Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The plan to protect New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

Back to the Gulf Coast... The NY Times earlier this week that US Army Corps of Engineer Plans to build a costly and complicated systems of levees and mechanical barriers, and to replenish offshore barrier islands in an effort to protect the Gulf Coast has come under fire from scientitst.

How's this for a quote:

“The most shocking thing to me is that they would even consider some of the things that they are considering,” said Robert J. Young, new director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, a project of Duke and Western Carolina universities.

At a special session about the corps’s proposals at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in October, Dr. Young said his fellow scientists “were just stunned.” Dr. Young, who helped organize the session, added, “I saw mouths dropping open at the scale of proposed coastal engineering.”


Reducing emissions at an airport near you

There was a full page ad in Monday's NY Times for the new Boeing 747-8 praising the aircraft's fuel efficient engines, and Lufthansa for buying a few.

The ad, if not the plane, seemed to represent a major shift. Not long ago, airlines and aircraft builders would highlight the only the comfort, the leg room, of new planes. Now it is all about marketing energy efficiency and re-branding (oh, I loathe that term, why not just call the public cattle?) your company as clean and green.

For the airlines, though, it will need to be about more than marketing. The Associated Press reports that airlines flying in Europe will be specifically included in a greenhouse gas emissions trading program. The European airlines have come out in favour of the decision, because it easier on them than the alternative, higher airline taxes. The program will apply to all internal flights beginning in 2011, and all flights in and out of Europe by 2012, thus influencing U.S. and other foreign carriers as well.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Supporting renewable energy in Mexico

A guest post from my colleague Jason West about his work in Mexico:

While living in Mexico City a few years ago, I started the Solar Mexico initiative as a collaboration with the Mexican Foundation for Rural Development, a Mexican nonprofit, to support renewable energy projects in rural communities of Mexico which lack electricity and running water. In 2004, I installed five household solar electric systems, subsidized through private donations, which will continue to provide electricity for five Mexican families that earn less than $5 per day (see pictures, a pdf).

They are very basic household solar electric systems which provide families a few hours of electricity every night to run lights, a radio, or a small television. The system has a 35 Watt solar panel, and a battery which charges up each day for the families to use at night. Each system costs about $600, and we ask the families to pay 20% of that – given that the solar panels are expected to last for 25 years or more, it’s a pretty good deal. It was great to see families turn on electric lights in their own homes for the first time, and to see what a big improvement this can bring to their lives.

Now I am planning another trip to Mexico, at the end of January, and am trying to raise money. I hope to raise $1500 in December, which together with money already raised, will subsidize six household solar electric systems. Tax-deductible donations can be made on the Solar Mexico site.

I’ve also been interested in exploring other renewable technologies. I bought several flashlights that charge when you shake them, and those work well, but the families in Mexico complain that they are not very bright. I also worked with a non-profit in DC to arrange demonstrations of a solar “Hot Pot” cooker, which will cook food using only solar energy. This technology is an affordable way to avoid taking wood from the desert environment, while reducing labor and indoor smoke from cooking fires. The demonstrations apparently went well, and I hope to evaluate their use on this trip to Mexico, before subsidizing more demonstrations in other villages.


If you have any comments or ideas, you can contact Jason at


Friday, December 15, 2006

The ongoing recovery in New Orleans

Almost 16 months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many parts of New Orleans are still putting the pieces together. I spent part of Thursday cleaning up yards in the Lakeview neighbourhood with the Beacon of Hope Resource Center.

Lakeview is adjacent to the 17th Street Canal levee, one of three levees that breached during Katrina. This NASA image from after the storm shows the Canal stretching into the city from Lake Ponchotrain (middle-left), and the flooding of the neighbourhoods (to the right).

For a sense of the scale of the flooding, you only have to see the yellowish line along the outer walls of many of the remaining homes that marks the maximum height of the floodwaters.
Few of the residents of this area returned to New Orleans after the storm. The old neighbourhood was now a patchwork of empty streets full of abandoned and badly damaged homes. The eerie quiet was interrupted only by the sound of sound of houses being razed and debris being removed.

Denise Thornton and the founders of the Beacon of Hope wanted their old neighbourhood back, but found little help from the government. So they started on their own, raised money for equipment to clean up yards, remove dead tress, replace storm drains and gut old houses, one by one. Thanks to outside donations and support from the United Way, the grassroots clean-up organization is now expanding to other parts of the city.

From a distance, it is hard to truly appreciate not just the physical, but the social devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The clean-up effort not only makes life more palatable for those that are there now, but it may encourage others to return. This is not just about the comfort of seeing people walk by your house or some lights on down the street; with so few people in these neighbourhoods, the property tax base has collapsed, making it even harder for the city to provide any services to the community.

