * *
Last Saturday, . . . the New York Times gave its story on the International Panel on Climate Change’s six-years-in-the-making report on the catastrophic future that’s already here below-the-fold front-page placement, more or less equal to that given a story on the last episode of Breaking Bad. The end of the second paragraph did include this quote: “In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.” But the headline (“U.N. Climate Panel Endorses Ceiling on Global Emissions”) and the opening paragraph assured you this was dull stuff. Imagine a front page that reported your house was on fire right now, but that some television show was more exciting.
Sometimes I wish media stories were organized in proportion to their impact.  Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, there is not paper enough on this planet to properly scale up a story to the right size.  If you gave it the complete front page to suggest its import, you would then have to print the rest of the news at some sort of nanoscale and include an electron microscope for reading ease. . . .
As it happens, we’re not very good at looking at the biggest things. They may be bigger than we can see, or move more slowly than we have the patience to watch for or remember or piece together, or they may cause impacts that are themselves complex and dispersed and stretch into the future. Scandals are easier.  They are on a distinctly human scale, the scale of lust, greed, and violence. We like those, we understand them, we get mired in them, and mostly they mean little or nothing in the long run (or often even in the short run).
A resident in a town on the northwest coast of Japan told me that the black 70-foot-high wave of water coming at him on March 11, 2011, was so huge that, at first, he didn’t believe his eyes. It was the great Tohoku tsunami, which killed about 20,000 people. A version of such cognitive dissonance occurred in 1982, when NASA initially rejected measurements of the atmosphere above Antarctica because they indicated such a radical loss of ozone that the computer program just threw out the data.
Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia -- and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.
It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together.  But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather.  It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries.  It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.
To understand climate change, you need to translate figures into impacts, to think about places you’ll never see and times after you’re gone. You need to imagine sea level rise and understand its impact, to see the cause-and-effect relations between coal-fired power plants, fossil-fuel emissions, and the fate of the Earth. You need to model data in fairly sophisticated ways. You need to think like a scientist. . . .
Not quite a year ago, a climate-change-related hurricane drowned people when superstorm Sandy hit a place that doesn’t usually experience major hurricane impact, let alone storm surges that submerge amusement parks, the New York City subway system, and the Jersey shore. In that disaster, 148 people died directly, nearly that many indirectly, losses far greater than from any terrorist incident in this country other than that great anomaly, 9/11. The weather has now become man-made violence, though no one thinks of it as terrorism, in part because there’s no smoking gun or bomb -- unless you have the eyes to see and the data to look at, in which case the smokestacks of coal plants start to look gun-like and the hands of energy company CEOs and well-paid-off legislators begin to morph into those of bombers. . .
We tend to think about climate change as one or two or five things: polar ice, glaciers melting, sea-level rise, heat waves, maybe droughts. Now, however, we need to start adding everything else into the mix: the migration of tropical diseases, the proliferation of insect pests, crop failures and declining crop yields leading to widespread hunger and famine, desertification and flooded zones and water failures leading to mass population shifts, resource wars, and so many other things that have to do with the widest systems of life on Earth, affecting health, the global economy, food systems, water systems, and energy systems. . . .
It’s huge. I think about it, and I read about it, following blogs at Weather Underground, various climate websites, the emails of environmental groups, the tweets of people at, and bits and pieces of news on the subject that straggle into the mainstream and alternative media. Then I lose sight of it. I think about everything and anything else; I get caught up in old human-scale news that fits into my frameworks so much more easily. And then I remember, and regain my sense of proportion, or disproportion. . . .

* * *
Cf. Dickson G. Watts: “The distant is the great, the near the little. But the little-near controls man rather than the distant-great.”
Rebecca Solnit, “The Age of Inhuman Scale,”, October 6, 2013. Solnit is a amazing talent who writes regularly for TomDispatch and has published a number of remarkable books, including Wanderlust: A History of WalkingA Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, and (just out) The Faraway Nearby (available via TomDispatch).

July 10, 2013

A Comet Passes

The death of Randy Udall, at the tender age of 61, is a great loss to the community engaged in energy and environmental issues. The following tribute was written by three of his close friends and captures something of his vital contributions and ineffable charm. Randy could write circles around virtually anyone in the business; he managed to combine hilarity and grim tidings in a way that spoke to a profound understanding of the human predicament.  His two daughters, Ren and Tarn, were students of mine at Colorado College--fabulous students, I might add, who did their papa proud. We grieve with them and their family over the loss of this remarkable man.

From Sally Odland, Steve Andrews, and John Theobald, writing at one of Randy's favorite haunts, The Oil Drum, "A Comet Passes"
Last week our universe was rent asunder by the untimely death of our great friend, colleague and mentor, Randy Udall. The passing of this lanky, unprepossessing comet of a man with his wide-ranging intellect, uncompromising honesty and stiletto wit leaves a wide vacuum in its wake. 

We knew Randy primarily through his crusade to bring honest discussion of America’s energy predicament into public dialog and policy. Randy started tracking and writing about world oil and gas depletion in the 1990’s. He co-founded the US chapter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil in 2005 and spearheaded five highly touted and provocative energy conferences, creating for a few years the ultimate big tent for international energy thinkers. He was famed for his poetic speeches, wicked humor and accessible metaphor. And also for his insistence on speaking truth to power, no matter its rank. 

Randy was a formidable autodidact. When he designed and built his passive solar house by hand, he taught himself plumbing. Auto mechanics? No problem. In his two decades working with CORE—his Colorado energy efficiency group—and ASPO-USA, he taught himself the math and technologies of renewable energy and fossil fuels along with a fair bit of geology. He learned by seeking out smart doers and leaders to probe them with questions that could vault him up the learning curves. 

Randy was a contrarian thinker. He worked problems from all angles, refusing to succumb to groupthink and revisiting old assumptions whenever new information came to light. Because of this uncompromising truth-seeking and refusal to toe a party line, he held the respect of many people and groups that would not normally sit in the same room much less at the same table. On any given day, his inbox might field emails from climate scientists, exploration geologists, energy historians, economists, utility operators, environmental groups, and—maybe his favorite—the people actually steering the drilling rigs. 

