All posts by almayer

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.


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.



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.


Environmental Justice Gets a Makeover: How the field of Ecological Economics has changed the way we think about EJ

[This is a post from Ronesha Strozier, a MS student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Environmental justice seems like it would be an important part of any hot, environmentally related, conversation; but for some reason over the years it has disappeared from the rhetoric. When I joined the Environmental & Energy Policy program at Michigan Tech I was flabbergasted when I didn’t hear these words thrown around more often, but I had been deceived; it was there all along.

My grandmother always used to tell me that there is nothing new under the sun and she is right. Ideas are always being recycled and mixed together to make what we call new ideas and this same theory can be applied to the field of environmental justice.  So I finally figured out why no one was using the term; it was because the name changed. Due to globalization and time, environmental justice has now become just distribution.

Just distribution is one of the three main goals of a new field of economics called ecological economics. Environmental justice tends to focus on the more social, political, and legal aspects of a particular problem primarily within the United States. Just distribution takes the whole argument a step further by incorporating our now globalized world. It focuses on providing the same resources to every citizen in the world and has added ideas from ecology and economics to help create better solutions for today’s problems.

Once I knew the new name of environmental justice I breathed a nice long relaxing sigh; I knew that I no longer had to worry if my fellow colleagues cared about environmental justice, because they did. My colleagues care so much that they have allowed the terminology to evolve into something that will help them better solve the problem.

Since the name changed I wanted to see if there were any other changes to the field. I searched and found some differences within the terminology.  “Just distribution” seems to be primarily used by academics, but “environmental justice” has successfully made it past the walls of academia and is widely used by the public.  Environmental justice representatives are talking about the same things that academics are talking about. For example, Dr.  Jalonne L. White-Newsome discusses climate change in a post on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Blog. In the post the author strongly pushes for the President to include issues related to environmental justice in the President’s Climate Action Plan. White-Newsome issues a call to action to make the importance of climate justice a reality in the American political system.

Although environmental justice is changing I don’t think that it is a bad thing, it’s just different. The field is changing to meet the needs of our current society and that is what all environmentalists want. We want change.


Solar Photovoltaic Tariff Wars

[This is a post from Edward Louie, a MS student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Tariffs are normally imposed to protect and support domestic manufacturing, in particular emerging industries, by disincentivizing the purchase of imported equivalent products. The higher market price encourages greater supply of the domestic product. Neoclassical economists tend to view tariffs as regulations that distort the free market.  They argue that tariffs help domestic producers and the government via increased revenue and taxes at the expense of consumers, and they artificially shield an industry from competition, delaying collapse, but also slowing the innovation needed to be competitive. Tariffs only make sense if the financial gain by the government and increase in domestic demand outweighs the efficiency loss from reduced overall demand due to higher prices.

Throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s the cost of solar panels has decreased at a snail’s pace remaining at 3 to 4 dollars a watt that is until 2008 when Chinese manufacturers began mass producing solar panels with low cost labor on an economy of scale. Since 2008, the price of solar panels has plummeted breaking the one dollar per watt barrier in 2011. Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed a 31 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China. The tariff was imposed when several manufacturers of solar panels in the U.S. (including SolarWorld and six others) complained to the Department of Commerce that Chinese factories are subsidizing manufacturing costs in order to flood the market and kill off competition with below-market price panels. These complaints came after several solar manufacturers in the United States and Germany filed for bankruptcy, while the market share of Chinese panels rose to nearly two thirds. However, more than 700 other firms, organized under the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, opposed the tariff. The opponents, which include manufacturers, installers and others involved in the solar industry, argue that the tariff will make solar energy less affordable. In 2013 the tariff wars continued with China imposing a 6.5% tariff on U.S. solar polysilicon suppliers. American companies defended their low prices, attributing them to inexpensive hydroelectric power. The European Union also imposed a tariff on Chinese solar panels and Chinese glass used to make solar panels.

Tariffs on solar panels will likely backfire and actually hurt the U.S. solar industry because 52% of U.S. solar jobs are in installation, another 18% in sales and distribution, and more in polysilicon manufacturing (the raw material of solar panels) (Lubin, 2012). In the midst of these tariffs, the average installed price of solar panels in the U.S. has continued to fall. However, it would be a large step backwards if this trend were to fall victim to escalating trade wars. Only time will tell if these tariffs have a positive or negative effect on the U.S. solar industry. With the U.S. solar industry continuing to grow, it may be difficult to identify out the percentage of additional growth or decline that could have been realized had these measures not been implemented. In today’s highly globalized world, it is often difficult to know for certain which economic policy tool to use and its effects and unintended effects.