Monday, May 07, 2007

Irony on Climate Change

I came across a news article in the journal Nature discussing a new report by the IPCC. The study concludes that stabilizing CO2 concentrations at ~ 500 ppm would cost 0.12% global GDP per year over the next 30 years. By most accounts, this is good news. What caught my eye was the response from "James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality," who said, "But no world leader will pursue a strategy that would lead to economic recession." Really? What about the Iraq War, which costs the US about $250 billion per year (~ 1.89% of GDP), most of which is above and beyond the $500+ billion defense budget? By the administration's own acccount, the US has not entered a recession as a result of the war, although that money could be better spent. Of course there might be recessionary impacts of the War, but presumably the administration believes they are worth it to achieve desired foreign policy objectives. Therefore it cannot reject on principle that it opposes policies simply because they may be recessionary, but must argue that gains from policy would be less than their cost. Of course, this would be difficult to maintain in light of the growing realization that the costs of reducing carbon emissions fall well below the theoretical benefits.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Progress in China

Two news items caught my attention this week. The first, in the journal Science, discussed China’s new “green” railway into Tibet. The arid, cold plateau is sensitive to disruption and contains many rare and unique species. To limit their impacts, builders placed periodic tunnels to provide migration corridors; routed around important wetlands; designed stations to use recycled water that will not enter natural systems; and the list goes on. The second story, in the journal Nature, records China’s latest promise to begin reducing carbon emissions through less energy intensive growth, cleaner technology, and so on. Given their lack of transparency and poor track record of honesty, it is difficult discern China’s rhetoric from it's real intention, but the signs are promising. One reason to trust them now is that, as the Nature article points out, China (and other developing nations) will be the primary losers from climate change.

The more immediate benefit of China’s environmental progress is that it removes one of the few remaining (and most desperate) arguments against the US taking action on international environmental issues, particularly climate change. The tired mantra from climate change skeptics and defeatists is that unless China/India/Brazil reduce their emissions, the impact of the US will be meaningless. This was never a good argument, and it looks more sickly everyday. The US emits more absolutely and per capita than any other nation; it and Europe are almost entirely responsible for carbon emissions to date; and for the US to complain to developing nations about economic hardships of carbon reduction sounds like a bad joke when its GDP (PPP) per capita is $43500, compared to $7600, $3700, and $8600 in China, India, and Brazil, respectively. While I applaud China’s environmental progress, and hope it is genuine, there is still much the US and other developed nations can and should do, unilaterally if necessary.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ecology, the social sciences, and enviromentalism

In my casual interaction with ecologists, I find no shortage of woefully uninformed yet forcefully stated opinions on the relationship between social sciences and the state of the environment. Fortunately, two recent essays recently published in the British Journal of Ecological Applications, provide refreshing, if sobering, perspectives. The first, written by the ecologist John Lawton, addresses why ecological science is (not) incorporated into policy decisions. In the second essay, economist Partha Dasgupta contrasts traditional accounts of economic growth (GDP and HDI) with indices of sustainable development that take into account the depreciation of natural capital. Neither essay paints a particularly rosy portrait for the future of the environment, but they succeed in highlighting why the belief that opining on social sciences doesn’t require specialized knowledge akin to natural sciences hampers progress. Since my comments on these essays turned out to be longer expected, I have posted the first part, on Lawton’s essay, below and will add another post on Dasgupta’s essay soon.

Lawton explains that ecology was not always an ‘activist’ discipline. Until moves in the 1960’s by the Ecological Society of America and the British Ecological Society, whom Lawton is addressing, these professional societies were not greatly involved in public affairs. Fortunately, in my opinion, this has changed. While I find ecology and allied sciences fascinating and intrinsically worthwhile, it would be a waste of knowledge and tax money, which funds most ecological research, if information were not disseminated to serve the public interest. Lawton highlights research that informed policy to curb acid rain in Europe as an example of success. In contrast, ecologists have not as yet been successful in using their findings to bring about policy change regarding other environmental problems, namely fisheries, GM crops, and climate change.