He admired the immense brainpower and ingenuity of petroleum geologists and engineers to find and develop fossil fuels, and he understood exactly how much we rely on them to support the American Dream. All the while, he looked for concrete ways to move houses off energy ‘life support’, individuals to a lower carbon budget and his country towards renewable energy flows. 

There was always solid research behind Randy’s picturesque quips. When he threw out one-liners like “Oil shale has less energy content than pig manure,” you could be sure he had calculated the per-ton BTUs of both. If he noted that “Energy extraction is now the dominant land use in America”, you knew he had run down comparative numbers on acres leasedfor drilling versus agricultural acreage. 

Always present in the moment and engaged with his audiences, Randy connected the abstract world of energy use to ordinary people’s lives. He avoided graphs to tell the story, preferring visceral and iconic analogies. To illustrate the power needed to fuel our electricity appetite, for example, he would show a slide of nude Lance Armstrong on bike, share data from a personal correspondence with Armstrong’s trainer, then inform us all that the most powerful man on earth can’t generate enough juice to run our hair dryers. A presentation to hundreds of professionals in Boston might divert into a technical discussion of CO2 emissions. The same presentation to a group of college students at UC Davis would morph into an analysis of the energy demands of their campus. 

Unlike many pundits, partisans, educators and activists, Randy never punctuated his public conversations and presentations with moral judgments. He refused to jettison facts or objectivity on behalf of a moral crusade. As Garrett Hardin has said, “the tender flower of objectivity is easily crushed by what is taken to be the necessity of the moment.” While Randy made damning comments like “Time may be our most precious resource . . . D.C. is fiddling that away while the petroleum burns” and “Without a scorecard, our policy responses are liable to stay stuck on stupid,” he did not characterize the American life style as evil. Instead he dubbed us “the Oil Tribe” and made people aware of what that actually meant.

 "‘So much for peak oil’ is a popular meme right now” he would say. “But there's a difference between reporting and quoting. All this talk about Saudi America is misleading boosterism. “

 “This notion that ‘it’s morning in America’ is simply hype. The pore throats in shale rocks are 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. On these rocks, we've bet our energy future.”

 “Eventually, the politics of energy has to surrender to the physics of energy.”

 Randy never played off the Udall family name. Virtually without ego, he shunned all self-promotion. With his eloquence and charisma, people thought him a natural for politics and urged him to run for office to further his message. But, in fact, he had no taste for that. He exercised his public persona at great personal cost and would retreat for long stints to the wilderness to recharge his spirit and soul.

 Randy died like he lived, questing nature’s energy flows, in the Wind River Mountains he so loved. Death snuck up and felled him on the trail. It is not hard to imagine Randy, led by his boundless curiosity, walking through the portal separating his last worldly step from the universal energy.

 We loved Randy like oxygen and will miss him desperately. His was a light the rest of us could navigate by. What a privilege to have been hitched to his star for the ride.

 * * *

Sally Odland is a former oil geologist and ASPO-USA board member, now at Columbia University. Steve Andrews is a retired energy consultant in Colorado and a co-founder of ASPO-USA. John Theobald teaches at the University of California, Davis. Each worked closely with Randy to build ASPO-USA and advance critical discourse on America's great energy challenges.

May 17, 2013

Edible Insects and Food Security

Stewart Patrick, of the Internationalist blog at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes of a new report from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization touting edible insects as the easiest way to meet the coming crisis over global food security. 
The notion of meeting caloric, especially protein, needs from insects (as well as grubs, worms and other creepy-crawlies) is hardly new. It’s something humans and their hominid ancestors have been doing for millions of years. Paleoanthropologists and biologists speculate that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed prodigious quantities of insects—a fact conveniently omitted by most contempoary aficionados of the “cave man diet”. More recently, nineteenth century European arrivals to Australia marveled at aboriginal tribes’ insatiable appetite for insects, and the dramatic impact such a diet could have on their health and appearance, as documented in a fascinating ethnography, The Moth Hunters.
What’s surprising is how enduring the human taste for class Insecta remains. According to the FAO, more than two billion people—thirty percent of humanity—already supplement their diet with insects. And given the number of insects out there—1 million distinct species have already been identified and nearly two thousand proven edible—diners have a crunchy smorgasbord to choose from. “The most commonly eaten insect groups,” we learn, “are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies.”
Most of today’s insect-eaters live in the developing world, in countries where insects are perceived as a perfectly acceptable and convenient source of energy—readily (or at least seasonably) available, highly portable, and requiring fewer inputs than agriculture or animal husbandry. In terms of nutrition, insects provide an outstanding advantages, having “high fat, protein, fiber, vitamin, and mineral content,” and can be a particularly important diet component for children under the age of five in poor countries.
While many in the West may recoil in disgust, the FAO makes a compelling case on food security grounds for entomophagy (eating bugs, in science-speak). Often dismissed as “famine foods,” insects may offer at least part of the answer to the global food crisis. And a crisis is what we have on our hands. Based on current demographic and dietary trends, as I’ve written before, the world needs to double its food production over the next forty years—an effort that will require unprecedented productivity gains while risking ecological calamity. 
Here’s where insects come in. Insects, it turns out, are far more efficient than livestock—perhaps ten times so—in transforming feed into edible meat. And they largely avoid the huge greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other environmental pollutants, associated with livestock. While most edible insects continue to be collected in the wild, more organized forms of insect farming have emerged, including “cricket farming” in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Insects are also being increasingly used as animal feed, particularly for poultry and acquaculture. By providing employment opportunities, the edible insect sector has a potential role to play in rural development, from Southeast Asia to Central Africa. . . .
* * *

Stewart Patrick, "There's a Fly in My Soup? Can Insects Satisfy World Food Needs?, The Internationalist, May 16, 2013

Glaciers Retreat

From Yale Environment 360:
The glaciers on Mount Everest and the surrounding region have shrunk by 13 percent in the last five decades as temperatures have risen and snowfall has declined in that section of the Himalaya, according to a new study. Using satellite imagery and topographic maps, a team of scientists found that the majority of glaciers on Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, and in the surrounding Sagarmatha National Park are retreating at an accelerating rate. In the last 50 years, the snowline in the Everest region has shifted up by an average of 590 feet (180 meters), said Sudeep Thakuri, a Ph. D. student at the University of Milan and leader of the research team, which presented its findings at a conference in Cancún, Mexico. Because glaciers are melting faster than they are being replenished, researchers say, rock and debris that were previously hidden under snow are now exposed and absorbing heat. A separate study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that snow cover in the Rocky Mountains has declined by about 20 percent in the last three decades as a result of warmer springs.

