May 21, 2013
Sipping coffee one morning in early April, my eyes quickly darted to an article in my city newspaper by our local hunting columnist entitled “De-extinction coming to Montana.” I didn’t even need to read the column to know what was coming.
Having just read the cover story in the April issue of National Geographic on bringing back extinct species, our columnist — who has spent years fretting over a conservation initiative to restore bison to the grasslands of eastern Montana — now found good reason to fear that the reintroduction of woolly mammoths and other extinct species was headed our way.
Fast forward a week later and I was in Cambridge, England, along with Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva, at an international conference organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society on the topic of synthetic biology and how it may influence the future of nature and conservation.
You may already be asking yourself, just what is synthetic biology? In a recent paper in PLOS Biology, Kent Redford and colleagues, borrowing from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, defined it as “a scientific discipline that relies on chemically synthesized DNA, along with standardized and automatable processes, to address human needs by the creation of organisms with novel or enhanced characteristics or traits.”
The Cambridge meeting brought together over 80 synthetic biologists and conservation scientists to learn about each other’s disciplines and explore how we could work together. (It may be easier to think of synthetic biologists as genetic engineers, as they definitely approach their discipline from an engineering perspective.)
May 20, 2013
As if the long list of threats to coral reefs weren’t enough, we can now add ocean acidification to the list.
Perhaps you’ve seen the gloomy headlines like “Ocean Acidification: ‘Evil Twin’ Threatens World’s Oceans, Scientists Warn.”
Perhaps it is no wonder that folks think coral reef scientists are never finished “crying wolf” about the next global challenge threatening to wipe out coral reef ecosystems.
How serious is this threat and what can we do to address it? To answer these questions, we decided to enlist the help of some global acidification experts. But first, we have to understand the problem.
May 16, 2013
When you think of the future of energy, do you think of hillsides blanketed with wind turbines, cars powered by batteries instead of gas, and solar-powered office buildings?
If none of that sounds futuristic enough for you — where are the flying cars, bioengineered “living” cities fed by the sun and algae-powered lights? — that’s because it really isn’t.
The future of clean energy technology is already here, according to Dan Kammen, Jigar Shah and Joe Fargione — panelists at The Nature Conservancy’s “Future of Nature” forum on energy held Monday, May 13 in Boston. These experts — representing academia, business and conservation — agreed: The world has all the technology we need for a clean energy future. The challenge is implementing it at scales that can make a difference for controlling the global greenhouse gas emissions caused by energy production.
And we need this now more than ever. Last week, scientists measured 400ppm of CO2 in Earth’s air — a level that hasn’t existed in millions of years, before humans were around. With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 and no uniformed effort to control emissions in sight, CO2 measures will likely surpass the 400ppm marker very soon.
Moderator Anthony Brooks of Boston radio station WBUR — a co-sponsor of the event — asked the panelists: Can renewable energies help make a dent in climate change while still meeting our energy needs? Here’s what they had to say.
May 15, 2013
The 2012 Pacific Northwest wildfire season was one for the record books.
In Idaho, the Mustang Complex alone burned 300,000 acres. In Washington, over 350,000 total acres burned and fire suppression costs alone totaled more than $88 million dollars. Not exactly chump change in this time of fiscal cliffs and sequestration.
Yet, fire always has been and always will be an integral part of our western forests. Fire is both inevitable and is the ultimate contradiction; often beautiful, terrifying, destructive, renewing and life-giving, all at the same time. Yet, our management of western forests over the past century has broken this natural link with fire, leaving our forests vulnerable to uncharacteristically large and destructive fire and insect and disease outbreaks. Climate change will only increase these vulnerabilities.
In my role as a forest ecologist I spend a lot of time talking about the risks of “uncharacteristic fire” (bad!) and the importance of “prescribed fire” (good!) in restoring healthy and resilient forests.
Our official tagline is “The Nature Conservancy works to maintain fire’s role where it benefits people and nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive”. An excellent sentiment, but the line between fire that “benefits people and nature” and fire that is “destructive” can be quite blurry.
Last September an intense late summer lightning storm rolled across the Pacific Northwest, starting fires in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. That month I had a series of meetings across eastern Washington and northern Idaho. No matter where I traveled, I couldn’t escape the smoke. During the day visibility was terrible and at night my eyes stung and my throat hurt, even when holed up in my hotel room. No fun – that much smoke must certainly indicate a “bad fire”, right?
May 14, 2013
Helping people and nature adapt to climate change is a hot topic in conservation.
But the science behind planning such adaptation — particularly for human communities — isn’t as clean as the rhetoric, and you can’t do it simply in a lab or on paper. Whether we’re talking about major developed world cities or small coastal villages, we have to run our theories by what we call the “test of people” — so they lead to strategies that work. That test often involves understanding how the world looks through the eyes of the people we are trying to help. Nothing like a good reality check.
