Monthly Archives: March 2009

What the global warming pigeons actually say to the cheshire cat

global-warming.jpgIf you are still scratching your head after yesterday’s post about Freeman Dyson and the pitfalls of the global warming debate, it might help to actually find out more about what the global warming “cassandras” are, and have been, shouting about. Are they really as far off as Prof. Dyson seems to think? Are the models and projections so completely unreliable as to be useless for setting even broad policies to contain our impacts on our environment? After all, the models do come with error estimates. And even Prof. Dyson agrees that the current observed warming is largely anthropogenic (a crucial point, for those on the right who might seize upon Dyson as another skeptic in their ilk) – he just disagrees about the consequences, and thinks we can invent our way out of the problem with biotechnology (e.g., carbon-eating trees – never mind actual plant physiology!). If the cause is agreed upon, why shouldn’t we start addressing that in the first place, especially if we are unsure about outcomes? Whatever happened to the precautionary principle, Prof. Dyson?  

As it happens, the National Academy of Sciences is hosting, right now (Mar 30-31), a summit on America’s Climate Choices! What’s more, as you’ll see if you click on that link, they are also webcasting (and archiving) the entire summit for everyone in the world to see. How about that for transparency in science and policy discussions? Here’s the complete agenda, so you can pick and choose which session to watch – but it should all be worthwhile for any citizen interested in what policy options are available and how choices may be made.

I’ve also found a small number of useful publications articulating the global warming argument (i.e., the argument for doing something to arrest/reverse it) made available freely as PDFs in recent months. These documents (all well-considered, sobering pieces, rather different in tone from Al Gore’s lecture/documentary) should at least help the naysayers understand where the IPCC/Hansen et al are coming from. These should get you started, if you are unfamiliar with or still skeptical about the case for worrying about global warming:

These may not be enough to convince the cognitively dissonant genius of Freeman Dyson, but they should do to get the rest of us ordinary folks thinking about what we should, collectively, do about it. If you’ve got other freely available resources to add to this list, let me know.

I guess I must be a misguidedthrope…

… and welcome to my club!

Here’s your welcome cartoon, if you are still confused about where I stand after reading seemingly contradictory things about various environmental conservation debates on this blog!


An intellectual heavy-weight cat among the global warming pigeons

How did Freeman Dyson, the world-renowned physicist and public intellectual, wind up opposing those who care most about global warming? The New York Times has the fascinating story, in an excellent article published last week (which I only just found today – thanks @lelap!). Its a long article, and I haven’t digested it fully yet, but it should be read by everyone concerned about global warming and environmentalism – on every side of the issue.

Dyson brings an interesting mix of a proper theoretician’s skeptical perspective on models (i.e., they are just models, and therefore must be taken with large grains of salt) and a limitless (almost Panglossian) optimism about the future and about human possibilities. It really is a curious, fascinating mix: on the one hand he is skeptical (and rightly so) about our ability to understand and forecast future climate change because our models are incomplete – so doomsayers like Jim Hansen and Al Gore should take the chill pill and calm down a bit (agreed); on the other hand, he also believes we are capable of inventing “carbon-eating” trees that will clean up any excess carbon and improve our lives (say what?)! Where else can one find strong skepticism about one area of science combined with equally strong (but uncritical?) optimism about other areas of science & technology? What an absolutely brilliant concoction of cognitive dissonance!! And what a way to think about our species’ hubris – whether we think we understand enough to predict what will happen on the one hand, or that we can find a technological fix to ride over any problem confronting us, including ones of our own making! This is just the sort of thing I like to subject my students to in Reconciliation Ecology. And it also puts me in mind (once again) of that professional puncturer of human hubris – George Carlin, whose famous rant about Earth Day I just referred to in my previous post about Earth Hour.

read more | digg story

At Earth Hour tonight, switch off the lights, and your cynicism too!

Earth Hour LogoWhat’s wrong with turning our lights off for an hour? Especially if a billion or more of our species do it worldwide today? And not just turn out the lights, but as many other power-consuming devices as possible? And then hang out with friends / family for some conversations in the dark / by candlelight / firelight? Moreover, what’s wrong with getting some of our institutions to turn off the lights, for instance at normally brightly lit monuments or buildings? So why are some of my friends and colleagues, conservationists otherwise, turning cynical about this movement which seems to have caught much of the world’s imagination?

