Archive for November, 2005

Miscounting Salmon

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

Today’s Washington Post describes a new method of dealing with bad science news:

Zeroing Out the Messenger

In a surgical strike from Capitol Hill, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) has eliminated a little-known agency that counts endangered fish in the Columbia River.

The Fish Passage Center, with just 12 employees and a budget of $1.3 million, has been killed because it did not count fish in a way that suited Craig.

“Data cloaked in advocacy create confusion,” Craig said on the Senate floor this month, after successfully inserting language in an energy and water appropriations bill that bans all future funding for the Fish Passage Center. “False science leads people to false choices.”

We’re all for good science, it’s just that some of us are for science different from that coming from people who trained for years, and then studied in the field for years more.

For the Coal Miners

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

When I began looking a decade ago at how coal and nuclear power compared, I expected it to be six of one, half a dozen of the other. I started out with this prejudice in part because it’s in the air that nuclear power kills (but not how many) and in part because I grew up in an area where newspapers covered coal-mining accidents.

More than 130 coal miners recently died in China. More coal miners have died in Ukrainian coal-mining accidents since Chernobyl than are expected to die from Chernobyl by the high estimate. China in 2004 went through a Chernobyl (high estimate) of miners every 8 months (official statistics) or 2.5 months (unofficial).

Black lung is a bigger killer of coal miners. In the US, perhaps some 35 miners yearly die in accidents, while more than a thousand die yearly from pneumoconiosis and other diseases. We go through a Chernobyl (high estimate) of US coal miners every 3 to 4 years (it used to be much faster).

I grew up poor. I’ve always seen it as a class issue that the problems of miners are neglected when the public compares pros and cons of various energy sources. I’ve always seen it as a class issue when the public worries about nuclear energy and ignores that particulates alone from fossil fuel pollution kill more than 15 Chernobyls (high estimate) of Americans yearly — this disproportionately affects people in the lower classes and with other health problems (eg, minorities).

For a long while, I held in my mind and my heart the forgotten tens of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands worldwide, who die yearly from fossil fuels while people debate whether nuclear power, whether Yucca Mountain, will ever be safe enough.

I eventually became more aware of the importance of climate change and see why there is more focus on it than on direct death through pollution. But the number of mining accidents in recent months has reminded me of my old concern.

Perhaps you can join me in a little prayer of remembrance for the many millions of people who die from fossil fuels, from coal, from coal mining, unnoted, because their deaths and lives don’t trigger our notice.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays In the previous post, Michael goes into some detail as to why the ability to change our outlook is not sufficient to assure that we can wade throught the complexities.

Can We Change to Survive?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

Jared Diamond in Collapse describes the fate of the Norse in Greenland: faced with renouncing the identity and behaviors that had sustained them far from their home culture, or changing to the same sort of hard life that kept alive (many of) the Inuit immigrants, they chose death.

We face the same problem today. We in the rich world mostly overconsume, though it doesn’t totally please. We advocate policies because other people like us advocate the same policies, and this helps us know who we are. One of the points of the previous post on legislators, NAS, and nuclear power is that many of us will not change (or change slowly) our core beliefs as to who we are no matter what it means to the Earth, reluctant to give up beliefs that have assured us for so many years about what kind of people we are.

The creationists have their own struggle. They too have invested much energy in attacking scientists, they too have helped create a society that will have trouble finding its way to solutions.

The Basics of Climate Prediction

Monday, November 21st, 2005

I’ve recommended RealClimate before, as a (sometimes technical) source for information on climate change and what to make of Michael Crichton, non-scientist, being invited by Senator Inhofe to advise on the science of climate change.

Now they’ve recommended an interactive site, The Basics of Climate Prediction for making sense of climate predictions. You can also see 2050 and 2100 temperature predictions for North America, Europe, South Africa, and Australia/New Zealand. Europe in particular faces dramatic temperature changes.

At the end there is homework. We face hard choices, they say, at all levels from individual to government.