Case in point: My recent trip to the Grenadines, where I was attending an “action planning meeting” with community members, my colleagues from The Nature Conservancy’s ‘At The Water’s Edge’ project team, and our local partners. Our aim: to identify specific actions that can be taken to help reduce the communities’ vulnerability to coastal hazards (i.e., flooding from sea level rise and storm surge). As conservationists, we hope nature might be a part of the equation — what we call “nature-based adaptation.”
May 13, 2013
Last week, Earth hit a long-awaited (and much dreaded) climate milestone: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as recorded at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory) has exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in the 55 years atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been measured — and perhaps not since the Pliocene Epoch, which was between 2.6 and 5.3 million years ago.
The reading was just for a single day — May 9 — and will fall in the summer if previous annual trends hold. But even with substantial improvements in energy efficiency and conservation, atmospheric CO2 levels will continue to grow over the coming decades unless significant global steps are taking to stabilize them — among them, a large increase in zero-carbon energy production. What will it take to achieve that increase? (I’ll speak on that topic tonight at 7:30 PM as part of “The Future of Energy,” a Nature Conservancy/WBUR panel discussion at Boston’s BSA Space that also includes Daniel Kammen of the University of California-Berkeley and Jigar Shah, clean-tech entrepreneur. Learn more about the panel and The Future of Nature discussion series.)
Obviously, political will would help get us to zero-carbon energy. But innovations in several key areas could have a big impact. And innovations that lower costs of zero-carbon solutions, making the switch relatively painless for families and businesses, should help bolster political will.
The future of zero-carbon energy production is a big, complicated topic, but there are three areas that seem particularly worthy of discussion: 1) the importance of energy storage for renewables, 2) the diversity of options for zero-carbon electricity, and 3) zero-carbon transportation.
April 5, 2013
Scientists are such bad communicators, which is why the majority of the public doesn’t believe in climate change despite scientific consensus.
Does this drum beat sound familiar? I can almost hear science communicators Randy Olson and Nancy Baron whispering it in my ear.
Well, Zoe Leviston and colleagues from CSIRO in Australia offer at least some relief. In work published this week in Nature Climate Change, Leviston and coauthors report evidence of a strong “false consensus effect” around climate change belief in Australia.
Essentially, people who believed that climate change was “not happening” grossly overestimated how prevalent that same opinion was in society, whereas those who did believe in climate change (the vast majority) underestimated how common their views were.
March 25, 2013
Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.
Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.
Does Earth have limits — limits to how far we can push its natural systems and deplete its resources, beyond which we will incur major blowback?
Almost every environmentalist would answer “yes” — and have pugnaciously strong opinions about what we should do (or stop doing) to avoid crossing them. But what does science tell us about those limits? Which are really science-based? Can innovation can stretch any of them? Are they useful for motivating policymaking and behavior change?
A world-class panel of scientists grappled with these questions last Thursday’s during “The Limits of the Planet: A Debate” — the final forum in this year’s “Nature and Our Future” discussion series, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and held at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters in lower Manhattan.
The major disagreements of the evening came over whether outlining global limits for the stable functioning of nature (as opposed to tipping points for individual ecosystems) is good science — and whether “limits” are the correct approach to achieving environmental goals. On this point, not everyone was in the Bill McKibben/350.org camp.
“The evidence is incontrovertible that there are local tipping points — for coral reefs, for instance– but not so for global ones,” said Erle Ellis, a panelist and associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County. “It’s not a runaway train. Ecosystems change, but it’s not a domino effect. You can change all the systems on the planet. But does that constitute a global tipping point?”
March 12, 2013
Climate change isn’t new. The earth’s organisms have faced the “cope, adapt, or die” paradigm presented by changing climatic conditions since the inception of life on earth more than 3 billion years ago.
Some species already live in extreme conditions (a topic I covered in my last blog post) – at the earth’s freezing poles in the dead of winter, at the apex of tropical mountain peaks that receive tens of meters of rainfall a year, and deep in the dry deserts that comprise a third of the earth’s land area.
The plants and animals able to survive these extreme conditions may have something to teach us about climate change adaptation—especially when the organisms are incapable of crawling up to a cooler elevation or slithering into a deeper riverine pool to escape a heat wave.
As a general rule, plants spend their lives rooted to a single spot on the earth. So they need to be able to withstand 365 days per year of whatever nature can dish out in terms of weather.
Plants from hot deserts—such as the prickly cholla cactus—are no exception, and they have evolved a broad range of impressive strategies for coping with the hottest, driest climate in North America, where a years’ worth of rainfall may come in a single extreme event.
These desert denizens provide us with valuable insight into biological and physical adaptations that allow for survival on a hotter, drier planet that is subject to extreme events (as climate change experts are currently forecasting).
March 7, 2013
The Orion Magazine blog put up this week an excellent post by Conservancy lead scientist Sanjayan on how his recent trip to Santiago — and the recent, two-day disappearance of that city’s otherwise plentiful water supply — has catalyzed his thinking about how scientists can better communicate the effects of climate change.
While global warming was almost certainly a cause of Santiago’s taps suddenly running dry, Sanjayan writes for Orion that he was surprised there to find that “no one has asked me specifically about climate change — about parts-per-billion, about carbon markets, about a carbon tax, about pipelines, or Kyoto, Copehhagen, or Doha — all the ways U.S. environmentalists and journalists often talk about it.”
