Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Warsaw Climate Talks -- Lots at Stake

A new round of climate talks began in Warsaw, Poland this week. Between the severe drought that engulfed much of the US this year, the high number of temperature records, and the many extreme weather events
globally, of which Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest on record, is the latest, lots is at stake. 

It's also easy to summarize. Here is the temperature anomaly (departure from the long term average) from the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): 
climate change data

The global average temperature, decade by decade, has been increasing. The main driver for this increase is carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels. If there was any sanity in the climate negotiations, then viewing the above figure should stir nations to action. That was the reasoning behind the Kyoto Protocol, an ambitious international treaty, which did not succeed in reducing global carbon dioxide emissions. The present round of climate talks is to set up a framework for negotiations in Paris in 2015, a new Kyoto accord, as it were, which will come into effect in 2020. 

How are nations responding to the evidence of global warming? By wringing their hands mostly, as this nice summary from NPR shows. Developed countries have pledged reductions of carbon dioxide emissions in the range of 10 to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and developing countries, like India and China, have yet to make any real pledges. But when you look at what the present emissions are (below) you can see that these pledges, many of which will not be successful, you get the idea that much more needs to be done. 

carbon dioxide emissions per country

Clearly, looking at the above figure, any sort of deal is going to require an agreement between China, the EU and the US, the three biggest emitters. It's also apparent that talk of cuts of 10 to 20% within ten years seem inadequate (for the US, 17% below 1990 levels would be 5000 million tons carbon dioxide, which doesn't look like much of a decrease at all), but I suppose it's a start. 

It's hard to see where the leadership will come from to see the talks end on a positive note. Bringing China on board is key, but that's unlikely until developed countries pledge greater cuts and at the moment in North America, the climate for such cuts is lukewarm at best. (In June, President Obama did address climate change, in a speech that was heavy on new technologies, while in Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to push for pipelines for Alberta tar sands oil, despite the majority of Canadians wanting him to take a leadership role on climate change.)

In October, a study published in Nature argues that we are shockingly close, within a few decades, to the time when changes in weather patterns become irreversible. It's our planet and our future. We're well beyond the time for debate and firmly in the time for action. We must demand it. 

climate tipping points

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Basho and the Grebes

Basho, grebes, endangered species, extinct species
The Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho

I've been writing stories about recently extinct species to raise awareness that the latest spasm of species loss, which we are in the midst of, includes much more than the Dodo, the passenger pigeon and the great Auk. One of my stories, "Basho and the Grebes," was just published in the online journal Toad. The story begins like this:
This is a story that ends prematurely. Once there was a diving bird that lived happily on a lake. This grebe, like grebes everywhere, had an elaborate mating ritual. Males and females faced each other, bobbed their long swan necks and preened their feathers in rhythm. They dove into the shallows, rose up breast to breast and, feet paddling furiously, waltzed around each other with a bill full of reeds as if proposing to build a floating nest together. Then they dashed side by side across the surface of the lake like fools in love before diving under.
You can read the rest of the story, and find out how the great Japanese haiku poet is connected, here.

And, the clip below shows aspects of the grebes' mating ritual (the same clip is here):


Monday, August 19, 2013

World Orangutan Day

orangutans, palm oil

Welcome to the inaugural World Orangutan Day!

Orangutans live only in Borneo (Malaysia) and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Known
as "persons of the forest", they are highly intelligent and have their own culture, yet they
are losing habitat because of our demands for palm oil.

Here's how you can help celebrate World Orangutan Day
1) spend 1.5 minutes educating yourself with this gonzo Greenpeace ad:

2) Check your shopping basket. If you're buying "vegetable oil", pre-packaged
snack foods by the corporate food giants like Nestle, or products where the
saturated fat content is more than 40% of the total fat, then you're buying palm oil.
Destruction of rainforest in Sumatra and Borneo for palm oil plantations is a leading
cause of orangutan endangerment. See the Say No to Palm Oil guide for more information.

3) Spread the word. Share this post. Join the Facebook event. Sign a petition.
Find a way to give orangutans a voice. They're depending on us to do what's right. Let's
all show the orangutans some love today and everyday!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Monsanto vs Democracy

Here's a word cloud of my recent posts. How come it's easy to find Monsanto but difficult to find democracy? That "endangered" seems to be trying to tell us something too. And hey, that's not Obama under Monsanto's thumb is it? I sure hope not...
word cloud, endangered species, Monsanto, democracy

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Endangered Species Chronicles: The Spotted Handfish

spotted handfish, endangered species, Arkive, infographic, endangered fish, walking fish
The Spotted Handfish, looking unhappy to be endangered. 