What Does NAS Say About the Safety of Nuclear Power

Monday, November 21st, 2005

According to Bruce Alberts in an interview on what it was like to head National Academy of Sciences for more than a decade, that’s just one of the questions they haven’t succeeded in getting anyone to ask, neither Clinton nor Bush. For many legislators, opposing nuclear power is environment-lite — pleases a few constituents (scores high on “environmentalist” scorecards), and affects relatively few businesses that might lobby on the topic. The other big environmental topic out there, climate change, is harder to address. The interview was in the May 20 Science magazine. The comments are mine, Alberts only said, “I don’t know why they aren’t interested.”

China and the US have boucoup coal power plants planned, and oil use is expected to double over the next 15 years. I’d like to see our legislators address expected increases in carbon emissions. If we asked for and got a clear answer on nuclear power safety, then it would be more difficult for legislators to hide that they aren’t addressing the big stuff.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays

Michael had questions about the November 15 post, see his comments to Climate Change Threat to Cool North Europe Recedes.

The Science article downgrading threats from a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation, a threat to cool north Europe while pushing southern areas to grow even hotter, was the result of a workshop on abrupt climate change held in Aspen. The general, but not unanimous, sense is that too much computer time is being devoted to what looks increasingly like a small probability event. Their reasoning is that yes, there is a slowdown, but to shut off the current would require about ten times as much fresh water as models predict. If there were more fresh water available, in the form of even more water tied up in glaciers, such an event would be more likely:

At the workshop, geophysicist Richard Peltier of the University of Toronto, Canada, argued that abrupt shifts “have something to do with ice,” noting that all of the Northern Hemisphere’s glacial ice melted away shortly after the last abrupt climate event 8200 years ago. Ice might have done its work by producing fresh meltwater fast enough to put a lid on the North Atlantic.

I don’t know current estimates on probability of other types of abrupt change. Most other types are not considered likely in our lifetime, but some may become inevitable in the next decade or so. I believe the quote on relative dangers of various abrupt change scenarios indicated that cooling in North Europe should move to the list of one of the concerns from the list of immediate concerns.

I haven’t read Doctor Calvin, but Richard Alley has been part of the discussions.

The Beauty of Science and Poetry

Sunday, November 20th, 2005

Back when I used to teach high school physics, my students seemed resistant to the idea that physics should be funded because of its poetic qualities. “We should fund physics because of possible future benefits,” they always replied.

Jacob Bronowski spoke more to my condition when he said,

The progress of science is the discovery at each step of a new order which gives unity to what had long seemed unlike. Faraday did this when he closed the link between electricity and magnetism. Clerk Maxwell did it when he linked both with light. Einstein linked time with space, mass with energy, and the path of light past the sun with the flight of a bullet; and spent his dying years in trying to add to these likenesses another, which would find a single imaginative order between the equations of Clerk Maxwell and his own geometry of gravitation.

When Coleridge tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought: beauty he said, is “unity in variety.” Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature – or more exactly, in the variety of our experience. Poetry, painting, the arts are the same search, in Coleridge’s phrase for unity in variety. Each in its own way looks for likenesses under the variety of human experience…

…The creative act is alike in art and in science; but it cannot be identical in the two; there must be a difference as well as a likeness. For example, the artist in his creation surely has open to him a dimension of freedom which is closed to the scientist. I have insisted that the scientist does not merely record the facts, but he must conform to the facts. The sanction of truth is an exact boundary which encloses him, in a way in which it does not constrain the poet or the painter…

From The Exploration of the Universe, Part One of the The Citizen and the New Age of Science (and with much appreciation for used book sales!)

Bronowski’s piece finished with these lines:

Science is the creation of concepts and their exploration in the facts. It has no other test of the concept than its empirical truth to fact. Truth is the drive at the center of science; it must have the habit of truth, not as dogma but as a process.

Exercise Economics

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

The Washington Post examines whether it makes sense to exercise today in order to live longer tomorrow.

If you pay attention only to life expectancy, comparing time to exercise (and shower) vs time gained, then yes:

So this means the walking option costs you about 49 days of your life. If the benefit is 1.3 to 1.5 years of life expectancy, you’ve got yourself a bargain….So an investment of 0.5 years in intensive exercise buys you about 1.5 years of discounted future life. Sorry folks, that’s still a bargain.

