Wednesday, October 20, 2010

US Upcoming elections and Climate Change.Elections

The following article appeared a few days ago in NatureNews. It should prove helpful in helping you understand the positions taken by the major two political parties in the US on the major issue of our time; Climate Change.

US midterm elections: A chilly season for climate crusaders

Open scepticism of global warming could rule next Congress.

Jeff Tollefson

Nineteen of the 21 serious Republican challengers for seats in the US Senate believe that climate science is either "inconclusive" or "incorrect", according to an analysis by Washington DC's non-partisan National Journal. A more comprehensive list compiled by the left-leaning Wonk Room website suggests that 31 out of 37 Republican Senate candidates — including nine out of ten sitting senators — have recently disputed the science. Five of the remaining six actively oppose existing climate bills.

It is not clear exactly how concerns about climate-change regulations will affect the US midterm elections next month. Battles about political ideology and the state of the US economy are more pressing. But one thing is certain: scepticism about climate science has become one of the many litmus tests for candidates backed by the surging right. Even Senator John McCain of Arizona, who once championed climate legislation, has said that the world needs to know whether the scientific community's conclusions about global warming "were flawed by outside influences". In trendsetting California, where the science of climate change is not at issue between the leading gubernatorial candidates, concern over the economy could still lead to a deferral of greenhouse-gas emission cuts (see 'State watch: California').
Click here for more on the midterm elections.

If Republicans take the House or Senate, US climate scientists could be targeted for investigations that challenge findings related to global warming. In the House, Darrell Issa of California, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has promised to give climate science "a careful relook". In the Senate, long-time climate sceptic James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) would relish the opportunity to subpoena climate scientists for hearings before the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which he is likely to chair if Republicans take control.

Democratic leaders pushed many members to vote for a comprehensive climate bill in the House in 2009, only to see the issue fizzle out in the Senate. Republican candidates are now using that vote to campaign against Democrats such as Zack Space, who has been accused by his Republican opponent in Ohio, state senator Bob Gibbs, of voting for a "cap-and-trade energy tax that will kill over 100,000 Ohio jobs".

The use of climate science as a weapon to skewer political opponents does not bode well for bipartisan progress on climate after the election. "If the message is that climate legislation is political poison, then that will make it harder to bring it up in the future," says David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington DC.

Prospects for the kind of emissions-trading programme that allows polluters to buy and sell permits on a fluid carbon market have already faded, says Frank Maisano, an energy specialist with the lobby firm Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington DC. Maisano notes that most of the sitting lawmakers who are likely to lose in November — moderate Democrats and Republicans — did not support aggressive action on climate science in any case. "This is regional politics, not partisan politics."

A more divided Congress could take up smaller initiatives targeting energy efficiency, renewable energy and long-term investments in clean-energy. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to act on a 2007 court ruling giving it authority to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. Some observers suggest that the fear of direct EPA regulation could help to spur a legislative solution among moderates of both parties.

That kind of political compromise might yet be possible if the climate rhetoric tones down after the elections. "Climate-science denial is a by-product of extreme partisanship and a kind of reactionary mode among conservatives, and I expect that this will wane," says Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist think tank based in Washington DC. He says that most Republicans in the current Congress accept the science even if they disagree over what to do about it. "But if large parts of the Republican Party begin to deny consensus science," he adds, "then the climate community will have to confront them about it."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Climate Change: The Bickering Goes On

The Kyoto Protocol, the only international agreement to fight climate change, will come to an end in two years, 2012. The world, including the US who is not bound by Kyoto, has been trying frantically for over a year to come to agreement on what is to replace Kyoto. The Copenhagen conference, last year, turned out to be totally unproductive. Yet the major players have not given up hope for reaching an agreement that would be legally binding to all its signatories.
Unfortunately the progress has been very slow to nonexistent. The meeting at Tianjin, China ended up last week in total disarray. The meeting which was expected to resolve a few of the obstacles preventing an agreement was described by participants as being full of bickering. "At times it has been like watching children in a kindergarten," said Wendell Tio from Greenpeace International.
Although the talks are scheduled to move to Cancun, Mexico, next month not many are hopeful that the level of disagreement between the US and China will diminish. Kyoto divided the world into two groups, the developed and the developing, with the former subject to strict legal limits on its emissions of carbon dioxide while the latter is subject only to voluntary restraints. And that is the rub.
Officially China has become the largest emitter of carbon in the world, replacing the US but by all conventional metrics China is a developing country and so is refusing to abide by the US demands that China and other large developing countries should be subject to strict emissions quotas also. Obviously the Mr. Su, the Chinese representative at the talks, would have nothing of these demands. Mr. Su likened the U.S. criticism to Zhubajie, a pig in a classic Chinese novel, by saying "It has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions."
It is this inability to view climate change as a global problem that demands a global solution that has wrecked Copenhagen, is threatening Cancun and will probably doom the final resolution to a meaningless gesture that will do nothing to control climate change. As long as various players are attempting to guard their own selfish interest then no meaningful solution is to be expected. This is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons whereby individual actors believe that they are doing what is good for themselves but wind up in hurting themselves and all other players as well.
What do you think: Should the less developed be exempted from strict limits on emissions so that the developed will shoulder the greater part of the burden of emission reductions? Does nature discriminate on the basis of the national origin of carbon emissions? What would be a fair allocation of the burden and how heavy shed it be?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Frankestein Salmon?

