Archive for November, 2009

Let’s Celebrate Geography!

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The wait is over, it is National Geography Week once again in North America. Local schools across the continent are taking part in the celebration, having students complete Geography related assignments and activities all week. Teachers are raising awareness of geography and connecting students with the world in new way, once never thought possible. “Geography Week: Mapping Europe”, a new toolkit, available for free on their website. Students in Collinwood TN are taking advantage of the program, spending the entire week making giant political maps of Europe, studying the specific cultures. Students even made food place mats of famous European Landmarks, and postcards for the various countries.

Cedar wood School in Louisiana is also taking part in the festivities. The “Pege Cogswell Memorial Map-a-thon” is well underway, where students learn world maps for a worthy cause. The students have collected over $500 for student in Afghanistan who are in need of basic school supplies. Students collected monetary pledges per each country a student correctly identified, although, a lump sum pledge is of course, always accepted. The children are rising to the challenge. Student, Muhammad Alwan, exclaims, “I learned all the flags, all the shapes of the countries and then all the cities and landmarks. I don’t call myself really competitive, but if there’s a competition, and I am in it, I will strive to be Number 1!”

This year’s theme for Geography Week is “Get Lost in Mapping: Find your place in the world.”

Just a Cool Video

From BW, Intro GIS

Human intervention and species diversity

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Professor Andrew Hendry’s Cutting Edge Lecture series talk, entitled “Humans, evolution, and the future of biodiversity” discussed the possibility of rapid evolution “saving” species from extinction due to rapidly changing environments. When we talk about human impacts on biodiversity, we are nearly always talking about species losses, both extinction and extirpation, due to habitat loss, over harvesting and the like. However, as Prof. Hendry pointed out, human activity may also lead to speciation and hybridization, which can effectively lead to an increase in local biodiversity. This is not a change we commonly associate with disturbed environments. I find these phenomena intriguing because they force us to think in a more sophisticated way about human impacts on biotic communities. They force us to ask questions such as, what is “biodiversity”? Is more always better? What is the “goal” in species conservation?

At the end of his talk, after describing various mechanisms by which human activity can influence diversity, Prof. Hendry pointed out that the important question is not whether there is evidence of rapid evolution in nature (there is), or even whether these phenotypic changes influence populations (they can), but whether these changes influence population persistence. To date, there is virtually no data, and no field data at all, to answer this question. Unfortunately, with climate change, it appears we are on a global trajectory that will provide us with the answers, whether we want them or not.

Can evolution rescue species from rapid climate change?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Can evolution rescue species from rapid climate change? This was the question posed by Dr. Andrew Hendry, at the latest Cutting Edge Lecture Series, entitled Humans, Evolution and the Future of Biodiversity. While the seminar concluded without providing a definitive answer, it undeniably challenged traditional approaches to biodiversity conservation.

Dr. Hendry presented theoretical models, which, under scenarios of varying degrees environmental change, predict that a population will decline; however in some instances the population may recover and continue to grow, having evolved tolerances to the new environment. A similar response was observed in the laboratory for a species of yeast. Nevertheless, there have been no observations of such a phenomenon occurring in a natural population. Limitations in knowledge and logistics impede the implementation of such field experiments. However, Dr. Henry seems to think there is no reason that wild populations could not respond rapidly to environmental change, and if so, they could adapt to contemporary climate change by evolving.

Acceptance of this view of evolution as rapid, rather than a slow process operating over millennia, has implications for biodiversity conservation. Conservation is traditionally thought of as maintaining nature in a static state, by setting aside land in perpetuity or by protecting a specific habitat for a particular species of interest. Contemporary evolution forces conservation practitioners to embrace change and revise their objectives. In this light, conservation biologists must incorporate into conservation strategies, evolutionary concepts that were once overlooked. This involves understanding and managing the genetic variation of populations, ensuring the conservation of evolutionary processes and taking into consideration the biological interactions of mutualistic partners who are likely to co-evolve. Determining the extinction risk of a species due to rapid climate change therefore includes an understanding of the future patterns of suitable habitat patches for a particular species as well as the potential for that species to rapidly evolve to the changing environment. Within these contexts, the conservation of biodiversity becomes a tremendously complex, but nevertheless, imperative undertaking.

Saviour or Science Fiction?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

In his lecture: Get Real about Geo-Engineering speaker Nigel Roulet posed the question: what level of climate change are we willing to accept, and what feasible mitigation options exist for curbing these changes? He discussed an array of potential geo-engineering solutions that ranged from carbon capture and storage to pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to increase albedo and reduce incoming solar radiation. By no means lacking in imagination, such proposed schemes deserve some consideration, however they should be approached critically and with caution.