April 17, 2013

EU Climate Policy on Verge of Collapse

The rejection by the European Parliament of a proposal to salvage the EU’s carbon-emissions trading system has left the program in utter disarray. The 334-315 vote on April 16th, generally regarded as a surprise, occurred against an anemic economic climate and European fears of a loss of competitiveness. Prices, which were over €6 a metric ton at the beginning of the year and have been sliding, fell yet further to around €2.5 a ton. The survival of the emissions-trading-system is now very much in doubt.  This now-dated chart from Spiegel Online shows the general tendency:

Notes Schumpeter at the Economist: “The ETS has long been troubled. The scheme is the world’s biggest carbon market, trading allowances to produce carbon which cover about half the European Union’s total carbon emissions. Partly because of weak industrial demand and partly because the EU gave away too many allowances to pollute in the first place, there is massive oversupply in the carbon-emissions market. Prices fell from €20 a tonne in 2011 to just €5 a tonne in February 2013. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, therefore hatched a plan to take about 900m tonnes of carbon allowances off the market now and reintroduce them in about five years time when, it was hoped, demand would be stronger (“backloading” in the jargon). This was the proposal the European Parliament turned down.”
Dave Keating, at, gives some immediate reactions:
Stig Schjølset, head of EU carbon analysis for PointCarbon, said the proposal is now “effectively dead”. “This means there will be no changes to the current system until 2020,” he said. “Prices will stay really low up to then. The EU ETS will not bring about any additional greenhouse gas reductions, so it will be irrelevant in terms of reducing total emissions in Europe.” 
"The EU's carbon market is at crisis point,” said Green MEP Bas Eickhout after the vote. He called the combination of centre-right MEPs, German Liberals and some hard left MEPs from the GUE group [European United Left] who voted to reject the proposal an “irresponsible and unholy alliance of MEPs.” . . .

Hans ten Berge, secretary general of electricity industry association Eurelectric, said the vote “is a dangerous set-back for the internal energy market and for EU carbon goals.” “Immediate carbon market reactions to the vote show how low the credibility of the ETS has fallen," he added. "Only urgent action by the Commission to put forward structural proposals on ETS can now stop Member States from each legislating their own alternative policies: 27 different carbon floor prices, coal taxes, carbon taxes.”

Climate skeptics are gloating: “The EU has been the global laboratory testing the green agenda to see how it works,” writes Walter Russell Mead. The vote “means that the guinea pig died; the most important piece of green intervention in world history has become an expensive and embarrassing flop.  It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this for environmentalists everywhere; if the EU can’t make the green agenda work, it’s unlikely that anybody else will give it a try.”

Climate hawks are depressed: in an interview with Spiegel Online, Felix Matthes says it will have grave consequences and predicts, with Hans ten Berge, a re-nationalization of climate policy: “The decision means the end of a European approach to climate policy. The paradox is that all the politicians who are constantly calling for more harmonization of climate policy in the EU and internationally are sending the policy back to the national level. That is an enormous step backwards -- also for global climate policy. Even China is now starting to pursue emissions trade. South Korea and Australia have already implemented it, and California has started a very ambitious system.”

* * *

This chart from The Economist gives a longer view of the price movement:

April 19, 2013

April 16, 2013

Whales and Dolphins At Risk from Seismic Surveys

From Yale Environment360, a summary of a new report from environmental group Oceana on the dangers of seismic testing for offshore energy:

The proposed use of seismic air guns in the search for offshore oil and gas reserves along the U.S. East Coast could injure or kill nearly 140,000 marine animals annually and disrupt the vital activities of other species, a new study says. The seismic testing, in which guns filled with compressed air are fired repeatedly over deep-sea target areas to provide energy companies an image of the deposits below, would threaten marine species of all sizes, from tiny fish eggs to large whales, according to an analysis by the conservation group Oceana. The group said that the powerful air gun blasts, which it describes as “100,000 times more intense than a jet engine,” could disturb the breathing, feeding, and mating habits for dolphins and whales and cause injury or death to endangered species such as the North Atlantic right whale. The analysis comes as the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completes an environmental study on the potential effects of seismic activities from Delaware to Florida. Oil industry officials point to other research that shows seismic testing is unlikely to threaten marine mammals.
The industry case, with some rebuttals by Oceana, is given in this longer report by Jennifer A. Diouhy at Fuelfix 

Industry representatives note that seismic technology has advanced dramatically in recent years — one reason that oil companies are eager for a look at data from the East Coast, where research is decades old. Geophysical survey companies also can tailor the timing of their studies to avoid animal migrations and minimize disruption. 

Industry officials also point to research that shows slim prospects of physical harm to marine life from seismic surveys. For example, during a 2012 study by scientists in San Diego that aimed studying the way marine mammals experience temporary losses in hearing sensitivity, the researchers could not induce the problem after exposing a dolphin to 10 impulses from an air gun. “None of the dolphins has exhibited significant behavioral reactions,” the scientists concluded. “These data suggest that the potential for seismic surveys using air guns to cause auditory effects on dolphins and similar delphiniums may be lower than previously predicted.” 

Chip Gill, the president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, stressed that seismic analysis helps boost the odds that oil and gas companies will drill promising wells — rather than dry holes — effectively limiting the industry’s potential footprint. “We used to explore with a drill bit,” Gill said. “There’s a strong argument that seismic surveys could be the preferred environmental tool.” 