There are other reasons, as well. You’re likely to have fewer years of bad health. After grumbling the first two weeks about how “this is good for me, this is good for me”, one’s outlook shows a noticeable improvement over pre-exercise days. If this change in behavior leads to reduced fossil fuel use, you can add smugness about what you are doing for the environment as another perk.

So if your first calculation shows that you don’t have time to exercise, recalculate!

Climate Change Hastens Population Extinctions

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

From a talk given by Carol Boggs November 5 in the California Academy of Sciences BioForum series

Today there are more species than in the past, but most species once on Earth have gone extinct. Ballpark estimates: species have a lifespan of 1 to 10 million years, there are 10 million species, so extinction rate is 1 to 10 species/year. This is the background rate, but today’s rates are actually much higher: 2 – 3 orders of magnitude (100 – 1,000) times faster than the background rate for birds and mammals between 1850 and 1950 (and presumably even faster today).

The average species has 220 populations (members of a species in one location), or about 1.1 – 6.6 billion populations worldwide. That’s a lot of populations. But they’re being destroyed by habitat loss (paving, logging, building) alone at the rate of 1,800/hour, about 16 million/year. As Professor Bogg’s group discovered, the loss of populations can be bad news for nearby populations.

Why do we care?

There are the ecological goods and services, such s flood control, soil, and production of timber and (to a lesser degree) pharmaceuticals. There are the existence values – many of those habitats give us pleasure. There are options values – we may want to take advantage of services in the future.

Besides habitat loss, overexploitation and invasive species have been important causes of species loss.

Most data come from a few groups: pests (eg, agricultural, so there’s a monetary motivation to study), beings that affect our health, and beings that we have an emotional attachment to (charismatic megafauna or spotted owls).

Professor Boggs was part of a group following the Bay checkerspot butterfly in the hills above Stanford. The serpentine soils there discourage invasive grasses (and the insects that follow them). There were three populations fairly close to each other. (The magic marker had just been invented, and by capture, release, and recapture, they were able to determine that there was little overlap between the populations; the butterflies don’t generally travel far.)

The butterflies prosper when there is good overlap between the timing of the larvae and the food. The extent of overlap depends on precipitation and temperature. While the mean precipitation changed little over the time studied, there was a noticeable increase in variability in precipitation beginning around 1971. Population size differed, as did habitat (more or less sunny, for example). One population was destroyed when its home was paved over. The area supporting the longest-lasting population was topographically heterogeneous (it was valley-shaped with both a north and south slope, so plant and insect species could shift slopes as rain changed).

The habitat where variation was largest saw the first extinction. Populations prospered in different years (one did well with tons of rain, one did better when there was less rain), so the butterfly metapopulation (def: group of populations near each other) showed more flexibility than did any population alone. One area was recolonized by another, and again went to extinction.

A metapopulation spreads the risks to populations due to environmental variations and disease, and allows repopulation in event of extinction.

Several other explanations were explored and discarded, and only the increase in rain variability appeared to matter. It wasn’t known whether the climate changes observed were caused by human-caused changes to the atmosphere, though an increase in variability is compatible with predictions. Models of the butterfly populations were run with rain variability patterns from 1932-1970 and 1971+: the populations should have survived hundreds to many of hundreds of years with less variability, but only decades with the more recent climate.

Biologists make a big deal about the need to protect populations, and not just the species, and this study provides some of the explanations why. Other butterflies nearby can protect a population from going extinct, and several populations in the same area increase the chance that one or more will survive stresses such as climate change.

California Wild

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

Those of you near the California Academy of Science may want to check out their cool programs. In particular, I have been enjoying their bioforums (biofora?). Next spring’s all-day sessions are on earthquakes (February 4, 2006) and California water issues (Aprill 22, 2006). I will post soon on the November 5 event on biodiversity.

The quarterly California Wild magazine includes articles on Californian glaciers and climate change, the ice worm that lives in glaciers (50 – 75 in a single footprint?!), and the Aeolian Zone, the part of alpine areas depend on winds to provide their food.