Of course, I’m talking about Earth Hour, the annual global cascading power down which started just two years ago in Sydney, Australia, to get people thinking about global warming, and has now spread so much that even the Chinese govt. agencies turned the lights out in some famous places today (pictures here). Here’s a video promoting the event, in case you haven’t seen it yet:

With the celebrity endorsements, TV ads, and news coverage even from Fox (yeah!), today’s Earth Hour is turning out to be bigger even than last year’s. I don’t know if it’ll reach the goal of 1 billion people “voting earth” as the campaign puts it, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? The main goal, surely, is to get everyone talking about it, and about global warming, and what we, even as individuals, can do about it. And that part has been really successful, with the message ubiquitous, including (or course) on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Of course, many global warming “skeptics” and others on the right scoff at such “empty gestures” and “feel goodism” (to steal a phrase from someone responding to the Fresno Bee last year). But why is this reaction shared by some on our side of the global warming fight? On Facebook, one friend remarks:

The amount of electricity used to inform everyone (via email, TV, etc.) about “Earth Hour” on March 28, 2009 was nearly twelve times as much as the expected savings.

… and several others jump in nodding vigorously in agreement, even claiming that this whole campaign is just more FUD! As if those communication channels (email, TV, etc.) were switched on explicitly for the purpose of promoting Earth Hour, and would have otherwise been off saving electricity! Really? On another thread, a friend’s joining the cause brings more abuse, with an offer to throw a “fuck the earth” party instead!! And others argue this is all just fantasyland, and has nothing to do with the real world! Even biting sarcasm doesn’t go unpunished!


Is turning the lights off and hanging out in the darkness for an hour really all that bad? Perhaps you should also switch off your cynicism for that hour? Go ahead, try it – join others in the dark for an hour, and embrace some optimism that it is possible to get a bunch of people to come together to talk about the environment, even if fleetingly, for an hour. Not too much, just an hour of this fellowship. It won’t hurt you! Even if, in the long run, we human beings are fucked anyway, being but Earth’s way to make itself some plastic! An hour’s rest ought to, at least, renew your spirit of cynicism as you get back to dealing with the real world. Even your cynicism needs some rest now and then, surely?

Meanwhile, enjoy these pictures:

Now I better go look for some candles and matches… for I’ve got a pile of exams to grade, and such a perfect opportunity to recreate that famous opening scene from Satyajit Ray’s movie “Jana Aranya” (The Middleman) – the one where the examiner fails our “hero” because he cannot read his writing by candlelight during Kolkata’s famous load-shedding!

Happy darkness!

Shy flowers on a cold spring morning in the Sierra foothills (Friday Photo)

Even as California continues to experience a drought, and the region is facing water shortages, this winter-spring has brought just enough precipitation to allow the wildflowers to blanket the Sierra Nevada foothills in a riot of colors the like of which I haven’t seen in the five years I’ve lived in this area. My colleagues and students have noticed an increasing grumpiness in me these past couple of weeks, and part of the reason is that I really want to be out there in them thar hills traipsing through the wildflowers, not cooped up in the concrete of the Science building (where, to be fair, I have had quite a few glimpses of snowclad hills this spring – but that only makes being in the office worse!)! Why do we have spring break in April in this goshdarned valley, when actual spring has long since passed us by? I know, I know, it probably has to do with a certain religious holiday in early April – but that’s a subject of a rant I’ll save for another day. For now, this Friday, let me share some of my attempts to capture the fleeting beauty of spring in the Sierra foothills onto a few digital images. I’ve managed finally to create a Flickr album to collect these images, including this one of a dewy Baby Blue Eyes and some Goldfields (I think) apparently feeling too shy and/or sleepy to face the morning sun (on tuesday Mar 24) after the equinox weekend’s cold snap:

blue and yellow, turning away

Click on the picture to access the entire gallery, which I hope will provide you some relief even at your computer desk. Especially if you’ve been tearing your hair out this week while watching the circus of the Texas State Board of Education watering down their standards of how science is taught in that state! (And please do let me know if I’ve made any errors of identification – floral taxonomy is not my forte!).