Oceana recommends federal regulators require geophysical contractors adopt minimizing techniques, if they allow any seismic research along the East Coast. That could include use of less-disruptive seismic technology — not dependent on air guns — even though it may be a few years away. “If seismic testing is going to occur, (the Department of Interior) should require it be done using the least harmful technology available,” Oceana said in its report. Regulators also “should permanently close large areas to seismic surveying and drilling to protect vulnerable habitats and species.” 

Marine biologists say the government statistics don’t capture the potential damage, some of which manifests slowly over time. “For marine mammals that are more sensitive to sound and depend greatly on their hearing, such as whales and dolphins, the airgun noise can be a severe threat,” Oceana said. In the case of low-frequency noise, “the sound can travel thousands of miles away from the airgun source, interrupting whale calls and altering their behavior even at great distances. Fin and humpback whales in a 100,000 square mile area stopped singing in the North Atlantic because of such noise, and bowhead whales have abandoned their habitat because of it in Alaska.” 

Although the Obama administration’s five-year plan for selling offshore oil and gas leases through 2017 does not include any planned auctions of Atlantic waters, a new generation of seismic research could pave the way for future drilling in the region. Data indicating potential big untapped resources could add pressure for future administrations to lease Atlantic tracts and help plan any auctions in the area. The geological and geophysical surveys also would be used to dictate the siting of future renewable energy installations offshore and help pinpoint areas for sand and gravel mining.

* * *

Jennifer A. Diouhy, "Seismic research on East Coast could harm 140,000 whales & dolphins," Fuelfix, April 16, 2013.

April 15, 2013

Tragedy of the Commons In Reverse

The journalist Fred Pearce writes in The Land Grabbers that his chosen title may seem pejorative, but is descriptively accurate. He defines land grabbing as "any contentious acquisition of large-scale land rights by a foreigner or other 'outsider,' whatever the legal status of the transaction." It's not all bad, he acknowledges, "but it all merits attention." Estimates of the amount of land taken over from indigenous inhabitants varies: The World Bank says 120 million acres, but other groups say a lot more.

Pearce's argument raises vital questions. It also splits the environmental movement wide open:

It is important to know what agribusiness can and cannot deliver. But it is equally important to be angered by the appalling injustice of people having their ancestral land pulled from beneath their feet. And to question the arrogance and ignorance surrounding claims, by home governments and Western investors alike, that huge areas of Africa are "empty" lands only awaiting the magic of foreign hands and foreign capital. And to balk at the patina of virtue that often surrounds environmentalists eagerly taking other people's land in the interests of protecting wildlife. What right do "green grabbers" have to take peasant fields and pastures to grow biofuels, cordon off rich pastures for nature conservation, shut up forests as carbon stores, and fence in wilderness as playpens and hunting grounds for rich sponsors? They are cooking up a "tragedy of the commons" in reverse.
Over the next few decades I believe land grabbing will matter more, to more of the planet's people, even than climate change. The new land rush looks increasingly like a final enclosure of the planet's wild places, a last roundup on the global commons. Is this the inevitable cost of feeding the world and protecting its surviving wildlife? Must the world's billion or so peasants and pastoralists give up their hinterlands in order to nourish the rest of us? Or is this a new colonialism that should be confronted--the moment when localism and communalism fight back? (ix-x)

 Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns Earth (Beacon Press, 2012)

April 13, 2013

Frowning Through the Aquacalypse

Herewith extracts from a few stellar essays on the crisis of global fisheries. Daniel Pauly is a professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia, which sponsors (with the Pew foundation) the Sea Around Us Project; his "Aquacalypse Now” appeared in The New Republic, September 28, 2009:  

Our oceans have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme, waged with Bernie Madoff–like callousness by the world’s fisheries. Beginning in the 1950s, as their operations became increasingly industrialized--with onboard refrigeration, acoustic fish-finders, and, later, GPS--they first depleted stocks of cod, hake, flounder, sole, and halibut in the Northern Hemisphere. As those stocks disappeared, the fleets moved southward, to the coasts of developing nations and, ultimately, all the way to the shores of Antarctica, searching for icefishes and rockcods, and, more recently, for small, shrimplike krill. As the bounty of coastal waters dropped, fisheries moved further offshore, to deeper waters. And, finally, as the larger fish began to disappear, boats began to catch fish that were smaller and uglier--fish never before considered fit for human consumption. Many were renamed so that they could be marketed: The suspicious slimehead became the delicious orange roughy, while the worrisome Patagonian toothfish became the wholesome Chilean seabass. Others, like the homely hoki, were cut up so they could be sold sight-unseen as fish sticks and filets in fast-food restaurants and the frozen-food aisle.

The scheme was carried out by nothing less than a fishing-industrial complex--an alliance of corporate fishing fleets, lobbyists, parliamentary representatives, and fisheries economists. By hiding behind the romantic image of the small-scale, independent fisherman, they secured political influence and government subsidies far in excess of what would be expected, given their minuscule contribution to the GDP of advanced economies--in the United States, even less than that of the hair salon industry. In Japan, for example, huge, vertically integrated conglomerates, such as Taiyo or the better-known Mitsubishi, lobby their friends in the Japanese Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them gain access to the few remaining plentiful stocks of tuna, like those in the waters surrounding South Pacific countries. Beginning in the early 1980s, the United States, which had not traditionally been much of a fishing country, began heavily subsidizing U.S. fleets, producing its own fishing-industrial complex, dominated by large processors and retail chains. Today, governments provide nearly $30 billion in subsidies each year--about one-third of the value of the global catch--that keep fisheries going, even when they have overexploited their resource base. As a result, there are between two and four times as many boats as the annual catch requires, and yet, the funds to “build capacity” keep coming.

The jig, however, is nearly up. In 1950, the newly constituted Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that, globally, we were catching about 20 million metric tons of fish (cod, mackerel, tuna, etc.) and invertebrates (lobster, squid, clams, etc.). That catch peaked at 90 million tons per year in the late 1980s, and it has been declining ever since. Much like Madoff’s infamous operation, which required a constant influx of new investments to generate “revenue” for past investors, the global fishing-industrial complex has required a constant influx of new stocks to continue operation. Instead of restricting its catches so that fish can reproduce and maintain their populations, the industry has simply fished until a stock is depleted and then moved on to new or deeper waters, and to smaller and stranger fish. And, just as a Ponzi scheme will collapse once the pool of potential investors has been drained, so too will the fishing industry collapse as the oceans are drained of life.