In the coastal estuaries of Tasmania lives one of the most unique fish ever to walk the Earth: the spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus). One of the most endangered marine fish, this unique swimmer is also a walker, thanks to its hand-like pectoral and dorsal fins, which it uses to walk along the seafloor.

First discovered in the late 1790's by French explorer Peron, the spotted handfish was a common sight in Tasmanian waters until the 1980's when its population crashed. Reasons for the crash are unclear but possibilities include the introduction of the northern Pacific seastar (Asterias amurensis), known to be a voracious predator of shellfish and which may also eat the eggs of handfish, and deterioration of habitat due to coastal development.

Surveys in the 1990's showed the spotted handfish to be sparsely distributed and the largest colony had only 300 to 500 members. Its restricted range and low population density make it vulnerable to extinction and a captive breeding program has been launched to eventually re-introduce this unique fish back into its former range.

See incredible video of the spotted handfish walking on the seafloor at Arkive.

See an infographic on how we're endangering species here.

See Joel Sartore's portraits of many endangered animals here.

Please help raise awareness about endangered species and share this post.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reading as a Revolutionary Act

Taksim Square Book Club, reading as revolution, great environmental books

Just over a month ago we all watched as Turks in Istanbul and elsewhere protested the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park and the increasing authoritarianism of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The protest has evolved from sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations, some of which were harshly squashed by the Turkish authorities, to silent vigils and book-reading.

According to Aljezeera, a new form of resistance is emerging, known as the "Standing Man". Initiated by performance artist Erdem Gunduz, who stood with his hands in his pockets facing the Ataturk Cultural Center in Taksim Square for eight hours, the Standing Man has now merged with public reading and education to become the Taksim Square Book Club. Now we have individuals standing in the square and simply being a presence or reading a book. Those reading books chose some of the 20th Century's classics, including Orwell's 1984 and Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, along with modern works of Turkish and world literature. View a terrific slideshow of this revolutionary act here.

This summer we could all take page from the actions of Taksimites and gather to read Thoreau's Walden, Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, or any other number of environmental classics to protest climate inaction, fracking on public lands, overuse of pesticides and lack of leadership on biodiversity loss. We could gather and read, and educate ourselves and each other. The revolution is ready and waiting -- all it needs is us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Obama and Climate Change -- What about Conservation?

President Obama, climate change, biodiversity crisis
Obama's Climate Speech (Reuters)

Yesterday, President Obama finally addressed the problem of climate change in a 45-minute speech at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He began with an impressive summary of the facts of climate change, calling carbon “pollution”, stating that twelve of the last fifteen years have been the warmest on record, that arctic ice has diminished to its smallest size on record and that the ocean temperatures have reached record highs. He also mentioned last week’s heat wave in Alaska and the drought and heavy rains of the Midwest.
            From there, he discussed how these effects have costs for all of us and said that, because the science was sound, we had to act. He wondered if we had the courage to act before it’s too late.
            To his credit, he proposed limits on pollution from power plants and mentioned ending fossil fuel subsidies. However, though he still did not come out against the Keystone Pipeline and instead left himself some wiggle room, saying that it would only be approved if it was in the nation’s best interests.
            It was a speech that was heavy on new technologies, as if renewable energies can solve our problems. Unfortunately, though he talked about using energy more efficiently and wasting less energy, he made no mention of actually using less energy, which also needs to be part of the solution. If we’re to transition off fossil fuels to 100% renewables, we simply can’t keep consuming energy the way we have been. Either that, or we’ll have to give up pristine wilderness and public lands for wind farms. I’m all for wind power, but not at any cost.
            Factoring consumption into the equation is also important to bring home the message that we are over-consuming the environment. One of the main causes of species loss is habitat destruction, usually from land converted to agriculture (typically cattle). In fact, if we developed a silver bullet and solved our energy problems tomorrow, we would still have the biodiversity crisis to solve.
            Obama said, “We all share a responsibility for keeping the planet habitable,” and this means we’re going to need to do more than transfer to renewable energies. We have to examine our entire environmental footprint and reduce it.

