Archive for September, 2007

Getting the information needed at the right place and at the right time: from scientists to policy makers and back again

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

As mentioned by Jones on a previous post, Dr. John Holmes came to McGill to give a lecture entitled “Making better use of science in environmental policy making: a European perspective”. The aim of the talk could be summarized briefly as being three-fold: 1) to describe the gap between scientific knowledge and policy making by referring to recent examples of environmental policy making in United Kingdom, 2) to identify the main factors contributing to the formation of this gap, and 3) to propose some remedies to diminish the influence of these factors.
One of the main factors he identified is the lack of institutional channels allowing, on the one hand, scientists to make themselves heard by policy makers and, on the other hand, policy makers to ask questions to scientists at an early stage of the policy making process. The key element for efficient institutional channels, according to Holmes, is competent interpreters who know well the functioning of both worlds. Accordingly, forming more and better interpreters (or middleman) is one of the propositions he made to bridge the gap between science and policy. For Holmes, their role would mainly consist in synthesizing the findings of scientists, vulgarizing the synthesis to make it accessible to non experts and presenting it to the policy makers in a way adapted to their short-term time scale, not in the often long-term time scale of the environmental processes studied by scientists. The other way around, their role would be to assist policy makers in asking questions to scientists, help them decide which research projects need to be funded to provide the answers they seek and help scientists understand the compromises they have to make while formulating their policies.
The general idea is quite good, I think, and has the merit of being very intuitive. Nevertheless, I think it leaves out of the picture an important aspect of the policy making process, especially in our democratic societies: the citizens. The role of the interpreters should not be restricted to the promotion of a dialogue between scientists and policy makers, but should also include the bringing of citizens into the discussion by helping them understand environmental issues from the perspective of both scientists and policy makers. In a democratic society, mobilizing the population for a cause is often crucial for getting a political response to issues identified by scientists. If this is right, then the circulation of information should include three poles, not two: scientists, policy makers and citizens.

visualizing consumption

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Chris Jordan has produced some truly amazing art that uses, as his medium, the vast amounts of goods we waste (among other things) to paint a compelling picture of how we live. These are massive images (~5*10′). My favourite shows the number of cellphones (almost half a million!) retired in the US every single day.

Talk on Science and Policy, September 17

Monday, September 24th, 2007

On September 17, Dr. John Holmes of Oxford University presented a lecture entitled “Making better use of science in environmental policy making: a European perspective”. Dr. Holmes addressed the issue of the gap between scientific knowledge on the one hand and policy decisions on the other. He explored the policy-making process in the United Kingdom, and explained that current objectives are aimed toward facilitating the efficient and reliable dissemination of scientific knowledge into the policy-making arena. These objectives include initiatives and reviews that explore pertinent questions, such as what science is good science (which research is most valid?), how to facilitate exchange between scientists and policy-makers (what is the role of the interpreter?), and how to frame questions that direct practical research (how does a scientist understand a question framed by a policy-maker?). The answers to these questions should help bridge the gap between science and policy. Additionally, Dr. Holmes gave examples of relatively recent policy initiatives in the UK that were directly responsive to scientific discovery (e.g. the implementation of contaminated land regulations; the licensing of water abstractions). Despite this positive note, he concluded that the process of disseminating scientific knowledge and its effective implementation is currently very slow and cumbersome.
I think the essential message to draw from the lecture is that streamlining the implementation of scientific knowledge into policy-making is requisite, for solutions to environmental problems depend on quick action. It is clear that more effort needs to be devoted to making this process quick and efficient. Regardless of what we know from science, if we can’t disseminate the knowledge in a timely manner, that knowledge is useless.
On the other hand, the implementation of knowledge into policy can only be stream-lined to a certain level. The very issues involved in proper, reliable, democratic integration of knowledge into policy-initiatives are what make the process slow and cumbersome. No matter how much we speed up the reliable dissemination of knowledge into the policy sphere, sifting through and debating the implications of that knowledge takes time, and very often, there are a number of interested parties at the bargaining table. To confront this apparently problematic relationship between science and policy, a common ground must be established where policy makers recognize the often serious consequences of slow action and do everything possible to promote timely decision-making, and where scientists accept the reality that democratic decision-making requires time, patience and compromise.

satellite imagery for good

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

The Summer edition of Imaging Notes is all about satellite imagery for climate change. Nice article on Google Earth’s outreach program, or what do you do after flying to your home?, SPOT’s Planet Action, and some striking images on the reaction of oceans to climate change.

The Problems with Popularity: “Catagenesis” and Other Buzz Words

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Thomas Homer-Dixon gave a public lecture in Westmount [Quebec] this week. He is political scientist based out of the University of Toronto, currently gaining more renown for his “general writing” in books like The Ingenuity Gap than his “academic writing” (a dualism which he himself constructs via his website, and one which seems to depressingly devalue the weight of his “general” best-sellers). His work – all of an academic grain, I argue – centres around mechanisms of societal adaptation to major economic, technological, and environmental rupture.