Lawton begins by dismissing two explanations for the failure of ecologically sound policy to take hold, namely corruption and the deficit model. While corruption is certainly rife in many developing countries, the evidence does not suggest that it is a major hindrance to environmental policy in developed countries like the UK. In the US, multiple political and business leaders recently or currently engaged in close, public judicial scrutiny seems to suggest that we do a decent job of rooting out blatant corruption. The deficit model, which states that politicians are simply too ignorant of science to make sound policy, is also wanting. While compelling, (as a biologist, I cringe nearly every time a politician, even an environmentalist, talks about nature), the deficit model provides little in the way of explanation because simply throwing more facts out does not make much difference. In reality, good science, however massaged and hand picked, often does eventually make it into political discussion, but even the best scientific evidence cannot immediately overcome competing interests and deeply held beliefs. Ecologists need to engage the economic, political, and cultural theories that account for resistance to reasonable environmental policy. At present, this is a rather humdrum assertion, but I have found that even those who acknowledge it usually do not move past a superficial engagement. Therefore, it is worthwhile to go over Lawton’s examples, adding my own thoughts along the way.

While there are still interesting questions to be answered, ecologists and fisheries scientists have essentially enough information to understand why so many fish populations are nearly depleted and how they could be rescued. First, how serious is overfishing? As a vegetarian, I am often asked if I eat fish. From a utilitarian perspective, I could argue that neurologically fish are advanced and sensitive to pain as any land animal eaten by humans. From an environmental standpoint, which is more important than animal suffering in my opinion, the case is no weaker. Studies that document overfishing are too numerous to list, though some are widely known, such as the collapse of cod fisheries in the northeast. For a more comprehensive view, quoting from Lawton, “the current biomass of large fish weighing 4–16 kg and 16–66 kg are 97.4% and 99.2% lower, respectively, than their pristine, prefishing state.” Furthermore, as discussed biologist Sean Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest, fisherman that preferentially catch larger and older fish, which is common, slow population recovery. Selection imposed by fisherman favors fish that reach maturity at a smaller size, which as a byproduct are less fecund than their larger ancestors.

Some argue that for certain fish, particularly salmon, we can reduce overharvesting through fish farming. Farming fish is just as harmful as farming livestock and poultry because it cannot circumvent two laws of biology: 1) animals need energy to grow, and that energy must be grown somewhere; 2) Fish, like cattle, produce waste which must go somewhere. Furthermore, fish farming creates unique problems. For example, salmon farms not only pollute nearby water systems, fish that escape farms threaten with natural populations through hybridization.

Through experiments, modeling, and observation, ecologists have shown that the adverse impact of overharvesting could be halted through innovative methods, such as establishing a series of no-take reserves. The idea is that in such reserves, fish can grow, multiply, and evolve more or less naturally. With sufficient and well-placed reserves, fishing can continue at high levels, while fish populations will not be overharvested or not evolve in undesirable directions. Resistance to no take reserves is multi-faceted. Clearly, special interest groups are threatened by regulations and anything that might reduce how much they can catch, even if the long-term sustainability of their industry is at stake. Fishing regulation is also opposed by conservative, which I use in the traditional sense of opposing change, elements of society. For example, fishing has played a role in shaping many cultures and economies. Others who enjoy the taste and purported health benefits may be reticent to give up or pay more for their cherished dining habits. More difficult still is the fact that fishing takes place largely outside the jurisdiction of individual countries, which can lead to suboptimal policy choices because no single country wants to move first without a guarantee that others will follow. Ecological knowledge is the not factor limiting sound fishing policy, but rather how we address and overcome the competing economic, social, and political resistance.

Lawton claims that ecologists have also more or less adequately addressed GM crops. The upshot is that genetic modifications may both harm and benefit, so crops must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The categorical resistance to GM in Europe, as opposed to the US where most soy and corn are GM, is, like resistance to fishing, motivated by conservative bias. It may come as counterintuitive, since GM is usually opposed by the left, while many biotech firms support the right. The reality is, however, that there is nothing liberal or progressive about opposing technology on the basis of a quasi-spiritual attachment to food prepared in a largely apocryphal pastoral agrarian setting in spite scientific (and historical) evidence to the contrary.