See the complete transcript of Obama's speech here, and a discussion of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity here

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why We Marched Against Monsanto -- and Why We Need to Keep Up the Pressure

March Against Monsanto, GMO

Monsanto is a large multinational corporation originally founded as a chemical company but has now transformed into a mega-industrial agribusiness biotechnology company. They are the makers of a dozen health-and-environment damaging chemicals such as Agent Orange, which was heavily used in the Vietnam War, DDT, and Roundup (glyphosate), the most popular herbicide in the US today. They are also a leader in producing genetically modified (GM) seed, whose long health effects when consumed as genetically modified organism (GMO) crops are still uncertain (several studies have indicated deleterious health effects on lab animals). 
GMO labelling, Monsanto
Franken-corn advocating for GMO labelling
The March Against Monsanto on May 25 was organized for several reasons and these boil down to protecting our health, our food supply and our democracy: 

  • Research studies have shown that Monsanto’s genetically-modified foods can lead to serious health conditions such as the development of cancer tumors, infertility and birth defects.
  • In the United States, the FDA, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the population, is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, and we feel that’s a questionable conflict of interests and explains the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products.
  • Recently, the U.S. Congress and president collectively passed the nicknamed “Monsanto Protection Act” that, among other things, bans courts from halting the sale of Monsanto’s genetically-modified seeds.
  • For too long, Monsanto has been the benefactor of corporate subsidies and political favoritism. Organic and small farmers suffer losses while Monsanto continues to forge its monopoly over the world’s food supply, including exclusive patenting rights over seeds and genetic makeup.
Monsanto's GM seeds are harmful to the environment; for example, scientists have indicated they have contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder among the world's bee population.
Monsanto, GMOs, Colony Collapse Disorder
The Bee Lady spreading awareness about GMOs
While I support research on GMOs in controlled lab situations, I do not support their widespread use in our food chain. Numbers from the Non-GMO project indicate that a massive health experiment is already underway and we are the guinea pigs: 
  • Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
  • Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
  • Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
  • Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres) [according to Wikipedia, this is 13% of the crop]
The danger I see with long-term and uncontrolled use of GMOs is that we don't have any long term studies to support whatever short-term benefits may exist. I see the problem as similar to invasive species. Sometimes a species is introduced into a new environment to act as a predator for another species, which has been deemed a pest. More often than not, the introduced species becomes a problem itself because it proliferates without a natural predator to keep it in check and the entire ecosystem is soon disrupted. Whether these invasions are deliberate or accidental, the costs to ecosystems -- and those of us who rely on them -- is enormous. Massachusetts is presently fighting to keep the Asian Longhorn beetle under control. Like invasive species, GMOs are a "genie out of the bottle" phenomenon and if we want to protect our food supply from unforeseen consequences in the long term, we have to begin protecting it now.  

GMO's, labelling, Monsanto
Poet and publisher Gloria Mindock advocating against GMOs and Monsanto 

The March Against Monsanto organizers advocate several solutions:

  • Voting with your dollar by buying organic and boycotting Monsanto-owned companies that use GMOs in their products.
  • Labeling of GMOs so that consumers can make those informed decisions easier.
  • Repealing relevant provisions of the US's "Monsanto Protection Act."
  • Calling for further scientific research on the health effects of GMOs.
  • Holding Monsanto executives and Monsanto-supporting politicians accountable through direct communication, grassroots journalism, social media, etc.
  • Continuing to inform the public about Monsanto's secrets.
  • Taking to the streets to show the world and Monsanto that we won't take these injustices quietly.
Ultimately, as Vandana Shiva says, the March was inspired by the love for freedom and democracy, the love for the Earth, the soil, the seed. However, we also marched, a la Jon Stewart's from sheer exasperation at the threats that Monsanto's increasing dominance holds for our future well-being.

The state of Massachusetts is holding public hearings about GMO labelling coming up on June 3 and June 11. Come out to express your love for the soil and seed, your concern and your exasperation for our future well-being. 
Monsanto, GMO labelling

  After all, if now now, when, and if not us, who? 

Monday, April 22, 2013

How to Become an Urban Naturalist

Cedar Street, Roxbury
"Want to get wild?"

This is probably not a question we hear every day. But there's no reason why we can't. Too often we think that nature is "out there", in a forest, wilderness or body of water far away from our daily urban lives. Not true! Nature -- even wild nature -- is all around us if we have the eyes to look. And it's not just squirrels and Canada geese, though they are part of the package. It's tree blossoms and the matings of birds in the spring, the appearance of bees, butterflies and moths, rodents large and small, mushrooms, mosquitoes and a plethora of wildlife familiar and unfamiliar. In any urban wild walk, dozens, perhaps even hundreds of species can be discovered and enjoyed.

If you're looking for places to get wild in Boston, the city has a list of locations that are part of its Urban Wilds Initiative, many of which are hidden gems, like Cedar Street, here in Roxbury. The Arnold Arboretum has a great list of public educational programs, often free, to help tune you in to trees.

