Adiós, ancient coastal cities

Global sea level rise has long been a predicted consequence of global warming, as massive ice sheets at the poles and on mountaintops pour their melted water into the sea. (Pumping groundwater out of aquifers and onto land (which then ultimately drains into the sea) is also a culprit.) Coastal cities are already bearing the brunt of sea level rise, from aquifer incursion (making water too saline to use) to overwhelming sea walls and stormwater infrastructure.

Sea level rise is a growing threat to one of the oldest European settlements in North America. Founded by Spanish settlers in 1565, St. Augustine FL is now struggling to protect its heritage sites in the midst of profound state-level denial and delay. The likelihood of the city surviving another 450 years seem very slim. Of course, it isn’t helpful that these challenges are often overlooked in academic circles; a recent call for papers for an Urban Heritage conference has no mention of the impacts of climate change on ancient coastal cities, even though the majority of urban populations live along coastlines. Urban heritage preservation in the face of climate change impacts (floods, droughts, intense weather events, and others) will be an important area of work in the decades ahead.

Is climate change mobilization the best we can do?

On September 21st, an estimated 400,000 people gathered in New York City for what is being hailed as the “largest climate march in history.” Organized by the organization 350.0rg and dubbed “The People’s Climate March,” this event drew hundreds of thousands of individuals from around the world, representing a diverse array of organizations and groups affected by climate change, from indigenous groups to labor unions, as well as involving those who think they have some solutions, like renewable energy advocates. Celebrities of all kinds, from actors to politicians, attended the event and brought even more public attention to it. The event already has a wikipedia entry, and the organizers claim that 2,646 “solidarity events” in 162 countries also took place that day.

This kind of social movement mobilization is meant to draw attention to the public outcry about environmental issues, specifically climate change. By gathering such a mass of people together, the event is meant to indicate that there is large scale public concern about climate change and public support for policies and actions that mitigate the environmental damages being caused by our consumption, particularly of the fossil fuels that contribute to changes in the global atmosphere.

Yet therein lies the irony: people used commercial airlines to fly from across the country and around the world to participate in an event meant to draw attention to the damaging consequences of fossil fuel consumption. According to The New York Times, people came “from as close as the Bronx to as far as at least Rome.” The photo slideshow on The New York Times website highlights an art installation of melting ice, obviously intended to draw attention to the melting of glaciers already taking place as a consequence of climate change. Yet did those artists consider the fossil fuel consumption necessary to make their art sculpture? 

It would be complicated indeed to calculate the environmental footprint of “the largest climate march in history” – although I suspect it would be quite large. Even though events took place in other locations, many people choose to travel to New York to participate in the big event. For me, this raises an important question: is mobilization the best we can do? Social movement scholarship suggests that we need these kinds of large scale public events to draw attention to an issue, to demonstrate public awareness and support for social change. Yet, in the specific case of climate change, how can we mobilize without further contributing to the relatively mindless consumption of fossil fuels that has become such an engrained part of our society that we may fail to see the contradiction in flying from California to New York to protest climate change? What if all the people who attended that rally simply gave up the largest contributors to climate change, like fossil fuel powered transportation and agriculture? Can we mobilize with more intention, to demonstrate the possibility of living within responsible limits in the face of climate change? How can we balance the need to mobilize for change with a need to simply, as Ghandi aptly taught, be the change we wish to see?


Whose pollution is it?

Now that it is summer, I finally have some time to write about papers published this year that have been quite interesting. I’ll start here first with one published by Lin et al. in PNAS back in February that sought to calculate how much of the air pollution that wafts over to the US from China can be attributed to the stuff we buy from them…. that is, the pollution that is produced through the production of plastic do-dads and other things that we import and consume here. The authors looked at sulfur dioxide (a precursor to acid rain), nitrogen oxides (potent greenhouse gases), carbon monoxide, and black carbon (also implicated in climate change).