Unfortunately, it is not just the future of the fishing industry that is at stake, but also the continued health of the world’s largest ecosystem. While the climate crisis gathers front-page attention on a regular basis, people--even those who profess great environmental consciousness--continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice. But eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent. One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have “collapsed,” meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. Whether or not that particular year, or even decade, is correct, one thing is clear: Fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we.

The extent of the fisheries’ Ponzi scheme eluded government scientists for many years. They had long studied the health of fish populations, of course, but typically, laboratories would focus only on the species in their nation’s waters. And those studying a particular species in one country would communicate only with those studying that same species in another. Thus, they failed to notice an important pattern: Popular species were sequentially replacing each other in the catches that fisheries were reporting, and, when a species faded, scientific attention shifted to the replacement species. At any given moment, scientists might acknowledge that one-half or two-thirds of fisheries were being overfished, but, when the stock of a particular fish was used up, it was simply removed from the denominator of the fraction. For example, the Hudson River sturgeon wasn’t counted as an overfished stock once it disappeared from New York waters; it simply became an anecdote in the historical record. The baselines just kept shifting, allowing us to continue blithely damaging marine ecosystems.

It was not until the 1990s that a series of high-profile scientific papers demonstrated that we needed to study, and mitigate, fish depletions at the global level. They showed that phenomena previously observed at local levels--for example, the disappearance of large species from fisheries’ catches and their replacement by smaller species--were also occurring globally. It was a realization akin to understanding that the financial meltdown was due not to the failure of a single bank, but, rather, to the failure of the entire banking system--and it drew a lot of controversy. . . .

To some Western nations, an end to fish might simply seem like a culinary catastrophe, but for 400 million people in developing nations, particularly in poor African and South Asian countries, fish are the main source of animal protein. What’s more, fisheries are a major source of livelihood for hundreds of million of people. A recent World Bank report found that the income of the world’s 30 million small-scale fisheries is shrinking. The decrease in catch has also dealt a blow to a prime source of foreign-exchange earnings, on which impoverished countries, ranging from Senegal in West Africa to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, rely to support their imports of staples such as rice.

And, of course, the end of fish would disrupt marine ecosystems to an extent that we are only now beginning to appreciate. Thus, the removal of small fish in the Mediterranean to fatten bluefin tuna in pens is causing the “common” dolphin to become exceedingly rare in some areas, with local extinction probable. Other marine mammals and seabirds are similarly affected in various parts of the world. Moreover, the removal of top predators from marine ecosystems has effects that cascade down, leading to the increase of jellyfish and other gelatinous zooplankton and to the gradual erosion of the food web within which fish populations are embedded. This is what happened off the coast of southwestern Africa, where an upwelling ecosystem similar to that off California, previously dominated by fish such as hake and sardines, has become overrun by millions of tons of jellyfish.

Jellyfish population outbursts are also becoming more frequent in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where the fertilizer-laden runoff from the Mississippi River fuels uncontrolled algae blooms. The dead algae then fall to a sea bottom from which shrimp trawling has raked all animals capable of feeding on them, and so they rot, causing Massachusetts-sized “dead zones.” Similar phenomena--which only jellyfish seem to enjoy--are occurring throughout the world, from the Baltic Sea to the Chesapeake Bay, and from the Black Sea in southeastern Europe to the Bohai Sea in northeastern China. Our oceans, having nourished us since the beginning of the human species some 150,000 years ago, are now turning against us, becoming angry opponents.

That dynamic will only grow more antagonistic as the oceans become warmer and more acidic because of climate change. Fish are expected to suffer mightily from global warming, making it essential that we preserve as great a number of fish and of fish species as possible, so that those which are able to adapt are around to evolve and propagate the next incarnations of marine life. In fact, new evidence tentatively suggests that large quantities of fish biomass could actually help attenuate ocean acidification. In other words, fish could help save us from the worst consequences of our own folly--yet we are killing them off. The jellyfish-ridden waters we’re seeing now may be only the first scene in a watery horror show. . . .

The truth is that governments are the only entities that can prevent the end of fish. For one thing, once freed from their allegiance to the fishing-industrial complex, they are the ones with the research infrastructure capable of prudently managing fisheries. For another, it is they who provide the billions of dollars in annual subsidies that allow the fisheries to persist despite the lousy economics of the industry. Reducing these subsidies would allow fish populations to rebuild, and nearly all fisheries scientists agree that the billions of dollars in harmful, capacity-enhancing subsidies must be phased out. Finally, only governments can zone the marine environment, identifying certain areas where fishing will be tolerated and others where it will not. In fact, all maritime countries will have to regulate their exclusive economic zones (the 200-mile boundary areas established by the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty within which a nation has the sole right to fish). The United States has the largest exclusive economic zone in the world, and it has taken important first steps in protecting its resources, notably in the northwest Hawaiian islands. Creating, or re-creating, un-fished areas within which fish populations can regenerate is the only opportunity we have to repair the damage done to them. . . .

* * *

The state of the oceans is also explored in Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Scales Fall: Is There Any Hope for Our Overfished Oceans?The New Yorker, August 2, 2010:
The sorry state of ocean life has led to a new kind of fish story—a lament not for the one that got away but for the countless others that didn’t. In “Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish” (St. Martin’s; $25.99), David Helvarg notes that each year sharks kill some five to eight humans worldwide; meanwhile we kill a hundred million of them. Dean Bavington, the author of “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse” (University of British Columbia; $94), observes that two hundred billion pounds’ worth of cod were taken from Canada’s Grand Banks before 1992, when the cod simply ran out. In “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin Press; $25.95), Paul Greenberg estimates that somewhere in the range of a hundred million salmon larvae used to hatch in the Connecticut River each year. Now the number’s a lot easier to pin down: it’s zero. “The broad, complex genetic potential of the Connecticut River salmon,” Greenberg writes, has “vanished from the face of the earth.”