Curiosity can be your guide, but it helps to have a good resource for what you may come across. The Washington Post has been collecting an archive of urban creatures and events that apply to many other locations as well -- check it out.

The wild is all around us. Urban wild adds life to our artificial cities. Getting wild is just as easily said as done. Happy Earth Day.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Birds of Paradise Project

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of Paradise Project
Fifteen of the 39 species of birds of paradise
Kudos to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for launching its Birds of Paradise Project on the Internet. Thirty-nine species of these incredible birds live in Papua New Guinea and after 8 years of determined field work, Ed Scholes (Cornell) and Tim Laman (National Geographic) captured them all on film. If you remember the scene in Planet Earth with the excited little black bird with a blue bib that inflates himself into a large fan and dances all over a log to impress a female, then you've seen one of these spectacular birds.

You can get an introduction to the project here:

 These are some seriously good looking birds and you can also see footage of all 39 species here:

I encourage you to explore the project and see for yourself how sexual selection has produced such unique species.

 Amazingly, the birds of paradise have so far avoided the species crisis and none are listed among recent extinctions. So far, they have avoided the fate of many parrots and parakeets of being loved to death, or suffered from invasive species that took such a toll on the Hawaiian honeycreepers and honeyeaters. But deforestation is a problem in Papua New Guinea and it will be a tragedy if we let it affect these incredible birds the way it is affecting orangutans in Indonesia.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Imagining Nature

imagining nature, cultural value of species, environmental activism, environmental imagination, kids and the environment

I recently wrote about the cultural values of species. Here's a slightly different take on the same thing. In this month's issue of Brevity, Brian Doyle writes a piece called "Imagining Foxes" in which he remembers going for a walk deep into the woods with his siblings as children. They try to hear the sounds of cars and traffic in the distance but they are so deep in the woods that they can no longer hear these man-made sounds. Doyle recounts the animals that they saw, and much as they wished to see a fox, they did not. But the woods were so alive with creatures that he imagines they smelled the fox with his "scent of old blood and new honey, and we heard his sharp cough and bark, and if you looked just right you could see his wry paw prints in the dust by his den". By the sound of the essay, this memory is 30 or 40 years old but because of the vibrancy of the woods, it still lives in his mind. Doyle goes on to say:
"[I]f we never take our kids to the little strips of forests, the tiny shards of beaches, the ragged forgotten corner thickets with beer bottles glinting in the duff, they’ll never even imagine a fox, and what kind of world is that, where kids don’t imagine foxes? We spend so much time mourning and battling for a world where kids can see foxes that we forget you don’t have to see foxes. You have to imagine them, though. If you stop imagining them then they are all dead, and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?"
What kind of world, indeed?  Read Brian Doyle's complete essay here.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Climate Change and Biodiversity

climate change and biodiversity, bark beetles, coniferous forest
Pine damage in Rocky Mtn NP due to bark beetles

You've heard of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). This week we're going to start hearing about the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (the IPBES). If only the powers that be could have come up with a name that would lend itself to a better acronym. Nevertheless, in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, it's high time nations met to start dealing formally with the crisis and begin rolling back the high rate of species extinctions.

During President Obama's second inauguration speech today, he paid special attention to climate change Though his measures, like increasing home appliance efficiency, reducing emissions from power plants and making the federal government itself more effective, are progressive, they fall short of the sweeping changes that are necessary to prevent the planet's temperature from increasing by 2 degree celsius. As Thomas Lovejoy describes in his NY Times Op-Ed, we're already seeing the nasty effects of climate change at the current global warming of 0.8-0.9 degrees Celsius. For example, the present temperature increase has now tipped the balance in favor of bark beetles in western North America that are now decimating coniferous forests. Most of the 900 known extinctions since the year 1600 were caused by the introduction of invasive species, habitat destruction, pollution, and over-exploitation. Given the sensitivity of ecosystems to small changes in temperature, we could soon see climate change vault to the front of the list as the cause of species extinctions, particularly if we see the predicted 2 degree Celsius rise.  It's time to get serious about this stuff.

 Read the rest of Lovejoy's op-ed here. As for the IPBES, bring it on!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Appalachian Salamanders

Who knew that Appalachia was a hotspot for salamanders? I saw a couple of brillian orange fellows on the Appalachian Trail last summer. Here's a nice little video from the Smithsonian describing what they're about.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

An Overpopulation Primer

World Population Day only comes around once a year, so it's great that actress and activist Alexandra Paul has taken the time to spell out the overpopulation problem is in this great 8-minute TED talk.

The sooner we take this topic out of the closet and start talking about it the better! Ready to do something? Check your state's reproductive health report card here.