Many will argue that a genetically engineered Salmon is safe to eat. That might be the case in the short run but we cannot be sure that such genetically modified species is totally safe especially if it is allowed to cross breed with other established specie. This case of approving a genetically modified Salmon is a clear violation of the Precautionary principle. The following article appeared in the NYT. Thanks Syed.

Members of a federal advisory committee seemed to conclude that genetically engineered super-salmon would be safe to eat and for the environment, but they also found gaps in the studies used to support that conclusion.The committee met to advise the Food and Drug Administration on whether to approve what would be the first genetically engineered animal to enter the American food supply.

The Atlantic salmon, which would be raised on farms, contain an extra growth hormone gene that allows them to grow to marketable size about twice as fast as conventional fish.

Committee members, who were not asked to vote on whether the fish should be approved, did not point out anything about the fish that would seem dangerous, despite one study suggesting a possible increase in the potential to cause allergic reactions. They said the chance the fish would escape into the wild was low.

“They didn’t see any glaring holes” in the data, Gregory A. Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who was the consumer representative on the committee, said after the meeting ended.

Still some panel members did say the studies the F.D.A. relied on to reach its own conclusion that the salmon would be safe were flawed, often using only a few dozen fish or even fewer.

“I do get heartburn when we’re going to allow post-market surveillance to finalize our safety evaluation,” said one committee member, Michael D. Apley, a pharmacology expert at Kansas State University.

The criticisms could add to the time needed to approve the salmon. It could also provide grist for consumer and environmental groups, many of which testified on Monday that the salmon should not be approved.

Approval of the salmon could pave the way for other such biotech animals to enter the food supply, like a pig developed in Canada that has more environmentally friendly manure.

The results could also influence other countries. Eric Hallerman, a fisheries expert at Virginia Tech, told the committee that fast-growing versions had already been developed for 18 different types of fish in various countries.

The salmon contain a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout that turns on an antifreeze gene. That allows the salmon to make growth hormone in cold weather, whereas salmon usually produce it only in warm weather.

Ronald L. Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty Technologies, the company that developed the salmon, told the committee that its AquAdvantage salmon would help the world meet rising demand for seafood without further devastating natural fisheries. He said it would be economical to grow the fish in inland tanks in the United States, saving the cost of flying in the fish from Chile or Norway, from which the United States now gets most of its Atlantic salmon, he said.

For now, though, the company’s eggs are being hatched at a company facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada. And the fish would be grown to size in only limited quantities at a company facility in Panama.

The company said that fish would not escape because they are grown inland in facilities with containment mechanisms. If any did escape, it said, the rivers outside the Canadian and Panama facilities would be too salty or warm for the fish to survive. And the fish would all be female and almost all would be sterile, so they would not interbreed with wild salmon.

But some committee members, as well as some environmental groups, said the government’s environmental assessment should evaluate what would happen if the salmon were grown widely in many facilities.

“The F.D.A. must consider issues related to realistic production scenarios,” said Anna Zivian, a senior manager at the group Ocean Conservancy.

One test showed a possible increase in the potential to cause allergic reactions that was almost statistically significant even though only six fish were used in each group in the study.

But several committee members said the meaning of that test’s results were open to question since it was not clear what amount of increase was meaningful.

Kevin Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri and a committee member, said he doubted the fish would cause extra allergies.

“The salmon contains nothing that isn’t in the human diet,” he said.

The fish are being regulated under the process used to approve veterinary drugs. The F.D.A. held a half-day session on Sunday to give the committee, made up mostly of veterinarians, a primer on genetic engineering.

Approval, if it comes, is likely to take at least several months. The F.D.A. said it would prepare an environmental assessment that would be open to comment for 30 days. If the agency decides that there could be a significant environmental impact — something that does not appear likely — it will have to do a full environmental impact statement, which could take months or years.

The F.D.A. will have a public hearing on whether the salmon, if approved, should be labeled.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Family Planning: The Cheapest Way To Prevent Climate Disaster?

(This post appeared in National Geographic News and it does touch on an issue that we discussed in class today. Hat tip to Sayed)

A sturdy condom could be humankind's best weapon to prevent a climate calamity, according to a cost-benefit analysis by British economists.

Contraception is almost five times cheaper than conventional green technologies as a means of combating climate change, the London School of Economics concluded after comparing all the alternatives to reducing future emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The simplest solution, in other words, is to cap human population growth.

The study looks only at the economic alternatives. The organizers of the research are fully aware of the controversial nature of the suggestion that the human population growth rate needs to be slowed, which is perhaps why they point out that that every additional person, "especially each rich person" in developed countries, reduces everyone's share of the planet's dwindling resources even further.

Distribution of resource-rich populations, as suggested by electricity consumption at night.

Image courtesy NASA

Each U.S. $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a tonne (2,200 pounds), said the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a British think tank concerned with the impact of population growth on the environment. OPT commissioned the research from the London School of Economics.

"To achieve the same result with low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32," OPT said in a statement."The UN estimates that 40 per cent of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended."

Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost

The report, "Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost," concludes that "considered purely as a method of reducing future CO2 emissions," family planning is more cost-effective than leading low-carbon technologies. It says family planning should be seen as one of the primary methods of emissions reduction.

Meeting basic family planning needs along the lines suggested would save more than billion tons of CO2 between now and 2050--equivalent to nearly six times the annual emissions of the U.S. and almost 60 times the UK's annual total, OPT said.