In total, they found that “about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export”, indicating that one-fifth of their air pollution is driven by our consumption of their goods.

As for the pollution that wafts over to the US, Chinese pollution was sufficient to cause at least one additional day of ozone levels that violated US standards from Los Angeles to the eastern seaboard. In particular, a substantial proportion of sulfate pollution measured in the western US was attributable to Chinese exports.

Quite a few years ago, my colleagues and I wrote about the way that international trade can complicate consumption impacts on the environment…. specifically how the international wood trade can hide the link between wood consumption and deforestation. One of the consequences of our increasingly international economies is our growing blindness to how we impact our environment (which is now global as well). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, production and consumption were mainly local to regional; product availability was closely tied to regional weather, soil, and human labor. Prices could reflect these conditions and overall supply, including how that supply impacted the quantity and quality of resources such as water, air and soil. Now that our economy has globalized, we need to find better ways to allow product data and prices to once again reflect the environmental capacity of the system, so that we can better understand the impacts of our consumption. Lin et al.’s paper nicely illustrates why we should care about pollution in China; our environments are as connected as our economies, and negative environmental impacts elsewhere have a way of “boomeranging” back to us.

Goodbye glaciers

The US-IALE conference in Anchorage was short but sweet — great science, wonderful colleagues, and new ideas.

However, as picturesque as the setting was, it was deeply unnerving. This winter was one of the warmest on record for Alaska, and indeed for much of the past winter, Alaska was warmer than much of the eastern US. When I arrived in Anchorage, it was at least 20 degrees (F) warmer than Houghton had been, and the trees were already fully leafed-out and blooming. Several wildfires contributed to a haze around the city that marred views and made our clothes smell like a campfire; the fire season started early and is expected to be a severe one, thanks to warm weather and dry conditions in the forests.

My son and I went on a glacier tour…. truly impressive! The blue hues and striations of black sediment made them far more beautiful than I had imagined. As we watched one of the glaciers calving, I wondered if any of those glaciers would be around for my son to show his children; odds are against it. Many speakers at the conference spoke of the difficulty that our “no analog” future presents us when we try to develop management plans for our ecosystems more than a few decades out. While they were talking about the vast reorganization of species and ecosystems that we are likely to see, I thought about how I might describe things like glaciers and tundra to my grandkids….. I am certain that my words, and even my photos, won’t do them justice.

Development vs. growth

I’m live-blogging this week from the US-IALE conference in Anchorage Alaska….. a lot of great discussions going on here!

Brian Czech from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy gave our plenary talk this morning about sustainable natural resource management and ecological economics. He cautioned us to be mindful of the words we use, particularly development vs. growth. Growth implies that an increasing amount of natural resources will be used over time, and the economy will expand. Development, on the other hand, allows for maintaining natural resource use at current levels, but changing how we use them (e.g., more efficiently and effectively).

Just an hour later, a presenter discussed how the Bureau of Land Management sets and works towards landscape management goals for the Prudhoe Bay area, including “sustainable economic development of natural resources”, however it became clear that BLM is really referring to “sustainable economic growth”. Brian was on-hand to point out the vast policy implications of this terminology choice; a very instructive lesson!

National Climate Assessment rolling out now

Ignore the beautiful but dysfunctional interactive website, and instead go straight to downloading the highlights  or the full report. The documents are a treasure trove of data, documenting all of the changes in our climate that we have already witnessed and what is likely to come. The report offers data and projections by region, sector, and response strategies.

Unsustainable wealth

An academic paper and a book are emerging that have made two large bangs in the world; both examine the sustainability (or lack thereof) of wealth inequality.

As reviewed in Common Dreams, a new paper in Perspectives in Politics by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics“, use a robust dataset to test four different possibilities of how our governance system is currently working. They find very little support for the forms of democracy that we commonly think we have, and instead find that our system most resembles an “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism”. In these systems, laws and policies are shaped by those who have the most resources in society, not the majority. Given the most recent Supreme Court decision that further reduced spending limits on political races, I fear that we’re seeing our system travel through a positive feedback, where fewer limits on money in politics begets more money for those who have it, who then have more to spend on further reducing political spending limits.

