We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

Read the rest of this entry »





A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation

19 05 2014

Eucalyptus viminalis (Manna Gum) - leaf, adultI’ve just written an article for the Australian River Restoration Centre‘s RipRap magazine, and they have given me permission to reproduce it here.

The brave, new green world of the carbon economy hasn’t exactly taken off as desired. Perhaps it’s because it wasn’t really planned from the outset, or maybe it is still too abstract for most people to accept, digest and incorporate into their daily lives. An emergent property of society’s generally slow awakening to the challenge of climate disruption, is that it will be a long time before we accept its full suite of incarnations.

The infant carbon economy is, however, well and truly alive and kicking, so it is important to try and plan for its growing influence on our decision making. Bumps in the road aside, the carbon economy has mostly been a blessing (actual and potential) for biodiversity conservation projects the world over.

In principle, the aim of the carbon economy is rather straight-forward: charge people a certain amount for each unit of carbon dioxide equivalents they release, and then use that money to develop approaches that further increase carbon sequestration or limit emissions. It’s a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ framework, where increasing financial impetus to restrict emissions is enhanced by society’s evolution towards better approaches and technology.

The operational side of the carbon economy is unfortunately much more muddled, with vested interests and political gaming weakening its implementation. Nonetheless, we persevere. Read the rest of this entry »





Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »





If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of CB.com readers. Read the rest of this entry »





Australia’s (latest) war on the environment

3 03 2014

monkYes, the signs were there, but they weren’t clandestine messages written in the stars or in the chaos of tea-leaf dregs. We saw this one coming, but Australians chose to ignore the warning signs and opt for the American political model of extremism, religiosity, plutocracy and science denial.

Enter the ‘Tea Party’ of Australia – the ‘new’ Coalition where reigning Rex perditor Prime Minister Tony The Monk Abbott1 has, in just a few short months, turned back the clock on Australian environmental protection some 40 years.

Yes, we saw it coming, but it wasn’t a tautological fait accompli just because it concerned a ‘conservative’ government. It’s difficult to remember, I know, that conservative governments of yesteryear implemented some strikingly powerful and effective environmental legislation. Indeed, it was the former incarnation of the Coalition government that implemented the once-formidable Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act under the direction of then Environment Minister, Robert Hill. A colossus of sorts, the EPBC suffers from many ailments. While it’s the only really bitey environmental legislation we’ve got, that colossus is a lumbering, limping giant missing more than a few teeth – it needs a complete overhaul.

As most Australians are unfortunately aware, The Monk repeatedly and defiantly promised to repeal the Labor-government carbon price implemented in July 2012, despite the absolute necessity to tax the heaviest pollutersWhile somewhat sheepish about his recent climate disruption denialism following his election in 2013, a denialist he remains:

Let us re-familiarise ourselves with some of his historical pearlers: Read the rest of this entry »





Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation

24 01 2014

farming forestsToday I was shocked, stunned and pleasantly (for a change) surprised. Australia has its first ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon farming project.

It is understandable that this sort of news doesn’t make the Jane & Joe Bloggs of the world stand up and cheer, but it should make conservation biologists jump for bloody joy.

So why exactly am I so excited about the setting aside of a mere 9000 ha (90 km2, or 10 × 9 km) of semi-arid scrub in western New South Wales? It’s simple – nothing can replace the biodiversity or carbon value of primary forest. In other words, forest restoration – while laudable and needed – can never achieve what existing forest already does. We know now from various parts of the world that biodiversity is nearly always much higher in primary forest, and that the carbon structure of the forest (especially below-ground carbon) can take centuries to recover.

Another problem with restoration – and if you’ve ever been involved in any tree planting yourself, you’ll know what I mean – is that it’s incredibly expensive, time-consuming and slow. Wouldn’t it make more financial sense just to save forests instead of trying to rebuild them?

Of course it is, so the logical conclusion from a conservation perspective is to save primary forest first, then worry about restoration next. The problem is, there are few, if any, financial incentives for keeping forests standing in the private sector. The stumbling rise of the carbon economy is a potential resolution to this problem, although neither the Kyoto Protocol nor most national carbon-trading schemes adequately account for the carbon value of existing forests.

Up until today, even Australia didn’t have any examples.

Read the rest of this entry »





Making science matter

14 10 2013
© XKCD

© XKCD

I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »








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