"It's always been obvious that total emissions depend on the number of emitters as well as their individual emissions--the carbon tonnage can't shoot down, as we want, while the population keeps shooting up."

Roger Martin, chair of OPT, said the findings vindicated OPT's stance that population growth must be included in the climate change debate. "It's always been obvious that total emissions depend on the number of emitters as well as their individual emissions--the carbon tonnage can't shoot down, as we want, while the population keeps shooting up," Martin said.

"The taboo on mentioning this fact has made the whole climate change debate so far somewhat unreal. Stabilizing population levels has always been essential ecologically, and this study shows it's economically sensible too.

"The population issue must now be added into the negotiations for the Copenhagen climate change summit in December.

"This part of the solution is so easy, and so cheap, and would bring so many other social and economic benefits, from health and education to the empowerment of women. It would also ease all the other environmental problems we face--the rapid shrinkage of soil, fresh water, forests, fisheries, wildlife and oil reserves and the looming food crisis."

All of these problems would be easier to solve with fewer people, and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more, Martin added.

"Meanwhile each additional person, especially each rich person in the OECD countries, reduces everyone's share of the planet's dwindling resources even faster.

"Non-coercive population policies are urgently needed in all countries. The taboo on discussing this is no longer defensible."

In this UN map of world contraceptive use in 2007, the scale ranges from pale yellow (less than 20 percent) to dark blue (75 percent or more).

The London School of Economics study, based on the principle that "fewer people will emit fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide," models the consequences of meeting all "unmet need" for family planning, defined as the number of women who wish to delay or terminate childbearing but who are not using contraception, OPT said.

"One recent estimate put this figure at 200 million. UN data suggest that meeting unmet need for family planning would reduce unintended births by 72 per cent, reducing projected world population in 2050 by half a billion to 8.64 billion. Between 2010 and 2050 12 billion fewer "people-years" would be lived - 326 billion against 338 billion under current projections."

The 34 gigatonnes of CO2 saved in this way would cost $220 billion--roughly $7 a tonne. However, the same CO2 saving would cost over $1 trillion if low-carbon technologies were used, OPT said. "The $7 cost of abating a tonne of CO2 using family planning compares with $24 for wind power, $51 for solar, $57-83 for coal plants with carbon capture and storage, $92 for plug-in hybrid vehicles and $131 for electric vehicles."

The study may understate the CO2 savings available because the estimates of unmet need are based on married women alone, yet some studies suggest up to 40 per cent of young unmarried women have had unwanted pregnancies, OPT added.

Said Martin, "The potential for tackling climate change by addressing population growth through better family planning, alongside the conventional approach, is clearly enormous and we shall be urging all those involved in the Copenhagen process to take it fully on board."

What do you think about this? Should the leaders meeting in Copenhagen have a serious discussion about addressing population growth through better family planning?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Which is worse BP oil or BP dispersants?

The chemicals BP has relied on to break up the steady flow of leaking oil from deep below the Gulf of Mexico could create a new set of environmental problems.

Even if the materials, called dispersants, are effective, BP has already bought up more than a third of the world’s supply. Dispersing the oil is considered one of the best ways to protect birds and keep the slick from making landfall. But the dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own and can concentrate leftover oil toxins in the water, where they can kill fish and migrate great distances.

The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret under competitive trade laws, but a worker safety sheet for one product, called Corexit, says it includes 2-butoxyethanol, a compound associated with headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses.

“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” said Richard Charter, a foremost expert on marine biology and oil spills who is a senior policy advisor for Marine Programs for Defenders of Wildlife and is chairman of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. “It’s a trade-off – you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t -- of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore, but in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”

BP did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Dispersants are mixtures of solvents, surfactants and other additives that break up the surface tension of an oil slick and make oil more soluble in water, according to a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences. They are spread over or in the water in very low concentration – a single gallon may cover several acres.

Once they are dispersed, the tiny droplets of oil are more likely to sink or remain suspended in deep water rather than floating to the surface and collecting in a continuous slick. Dispersed oil can spread quickly in three directions instead of two and is more easily dissipated by waves and turbulence that break it up further and help many of its most toxic hydrocarbons evaporate.

But the dispersed oil can also collect on the seabed, where it becomes food for microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain and eventually winds up in shellfish and other organisms. The evaporation process can also concentrate the toxic compounds left behind, particularly oil-derived compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

Studies if oil dispersal have found that the chemicals used can accumulate in shellfish and other organisms.According to a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report, the dispersants and the oil they leave behind can kill fish eggs. A study of oil dispersal in Coos Bay, Ore. found that PAH accumulated in mussels, the Academy’s paper noted. Another study examining fish health after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 found that PAHs affected the developing hearts of Pacific herring and pink salmon embryos. The research suggests the dispersal of the oil that’s leaking in the Gulf could affect the seafood industry there.

“One of the most difficult decisions that oil spill responders and natural resource managers face during a spill is evaluating the trade-offs associated with dispersant use,” said the Academy report, titled Oil Spill Dispersants, Efficacy and Effects. “There is insufficient understanding of the fate of dispersed oil in aquatic ecosystems.”

A version of Corexit was widely used after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and, according to a literature review performed by the group the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, was later linked with health impacts in people including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders. But the Academy report makes clear that the dispersants used today are less toxic than those used a decade ago.

“There is a certain amount of toxicity,” said Robin Rorick, director of marine and security operations at the American Petroleum Institute. “We view dispersant use as a tool in a toolbox. It’s a function of conducting a net environmental benefit analysis and determining the best bang for your buck.”