As opposed to fishing and GM crops, Lawton suggests that the climate change policy is scientifically less well informed. To be clear, he is not claiming that evidence for climate change is equivocal, but that ecologists are not certain how biological communities will respond and what that might mean for conservation. Interestingly, Lawton notes, policy is moving ahead of the science in this case, largely as an outcome of environmentalist’s success in overcoming opposition, also often ideologically conservative, to climate change. Specifically, plans are being drawn to prevent species extinctions due to climate change in Europe, but how this will be accomplished is awash in uncertainty. What is clear, from mesoscale experiments and theory, is that communities will not simply shift northward or evolve to meet the demands of the new climate. This is because communities are composed of diverse organisms, few of which respond identically, either within or between generations, to environmental change. The idiosyncrasy of species’ responses thus makes it difficult to predict with any accuracy the best conservation strategy. Much of what ecologists can recommend is rather general – a network of reserves that covers a diverse set of ecosystems, with corridors that may allow species’ ranges to adjust appropriately.

The lesson emerging from Lawton’s essay is that ecologists interested in effecting policy need not necessarily gather more data or simply educate politicians, but rather engage the social scientific understanding of resistance to evidence-based environmentalism. I have, more than Lawton, highlighted why conservative ideology (not always right-wing or republican) threatens policies related to fishing, GM crops, and (especially in the US) climate change. According to Lawton, tackling such entrenched belief systems and lifestyles is “messy, complex, and iterative.” However, the obvious sentiment provides little in the way of practical help. I personally advocate a greater emphasis on progressivism and rationality in education and public discourse, but these are hardly universally championed. The main point is that progress cannot occur so long as ecologists simply believe that anti-environmentalists are ignorant and need to be taught a lesson. Instead, we must understand the core social factors that motivate resistance and proceed from there. Let’s get going!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Brief comment on the value of nature

A commentator on Ecolog (an ecology list-serv to which I subscribe) had this to say:

"I say everything should have equal value and that value is priceless."

I emailed him a response, which I have copied below as it pertains to the subject of this blog:

Though you may say this, your behavior (as a normal human being, as clearly I do not know you personally) suggests otherwise. If all nature was of equal and infinite value, then by definition you would sacrifice anything to protect any part of it. In fact, I suspect that you spend some, even small, fraction of your resources to eat, travel, buy clothes, etc. However, you (like me) reach a point where, say, the next loaf of bread consumed is worth less than the preservation of a square foot of forest preserved, and you will sacrifice the loaf of bread to preserve forest. That is how you determine the relative price of forest preservation and bread. But rather than price everything in terms of bread and forest preserved, we use dollars for convenience. When economists valuate nature, they are not making an ethical statement, but describe how much, in aggregate, people are willing to sacrifice in order to preserve it. You deceive only yourself by saying that nature is of greater (infinite) value than your behavior demonstrates.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Between work and travel, I have been swamped lately, and thus my blog postings have clearly tapered off. I hope that things will settle down in the next couple weeks and I will be able to resume posting more regularly. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Skepticism and Climate Change

To the informed reader, it will come as no surprise that much debate surrounding climate change centers of scientific uncertainty of future events. The na├»ve reaction to uncertainty, originally developed by the skeptics of ancient Greece, holds that since reality is unknown and unknowable*, attempting to make scientifically informed decisions is futile. While little of their “dogmatic doubt”† lives on, the term skeptic survives today. Contemporary skeptics doubt until proven certain. Depending on how much evidence one requires for certainty, those of an overly skeptical disposition can resemble their intellectual forefathers in apprehension toward nascent scientific consensus. This is not say skeptics are apprehensive toward science generally. To the contrary, most either come from scientific backgrounds or are admiring onlookers. Given their prejudice for doubt, it is unsurprising, albeit disappointing, how critical and dismissive many skeptics have been over environmental issues, particularly climate change. Skeptics, like all serious commentators, acknowledge the scientific consensus that the earth is warming and that human activities are partially responsible. However, because the future consequences of climate change are uncertain and regularly exaggerated, they oppose or are critical of remedial policy. However, inaction due to skepticism is itself a tacit choice, as I show below, one more at odds with science than sensible climate change policies. Using skepticism to justify complacency reveals a willful ignorance or misinterpretation of evidence rather than genuine uncertainty.

Climate change skeptics contend that we do not have enough evidence to authorize significant policy changes. In taking a position of ignorance, they assume 1) that we do have enough evidence to justify not making significant changes and 2) that current policies are optimal, such that adopting policies targeted at mitigating climate change could only cause harm.