The assumption of the inexhaustibility of the sea’s resources is found in Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) of 1609; it received repeated affirmation thereafter. Kolbert draws attention to a lecture of Thomas Huxley at the opening of the 1883 Great International Fisheries Exhibition, affirming the belief that “probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”  

Huxley’s views dominated thinking about fisheries for most of the next century. In 1955, Francis Minot, the director of the Marine and Fisheries Engineering Research Institute, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, co-wrote a book titled “The Inexhaustible Sea.” As yet, he observed, “we do not know the ocean well enough. Much must still be learned. Nevertheless, we are already beginning to understand that what it has to offer extends beyond the limits of our imagination.” In 1964, the annual global catch totalled around fifty million tons; a U.S. Interior Department report from that year predicted that it could be “increased at least tenfold without endangering aquatic stocks.” Three years later, the department revised its estimate; the catch could be increased not by a factor of ten but by a factor of forty, to two billion tons a year. This, it noted, would be enough to feed the world’s population ten times over. Michael L. Weber observes, in “From Abundance to Scarcity” (2002), that as recently as the nineteen-nineties U.S. policy was predicated “on the belief that the ocean’s productivity was almost limitless.” 

In the meantime, “machinery” beyond Huxley’s wildest imagining was being developed. Purse seines were introduced in the nineteen-thirties. These giant nets can be played out around entire schools of fish, then gathered up with drawstrings, like huge laundry bags. Factory freezer trawlers, developed after the Second World War, grew to be so gargantuan that they amounted to, in effect, seafaring towns. In the nineteen-fifties, many fleets added echo-sounding sonar, which can detect fish schools long before they surface. Today, specially designed buoys known as “fish aggregating devices,” or FADs, are deployed to attract species like yellowfin tuna and blue marlin. So-called “smart” FADs come equipped with sonar and G.P.S., so operators can detect from afar whether they are, in fact, surrounded by fish. 

In the short term, the new technology worked, much as Huxley had predicted, to swell catches. But only in the short term. In the late nineteen-eighties, the total world catch topped out at around eighty-five million tons, which is to say, roughly 1.9 billion tons short of the Interior Department’s most lunatic estimate. This milestone—the point of what might be called “peak fish”—was passed without anyone’s quite realizing it, owing to inflated catch figures from the Chinese. (These fishy figures were later exposed as politically motivated fabrications.) For the past two decades, the global catch has been steadily declining. It is estimated that the total take is dropping by around five hundred thousand tons a year. 

Meanwhile, as the size of the catch has fallen, so, too, has the size of the creatures being caught. This phenomenon, which has become known as “fishing down the food web,” was first identified by Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia. In “Five Easy Pieces: How Fishing Impacts Marine Ecosystems” (Island Press; $50), Pauly follows this trend to its logical—or, if you prefer, illogical—conclusion. Eventually, all that will be left in the oceans are organisms that people won’t, or can’t, consume, like sea slugs and toxic algae. It’s been argued that humans have become such a dominant force on the planet that we’ve ushered in a new geological epoch. Pauly proposes that this new epoch be called the Myxocene, from the Greek muxa, meaning “slime.” . . .

* * *

There is a useful archive of magazine essays on the fisheries crisis at the Sea Around Us Project.

April 12, 2013

Carbon Bubbles

A report last year from Carbontracker, in London, draws attention to the financial solvency of major fossil fuel producers. Its study, Unburnable Carbon, has had a big impact. Bill McKibben, of, has rallied students at the nation's leading colleges and universities, 250 at last count, to demand that their schools' endowments divest from the 200 companies listed on world stock exchanges that hold fossil fuel reserves. (The divestment would take place over a five year period.) The divestment movement raises a lot of questions, but here I want to focus on the Carbontracker report, both in the way of summarizing its conclusions and pointing to some weaknesses therein.   

According to Carbontracker, “The total carbon potential of the Earth’s known fossil fuel reserves comes to 2795 GtCO2 [gigatons of carbon dioxide]. 65% of this is from coal, with oil providing 22% and gas 13%. This means that governments and global markets are currently treating as assets, reserves equivalent to nearly 5 times the carbon budget for the next 40 years. . . .We estimate the fossil fuel reserves held by the top 100 listed coal companies and the top 100 listed oil and gas companies represent potential emissions of 745 GtCO2. This exceeds the remaining carbon budget of 565 GtCO2 by 180 GtCO2.”


Such reserves, the report notes, cannot be burned if the world is to stay within its carbon budget. "Only 20% of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable."
This has profound implications for the world’s energy finance structures and means that using just the reserves listed on the world’s stock markets in the next 40 years would be enough to take us beyond 2°C of global warming. This calculation also assumes that no new fossil fuel resources are added to reserves and burnt during this period – an assumption challenged by the harsh reality that fossil fuel companies are investing billions per annum to find and process new reserves. It is estimated that listed oil and gas companies had CAPEX budgets of $798 billion in 2010. In addition, over two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuels are held by privately or state owned oil, gas and coal corporations, which are also contributing even more carbon emissions.
Given that only one fifth of the total reserves can be used to stay below 2°C warming, if this is applied uniformly, then only 149 of the 745 GtCO2 listed can be used unmitigated. This is where the carbon asset bubble is located. If applied to the world’s stock markets, this could result in a repricing of assets on a scale that would dwarf past profit warnings and revaluation of reserves.
Let us extrapolate a bit from Carbontracker's figures, which are admittedly astounding in showing the scale of the challenge. If we are to stay below two degrees of warming, the world can burn only 886 GtCO2 from 2000 to 2050. That is “the global carbon budget.” But in the first decade of this century the world used up over a third of its budget, having burned, according to one calculation, some 282 GtCO2, with land use change adding another 39 GtCO2. So that reduces to 565 GtCO2 the carbon budget for the years 2011-2050. Ignoring the “land use change” factor for the moment, that basically indicates that 28.2 GtCO2 was the amount burned per year in the first decade. In the next four decades, the amount would have to fall by half (565/40), to average 14.125 GtCO2 per year. Barring catastrophe, of course, an immediate reduction of fossil fuel use by half is impossible, so one would have to imagine a sharply descending line like that projected by Greenpeace in a recent report, with emissions in 2050 far below the 14.125 figure. (See further here.)

