Monthly Archives: April 2007

Friday photo: Dung Beetles

I captured this lovely image yesterday at McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve of the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, when some of us went back there for round two of our BioBlitz (after round one was rained out). I’ve got a bunch more photos, and lists of organisms that I haven’t had the time to process, but promise to post a report on here soon. Meanwhile, its friday, I just got out of yet another (not as long as usual) departmental faculty meeting… and you know, this image somehow captures some of the mood!!

But if you want something more… I don’t know… active and snappy? something that makes you snap your fingers and tap your feet? something that might give you some moves to consider on the dance floor on a friday evening? Look below the fold for the bonus video:


And turn up the volume on your speakers to capture the full effect.

Night of the GORACLONES!! Next monday @ Fresno State

[UPDATE: I have found a larger room. We will now meet in Science II, room 209, @5:00 PM, Monday]

As you may be aware, president Al Gore, the Goracle, has recently been raising a global army (must… resist … the temptation to bring up any more robot/clone wars puns) of communicators to help combat global warming. Well, we happen to have two of the first 1000 graduates of the program right here in Fresno:

  • Dr. James Wilson, an ecologist who has been a visiting faculty member in our own department this past year, and
  • Mr. Yezdyar Kaoosji, a consultant to not-for-profit organizations, with decades of experience working in the real world on social issues.

So, as a special treat while the semester winds down, let me invite you to a special night, featuring a double-dose of inconvenient truth from these two gentlemen, on Monday (April 30) evening during our regular class time. Apart from getting a live action version of the Oscar-winning slideshow, I’m really looking forward to hearing what they think, given their different backgrounds and perspectives, about the Climate Project training program, changing the discourse (and policy) on global warming, and Al Gore. Should be an enligtening and fun night.

If you are interested in attending, but are not in my class, you are welcome to join us, but please do drop me a line. I am in the process of finding a larger classroom than where we usually meet.

Meanwhile, you might want to read another biologist blogger’s take on a recent presentation by Mr. Gore himself, and some new material in his slideshow that wasn’t in the movie.

Trading carbon, blowing smoke

If you are curious about carbon-trading, the new buzz of the envirosphere, you must watch this video and read yesterday’s Financial Times’ front-page, in-depth, feature.

With the American public finally waking up to the dangers of man-made climate change, carbon trading has suddenly become all the rage now, everywhere you go from Hollywood to major green organizations like Conservation International to Wall Street to the US Capitol! I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of trading carbon credits to abate global warming, and the whole notion of treating any ecosystem process as a commodity tradeable in financial markets. My hesitation in embracing this concept (which, while new to Americans, has been around since the Kyoto Protocol, at least, and is already operational as a market in the EU and elsewhere) stems in part, no doubt, from my own illiteracy about the economic theory behind it. However, I have greater misgivings about the idea from both an ecological and a practical perspective.

As an ecologist, it is hard for me to see how one “trades” pollution in one part of the world for abatement efforts in an entirely different part of the world. Granted, the big immediate challenge may be the global carbon budget, so the main focus may justifiably be on reducing the amount of CO2 at that large scale. Yet, I wonder about the smaller-scale local/regional ecological effects, especially on the polluter’s end of things. Neither our planet, nor its atmosphere are entirely homogeneous, and much of ecology (like politics) is very much local. So I have my doubts about the idea of simply exporting these environmental externalities of polluting industry/technology to a different ecosystem as a way of solving the problem. It just sounds too easy, requiring very little sacrifice or real change on the part of the polluter if they can simply pay someone else to absorb the externality!

My practical concern flag is raised when I come across the mushrooming of so many carbon-trading boutiques and ebay auctions, with projects spread around the world. How is an average customer of one of these shops to know if the carbon-offset is actually being spent on what the shop claims to spend it on? Paint me a cynic, but I know enough about the lack of accountability of NGOs, and corruption both in the free-market first world and third world bureaucracies to be reassured by slick websites that promise wonderful afforestation and solar energy projects. I can keep flying, they say, and reduce my carbon footprint, my guilt, become carbon neutral, by buying some tradeable offset permits.

And most importantly, making pollution tradeable in this fashion provides too easy an out to polluting industries, who may opt to not fix polluting technologies, nor invent better ones, due to short-term profit considerations. Given how the whole Enron saga went down, pardon me if I cannot trust big business to clean house unless it is forced to!

It is therefore great to have a serious business newspaper like the FT conduct such an in-depth investigation of the carbon trading regime. Even more impressive (and surprising) is their editorial stance:

CO2 needs a price but taxes are the best way to set it

The Kyoto protocol to fight climate change expires in 2012. The shape of a successor treaty is still in doubt, but one aspect seems certain: carbon trading will play a major role. A Financial Times investigation today reveals that carbon markets leave much room for unverifiable manipulation. Taxes are better, partly because they are less vulnerable to such improprieties.

Climate change poses a classic spill-over problem: individuals do not suffer the full burden of producing carbon dioxide, but society does. To equate the private cost to the higher social cost, governments can create markets for carbon, by using tradeable permits, or impose a tax.

So far, the preferred method has been tradeable permits. Creating markets for carbon has political advantages. They are easy to sign into law and even easier to execute. Instead of the optimal method of auctioning permits, governments have given them away. It is no wonder that energy producers are keen to participate in these schemes.