Happy Spring, wherever you are! And I also wish you total blissful darkness – or romantic candlelight – this saturday when we celebrate Earth Hour!

I’m an Atheist (and I’m Okay) – out ‘n about on this Freethinking Friday!

Yes, it is Freethinking Friday, or Atheist Pride Day today. Shine that Scarlet A, sing this version of the lumberjack song, and join the celebration!

More on the state of American birds

Via Ellen Paul on Ornith-L comes news of the release of a new report (downloadable as pdf) and website on the State of the Birds in the US. And this comes right on the heels of the USFWS report on the Birds of Conservation Concern released a couple of days ago – two such reports in one week! Much to read… but where do I manufacture the time? Perhaps you have some more than me – if so, read the press release below the fold, visit the website for the full report, and tell me what you think, won’t you? Start with this video overview (with a somewhat hokey voiceover) from the good folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Secretary Salazar Releases Study Showing Widespread Declines in Bird Populations, Highlights Role of Partnerships in Conservation

Washington, D.C. – Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today released the first ever comprehensive report on bird populations in the United States, showing that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other threats.

The report is available at (embargoed until 2:30 pm EDT)

At the same time, the report highlights examples, including many species of waterfowl, where habitat restoration and conservation have reversed previous declines, offering hope that it is not too late to take action to save declining populations.

“Just as they were when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems,” Salazar said. “From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells. We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.”

The report, The U.S. State of the Birds, synthesizes data from three long-running bird censuses conducted by thousands of citizen scientists and professional biologists.

In particular, it calls attention to the crisis in Hawaii, where more birds are in danger of extinction than anywhere else in the United States. In addition, the report indicates a 40 percent decline in grassland birds over the past 40 years, a 30 percent decline in birds of aridlands, and high concern for many coastal shorebirds. Furthermore, 39 percent of species dependent on U.S. oceans have declined.

“Habitats such as those in Hawaii are on the verge of losing entire suites of unique bird species,” said Dr. David Pashley, American Bird Conservancy’s Vice President for Conservation Programs. “In addition to habitat loss, birds also face many other man-made threats such as pesticides, predation by cats, and collisions with windows, towers and buildings. By solving these challenges we can preserve a growing economic engine – the popular pastime of birdwatching that involves millions of Americans – and improve our quality of life.”

However, the report also reveals convincing evidence that birds can respond quickly and positively to conservation action. The data show dramatic increases in many wetland birds such as pelicans, herons, egrets, osprey, and ducks, a testament to numerous cooperative conservation partnerships that have resulted in protection, enhancement and management of more than 30 million wetland acres.

“These results emphasize that investment in wetlands conservation has paid huge dividends,” said Kenneth Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Now we need to invest similarly in other neglected habitats where birds are undergoing the steepest declines.”

“While some bird species are holding their own, many once common species are declining sharply in population. Habitat availability and quality is the key to healthy, thriving bird populations,” said Dave Mehlman of The Nature Conservancy.

Surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey, including the annual Breeding Bird Survey, combined with data gathered through volunteer citizen science program such as the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, show once abundant birds such as the northern bobwhite and marbled murrelet are declining significantly. The possibility of extinction also remains a cold reality for many endangered birds.

“Citizen science plays a critical role in monitoring and understanding the threats to these birds and their habitats, and only citizen involvement can help address them,” said National Audubon Society’s Bird Conservation Director, Greg Butcher. “Conservation action can only make a real difference when concerned people support the kind of vital habitat restoration and protection measures this report explores.”

Birds are beautiful, as well as economically important and a priceless part of America’s natural heritage. Birds are also highly sensitive to environmental pollution and climate change, making them critical indicators of the health of the environment on which we all depend.

The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are Federally-listed as endangered or threatened. In addition, more than 184 species are designated as species of conservation concern due to a small distribution, high-level of threats, or declining populations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinated creation of the new report as part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which includes partners from American Bird Conservancy, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Klamath Bird Observatory, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The report is available at (embargoed until 2:30 pm EDT).