Instead, Santiago’s residents wanted to talk about…water supply. So he quickly pivoted to focus on the water issue itself — on a local concern — and conservation measures for the watershed, while avoiding lectures about necessary behavior changes related to emissions. And through this approach, he found people receptive to hearing about climate change.
It’s a fresh and flexible look at why audience-sensitive science communications actually works. Anyone tired of the counterproductive rhetoric and approaches that have dominated climate comms for the last two decades will welcome the model Sanjayan puts forward here.
March 1, 2013
Recovery begins by admitting you have a problem. But the real problem with communicating science — particularly around climate change and other issues involving risk — is that we’re often focused on the wrong problem. And, as a must-read new paper by Harvard risk communications scholar Dan Kahan argues, only getting truly serious about the science of science communications can keep us from digging the hole even deeper.
Think back to the last conversation you had about climate change with someone who wants global action on the issue. Chances are, the conversation quickly devolved into a cycle of finger pointing that went something like this:
* Blame scientists, because they don’t communicate the risks of climate change clearly and simply enough. Or emotionally enough. Or starkly enough. (Or maybe they shouldn’t be communicating at all, because they’re just no good at it.)
* Blame the media, because they’re not covering climate change enough (or prominently enough, or in a way that connects with people, or with the right mix of local and global relevance, or because they airwaves have been flooded with anti-climate-change rhetoric fueled by big money interests).
* And blame the public, because it’s not scientifically literate enough to understand the risks of climate change, or it’s too distracted by media-fueled triviality to care.
The assumption underlying all this blame? The public isn’t getting the gravity of the problem — because if they did, how could they fail to act? (This is what Kahan and other social scientists call the “public irrationality thesis.”) Ergo: If we could just transfer our scientific knowledge to enough people (and make enough people receptive enough to understand it), those people would of course change their minds to agree with us, change their voting patterns and behavior in the ways we desire…and the world would be saved.
Communications scholars call this chain of reasoning the “injection” or “empty bucket” or “science deficit” model of communications. The real problem: About two decades of science on the science deficit model have shown that it’s not true.
February 28, 2013
Imagine you’re on a long hike, and you are trying to get to a valley on the other side of a mountain. Do you take a gentle trail that leads you easily around it? Or do you hike straight up the mountain, braving waist-deep snow, frigid wind, slick rocks and risk of death?
It really isn’t much of a decision, is it?
Animals take similar routes when they migrate and roam. A mule deer or a lynx won’t waste calories or risk its life by taking a precarious route. To survive and thrive, they need relatively easy paths to move to feeding, breeding and resting areas.
Now animals face a new reason to move: climate change. As vegetation and climactic conditions change, many species will need to move to new ranges.
But how do they get to these new habitats? Will they find an easy route, or will they have to risk roads, inhospitable terrain, housing developments and other dangerous paths?
Questions like these are at the heart of what ecologists call connectivity: the degree to which a landscape allows wildlife to move from one place to the next. A well-connected landscape is one where animals can move easily. In a disconnected landscape, populations and habitats become isolated from each other.
A new paper published in Conservation Biology by Tristan Nuñez and colleagues from the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group provides a simple and straightforward method for land managers to account for species shifting their ranges in response to climate change, and to protect and restore land accordingly.
February 14, 2013
More than 1 billion people face daily water shortages, and within the next 20 years, more than half the world’s population could face water shortages. Our CEO sits down with the new Global Freshwater Program Director to find out where to go from here.
February 6, 2013
There is a well-drummed mantra in conservation that the route to conservation success lies in convincing people that it’s in their best interest to protect the environment.
You have almost certainly all seen this logic in action: the money savings of energy efficiency around the home, the financial benefits companies will reap for environmental stewardship, and even the cost savings countries can expect from taking immediate action on climate change.
In opposition to this logic is much psychological research into social values which suggests that promoting values of self-interest (such as financial gain) reduces people’s willingness to behave in ways that consider the greater good.
This fundamental conflict suggests that even if campaigns focused on self-interest are effective on the target issue, they may, in the long-run, be diminishing our collective will to solve bigger-than-self issues.
February 1, 2013
Coral bleaching, increasing storms, the loss of polar bears: many impacts of climate change are already vivid in our minds. We naturally worry about the things we can see. Huge waves and the loss of big fish and colorful corals get our attention.
But what about things we can’t see, like the tiny creatures called plankton? They are also poised for dramatic changes.
A recent dive in the sapphire waters of the Caribbean offers a close encounter with plankton. While most of my dive buddies hurry to reach the bottom, I linger as I usually do, pondering the “blue” and looking out for the visible and the invisible.
Suddenly, clouds of tiny filaments come sharply into focus. It’s blue-green algae–Trichodesmium–a type of phytoplankton that plays an important role in these nutrient-poor waters. They essentially break gaseous nitrogen’s tough triple bond and convert it into a form other phytoplankton can feed on.
What would these waters look like without them?