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the potential impacts of climate change, a number of geo-engineering designs have emerged as prospective methods for mitigating climate change. Scientists and economists, like Nicolas Stern, have predicted that costs of climate change will be high, increasing with the degree of climate change. These costs include both environmental and economic costs as well as consequences for human health and potential loss of life. Recent attempts to achieve a global policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been halfhearted and unsuccessful. The attitude of world leaders going into the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month is disconcerting, indicating there may be little progress made on the nearly defunct Kyoto Protocol. As efforts to reduce our impact on the environment falter, many member of our society turn to their blind faith in technology to lead to a solution; figuring that if technology has lead us to this hole, it can certainly dig us out again. Moreover, to some individuals, such technological endeavors as a massive sunshade orbiting the earth are simply money-making schemes to exploit a budding market.

But before we jump on board, we must take into consideration the risks and long-term effectiveness of these high-tech proposals. The risks associated with solving a problem of massive perturbation to the global climate system by massively perturbing the global climate system, are simply too large. Due to the sheer scale of some of the more drastic climate change remedies, the effects on other elements or processes in the earth system are unknown. It must be noted, however, that not all geo-engineering strategies for dealing with climate change are risky. In fact, some proposed ideas, such as painting roofs white to reflect solar radiation, or reforestation and afforestation activities to expand global carbon sinks are ecologically benign, if not beneficial, but have a relatively low impact in terms of mitigating climate change. The highly effective mitigation proposals are surrounded by the greatest amount of uncertainty, and decades worth of research are required before implementation can be considered. In addition to retarding progress on preventative policy, the geo-engineering solutions offer a short-term fix to the climate problem. These proposals fail to address mass consumption patterns, which are the underlying drivers of climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. If technological solutions are successful at diminishing the dangerous impacts of climate change with no changes to human behaviour, the crisis will manifest itself in some other form of environmental stress. If action continues to be delayed, perhaps we will reach a point when the impacts of climate change become a reality, and in such desperation, turn to technology for a quick fix. But until then, we continue to deliberate on the subject of climate change and the geo-engineering designs remain, for now, in the realm of science fiction.

Emergent diseases and multidisciplinarity (MSE Speaker Series, 11 November 15, 2009)

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

At the McGill School of Environment Speaker Series on November 11, Holly Dressel presented a hypothetical paper in which she argued the necessity of a multidisciplinary approach in detecting, responding to, and avoiding emergent diseases, using H1N1 as a case study. While I agree with her thesis, I wonder if perhaps those of us who work and study in the area of environment are so entrenched in this Paradigm of Multidisciplinarity that at times we fall into the trap of simply paying lip service to the approach without fully appreciating the power, and the challenges, that accompany it. Working with academics outside our fields, government and community members and experts in other sectors of society can be challenging: we speak different “languages,” come at the problem with different underlying assumptions, have different expectations for what a “good solution” is, and prefer different approaches to decision making and problem solving. And yet we continue to try to work collaboratively because it provides us with fresh perspectives and analytical tools outside our personal toolboxes. Ms. Dressel outlined a number of ways in which a multidisciplinary approach is important in dealing with the problem of an emergent disease. I would like to expand upon them here.

Detection of emergent diseases: In both H1N1 and BSE before it, Ms. Dressel pointed out that it was not the epidemiologists and virologists who first identified the emergence of these diseases and their sources, but rather frontline health workers and members of the communities themselves.

Responding to emergent diseases: In the crisis situations that emerge during a pandemic, frontline healthcare workers are again necessary in responding to emergent diseases. However, other disciplines and sectors of society play important roles in providing care, slowing spread of the disease and disseminating information to the public. Sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists can help us to understand the social dynamics during these periods, and can inform how and what information is given to the public. The media is important in disseminating this information and coordinating medical interventions through announcements of vaccination and quarantine programs. Religious leaders are also important sources of information for billions of people worldwide, particularly during times of distress and uncertainty like those seen during a pandemic. The role these community leaders play can be a positive one, as has been shown by the pandemic plans many church groups have developed, or a negative one, as seen in the response of many conservative Christian clergy to HIV/AIDS. The scientific community needs to take seriously the important role religious leaders play in the daily lives and information gathering of many people, and equip them with appropriate information.

Avoiding emergent diseases: Avoidance has been perhaps the most difficult step, and also perhaps the step most in need of a multidisciplinary approach. Ms. Dressel pointed to a number of disciplines with valuable tools to help society avoid the conditions in which viruses are able to jump the species barrier and cause pandemics in human populations, such as is the case with H1N1. She suggested that we need to engage political economists to help us understand the economies of scale and political pressures that make intensive industrialized meat production plants (the source of many of these diseases) so dominant in meat production. She also suggested that we consult with ethicists and philosophers to help us understand our relationship with and responsibility to the animals we eat, which will help us make better collective decisions about appropriate, ethical methods of producing meat products. I think we must also engage farmers themselves, and other agricultural experts, to find out what is feasible for farmers, and what kind of support (financial, legal, or otherwise) they need in order to make viable the methods of animal husbandry that will not lead to the emergence of new diseases. The government, business and banking sectors will then need to be engaged, to ensure these conditions are met.