Hugh Vickery (DOI), (202) 501-4633

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Alicia King, 703-358-2522/571-214-3117,

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Vanessa Kauffman, 703-358-2138,

American Bird Conservancy: Steve Holmer, 202-234-7181,

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Pat Leonard, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 607-254-2137,

National Audubon Society: Nancy Severance, 212-979-3124,

The Nature Conservancy: Blythe Thomas, 703-841-8782,

Klamath Bird Observatory: Ashley Dayer, 541-324-0281,


Statement by Darin Schroeder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, American Bird Conservancy, at the U.S. State of the Birds Release

National Press Club, 2:30 pm EDT, March 19, 2009

American Bird Conservancy appreciates Secretary Salazar’s leadership in addressing the nation about the important findings of the U.S. State of the Birds report, and the hard work of the Fish and Wildlife Service and all of the partners groups involved in making this report possible.

America is blessed with a spectacular abundance and diversity of birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting the mainland, Hawaii, and surrounding oceans. Birdwatching is one of the nation’s most popular pastimes, engaging millions of Americans; and it is big business, estimated to generate $45 billion dollars in economic activity each year. Birds are also a critical element of our farming industry as pollinators of crops and controllers of pests, as well as being key indicators of the health of the environment on which we all depend.

Unfortunately, State of the Birds tells us that hundreds of bird species are in decline, and some are threatened with extinction. America has a serious challenge to reverse this situation, but it is possible. If this report tells us anything, it is that when we apply ourselves by investing in conservation, we can save imperiled wildlife, protect habitats, and solve the multiple threats at the root of this problem.

State of the Birds documents that the birds of Hawai’i, the birthplace of President Obama, are in the greatest peril. Many Hawaiian bird species are on the brink of extinction, and ten species have not been seen in years. Action is urgently needed to conserve and restore habitat, and to address the multiple threats causing these declines, including the spread of diseases that have decimated many forest bird populations.

The Akekee is a rapidly declining Hawaiian forest bird proposed for listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Jim Denny. High resolution photos available.

Many bird habitats in Hawai’i have been permanently lost to development, and others degraded by the impacts of invasive plants and animals. What habitat remains must be protected, and we need to invest in jobs to remove and fence out invasive animals from conservation areas. There is also a need to invest in more science to study bird species we know too little about, and to develop new and innovative solutions to stem population declines.

Also in great peril are many species of oceanic birds. Overfishing is eliminating food sources; oil spills and other pollutants, as well as millions of tons of trash dumped in the ocean each year, are continuing to harm birds – much work remains to be done. Progress is being made to reduce the direct mortality caused when birds are hooked on fishing gear in American waters, and we congratulate all those who have acted to bring this change about, but globally seabird bycatch remains a serious problem. The United States can help resolve this issue by becoming a signatory to the international Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, and we believe this should be a high priority for U.S. lawmakers and the President this year.

Across America, birds face a gauntlet of threats to their survival including pesticides, collisions, domestic cats, and habitat loss.

While many of the most harmful pesticides to birds have been banned or restricted in the United States, a few remain on the market, and these must be better regulated or cancelled. Many pesticides that are banned here are still used in other countries, poisoning our migrant birds where they winter. The United States contributes to that continued poisoning by permitting banned pesticide residues on the produce that we import. These import tolerances for banned pesticides need to be revoked.

Hundreds of millions of birds die each year by colliding with towers and buildings. Better lighting systems, changes in how new buildings are designed, and new technologies that allow birds to see windows are urgently needed to halt this needless carnage.

Hundreds of millions of birds are killed by free-roaming and feral cats each year. Education is urgently needed to make the public more aware of the heavy toll on wildlife by domestic cats that are not kept indoors and by feral cat colonies where they are allowed to persist.

Unsustainable land use, such as the continued logging of old-growth forests needs to be quickly brought to an end, and new jobs created restoring forests, wetlands, and grasslands.

U.S. State of the Birds calls attention to the problems and the solutions. Now we need to act before it is too late, to ensure that future generations of Americans will enjoy a better quality of life, and the same magnificent diversity of birds that we enjoy today. Thank you.

Ellen Paul

Executive Director

The Ornithological Council

“Providing Scientific Information about Birds”