Charter, the marine expert, cautioned the dispersants should be carefully considered for the right reasons.

“Right now there is a headlong rush to get this oil out of sight out of mind,” Charter said. “You can throw every resource we have at this spill. You can call out the Marine Corps and the National Guard. This is so big that it is unlikely that any amount of response is going to make much of a dent in the impacts. It’s going to be mostly watching it happen.”

Ryan Knutson contributed to this report. The above was published originally by ProPublica. (Hat tip to Jennifer).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Water Insecurity In MENA

“Water water everywhere ,Nor a drop to drink” from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an adequate description to the water insecurity that is threatening the world as a whole but that is a practical certainty for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. It is true that many an Arab country is blessed with an excess of Black Gold but the serious scarcity of fresh water availability could make Blue Gold much more important in determining the future of these lands.

Fresh water scarcity is a global problem but in some regions it is much more severe than others. The Middle East and North Africa are classified by the United Nations as the ones with the most water insecurity in the world. Although 75 % of the surface of the planet is water only 2.5% of that is fresh water and ¾ of that is not available since it is frozen icebergs. What is left is less than 1 % of the volume of water and even that 1% is not totally available since some of it is hard to get to and others are just soil dampness. What is important is to note that the amount of fresh water availability is fixed but it is, like most other resources, not evenly distributed. Many regions in the world have access to over 12000 cubic meters per capita per year while others have only a few hundred. Actually, the United Nations considers countries with 500 cubic meters of water per capita per year to be suffering of absolute water insecurity.

Unfortunately, many Arab states are already there, such as Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Gaza. Furthermore it is estimated that the first world capital to run out of water will be Sana’a by 2020. Water availability is so scarce in MENA that the FAO projects that by 2025 17 Arab states will have to be classified under “scarce water supplies”. In order to put this in perspective the average water availability/consumption the typical Arab will be just 700 cubic meters per year when the global average is ten times as high in availability and 3-4 times in consumption. The situation for the most essential resource for life is so critical in MENA that less than 0.5% of the renewable water resources are in this region of the world. The stability of the water resources is even more acute if one is to remember that 75% of the water in this region originates from outside its political boundaries.

Given the expected increase in population in the region in addition to climate change and its attendant increased demand for water for irrigation the availability of water will be halved by 2050 which will imply severe water insecurity for the whole region. Whether these expected shortages translate into political instability and water wars is a potential outcome that needs to be taken seriously. That is at least one reason that calls for a major highly coordinated effort by all the countries to invest heavily in water infrastructure including modern irrigation techniques.

Lebanon is in a slightly better position than the average Arab country but definitely not in an enviable position of any water excesses. The best that can be said about the Lebanese situation is that it is less severe than Jordan, and the GCC to name a few. Estimates of water availability in Lebanon are rough and they vary between a conservative estimate of 2200 million cubic meters per year and almost 4000 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. As it is clear even the upper estimate provides each of the 4.5 million Lebanese only about 900 cubic meters per year. Lebanon is expected to be consuming just about 3000 million cubic meters of water by 2015. As the above figure makes it clear that would then imply that Lebanon needs huge investments in the next few years in order to gather a lot of this water that is wasted every year by flowing into the sea.
More than half of the water usage in Lebanon is needed for irrigation while about 30% goes for domestic uses. The remainder is used by industry.

The warning by Minister Gibran Basil about the impending water crisis in Lebanon must be taken very seriously. Arguably the crisis has already begun and is visible from the constant failure of the water authorities to deliver adequate amounts of water to its clients. One reason is the antiquated infrastructure and another is the lack of awareness to conserve this most precious of resources. Lebanon cannot afford not to construct a series of dams and to build a modern facility to supply Beirut, where half of the Lebanese reside, with the estimated 250 million cubic meters of water that it needs while it is currently getting less than half of that amount. It is also hoped that the impending water shortages will impel the Lebanese government to adopt a meaningful population policy. Lebanon is simply beyond its physical carrying capacity.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hybrid cars will not save us, less population will.

We are often told that one major consequence of industrialization and modernity is the resulting climate change and its deleterious effects. We are further told that if we value planet earth then we should avoid all the activities that result in a major reallocation of carbon in the world. Note that based on the first law of thermodynamics no element is ever destroyed, all what we can do is to release carbon from being locked in fossil fuels to be released as a gaseous compound in the atmosphere. Is such a minute reallocation important for the planet? If we are to recall that this planet has been hit by a meteorite travelling at a tremendous speed, has experienced a cooling process and has a tremendous capacity to adapt and heal itself. In the words of James Lovelock the earth is a “homeostatic super organism” that will constantly change and adapt as to ensure its survival. So does the planet care about our reallocating carbon or any other element for that matter? Physics and common sense tells us that the answer is an unequivocal no. But that does not mean that climate change is not the biggest challenge that humans have ever been faced with. The operative word in the previous sentence is human.

In order to fashion a real and meaningful solution to any problem requires a clear understanding of what is the problem all about. Climate change is not about maintaining a carbon balance for the sake of the earth but it is a purely anthropocentric concern about life for the human species. No one can deny that human civilization has evolved to become an evolutionary factor. A major by product of human activity is climate change which will result in putting into motion a process that many ecologists are calling the sixth extinction. Climate change combined with the growing needs for more roads, buildings, deforestation have radically changed the nature and characteristics of the habitat and thus is leading to more and more extinction.

