Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The Carbon Footprints of Scientific Activity

November 28th, 2008

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A comment to my post on the electrical failure that shut down the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) suggested that scientific research should have some kind of carbon footprint analysis.  Given the large energy demands of the LHC, I understand the point.  And that person is not alone.  Nature News reports on the carbon footprint calculations made by a Norwegian researcher for him and his colleagues and the Norwegian Institute of Air Research.  The estimated footprint (travel alone) was 3.9-5.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.  This footprint is comparable to that of other professionals in science and other fields that travel frequently.  The news report (and the article) focuses on the carbon footprints associated with formal and informal scientific meetings, it seems reasonable to extend such analysis to large research facilities and instruments.  Can someone tell me how many trees I should plant to offset the new cyclotron?

Policy, Implementation, and Infrastructure: Flex-fuel Fleets are 1 for 3

November 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

While I’m driving to my Thanksgiving destination, it seems appropriate to note the policy of expanding federal flex-fuel fleets.  Over the last several years, billions of dollars have been invested in alternative-fuel vehicles.  Unfortunately, the investment hasn’t exactly panned out, as the Washington Post reported in its November 23 edition.  It’s a great description of flex-fuel fleet policies and history, and a strong example of good policy implemented badly with no apparent considerations of infrastructure.  In short, purchasing flex-fuel cars across the country isn’t as effective when flex-fuel stations aren’t as widely available.

As this country moves forward with other alternative energy scenarios, the underlying infrastructure, whether we’re talking about fuel stations, electric grids, or some other support systems, will have to change before the new energy source can be successfully implemented.  Let’s remember the failures of the federal flex-fuel fleet.  The Post article suggests that the government approached this as a purchasing decision rather than as an investment decision.  Perhaps a tradeoff where fewer cars were purchased and the additional funds were used to invest in flex-fuel infrastructure could have helped avoid a situation where 92 percent of the fuel used in the flex-fuel fleet isn’t alternative fuel.

Assessing Environmental Risk in Minnesota

November 23rd, 2008

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This has nothing to do with the Senate race currently in a recount, but everything to do with a December 3 workshop hosted by the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.  Titled Assessing, Managing and Communicating Environmental Risk: A Call to Action, the conference involves legislators, journalists, advocates and researchers from Minnesota involved with environmental and public health.  The conference registration fee is modest, and the agenda and other information are available online.

Technology Policy Leaders in the Transition

November 19th, 2008

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I wrote recently about the agency review teams involved in the transition.  In addition to those review teams there are also policy working groups.  These are chaired by members of the Transition Advisory Board and, as the name suggests, are more focused on policy initiatives for the incoming administration.  The transition website only lists single members for each policy area, but there are other members of each group.  I can only find information on the Energy and Environment team, courtesy of this web video posted yesterday.  There is not a strict correspondence between the review teams and the working groups, perhaps in recognition that various policy issues are not often single-agency concerns.

Names of note for readers of this blog include the leads for the Energy and Environment; Health; and Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform review teams.  Carol Browner, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, will handle Energy and Environment.  Former Senator Tom Daschle (and apparently the intended nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services) will do the same for the Health group.  Finally, three individuals have responsibility for Technology, Innovation and Government Reform.  They are Blair Levin (former senior staff at the Federal Communications Commission), Sonal Shah (currently involved with’s global development work), and Julius Genachowski (former senior FCC staff).

If you have concerns about the people involved, or have other suggestions for the transition team, feel free to submit your comments at (you can submit general concerns in the American Moment section, or issue-specific concerns through the Agenda section).

Science and Climate Actions Possible in First Days of Obama Administration

November 9th, 2008

Posted by: admin

The Washington Post reports in today’s edition that among the many changes in Executive Orders possible in the first days of the new administration could be an easing of the restrictions on stem cell research and permitting California to proceed with a waiver allowing the state to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.  Adjustments and revocations of Executive Orders are common during changes in administrations, and there are no doubt many signed by President Bush that would not sit well with the next President.

Many other possible changes, including some new proposals, are listed in the article, but the stem cell research restrictions and the California waiver issue are among the few that are either sourced by individuals willing to be named in the article, or connected to statements made by Senator Obama during the campaign.  Given the heavy message discipline of the campaign and of the transition so far, it is premature to assume anything is a certainty.  Additionally, as noted in the article, these decisions will involve consultations with relevant legislators and appointees, most of whom are not yet named.  Of course, you can go to the transition website and make your opinions heard.

Reintroducing ‘extinct’ species – Parallels with Geoengineering?