On the first count, climate scientists easily resolve the issue by putting error bars around informed predictions. Current scientific predictions do not rule out catastrophic climate change in the near future, but neither do they claim it inevitable. Similarly, beach house owners cannot predict with any certainty that a hurricane will or will not hit their home on any given year. As uncertainty does not prevent them buying insurance, nor should uncertainty regarding climate change prevent sensible policy choices. Certainly there is no evidence to suggest that complete inaction is justified.

Even if one is skeptical in spite of the evidence, is there good cause to categorically oppose policies that remediate climate change? Many policies could have positive effects besides reducing green house gas emissions. For example, investment in green technology research may reduce greenhouse gases while promoting overall efficiency. Furthermore, as Thomas Friedman in particular has argued, the US, China, and others do no favors to countries like Iran by continuing to import large quantities of oil. In Iran, oil revenues are used to fund a populist state that redistributes money to its burgeoning population, not to mention nuclear proliferation. Consequently, many grow fat on state support without producing anything of value or investing in non-petroleum sectors. In the long run, this may lead to economic and political instability, evidenced by the poor condition of most resource rich economies (Canada and Norway are notable exceptions).

While there will be external benefits to climate change policy, there is little evidence that the costs will be burdensome. Polluters historically exaggerate the cost of halting pollution, as evidenced by the case of sulfur dioxide emissions. In his book The Undercover Economist, Tim Harmon shows that prior to a pollution permit auction, companies and the EPA estimated that reducing sulfur dioxide emissions would cost $250-700 per ton. However, “when the EPA conducted the auction in 1993, very few polluters made high bids…By 1996, permit prices had fallen to $70/ton.” Because real money is at stake, auctions force companies to tell the truth. I suspect that we are seeing the same pattern again - companies and politicians in their pay embellish the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, carbon credits in the EU and US sell for far less than $20/ton. Since the average world citizen emits approximately 4.4 tons/year, reducing carbon emissions to zero could conceivably cost less than $100 per person. I doubt it would actually be this cheap, because price would likely rise as emissions approached zero, but it does suggest that significant greenhouse gas reductions could be made at costs far lower than groups like the American Enterprise Institute would have you believe.

The upshot is that the best scientific, economic, and political evidence only occasionally informs policy choices. Belief to the contrary is itself unwarranted by the evidence, and therefore fear of any change is irrational. Skeptics and others, like the secretary of the Department of Energy, respond by invoking the law of unintended consequences to justify complacency. However, the consequences surrounding current policies (e.g. that oil imports could induce political instability and/or spur nuclear proliferation in countries like Iran) are likely as uncertain as those of many proposed policies. The conservative position that resists change tacitly favors current uncertainty over future uncertainty, a position that would need to be substantiated if it is to be believed.

From the contemporary skeptical attitude, useful in provoking scientific inquiry, it does not follow that no policy should be enacted to mitigate climate change. The complacent view fails to acknowledge the current evidence and places an unwarranted faith in the status quo. It stands to reason that such a perspective can only be maintained either out of ignorance or ideology.

* One does wonder how they knew this to be true.
† From Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy

Friday, January 26, 2007

‘Wildlife-friendly farming’ versus ‘Land sparing’

I recently came across a two year old paper by four biologists published in the journal Science. Brazenly titled “Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature,” the authors less than subtlety suggest that there is a lot at stake. There is! They report that 50% of natural habitat on arable land has been cleared for agriculture, and while forests are regrowing in the developed world, deforestation continues apace in the developing world, which houses most of the world’s biodiversity. Using data from an international database of threatened birds, they also demonstrate that agriculture adversely affects biodiversity. As both population and affluence continue to rise for the foreseeable future, agriculture will continue to pose a serious threat to wilderness.

Two general strategies have been proposed to mitigate the adverse affects of agriculture:
  1. Wildlife-friendly farming – Reduced use of chemicals and planting of buffer zones may make farmland more wildlife-friendly. Supporters of organic agriculture, for example, often promote its biodiversity enhancing properties. The trade-off is lower yield, which the authors argue is a real phenomenon, citing that farmers in Europe generally do not switch to less intensive agriculture voluntarily, but are persuaded to by conversion subsidies.
  2. Land sparing – Intensive agriculture (high chemical inputs, irrigation, machinery) creates an environment harsh to most forms of life, but the high yields it generates potentially preserve wilderness that would otherwise be converted to agriculture.
The optimal strategy is not intuitively obvious. The authors put it bluntly: “Identifying the key parameters that can resolve this trade-off requires a model.” The key parameter in their model turns out to be the shape (concave or convex) of the density-yield function. A concave density-yield function means that as yield rises, the population density of a given organism initially declines slowly. Imagine a hypothetical butterfly species that persists at high population levels in undisturbed habitat, but persists at moderate density in low yield farms with buffer zones, few chemicals, etc. Conversely, a convex density-yield function says that population density initially declines precipitously with increasing yield. For the aforementioned butterfly, substitute a large tree that cannot survive at appreciable densities outside wild nature.