If we do value these changes, and we should value them, then the solution is not to develop an alternative to the internal combustion engine, although that is desirable, but what is required is a recognition that the biggest threat to human civilization and biodiversity as we know it is the human species itself. The threat is not purely that of numbers, although numbers do count but it is a combination of numbers and levels of affluence. The expression I= PAT as developed by Paul Ehrlich emphasizes clearly the relationship between environmental degradation (I), pure number of humans (P), lifestyles (A) and the level of technology (T). Note that if we are to constantly seek a higher level of affluence, for a larger and larger population then the inevitable outcome is greater and greater ecological degradation.

There are a number of studies that show conclusively that the planet is already beyond its carrying capacity. A popular and easy to understand measure is the estimate of how many global acres are required to provide a particular life style. Such estimates vary from one country to the other and from one household to the other. A simple back of the envelope application of the above shows that if a Western life style is to be adopted by the 7 billion inhabitants then the resources of six planets will be required.

Sustainability is everyone’s concern, large countries, small countries, poor countries and rich countries. Since sustainability does not recognize artificial political boundaries then it must be dealt with on a global level and coordinated policies. Yale University in cooperation with Columbia University have developed a rather sophisticated Sustainability Index based on 76 variables and 21 indicators that shows a weak relationship between GDP and Sustainability Index of each of the 146 countries sin the study. For example, three of the top ten most sustainable countries are not OECD member (Uruguay, Guyana and Argentina). Other rankings that are of interest: Japan is the 30th while the US is the 45th and the UK is the 65th.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Peak Oil

Energy is best defined as the “capacity to do work”; there cannot be life without it. That is simply what is meant by saying that life on planet earth will come to an end when the sun becomes so hot in a billion years or so that water on earth would evaporate and life on its surface will become impossible. Meanwhile the energy flows from the sun to the plants that sustain herbivores that in turn are eaten by carnivores and then at the top of this food pyramid the omnivores. This was the case for 100’s of millions of years. A most significant change started with the industrial revolution and it is still going on unabated, the use of machines powered by various forms of terrestrial energy. All machines are in essence dependent on coal, oil or electricity which is produced in most cases from fossil fuels.

The global economy consumes about 500 Quadrillion BTU’s each year and this level of consumption is projected to rise at about 1.4% every year for the next 20 years. Over 86% of all this energy comes from the three major fossil fuels of oil, coal and natural gas. All other forms combined (nuclear, hydro, biomass and all other renewable) account for less than 14% of energy consumption.

Oil supplies the largest proportion of energy in our industrial society and its role is looked upon as being the most crucial for civilization, so much so that a few are already predicting collapse of society as we know it when oil becomes scarce. Peak oil is the term used to describe what some of the best known geologists argue is inevitable. Peak is the point in time when the world would have used half of all the available oil reserves in the world. Whether we have passed the peak as of 2008 or whether we are to pass it in the next couple of years or even decade is not materially important. What is significant is that many, but not all, geologists, energy traders, oil company executives, academicians, environmentalists and common citizens have adopted the new paradigm of peak oil.

Even if we are to leave the issue of climate change aside for the purposes of this post yet it is clear that peak oil is a game changer. The world oil production is about 86-87 million barrels a day and the prestigious and mainstream IEA, International Energy Agency, projects the need for over 110 million barrels each day by 2030. If the world is already at peak then where is the additional oil going to come from? A quick survey of plans by the major oil companies of the world shows clearly that we are digging deeper and in more difficult terrain than we ever did simply because the low hanging fruits have already been picked, so to speak.

There are at least two important implications associated with peak oil. (1) The less the availability of conventional oil then the greater is the incentive to exploit the non conventional oil reserves like Venezuela’s heavy oil, Canada’s tar sands and eventually Colorado’s shale. Each of the above produces oil but at a much greater cost. (2) As conventional oil becomes less abundant; we have already lifted half of all the oil reserves; then again the energy return on investment ; EROI; will decrease and continue decreasing to the point whereby it would require more energy to lift a barrel than the energy embodied in that barrel.

The implications of the above two facts that result from peak oil are very clear. As the world demand for energy increases and the supplies cannot keep pace the resulting imbalances will play havoc with the price of oil. We have already witnessed what a slight shortage could do in 2008 when the price per barrel rose parabolic ally to over $140. Under the scenario of peak oil towards the end of this decade that previous price will be appreciably overshot. There are some who project a price of over $300 per barrel given the tight market conditions predicted by peak oilers.

Arab countries can very easily be producing about 30 million barrels of oil each day by 2020 if Iraq is to achieve its planned goal of 8 million barrels per day. Furthermore it would be easy to project exports of about 22 million barrels each day. If the above scenario is to play out and if the resulting economic crisis does not lead to the use of military force then the Arab oil exporters can expect an annual cash flow of over $1 Trillion. Could peak oil, a major challenge for most of the world be exceptionally beneficial to the Arab countries? And if so are they ready to absorb such flows of funds in order not to clog the international flow of funds.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Earth Day 2010

Forty years ago Earth Day was born and it validated what is perhaps the most promising social movement of the last century and arguably at least the last two centuries. Earth Day did not give rise to environmentalism as an idea but it sure helped spread the awareness and the concern that the nascent field of ecologism had fostered.