Homer-Dixon’s lecture was aimed at a large, public audience, and thus did not delve deeply into densely theoretical jargon or details. Broadly-speaking, he spent an hour discussing his own diagnosis and prescription (his analogy, not mine) for effecting action in environmental change. As a result, there are a multitude of avenues for discussion – about the environment and further – that I could explore here. But I have decided to use this blog post to discuss a conspicuous element (and slight exasperation) I found in both his writing and speaking: the invention, use, and promotion of what I label “buzz words” to iterate – and reiterate – or elicit an awareness of contemporary environmental issues.

Homer-Dixon’s creation of choice is “catagenesis,” a combination of “catastrophe” and “genesis,” which also generally outlines the thesis (and title) of his newest book: The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization; in other words, he posits the notion that societal adaptation stems, in part, from the necessary renewal and rebirth that follows major upheaval – like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which he cites in both book and seminars.

I must emphasize that my contention is not with the explanatory frameworks such combo-words provide, but rather the popular culture trends they espouse. Trends, by definition, lose momentum and quickly disappear, consequently rendering that which they encompass virtually meaningless. Like “sustainability,” I fear the aforementioned terms may only serve to arouse short-term, large-scale interest, rather than turn the material it intends to convey into concise, comprehensible, enduring language. “Sustainability,” for example, seems to have become something people think is supposed to be good, and of which they are supposed to be proponents; comprehension is superficial at best, and because it was the “buzz word” of Al Gore’s 2006, its use and enthusiasm for its pursuit is fading. Thomas Homer-Dixon addressed this point himself at the end of his lecture, joking that “resilience is becoming the new sustainability.” He did not seem to acknowledge that this sort of jargon transience may in fact be dangerous. I posit that the increased use of these catchy-sounding (and now, combination-style) “buzz words” is actually the first step in steering society away from clearly understanding and consequently caring about and acting on environmental issues such as climate change. People cannot engage in discussion or debate over words that do not carry weight.

Thomas Homer-Dixon Lecture (Sept. 18, 2007)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Resilience. In essence, this is what Homer-Dixon’s lecture was about. Using his latest book “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Society” as the guide for his lecture, he detailed five main stresses currently growing throughout the world and ways to combat them… sort of.

The first half of the lecture detailed five global stresses: population growth (especially in developing countries), energy scarcity, environmental degradation in developing countries, climate change, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor (both regionally and globally) all of which create vulnerability and instability. Homer-Dixon sees these as “tectonic stresses” that grow and create friction under the surface, while everything on the surface seems fine (this is where we are currently). That is until the energy and friction of each stress combine to create a catastrophe. There are also two factors that exacerbate these stresses: the increasing connectivity of people and places throughout the world, and the increasing ability of small groups of people to cause great harm to many (i.e. terrorists). Homer-Dixon’s point in detailing these stresses is that many people want simple answers without really knowing the underlying problems, and one cannot come without the other. The last half of the lecture was not solely dedicated to solutions, because in many of these cases solutions for the immediate future are not a reality (i.e. climate change impacts over the next 50 years). Instead Homer-Dixon stressed in his lecture that out of catastrophe could come great opportunity for positive change and reorganization, if we are ready to take advantage of the opportunity. The term he used is called catagenesis (cata = down, genesis = rebirth), but it is the same as the reorganization phase in an adaptive cycle: the ability to adapt and start renewal in the event of catastrophe or breakdown. In society, our ability to build more resilient communities and societies is what will determine how we get through the stresses placed upon us and how we rebuild after catastrophes occur.

This lecture was prepared for a public audience, not an academic one. If I am to criticize it on the basis that it did not go deep enough into the issues, I also have to acknowledge that it may be the audience and not the speaker that required that. However, regardless of the audience, I feel that Homer-Dixon’s lecture should have focused more on the concept of resilience and how it could operate in society (how do we prepare and start creating more resilience?) – I left the lecture feeling that there are good ideas at work here, but that many will be a challenge to materialize. During question period, one person asked for examples of how people are looking forward, building resilience and being prepared to use catastrophe as the potential for future change. A large part of his answer was that people were “starting to talk about it”. This is frustrating, but again may be due to the fact that even though scientists have been studying the resilience of natural ecosystems for some time, this is a new concept to place in a social context. The way in which we have organized ourselves to date (in hierarchical and management frameworks) works against the principles of resilience and creates rigid structures susceptible to breakdown. This may be hard to change.

As for the implications of this presentation for environmental research, I feel that most of what was presented was more applicable to social science environmental research as it focused on how people and society should start to build up systems that will allow us to withstand major changes. That said this research might require knowing more about how resilient our natural ecosystems are to change. In this way, we can determine how future catastrophes (i.e. climate change) will impact ecosystem functioning and how to respond accordingly in the social arena. Knowing what impact the melting of arctic sea ice will have on coastal regions is important in determining what kind of social institutions (or new ways of thinking) are needed to handle the blow. I feel that there is much to be gained in discussing the idea of resilience across disciplines as our ecological, economic, social, and political systems all feed each other. Perhaps natural systems can be used as a guide for social systems to reduce their rigidity.