The authors’ primary purpose with this article is to provoke an empirical research program, not generate conclusions. Nonetheless, they tepidly support the land sparing strategy on the premise that many species, especially those of conservation concern, seem to exhibit a convex density-yield function. If correct, the results would advocate the position of the green revolution: high yield, high input agriculture is optimal both for people and the environment.

The authors anticipate three potential limitations of their approach, one of which I address here. Their model does not incorporate effects on wildlife populations on nonfarm land, a widely cited example being the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by chemical runoff from farms. Incorporating such externalities might shift the balance in favor wildlife-friendly farming. This is an important concern, but the street goes both ways. External effects of agriculture are a product of both intensity and area. Intensive farming has high external environmental costs per unit area, but they must be weighed against reduced external costs per area spread over a larger land area. For example, an abundance of low yield farms could increase habitat fragmentation.

I suspect there may be two more general criticisms that arise, not necessarily to this paper in particular, but to this approach to conservation, especially if it turns out that the convex function is more common, favoring a land sparing approach. First, a critic might claim that this is “just a model,” too abstract for the complexity of real ecosystems and overly reductionist, breaking ecosystems down into constituent species and functions. Such criticisms are wrongheaded. The real dichotomy is not abstraction/realism, reductionism/holism, but rather those who acknowledge their working models and those who do not. It is trite, but worth repeating, that our perception of the world is not an unadulterated version of sensory input. Rather, we all use models, conscious or otherwise, to make sense of reality. Mathematical models formalize this innate process and bring it the forefront of our consciousness, permitting critical evaluation. The alternative is blind surrender to our preconceptions.

Another complaint might be that the paper establishes false premises and ignores a possible third way. In particular, the small-scale, labor intensive, beyond organic, local farming movement. Relying on greater local knowledge and increased inputs of manual labor, such farms have high, sustainable yields without large inputs of chemicals or machinery. At least, that is the anecdote, as I have not seen a systematic study that bears this out. Despite the growth in local farming, it represents a small portion of total agricultural output for obvious reasons: labor is expensive compared to capital, and knowledge workers are not drawn to farm work in large numbers. Taken together, this suggests that for local farming to ever reach a broad consumer base, people must be willing to spend a lot more on food, which I doubt will occur. Improbability aside, I am skeptical, as I have expressed in earlier posts, that local farming actually has any environmental benefits over industrial agriculture.

Beyond utilitarian considerations, the wildlife-friendly farming/land sparing debate raises philosophical questions about protecting biodiversity. Though I am not that familiar with the debate, it seems reminiscent of the 19th century schism between preservationists and conservationists. The former advocated unadulterated nature for its own sake, while the latter argued that nature should be managed for human benefit. In the present context, land sparing might permit larger areas of unadulterated nature in the form of natural parks and wildlife preserves, while wildlife-friendly farming would permit land use that is beneficial to humans at minimum cost to biodiversity. I see the validity of both perspectives and do not offer a solution. Nevertheless, it is interesting how contemporary environmentalists sort out along philosophical lines. In general, those with a biological inclination lean toward wildlife-friendly farming, while developmental economists and agriculturalists advocate land sparing. I suspect divergence between the two groups arises from the duality of humanity, existing simultaneously in and above nature. Evolutionary theory shows us our place in the tree of life, while our advanced civilization has brought us out of nature. Natural scientists, steeped in evolution and ecology, may tend to perceive us as part of nature, while the social scientists, the experts on civilization, may tend to view us as outside of nature. Thus, while the former sees man as integral with and therefore capable of tinkering with his environment, the latter does not mind a clear demarcation. Bringing such cultural and philosophical differences to the forefront can promote constructive dialogue that evaluates agricultural policy not solely upon preserving biodiversity, but also on the type of nature we ultimately desire.