If you’re in New Orleans, give the volunteer coordinator, Liz Widener, a call. They appreciate when out-of-towners spend even half a day (like me) removing weeds, debris and mowing lawns. If you want to plan a special trip to volunteer, they can even get you a discount at a local B&B.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The hurricane season

I’m in New Orleans for a meeting. Naturally, it has me thinking about hurricanes, climate change, and just how toxic the subject has become.

The 2006 Atlantic cyclone season came and went with far fewer storms than originally forecast. Why? El Nino conditions caused greater upper-level wind shear, slowing hurricane development and helped divert the storms that did develop safely into the middle of the Atlantic. This was relief for many coastal dwellers in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard.

It should also be a cautionary tale for everyone out there talking about the threat posed by climate change.

Hurricane Katrina and the devastating 2005 hurricane season provided a legitimate opportunity to raise concerns about the possible future effects of climate change. Not because those events were caused by climate change, or that the overpopulation of vulnerable coastal areas is a huge, separate problem, but because some research suggested it was the type of event that could occur more frequently in a warmer climate.

Hurricanes have become a rallying cry for the greenhouse gas reduction movement – just look at the posters for An Inconvenient Truth. The 2006 hurricane season was promoted like the upcoming fall television season. As I remarked back in June, the press covered “opening day” of the hurricane season, a loose date not exactly etched in the climate’s schedule, as if we were all awaiting the opening pitch of the baseball season, and all the balls had been juiced.

It was crazy. Not because there is serious uncertainty in the science relating hurricane intensity and climate change (see the recent statement from a WMO meeting on tropical storms). But because even if future warming in the tropical Atlantic does increase the likelihood of more intense storms, there will still be weak hurricane seasons. Just like even if the planet warms by several degrees, there will still be cold days.

Everyone forgot the basic rule, the difference between weather and climate. You just can’t lean on an individual event, or an individual season, for proof of climate change. It is a house of cards. Your argument is doomed to collapse.

That doesn’t mean people should stop talking about hurricanes. It is important to continue to study and discuss the effect of climate change on hurricane intensity. Climate models can be used to investigate how warming could alter the probability of individual events like more powerful storms or storm seasons. Depending on those results, individual storms or storm seasons can continue to be legitimately seen as examples of events that some research suggests may be more common in the future.

But those working to promote concerns about climate change must not fall into trap of looking at individual storms or storm seasons as the smoking gun for climate change. It has emotional appeal - but it is fundamentally bad science. Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Atlantic cyclone season did not end the “debate” about climate change, nor did the weak 2006 Atlantic cyclone season reignite the “debate”. Let’s not reduce it to that.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Warming and ocean biology

A research article in last week’s edition of Nature found that recent ocean warming has decreased “primary” productivity, the productivity of phytoplankton (e.g. algae), in the ocean.

This important result may seem counterintuitive. If the ocean is warmer, wouldn’t algae grow more? So I thought it warranted more of an explanation that was offered in some of the press coverage.

The trend is driven largely by changes at low latitudes where the ocean is “stratified”. There, a layer of warmer, less dense surface water sits above colder, heavier (saltier) water. The thermocline (or pycnocline) you hear about is the zone of steep temperature (or density) change between the two layers. Because of the layers have different densities, they don’t mix very well. Think oil and water, although not nearly that extreme.

The nutrients that phytoplankton require for growth are more abundant in colder, deep waters. That’s why most of the world’s greatest fisheries are in regions of upwelling. For example, think of the cold, productive Pacific off the S. American coast. El Nino got its name from a periodic warming of surface waters that hurt fishing catch. During an El Nino event, a shift in air pressure and surface winds advects the warm surface waters from the central Pacific towards to the South American coast. This increases stratification and decreases upwelling of colder, nutrient-rich waters that promote phytoplankton productivity and, in turn, the fishery.

So, in the case of climate-forced warming of the ocean, the surface warming causes greater stratification and further inhibits mixing. That means fewer nutrients, and less phytoplankton production.

The inverse is expected to occur in high latitude, less stratified, parts of the ocean (it’s cold at the top too!). There, temperature and light limit growth more than nutrient availability, so warming is expected to increase productivity.

In the Nature study, the group of scientists compared estimates of productivity derived from satellite measures of ocean colour to sea surface temperature. As was expected, there was an inverse relationship between temperature and productivity in the stratified ocean.

There’s only ten years of data -- the instrument has only been on the satellite for ten years – much too short to define a clear long-term trend in one direction or the other. The first three years there was a decrease (increase) in temperature (productivity) largely because of shift from El Nino to La Nina conditions in the Pacific; afterwards, there was an increase (decrease) in temperature (productivity). What is important for climate change research, however, is that the study appears to confirm theory and the results of previous studies using climate and ocean ecology models. It gives us an idea of one central response of ocean biology to any long-term climate warming that may occur.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Last word on James Inhofe

From the Washington Post, falling or at least lightly pressing against its (the media's) own sword:

"The last hearing on global climate change chaired by Sen. James M. Inhofe provided an excellent and public tutorial on why Americans should be grateful that it was, in fact, his last. The departing chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has occupied a unique perch from which to take action on climate change. Instead, he has used his time at the committee's helm to cast spurious doubts on the problem even as the scientific consensus about its reality and severity has gelled. Last week, the Oklahoma Republican held a hearing to denounce the real villain in the debate: the media.