In all, I think that what Thomas Homer-Dixon presented is an important concept that needs to be further developed: we know that we cannot simply fix our problems, and indeed in some cases we will not be able to fully adapt to their consequences either. We can however, use catastrophe as the impetus for positive reorganization of our institutions and ways of thinking. I do not feel, however, that the idea of building resilient communities can be scaled up to the global level (I did not get a clear indication of what Homer-Dixon thought about this). Instead, I feel that creating smaller webs of connectivity is more feasible and would be more successful as it could avoid the rigidity that prevents resilient systems from building in the first place.

visualizing global warming

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

because people need to see the impacts to believe it.

Architecture 2030 … tries to bring attention to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the building sector contributes to global warming through inefficient electricity use, lighting, heating and cooling.

“The building sector is responsible for close to half of all energy consumption in this country and close to half of all greenhouse gas emissions,” [Edward Mazria, Architecture 2030's founder] said. Buildings are the single largest contributor to global warming, he said, emitting more than even automobiles.

Architecture 2030 has teemed up with Google Earth to show dramatic images of the impacts on U.S. cities of climate change.

See prior post for Canadian examples and step by step instructions for creating your own seal level rise overlays on Google Earth.

Update: One satellite image is worth a thousand words. And hundreds of satellite images?

the European Space Agency said nearly 200 satellite photos this month taken together showed an ice-free passage along northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland, according to news reports. Ice was retreating to its lowest level since such images were first taken in 1978, according to a report from The Associated Press.

Using satellite data and imagery, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) now estimates the Arctic ice pack to cover 4.24 million square kilometers (1.63 million square miles) — equal to just less than half the size of the United States.

the end of batteries as we know it

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

the potential (no pun intended) for electric cars is profound:

An Austin-based startup called EEStor promised ”technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries,” meaning a motorist could plug in a car for five minutes and drive 500 miles roundtrip between Dallas and Houston without gasoline.

By contrast, some plug-in hybrids on the horizon would require motorists to charge their cars in a wall outlet overnight and promise only 50 miles of gasoline-free commute. And the popular hybrids on the road today still depend heavily on fossil fuels.

”It’s a paradigm shift,” said Ian Clifford, chief executive of Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co., which has licensed EEStor’s invention. ”The Achilles’ heel to the electric car industry has been energy storage. By all rights, this would make internal combustion engines unnecessary.”

If only it could be extended to all the battery powered devices that now clutter our lives…

(one should keep in mind that the production and end-of-life disposal of the new system may be as great or worse than the batteries or engines that it replaces.)

Welcome ENVR 650

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

This Fall I welcome the graduate students of Environment 650: The Environmental Seminar Course. They’ll be posting their impressions of seminars they attend, the progress on their graduate research, and other hot environmental topics that come to their attention.

Madeleine L’Engle dies

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

My favourite author as a child has died. Madeleine L’Engle’s sweet novel, A Wrinkle in Time, combined science fiction and the power of love with a strong female lead. It buoyed me through many a hard time as a science-inclined geeky girl. Even for adults, the book, or at least the book’s path, holds some insights:

What turned out to be her masterpiece was rejected by 26 publishers. Editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux loved it enough to publish it, but told her that she should not be disappointed if it failed.

“A Wrinkle in Time,” … won the John Newbery Award as the best children’s book of 1963. By 2004, it had sold more than 6 million copies, was in its 67th printing and was still selling 15,000 copies a year.

According to the article A Wrinkle in Time is one of the most banned books in the US for its treatment of the deity. Sounds like I made a good choice.

I reread it a few years ago and it didn’t retain the power it once held. Few childhood books do, I suppose. However, it remains a classic that should be read by all girls just a little bit on the geeky side.

US Department of Justice opposes net neutrality

Friday, September 7th, 2007

Why is the US Department of Justice involved with this?

The US Justice Department has said that internet service providers should be allowed to charge for priority traffic.

The Justice Department said imposing net neutrality regulations could hinder development of the internet and prevent ISPs from upgrading networks.

I wonder if this is payback for telcoms’ willingness to allow the Justice Department to use them as a base for warrantless wiretapping?

There are any number of implications for the environment and the environmental movement. Lots of issues and groups could end up in the slower (or blocked?) tier two. Let’s see, support for climate change, research that links environmental toxins and cancer. Grassroots opposition to expansion of logging or road networks. I could fill the blog with environmental findings and advocacy that run counter to corporate interests.

If you think that being outside the US exempts you from the impacts of net ‘bigotry’ then consider that the majority of Internet traffic goes through the US.