Thomas Piketty’s new book (at least new translation from French to English), “Capital in the 21st Century”, likewise uses data to demonstrate how capitalism inherently drives wealth inequality when the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth rate of an economy. Rave reviews by Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books and by Nick Pearce in the New Statesman reflect the excitement that Piketty has empirically demonstrated what we have all intuitively understood for decades: concentration of wealth into a few families is due to system dynamics, not to the talent or intelligence of the wealthy. Indeed, concentration impedes progress of both individuals and societies. Just as unfettered money drives democracies towards oligarchy, wealth unfettered by taxes (to suppress return rates on capital below the growth of the economy) allows a positive feedback of wealth begetting wealth to form without any productivity to show for it. We are experiencing the outcome of this system dynamic: increased speculation and volatility in markets as more capital seeks higher returns, and stagnant and/or declining wealth in lower classes while wealth explodes in the upper 1% and 0.1%.

These two studies illustrate not just what we are experiencing, but why we must put the brakes on these feedbacks. The concentration of wealth and its influence on our democracy are self-reinforcing. These feedbacks pull us away from the democratic society we aspire to be, where we each have an equal chance to reach our potential and have an equal say in how the rules are made.

Bringing Solar Energy Technology to Campus

Have you ever used solar energy to charge your laptop or cellphone? Have you ever had the chance to watch a battery’s charging meter go up as it takes in power from the sun? Would you like to learn more about the efficiency and potential of solar electric technology?

A study is about to begin on campus involving solar energy technology. Goal Zero is a leader in portable solar equipment technology, and eight of their systems are now here on campus. Two of these systems are meant for larger scale use (for a family or group housing situation); six of them are smaller, relatively portable, and meant for individual usage. A collaborative project between Dr. Joshua Pearce’s lab and Dr. Chelsea Schelly of the Department of Social Sciences, the goal of the project is to temporarily install these systems into Greek housing, shared student houses, dorms rooms and university apartments so that students can get firsthand experience using solar energy technology. After they’ve spent some time living with solar electricity, participants will be asked about their energy behaviors – how they use and think about energy. This project was recently discussed in the Lode.

Solar electric technology provides one means of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and localizing energy production. Participating in this study will provide students with exposure to the latest in portable and small scale solar electricity generation, and will provide researchers with information regarding how technology impacts our energy behaviors and attitudes. If you live in Greek organization housing, share a house with other students, or would be interested in participating as an individual, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact

Saying goodbye

Conservation biology is an often-dismal discipline. For every story with a happy ending, there are hundreds with a tragic one – and often beyond that, thousands that end without us ever knowing. The loss of species that endear themselves to us is always a particularly difficult goodbye.

The monarch butterfly is swiftly approaching a sad fate. Robbed of its critical food supply (milkweed) by industrial agriculture in the midwestern region of North America, fewer monarchs are able to reproduce and migrate back down to its wintering habitat in Mexico. This year, surveys of Mexican forests have recorded the lowest number of returning monarch butterflies since these surveys began. The monarch migration is a fantastic spectacle; these butterflies migrate thousands of miles in spring and fall. Their large size and colorful markings make them familiar to most, and hence their declining numbers are likely to be noticed. That is the good news.

In this conservation case, everyone can help. Planting milkweed (the native species to North America, not tropical species such as Asclepias curassavica) in your front and back yard will help replace the feeding stations that the butterflies have lost with agriculture, and allow them to build up their numbers. Large populations help the butterfly persist through late springs (which disrupt their breeding schedule) and extreme weather events that can kill them outright.

For more information on monarch biology and how to help, you can visit the Monarch Watch webpage.