The press, it was claimed, has hyped climate change hysterically. It has ignored dissenting scientific voices. And it has sought to advocate for climate-change policy, instead of just reporting on the science. And this is the grave national problem -- not rising sea levels, melting ice caps, loss of habitats or shifts in oceanic currents -- that warrants the attention of the senator's committee.

Mr. Inhofe's complaints are meritless. If anything, media coverage of global warming has tended toward excessive caution. Scientific alarm at the concentration of greenhouse gases predates the current media attention to the subject. Many media organizations, in a quest for balance, have given climate-change skeptics far more ink and air time than justified by the support their position carries among reputable climatologists. But even debating the merits of Mr. Inhofe's charge acquiesces to changing the subject -- which all along should have been how to craft reasonable policy to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Democratic leadership on this issue should bring a welcome change. While some Republicans support strong action on climate change, they have been stymied by the White House and by congressional leadership that has insisted on debating basic science that is no longer the subject of serious dispute. It's a little like debating the future of the space program by holding hearings on whether the earth is actually round. It's long past time to move on to something useful."

Here, here.


Friday, December 08, 2006


I wanted to put a plug in for the terrific website Worldchanging. The site is all about solutions, the ideas and the technologies that will help build towards a more sustainable world.

I'll be contributing some cross-border thinking and examples to the new Worldchanging Canada "local" edition, launched a few weeks back. Take a look when you have the chance.

You may also be interested in the site's very well-received book Worldchanging: A Users Guide for the 21st Century.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

A modest proposal

A few months ago, Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen published an essay in the journal Climatic Change proposing that the world could eject sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, sort of a gaseous solar shield, could combat global warming.

Sulphate particles, emitted by burning of coal and many other activities, reflect incoming solar radiation. They are though to have offset some of the expected warming over the past century.
The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1992 emitted 10 Tg of sulphate (10 million metric tons) into the stratosphere, and helped cool the planet by 0.5 degrees C the following year. Crutzen's proposal would effectively be creating a small Pinatubo every year.

So, a scientific meeting was held, a talk was given at the UN meeting in Nairobi and now the 'geoengineering' proposal has developed some life in the scientific community and in the media.

I think we should come down out of the stratosphere. This should be seen as a modest proposal, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, that's all. It demonstrates the type of drastic action that could be necessary if serious action is not taken to slow greenhouse gas emissions. It is a reasonable alternative only in the worst case scenario.

Let’s not forget all those anthropology, paleoclimate or paleoecology classes. Large injections of aerosols or particles into the atmosphere in the past (from volcanic eruptions) had devastating impacts on life, from massive famines to species extinctions. The year after the eruption of Krakatoa – and after Mt Pinatubo – was popularly referred to as the year without a summer.

We'd have to be supremely confident in model results to embark on this scale of planetary experiment. We're not just talking about turning the thermostat down a notch. We're talking about altering stratospheric chemistry, solar radiation, ozone concentrations, and cloudiness, which would together radically alter ecosystem function across the planet.

This is the solution to climate change? Maybe there is a danger in is using the same type of thinking that got you into a problem to get you out the problem.

Most of all, I'm concerned about the effect that discussing these geoengineering proposals on policy. It sends the erroneous message that there is one magical solution to climate change, that if we wait long enough, the scientists will invent some pill the planet should put under its tongue.


Monday, December 04, 2006

A win for the environment?

There are a lot of ways to interpret the result of Canada’s Liberal party leadership vote this weekend. The choice of former Environment Minister Stephane Dion, whose dog is actually named Kyoto, for leader will be considered by many a victory for the environment. To be more precise, it will be considered a recognition on the part of Liberal delegates that “environmental” issues (you know I hate that term), especially climate change, should be central to the party platform and will be prominent in voter’s minds come the next election.

No doubt, it is ironic that Dion is seen as the champion of climate change and the environment, given that his government failed to implement an effective Kyoto plan and allowed greenhouse gas emissions to rise. As the Globe and Mail reports, this is not lost on the opposition parties:

Minutes after his victory, opposition politicians tried to tag Mr. Dion for being part of the Liberal Party during the sponsorship scandal and for wrapping himself in green despite the fact that greenhouse-gas emissions rose under his watch.

My guess is that tactic will not work. Few truly blame Dion for the Liberal party's past failure on climate change. Dion is well regarded, in Canada and even moreso around the world, for trying to promote the need for national and international action on climate change (despite opposition within Canada and within his own party) and for his strong role as chairperson of the UN climate meetings in Montreal last fall. His victory will be rightly seen by the international community as evidence that Canada is still serious about addressing emissions, despite the weak policy forwarded by the current government.