A popular movement, especially one whose concern is not limited by geography, ethnicity or religious belief does not just happen. It evolves as a result of deteriorating conditions in the status quo and it attempts to deliver a synthesis, if you will, of the conflicts that had arisen. In this case humans had been exploiting nature, abusing the natural endowment that is so critical for their survival as well as the survival of other species both in the plant and animal kingdoms. Human hubris had dictated to us, at least in the West, that we were created in the image of God, who gave us dominion over all other things on earth. These religious beliefs had become so well established that they contributed towards the creation of science, capitalism, colonialism and ecological degradation on a massive scale. Senator Nelson, the main organizer behind the first Earth Day celebration was merely attempting to provide a forum for individuals to express their concern about the direction in which the world was evolving and thus to empower people to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that has already been challenged by Rachel Carson, Murray Bookchin, Arne Naess and others.

The world was very receptive to the idea that something radical needs to be adopted in order to meet the existential challenge that was facing all of us. Major environmental thinkers, like the ones already mentioned, to their credit saw the challenge not only in terms of open spaces, green grass, fresh water and clean air. They spoke of the need to create a just social order, a society that respects the individual rights but that is guided by the common good as well as global justice. They aimed for a world that is free of gender, religious, racial, ethnic or sexual exploitation; a non hierarchical structure. They argued and rather convincingly that we can never free nature unless we free ourselves of all the prejudices that dominate our relationships with each other.

Forty years ago a serious social movement became well established and even entrenched to save the world, to save us from ourselves and many of us responded with enthusiasm and energy. But only to be disappointed. The vision has been shattered and the accomplishments have been few.

What happened? What went wrong? The simple answer is that we have allowed the establishment, the one we were determined to fight, the order that we were supposed to challenge to co-opt us. Capitalism which was the nemesis of a healthy environment metamorphed into “green capitalism” the saviour , Incentive Based policies were adopted to restore health to an eco system devastated by the markets very own failures, affluence and affluenza are being promoted as a silver bullet for all what ails us despite the fact that over consumption is one of our seminal afflictions, complexity is still being promoted as a tool to become sustainable when the evidence is exactly the opposite and we persist in our belief that all of this was created for us, for the pleasure of the human species.

So far we have failed to address the issue of human population growth, we have made no progress in cleaning the polluted water that we have, climate change has reached a tipping point , grain stocks are the lowest they have been, conventional and non conventional energy are rapidly facing lower EROI; energy return on investment, the world is full and we are way above carrying capacity but what is most painful is that we have thus far allowed a revolution, a paradigm shift, to slip away from us for the simple fact that our concern is not genuine enough otherwise why would we have agreed to be sold for thirty of silver?

Earth Day

Monday, March 22, 2010

A potentially Catastrophic Methane Leak

In a recent study published by Science magazine in the March 5 2010 issue it was announced that a group of scientists from over 12 different institutions has found a leak in the Siberian permafrost.

The methane , an estimated 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, was thought to be sheltered by an impermeable barrier is being emitted through perforations . Natalia Shakova, the lead scientist of the research team went on to warn that "Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of destabilization already," she said. "If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger."

It is important to note that methane is a GHG that is 30 times deadlier than carbon dioxide and that each teragram is equivalent to 1.1 million metric tons. If this leak is to proceed and if only 1 % of the methane is released then the research scientist predict that the effect on climate change could be catastrophic. This leak might be the event to confirm that the world has already passed the tipping point since such a release would be expected to accelerate substantially the rate at which global temperature would rise.

Are there still any skeptics out there? Will we ever act , not to save the ecosystem but to save ourselves? Don't bet on i

Monday, March 01, 2010

Summer Internship

United States Environmental Protection Agency
Region 2 - New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

MARCH 1- MARCH 15, 2010

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2 is looking for
energetic and highly motivated summer interns to work directly with
professionals and gain valuable “real-world” experience. There will be
approximately 12 positions available in the following series/grades and

One or more positions in each of the following 4 categories will be located in New York, NY:
Category #1: Environmental Engineer/Physical Scientist/Life Scientist, GS-819/1301/0401-5/7
Category #2: Environmental Protection Specialist, GS-0028-5/7
Category #3: Management Analyst, GS-0343-5/7
Category #4: Environmental Protection Assistant, GS-0029-3/4

One or more positions in each of the following 2 categories will be located in Edison, NJ:
Category #5: Environmental Engineer/Physical Scientist/Life Scientist, GS-0819/1301/0401-5/7.
Category #6: Environmental Protection Assistant, GS-0029-3/4

One position in the following category will be located in San Juan, PR:
Category #7: Environmental Engineer/Physical Scientist/Life Scientist,GS-0819/1301/0401-5/7.


You must be a student to apply for these positions. A student is an
individual who is enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a degree
seeking student and is taking at least a half-time academic course load
in an accredited 2 year or 4 year college or university or graduate
school. If you are graduating in May 2010, you must indicate that you
are enrolled or plan to enroll in a degree seeking program in the fall
of 2010. Those being considered for employment will be asked to show
proof of fall enrollment/acceptance.

To apply, submit a resume and transcript of your college courses (an
unofficial transcript is acceptable; ensure your current courses are
reflected. You must indicate your interest in one or more of the 7
categories of positions listed above. Please clearly indicate the
category/ies for which you are applying. If you apply for more than one
category of positions, you are responsible for submitting a separate
complete application (resume, cover letter and transcript) for each
category of interest. Applications should be sent via email to or fax to 919-541-2186, or mail to USEPA, HRMD,
Attention Pam McClure – Region 2 Summer Employment, MD-C639-02, RTP, NC

If you cannot obtain a transcript, provide a listing of all college
course work, including course titles, grades, and credits earned, that
you will have completed by the end of the current school year.
Regardless of the format you choose, you must include all of the credits
you expect to earn by the end of the spring 2010 semester.