Carbontracker then asks fossil fuel companies--together with regulators and pension funds--to consider the following questions in stating and understanding their financial accounts:  

• Which of the assets you have an interest in are amongst the 20% of fossil fuel reserves we can afford to burn in the next 40 years?

• If you sanction capital expenditure on finding and developing more reserves, just how likely is it that those new reserves can ever be burned?

• What discount rates would it be prudent for investors to use when valuing reserves? Are historical discount rates too optimistic given the likely haircut to reserves values that corporate owners of fossil fuels are likely to have to take?

Furthermore, as the regulators of the capital markets will need to look closely at disclosures and reporting requirements around how reserves are presented, accountants and auditors will need to revise guidelines on how value is recorded:

• If not all reserves that are exchange listed can be burnt, how should auditors account for these stranded assets?
• What assumptions need to be reviewed in order to create a reliable assessment of which assets are contingent or impaired?

* * *

Carbontracker undoubtedly raises a set of important questions, but its approach also has some serious limitations.

First, it mixes together the reserves situation for coal, oil, and gas in a way that is distorting. Coal reserves are enormous and constitute, as Carbontracker notes, some 65% of the carbon potential of proven fossil fuel reserves. But the "reserves to production" ratio for coal is far larger than for natural gas or for oil. BP pegs the reserves to production ratio for coal at 112 years, 63.6 for natural gas, and 54.2 for oil, and even those aggregate figures conceal important regional variations.

Second, the fossil fuel reserves of companies listed on stock exchanges account for only 26.6% of total fossil fuel reserves.

Both of those points are relevant to the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies. The former raises the question whether it makes sense to focus on all fossil fuels. There are trade-offs among all fuel sources in terms of environmental impact, but King Coal is undoubtedly the dirtiest and most productive of CO2 emissions. Surely some discrimination among fossil fuels is desirable: Is there really no room to replace coal with natural gas in electricity generation? Are we to build more dams, produce more biofuels, or build more nuclear reactors to make up for the lost production? I just don't see "no fossil fuels," never, ever, as a viable energy policy.

The second point reflects a sigificant real world conundrum: pressure on the western oil majors, if effective, could simply redound to the benefit of the National Oil Companies (or NOCs), which hold some seventy five percent of world oil reserves. (Some studies put the figure even larger, at 90 percent.) The majors are much diminished from their former days of glory in control of the world oil industry; the nationalizations of the 1970s saw to that. Aiming at them illuminates only a limited portion of the intended target.

But the biggest reservation about Carbontracker's approach--and the approach, as well, of those who have followed its methodology in the divestment movement--is its one-sided focus on the supply side.

Unless we make heroic assumptions about the complete transformation of energy infrastructure in a short period of time, the sectors of the economy that depend on energy consumption would clearly be greatly affected by a radical reduction in fossil fuel use, perhaps even more than the fossil fuel producers themselves. Leave aside that oil-service firms, like Halliburton, do not fall under the proscription of Carbontracker or the divestment movement; what about oil refineries, steel producers, automakers, airliners? What would be their enterprise value under the assumption (a radical reduction in fossil fuel use) that Carbontracker is applying to the 200 companies it singles out? Since the entire economy is fossil fuel dependent, it seems strange that Carbontracker, ostensibly concerned with such things as fiduciary responsibility and the accurate reporting of assets, should be so incurious about the implications of its projections for the larger financial structure.


The challenges posed by the energy transition are undoubtedly enormous, and Carbontracker's calculations have the merit of drawing attention to the contradiction between "business as usual" approaches and the forecasts of impending doom coming from climate scientists. If its financial analysis seems rather otherworldly (with no adequate discussion of alternative supply, likely demand, and expected price), it nevertheless raises vital questions.

Carbontracker does not call the fossil fuel companies evil, but rather actuarially unsound. However, the divestment movement, which has run with Carbontracker's report, has not hesitated to denominate them as such. By contrast, I object to any approach that draws a ring of fire around the fossil fuel companies and denominates them as wicked, while in effect leaving the consumers of energy off the hook. Such an approach seems to me unbalanced and myopic. It also ignores the fact that the provision of energy, in the modern industrial civilization we inhabit, provides indispensable contributions to human welfare. We have excellent grounds for believing that such consumption, on current trends, will likely produce grim environmental consequences in the future, but also ample reason to believe that going cold turkey from fossil fuels would produce delerium tremors in the patient, and probably kill him. A resolution to this profound dilemma, distant though such a resolution may now appear, is one of the great challenges of the coming century, but I resist the idea that absolutist strategies constitute progress in dealing with it.

April 13, 2013

April 11, 2013

The Next Big Pandemic

Florence Williams explains “How Animals May Cause the Next Big One” in the New York Review of Books, reviewing David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Here are some excerpts:

For better or worse, Homo sapiens has become the most abundant large mammal ever to roam the planet. We have spread into nearly every conceivable terrestrial habitat. We have increased our fertility and decreased our mortality. We have reengineered ecosystems and food webs and disinterred fossil stores to produce our calories and condition our dwellings. We are seven billion strong, growing at a rate of 70 million people a year.

As E.O. Wilson, both an entomologist and a conservationist, put it, “When Homo sapiens passed the six-billion mark we had already exceeded by perhaps as much as 100 times the biomass [i.e., the mass of the living organism] of any large animal species that ever existed on the land.” He was talking about wild animals. We are only about five times more numerous and probably a little less massive than our livestock—herded, fattened, and medically dosed just for us. Or, as David Quammen puts it in his masterful new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic: we are an “outbreak,” a species that has undergone a “vast, sudden population increase.” “And here’s the thing about outbreaks,” warns Quammen: “They end…. In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash.”