While short-term politics favour markets, taxes would be better in the long term, because industry needs certainty for investments years hence. A government committing to painful taxes signals the seriousness of its intentions.

Carbon taxes, offset by cuts in other taxes, are more difficult to eliminate than artificial markets.

Carbon markets have other problems. Above all, they fix the amount of carbon abated, not its price. Getting the amount of emissions a little bit wrong in any year would hardly upset the global climate. But excessive volatility or unduly high prices of quotas on carbon emissions might disrupt the economy severely. Taxes create needed certainty about prices, while markets in emission quotas create unnecessary certainty about the short-term quantity of emissions.

Both carbon taxes and markets put undue burden on the poor. Governments should counter such regressive carbon taxes by lowering taxes on labour. Yet most of the political appeal of markets is that they hide the true costs to consumers. That is why carbon markets exist in the first place. For this reason it is unlikely that governments would offset the invisible burden of markets by changing visible taxes.

Smart market design could overcome most problems with tradeable permits: price caps could prevent undue harm to the economy; and intelligent regulatory regimes could prevent other forms of gamesmanship. Yet markets are bound to be more complicated than taxes. When in doubt, keep it simple. Markets for carbon are potentially good. But taxes would be better. [emphasis mine]

Will the Wall Street journal, not to mention US congresspeople and senators also call for imposing carbon taxes now?

How the US flipped the bird to the rest of the world on global warming

In case you missed it when it aired on PBS earlier this week, Frontline had a sharp feature, “Hot Politics, about the Bush administration’s response (or lack thereof) to global warming. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

“The way it happened was the equivalent to flipping the bird, frankly, to the rest of the world … on an issue about which they felt so deeply.” That is how former New Jersey governor and the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christine Todd Whitman describes the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in Hot Politics, a FRONTLINE report co-produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR).

As more and more Americans look for a response to the realities of climate change, FRONTLINE correspondent Deborah Amos investigates the political decisions that have prevented the United States government from confronting one of the most serious problems facing humanity today.

Through the magic of the internet (that other thing Al Gore invented before he came up with global warming), you can watch the entire show, and read a bunch of accompanying material, on the Frontline website accompanying the show. Go there now!

And while there, check out this map – and note where California is!

So is the governator doing enough for our state, and the country? Didn’t someone in class today bring up that old quote, “as goes California, so goes the nation”? I sure hope the rest of this nation (except Texas, of course) doesn’t go where the golden state is now – and that California pulls back its carbon emissions quickly to set a better example once again.

Room for humanity to stretch its ecological footprint…??

Hey, perhaps we don’t have to worry about our species’ growing ecological footprint so much after all! As you may have heard by now, the major news of the day is that astronomers have found what is the first possibly Earthlike extrasolar planet!

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog is covering this HUGE NEWS:

“The European Southern Observatory is reporting that they have found the most Earthlike planet yet orbiting another star. It has about 1.5 times the Earth’s diameter, and five times its mass. This makes it the smallest extrasolar planet yet found (two other planets have already been found orbiting that star, with 15 and 8 times Earth’s mass).

This is amazing enough! But it gets far, far better. The parent star, Gliese 581, is a red dwarf, meaning it’s smaller and cooler than the Sun. The as-yet unnamed planet orbits this star much closer than the Earth does the Sun; it stays about 11 million kilometers (6.7 million miles) from its star, while the Earth is 150 million km (93 million miles) from the Sun.

But remember, Gliese 581 is cooler than the Sun, so at this distance the planet would actually be very temperate: models show it would be between 0 and 40 Celsius! If that doesn’t grab you, then consider this:

That is warm enough for water to be a liquid.

So what we may have here is a terrestrial planet with liquid water on its surface.

Exciting, isn’t it? For, if there is water, there can be agriculture (getting right down to this valley’s perspective!) – oh, and perhaps other life-forms as well… but we know how to deal with those right? But hold it, what’s this in the next paragraph:

“Let me be clear: this is not a guarantee! We have not actually gotten an image of the planet; its presence is indicated by the gravitational effect it has on its star as it orbits (once every 13 days, incidentally). So we don’t know if the planet is dry, or covered in oceans, or even if it’s rocky like the Earth — though models indicate it will either be rocky or possibly even covered by oceans.”

Oh, so this is all just a model then – just theory and some indirect effects based on gravity? We don’t even have an image? And it is a mere 20 light years away… oh crap, so I better not start packing the bags, nor fire up expedia just yet! We’re still going to have to fix house and deal with our footprint in the near term then… Bummer, man!!

California Condors naturalizing south of the border

I woke up to this wonderful news this morning in a snippet on NPR: that the California Condors that had been found nesting and brooding an egg in Mexico’s Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park last month have managed to successfully hatch the little one! Condors disappeared from Mexican skies in the 1930s, and were only reintroduced to Baja in 2002 from captive breeding programs in the US. The reintroduced wild populations (in California, Arizona, and Baja California in Mexico) haven’t really taken off yet, with the total population of the species still around 275 – so this hatching in the Baja peninsula is something to celebrate indeed. For more on the story of how the species went to the brink and back, try John Nielsen’s book.

If you want to try and watch these birds soaring California skies, you should go to Pinnacles National Monument featured in a recent outdoors story in the Fresno Bee. I was lucky enough to see one soaring above the Grand Canyon a few years ago – number 25 it was, if I remember the wing-tag correctly!