A multidisciplinary approach will be necessary for avoiding and dealing with future emergent diseases. Currently, collaboration between experts in a variety of disciplines is a commonly accepted approach in addressing environmental problems. Viewing emergent diseases as environmental problems, rather than simply health problems for medical workers to address, may increase the extent to which experts outside the field of medicine engage in finding solutions to the conditions that lead to the emergence of new diseases.

Subsidiarity, science and the management of finfish aquaculture in British Columbia (MSE speaker series, 7 October 2009)

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

In the presentation of his paper, “Subsidiarity and environmental federalism: the emergence of ‘new governance’ in finfish aquaculture in Canada,” Prof Neil Craik discussed a number of issues around the legislation of finfish aquaculture in British Columbia. One aspect of particular importance was the question of subsidiarity. In his paper, he cites the Supreme Court of Canada’s definition of subsidiarity: “the proposition that law-making and implementation are often best achieved at a level of government that is not only effective, but also closest to the citizens affected and thus most responsive to their needs, to local distinctiveness, and to population diversity.” Prof Craik suggests that governance of resources and environmental management must be “democratic,” because there exists a diversity of values, and ultimately those affected by the regulations should be involved in the design of the regulations. This is in opposition to the British Columbia Supreme Court’s ruling that aquaculture should be federally regulated. At first glance, I agree with Prof Craik’s assessment: those best situated to protect a resource are those closest to it. This requires, however, some degree of alignment of values in regards to the management of the resource at hand. This lack of common values is quite apparent in the finfish aquaculture industry, which is, in Prof Craik’s words, “highly polarized,” with very little common ground between the advocates of the industry and its opponents. Subsidiarity also ignores non-verbal stakeholders, such as future generations. In addition, if salmon farms have an impact on wild salmon (which many argue they do), it seems appropriate that the federal government (DFO) have some say in their management, because management of wild salmon stocks happens at the federal level. In the case of wild salmon, the necessity of higher level management is brought about by the biology of the system itself; wild salmon know no borders, and therefore quotas must be streamlined with those of American fisheries agencies to achieve real, sustainable management.

My final concern is that current means of regulating the industry essentially eliminate the possibility of implementing adaptive management of salmon aquaculture off the BC coast. Adaptive management is difficult to incorporate into the current system because land leases are given out for 30 years at a time, to make development of aquaculture more economically viable. This seems to me to be a risky move in the management of a resource that is as notoriously complex as the west coast salmon fishery. Management needs to find ways of accommodating the science, not the other way around.

Taxation as a Replacement for the Failing Carbon Offset Market

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Recent emphasis on taking action against climate change and the demand for strong policy to reduce carbon emissions has lead many to question whether the efforts to develop a carbon market in recent years have been successful. Mark Purdon addressed this subject at the McGill School of the Environment Speaker Series, Is the Carbon Market Failing? The moral limits of climate change policy (October 23, 2009).  Two economic institutions have emerged from climate change policy, the cap and trade market and the carbon offset market. Mr. Purdon’s research focuses on the carbon offset market, and in particular clean development mechanisms (CDM); which are projects that are aimed to assist developed countries meet emissions reduction targets while facilitating the implementation of sustainable development strategies in developing countries. While his work is still in the preliminary stages of analysis, he found mixed results with regards to the success of the CDM projects; with the major uncertainty surrounding whether the carbon credits ascribed to the projects actually represent carbon emissions.

If the established carbon markets are indeed inefficient in achieving the objectives of reduced atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, we are in need of a much more stringent climate change mitigation policy. One such measure, which has been well discussed yet implemented by only a few governments, is a carbon tax. Policy-makers could set the level of acceptable green house gas emissions, based on the science of climate change, and adjust the price of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions accordingly. The tax should be designed to increase with time, to encourage companies to invest in renewable and other non-carbon energy sources. Governments must couple such a tax with investments in public transit and reductions in other forms of taxation, such as income tax and sales tax. Reforestation and land conservation could be rewarded by awarding tax credits to participants in these activities. The benefits of the carbon tax are clear, curbing behaviours away from the environmentally and socially damaging combustion of carbon-based fuels provide incentive for development and innovation in alternative and more fuel-efficient technologies. While perhaps less popular than the carbon offset markets from an industry perspective, I believe a strict taxation system is more likely to be effective mitigation strategy for climate change.