Contact Pam McClure, RTP, at if you have questions
about the application process.

Applicants must be U.S. citizens.
Positions are located at 290 Broadway, New York, NY 10007; 2890
Woodbridge Ave., Edison, NJ 08837; or 1492
Ponce De Leon Avenue, San Juan, PR 00907.

Internships will tentatively begin on 5/24/2010 and run no later than

All positions are full-time, 40 hours per week.
Candidate selected must be age 16 by the date they begin work.

2010 General Schedule Salary Rates (Per Hour)
Environmental Engineer Salary Rates

GS-03 $ 13.47
GS-5 $17.09 GS-5 $17.71
GS-04 $ 15.12
GS-7 $21.17 GS-7 $21.94
GS-05 $ 16.92
GS-07 $ 20.96

As a minimum, applicants must have education in the following amounts:

GS-3 1 academic year above high school (30 semester hours)
GS-4 2 academic years above high school (60 semester hours)
GS-5 4 academic years above high school leading to a bachelor’s
degree (120 semester hours
GS-7 Bachelor's degree with superior academic achievement, OR 1 year
academic year of graduate education (generally 18 semester
hours) OR 1 year experience related to the job

EPA participates in e-Verify. E-Verify is an Internet based system
operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership
with the Social Security Administration (SSA) that enables participating
employers to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their
newly hired employees. We have additional information on our web site:

US EPA is an equal opportunity employer.

------ End of Forwarded Message

Monday, February 22, 2010

It Is Not Too Late If We Act Now

It is not very often that we get credible ecological news that is not full of bad news and projections. Well, I am glad to say that the following is a recent study that actually suggests that humans have not lost the race yet. Yes we are on our way towards catastrophic outcomes but we are not there yet and interestingly enough we can avoid the worst outcome if we are smart enough to change our ways and work meaningfully towards redemption.
The Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University is self described as a center of Research for Governance of Social-Ecological Systems. The Centre released a few months ago a major study undertaken by 28 world renown scientists in which they have established a new area in planetary management. Their first study describes nine planetary boundaries (listed at the bottom of this entry) that they believe humanity must not cross . The study goes on to say that human activity has thus far resulted in breaching three of these boundaries (the stared ones)but not the other six.
We are currently living in the geologic era known as the Holocene which started around 10,000 years ago. As we all know, it was during the Holocene that agriculture was developed, civilization prospered and industrialization became the norm. But unfortunately we are entering the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activities have grown as to form a major threat to the health of the earth.
Will we have the wisdom to adopt the right policies and change our behavior so as to avoid catastrophy? Yes we still can do that but time is quickly running out.
The nine Planetary Boundaries:
1 Strategic ozone layer
2 Biodiversity
3 Chemical Dispersion
4 Climate Change ***
5 Ocean Acidification ***
6 Freshwater consumption & the global hydrological cycle
7 Land System Change
8 Nitrogen & Phosphorus inputs to the biosphere & ocean ***
9 Atmospheric aerosol loading
*** Transgressed boundary.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Carbon Tax

Sovereign debt , as a potentially crippling fiscal problem world wide, has risen to the forefront over the past few months. Whether it is the US, Europe, Japan or many other developed and developing countries the sovereign debt watch is on.

The major metrics of a pending sovereign debt crisis that have been in vogue for decades used to be applied only to developing countries. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. The Herculian efforts by governments all over the world; the developed in particular; to avoid a repeat of the debilitating depression of the 1930's has forced these countries to increase substantially their fiscal stimulus programs. In a sense the monetary and fiscal policies adopted by the officials of all of these countries have been very successful. A worst case scenario has been avoided.

But as economics has always taught us, There Ain't No Such Thing AS A Free Lunch; TANSTAAFL. Yes we avoided a deep recession and the top officials can pat themselves on the back for this. But maybe not. Is the cure at least as expensive or maybe even more so than the ailment that it saved us from? That is , currently, the $64,000 question or maybe I should say the $64 billion question?:-)

Often, our efforts at prescribing remedies are counter productive because of what is inherent in problem solving. We always seem to target the symptom rather than the disease. As a result we inevitably move from one crisis to the next as a result of the law of unintended consequences.

In our efforts to save the system and to prevent a major economic depression we proceeded to throw money at the problem in order to generate more final demand and thus put more people to work. What we did not stop to consider is the major question of how are we going to pay back all of these funds that we have borrowed? It seems that we did what we always do, shift the burden onto the future generations. The debt will not come due for some decades ,right? Wrong.Well informed individuals know that more debt implies more taxes in the future and so they take corrective by refusing to own the highly risky debt. Once we find out that the debt service is too large and that we cannot keep on rolling the debt unto the future then we will have no choice but to become deadbeats. That is where we are at the moment. The question is which country is going to go under first? Would it be Greece or would it be one of the other PIIGS? How about the UK, or evn Japan or the US? If any of these countries default would they set up a contagion that will devastate all the current international financial sytem as we know it?

Believe it or not there is a potential mechanism that if adopted could go a long way towards addressing the real cause of this issue and not only the surface phenomenon. The solution that I am about to propose is not new, actually,N.G Mankiw wrote about it in 2007.