If this sounds alarming, it’s meant to. Undergirding his book’s structure, and right there in the subtitle, is the prospect of another major pandemic, what he and various epidemiologists he has consulted call the Next Big One. What will cause it? Most likely, a virus. What kind of virus? A brand new one, or new, at least, to humans. It will likely be a coronavirus. These, like HIV, have genes written in RNA, not DNA. This means it will be quickly mutating and elusive to treat. Where will it come from? Another animal. When a virus from an animal host “spills over” onto us, this is called zoonosis. Quammen estimates that roughly 60 percent of human infectious diseases have originated with animals, including Lyme disease, West Nile fever, the bubonic plague, and all influenzas. Zoonosis is “a word of the future,” he writes, “destined for heavy use in the twenty-first century.”

This insight, of course, is not really new for anyone who has read such books as Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague (1994) or Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (1994) or seen Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), in which a virus found in pigs and bats rapidly spreads around the world. Peter Heller’s 2012 novel The Dog Stars takes place after an influenza strain has killed 99.9 percent of humanity. In the films 28 Days Later (2002) and I Am Legend (2007), a rabies-like infection has turned the civilized world into the eaters and the eaten, plus a small band of survivors.

The problem with many bio- apocalyptic scenarios is that they’re ahistorical and unscientific. Viruses that are effective killers, like Ebola, tend to burn out quickly because they annihilate their hosts before germs can spread too far. Viruses that are highly transmissible, like the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, tend to kill only a small percentage of those infected. (The Spanish flu infected 30 percent of the world’s population. It killed about 2 percent.)

Quammen knows this, and is too rigorous a journalist to overdramatize dangers. His central idea is that the study of viruses must also be a study of ecology. By limiting his scope to diseases transmitted by animals as opposed to, say, polio and smallpox (which, though devastating, are diseases only found in humans), he can explore the complex and fascinating connections between us and the animals around us, both wild and domestic. As humans have swarmed the planet, we’ve altered habitats both large and microscopic. The natural world is rapidly disintegrating, or at least reorganizing in vastly unpredictable ways, and Quammen has for years been writing about the consequences. In The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, he identifies his subject as “the extinction of species in a world that has been hacked into pieces.”1

Spillover is a logical sequel. Although diseases can “reside undetected” within intact ecosystems, “ecological disturbance causes diseases to emerge.” We have not only disrupted, fragmented, and interrupted the web of relationships with animals in these places, but we’ve presented ourselves—our very own tissues and cells—as alternative targets for opportunistic microbes. . . .

As Quammen brilliantly portrays them, the lessons of the SARS virus are unnerving. We are a populous and hungry species eating our way across the taxonomic map. Our livestock are kept in close quarters with wild animals, and we travel over oceans in a day. The SARS outbreak could easily have been worse. A bigger disaster was averted because Chinese authorities were ultimately organized and ruthless about quarantining (even public spitters were fined $300). The hospitals in China and in Toronto were excellent. (What if the disease had broken out in New Delhi?) Moreover, as Quammen explains, SARS patients got very sick before the height of infection, helping them get off the streets and buses before they were too contagious. With many other viruses, the reverse is true. “When the Next Big One comes,” he writes, “we can guess, it will likely conform to the same perverse pattern, high infectivity preceding notable symptoms. That will help it to move through cities and airports like an angel of death.” . . .

Viruses mutate constantly. Many expire. But the strains we should fear are those that randomly manage to stay alive in a new host and keep replicating. Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson wrote, “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power.” The same applies to emerging viruses, and it’s why people should read Quammen’s book. . . .

In a revealing passage, Quammen roundly criticizes the science writer Richard Preston for narrative exaggeration. Preston’s The Hot Zone was a gripping account of an Ebola-like outbreak among lab monkeys in a corporate research facility in Reston, Virginia, in 1989. The book was a best seller and the basis for a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. “There’s no question that it did more than any journal article or newspaper story to make ebolaviruses infamous and terrifying to the general public,” Quammen says. The problem, he explains, is that the catalog of horrors described by Preston—liquefying organs, people dissolving in their beds—wasn’t quite accurate. . . .

Spillover leaves the impression that viruses are terribly scary. Quammen makes the qualifying point that sometimes they are neutral or even salubrious, but then he drops it. This doesn’t seem quite right. In fact, humans are part virus. Our genome carries about 100,000 fragments of retrovirus DNA, making up 8 percent of our total genetic material. As Carl Zimmer explains in A Planet of Viruses:
Many scientists now argue that viruses contain a genetic archive that’s been circulating the planet for billions of years. When they try to trace the common ancestry of virus genes, they often work their way back to a time before the common ancestor of all cell-based life.

He notes that the French virologist Patrick Forterre has suggested that viruses may have “invented the double-stranded DNA molecule as a way to protect their genes from attack.” The mammalian placenta is made possible thanks to genes contributed by an ancient virus. Viral DNA is intertwined with ours and has been from our earliest beginnings. Viruses don’t just attack us; they are us. 

If this is the case, and if, as we know, humans have been invading habitats since we left the cradle of Africa tens of thousands of years ago, how new a threat is zoonosis, really? After all, far fewer humans are dying of infectious disease than ever before. Quammen anticipates this criticism and has a convincing answer: HIV. That family of viruses has killed 30 million people worldwide and another 34 million are currently infected. Decades after its discovery, we still can’t effectively treat or contain it in many parts of the world. Uniquely modern factors, including changing sexual and social patterns, poor public health, and easy global transmission, amplified the pandemic. Aside from HIV, we penetrate more deeply and more destructively into remote ecosystems through large-scale mining operations, deforestation, oil and gas exploration, modern agriculture, and, of course, human-caused climate change. 

World War I and globalization helped the Spanish flu become humankind’s worst viral outbreak. Despite its lethality rate of between one and two people per hundred infected, it ultimately killed around 50 million people. In the US, the virus was powerful enough to reduce the national average lifespan by ten years. More recently at home, West Nile virus infections were up 19 percent last summer. The Washington Post reported that the virus appears to be mutating to stronger strains capable of damaging the central nervous system. Mosquitoes, bearers of so many bad tidings for the human immune system, thrive in hotter, wetter places and longer warm seasons. . . .

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New York Review of Books, April 25, 2003. Florence Williams is a Contributing Editor at Outside Magazine. Her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History was published in 2012. (By the way, that's an excellent book on women's health issues, and an entertaining if depressing read.)