Climate Change Threat to Cool North Europe Recedes

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

Over the last decade, as I followed changing understanding of climate change and biodiversity loss, the rule seemed to be for the former that last year’s estimates were too optimistic, for the latter, last month’s. Now there is a rare piece of good news, or less bad news anyway. Concerns are receding that added fresh water in the north Atlantic from rain and glacier melt may shut off a global conveyor belt. From Science Magazine, October 21:

A precipitous shift in climate could happen again, say researchers… But the prime menace no longer lies in the North Atlantic. Instead, a growing contingent of scientists now sees the North Atlantic as no more of a threat than accelerating sea level rise, megadroughts, and monsoon failures.

Do Donations Affect Policy?

Thursday, November 10th, 2005

Dana Milbank compares oil company donations to Senators with Senators’ questions to oil company executives in the, er, Congressional investigation of high oil profits.

Do you change from fear or love?

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

Today’s Washington Post discusses whether ads emphasizing the positive or negative are more likely to produce results (behavior change). Two studies, two different results.

Which is more likely to produce a change in you: fear (or other negative feelings) about environmental changes ahead, or the sense that our behavior can make life better in the future (or other positive feelings)?

Wiesel’s Night

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

If we are to address the environmental problems of our making, climate change and the rest, we need to understand what is happening (the science), what is likely to happen (the science), and more about who we are as people, what motivates us.

Elie Wiesel’s Night begins with people in his town hearing what is happening long before the Germans came in 1944. Their reaction is disbelief, their reaction is to reach for any positive (look how charming is the head of the Germans who have come to their town).

When I am discouraged that we respond too slowly, that willingness to disbelieve what is in front of me is what I see in others, is what I see in myself.

Better Buildings Through Science

Friday, November 4th, 2005

Gail Brager of Center for the Built Environment (CBE) spoke Wednesday at UC, Berkeley. She talked about the program’s mission to improve the design, operation, and environmental quality of buildings. Environmentally buildings are important, consuming 36% of total US primary energy, 65% of electricity, and 12% of potable water; they produce 30% of US greenhouse gas emissions. (Numbers for both residential and commercial buildings.)

But environmental arguments, and even the cost of energy, do not strongly appeal to building owners. The energy costs over the lifetime of the building are about 1% of salaries. Green building ideas need to demonstrate their ability to make workers happier – productivity benefits from increased control of temperature, the indoor air quality, and lighting may be of more economic benefits than the direct savings on energy costs.

US green buildings find two important obstacles. American law, in contrast to European law, is less likely to specify quality of environment. Additionally, there is more neglect of life-cycle costs here (even more of a problem in buildings constructed for lease), more focus on “first costs”.

There have been complaints that LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System looks at points rather than success. In CBE’s survey, LEED buildings rate higher among users for general satisfaction, thermal comfort, and air quality, but about the same for office lighting and acoustics. Discovering why and what can be done about this is part of CBE’s work.

Three of their projects will be mentioned here, see their web site for more information.

Windows that open are more expensive initially, but offer many benefits: reduced energy consumption, improved comfort, fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome, and a connection to nature (which helps cognition! A study demonstrated it!) The largest barriers are fire codes and an emphasis on thermal comfort standards that show a preference for a narrow range of temperatures. However, a CBE study shows people using windows allow and prefer a range of temperatures, in contrast to workers in air-conditioned buildings.

American buildings usually have air distribution through the ceiling, but air distribution via floor vents allows individuals to regulate temperature for their workspace. Reduced energy and life-cycle building costs accompany greater individual control of the work environment.

Lighting is responsible for about half of the electricity in commercial building use, and increases air conditioning costs. A lighting-control system developed by CBE took only 6 minutes for untrained people to learn, and produced a 2/3 drop in energy for lighting. It wasn’t only a desire to reduce energy use: the glare bothers computer users.

Improvements in building construction have long-lasting implications for energy use and for working conditions, as building stock turns over slowly. Most of us live and work in climates where occasionally opening windows will improve our attitude (and cognition!). So we can all appreciate working in buildings built using these and other findings of Center for the Built Environment.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Mary Ann talks about her husband’s use of carpool subsidies to bicycle to work. Healthier and richer, not bad.

Changes in Lakes

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

The Financial Times has an article summarizing the problems facing lakes: climate change, pollution, poor irrigation practices and neglect. As a result, “we face increasing tensions and instability as rising populations compete for life’s most precious of resources.”