"The scientists tell us that world temperatures are rising because humans are emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Basic economics tells us that when you tax something, you normally get less of it. So if we want to reduce global emissions of carbon, we need a global carbon tax. ...

The idea of using taxes to fix problems, rather than merely raise government revenue, has a long history. The British economist Arthur Pigou advocated such corrective taxes to deal with pollution in the early 20th century. In his honor, economics textbooks now call them “Pigovian taxes.”...some taxes align private incentives with social costs and move us toward better outcomes."

I would love to see a carbon tax levied not only in the major industrial countries but all over the globe with all the proceeds dedicated to lowering the sovereign debt. Such a tax could be a first step towards internalizing the negative externalities of all the production inthe world economy. If that leads to less and more efficient production then all of us will be winners.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Is Population Growth problematic?

The following pie charts show the results of a recent public survey conducted in the US. As you can see a large proportion thought that Population Growth is a serious problem currently but that proportion grew substantially when people were asked about their view of the future.
What do you think?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Government and Fertility.

One does not need to be a Neo Malthusian to recognize that there comes a point when human population growth becomes highly undesirable to say the lease. If the projected 10 billion humans by 2050 are not enough then what is? Is it another doubling to 20 billion or maybe a further doubling still to 40 billion?

Most, and possibly all, of those that have looked into this issue and investigated the potential limits seriously have concluded that we are already beyond any metric of sustainability. This only means that we have overshoot the carrying capacity of the ecosystem and as a result we have to take measures that will reverse our current course.

But what is it that needs to be done if we are to reduce fertility substantially? Surely we cannot stand by as idle spectators and hope that the humans will decide to change their behaviour drastically just because that is good for the ecosystem? Had this been the case then they would have done so a long time ago. So what we are left with is the absolute certainty that human population must stop growing and preferably even start to decline.

If it is deemed to be too risky to count on a voluntary change in behaviour then the only other alternative to reduce the rate of fertility would be a direct and sustained government policy aimed at achieving lower fertility rates. There are a number of actions that the government can adopt that will act to internalize the negative externality of high fertility such as taxes, social expenditures and even outright strict limits on the number of successful pregnancies per female.

What do you think does the government have the right to interfere or should it just stand by and watch?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Hamster That Ate The World lol

A must see British video clip that illustrates the seminal idea upon which Herman Daly built his model of Steady State Economics (SSE). It is also important to remember that Mr. Daly never gave himself the credit for the idea, he always stressed that he borrowed the concept; or rediscovered it if you will; from the work of JS Mill.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Flat Earth Society Is Alive And Doing Well In Saudi Arabia

As the world, at least most of the countries in the world, express concern and even regret over the failure of the Conference at Copenhagen to come to a meaningful conclusion the Saudi Arabian chief negotiator at the talks expressed Saudi Arabia’s glee and satisfaction that the Copenhagen Conference failed to take any positive steps towards meeting the most important challenge that civilization has ever met. Mr. Mohammad Al-Sabban went further as to predict that the world seems to be heading towards a stalemate on the question of anthropomorphic global warming, AGW. Mr. Al-Sabban proceeded on an interview on the BBC to predict that the action on climate change will become similar to that on the Doha round of the WTO. The WTO members have been engaged in negotiations for the past ten years with no resolution in sight.

It is shameful that a country takes pride in the fact that it is not likely for the world community to make any progress on the climate change issue for at least the next ten years and furthermore Saudi Arabia is proud of its record on AGW because it was essentially the work of a China-Sudan-Saudi Arabia cabal that sank the Copenhagen Conference. Saudi Arabia’s obstructionist role in Copenhagen earned it the moniker the” most likely villain in the awkward squad”.

When the world was initially presented with the problem of AGW, many countries, institutions , scientists and individuals were skeptical until the world scientific community has practically united in adopting the view that human activities are the culprit behind climate change. It has been estimated by the scientific community that any change greater than 2 degrees Celsius will have profound global catastrophic implications that range from disease , to storms, higher ocean levels, food shortages and extinction of specie. The fact that human civilization has become a major evolutionary force can be seen in numerous scientific studies.

The Proceeding of the National Academy of Science concluded that “ Since 2000, a growing global economy, an increase in the carbon emissions required to produce each unit of economic activity, and a decreasing efficiency of carbon sinks on land and in oceans have combined to produce the most rapid 7-year increase in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of continuous atmospheric monitoring in 1959. This is also the most rapid increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution.”

And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, has also said that :” Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observation of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level. Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that major natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.”

In light of all the scientific evidence from all over the world that climate change is a fact , that its effects will be dramatic, that it is our duty and obligation to try to mitigate it Saudi Arabia is glad that we are not planning any action. But that position is to be expected. Would we expect the drug pusher to support measures designed to decrease drug usage? Of course not. To allow Saudi Arabia and China to have a major say in how to deal with global warming is similar to the proverbial image of putting the fox in charge of the hen house. I am not sure that Saudi Arabia and possibly all other major exporters of fossil fuels should have a say in what is to be done in order to implement strong steps that are bound to create major withdrawal symptoms but that are necessary if the addict is to be given a chance to overcome the addiction. Saudi Arabia and all the other 25 countries in its camp have prevented the global community from making any progress towards rehabilitation and sustainability by insisting that the world is flat. Such a position is demonstrably evil and unethical. But that fact that the global community allowed the "Awkward squad" to carry the day is a powerful statement about our lack of resolve. Shame on all of us.