October 3rd, 2008

Posted by: admin

In the same issue of Wired that Steve Raymer appears in, there’s an interesting article about efforts to reintroduce species to areas where they (or their closest biological cousins) roamed thousands of years ago.  Granted, I’m not the Prometheus writer best suited to speak to this, but I think there are some interesting parallels between efforts like those described in “Pleistocene Park: Where the Auroxen Roam” and geoengineering proposals like those discussed in a Time article from last year: seeding the oceans with iron, placing mirrors in orbit, or other schemes worthy of science fiction (a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode did mention atmospheric scrubbers, but as a plot point and not a policy suggestion).

I want to know whether I have perceived something correctly about this issue.  While the article at best implies this, it would appear that these efforts to reintroduce long absent megafauna (such as bison and primitive horses) are somewhat different than the efforts to reintroduce other species (such as the recent reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone region), or the efforts to fight invasive species.  Given the size of the animals involved, the time gap between disappearance and re-introduction, and the significant travel distances involved, this appears to be a different scope of intervention than fighting the spread of snakefish in the Potomac or reintroducing various smaller species into the wild.  The level of potential impact, and the kind of control required, seem qualitatively different.  There is also a bit of presumption that these efforts would produce some natural/wild state – something hard to assess given the lack of records from when these animals roamed large and free.  The lack of engagement with policy implications is disappointing, but not surprising.

The reintroduction of megafauna reminds me of geoengineering proposals occasionally thrown about as ways to address various global ills, climate change being one of them.  Roger has some concerns with how geoengineering has been used in climate change discussions, and it seems to me that the lack of consideration of policy, scientific and technical considerations is very similar to what is going on with these efforts to shape or engineer ecosystems.  Both geoengineering and megafauna reintroduction – as currently handled – so both a lack of deep thinking and an unearned faith in technological fixes.  I am not suggesting that the ideas are without merit. I want to make the point that some experiments, by their very nature, cannot be held in laboratory conditions and require a lot more consideration beyond the proper experimental protocol.

Do environmentalists need a new politics?

October 1st, 2008

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Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue in their book Break Through that environmentalists need to transition from a ‘politics of limits’ to a ‘politics of possibilities:’

Through their stories, institutions, and policies, environmentalists constantly reinforce the sense that nature is something separate from, and victimized by, humans. This paradigm defines ecological problems as the inevitable consequences of humans violating nature. Think of the verbs associated with environmentalism and conservation: “stop,” “restrict,” “prevent,” “regulate,” and “constrain.” All of them direct our thinking to stopping the bad, not creating the good.

…we must choose between a resentful narrative of tragedy and a grateful narrative of over coming.

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, Nordhaus and Shellenberger illustrate this argument with a practical example of how a politics of possibilities might be more effective than the status quo.

As the election enters its endgame, Democrats and their environmental allies face a political challenge they could hardly have imagined just a few months ago. America’s growing dependence on fossil fuels, once viewed as a Democratic trump card held alongside the Iraq war and the deflating economy, has become a lodestone instead. Republicans stole the energy issue from Democrats by proposing expanded drilling — particularly lifting bans on offshore oil drilling — to bring down gasoline prices. Whereas Barack Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires, Republicans at their convention gleefully chanted “Drill, baby, drill!” Obama’s point on conservation and efficiency was lost on an electorate eager for a solution to what they perceive as a supply crisis…


Ensuring Yellowstone’s Future

September 26th, 2008

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Todd Wilkinson, author of Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth, gave Professor Susan G. Clark’s new book Ensuring Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens a rave review in this week’s Jackson Hole News and Guide. For the last five years, I have worked on natural resource issues in the Yellowstone region. I could not agree more with Todd’s assessment of the book. Of course, my opinion has nothing to do with the fact Susan was my master’s degree advisor. ;-)

Compared with pulp fiction or even the latest sleaze in the National Enquirer, books that are written about the operational process of government bureaucracies often make a strong case for the virtue of narcolepsy.

What I mean to say is show me a dry scientific treatise on the topic of administering Western public land management agencies, and I’ll find you readers who would rather be waterboarded than crack open the pages.

Despite its unflashy title, Ensuring Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Choices for Leaders and Citizens by Susan Clark, founder of the Jackson-based Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and adjunct professor of environmental policy at Yale University, is actually a barn burner.

It’s one of the best books ever written about the major jurisdictional fiefdoms the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers and fish and game departments from three states – that collectively oversee the management of more than 18 million public acres in this famous corner of the American West…


Questions for Senator Inhofe

September 25th, 2008

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Today, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) released a report entitled Political Activity of Environmental Groups and Their Supporting Foundations. This document is an expanded version of a document published in 2004. The report’s general argument is that environmental groups are stealth advocates for the Democratic Party despite that environmental organizations claim to serve public interests:

Environmental activism has become a multibillion dollar industry in the U.S. Campaigns to save the whales or stop mining beg average Americans for their support through donation of their hard earned dollars. These environmental campaigns also receive millions from charitable foundations such as the PEW Foundation, Turner Foundation, and Heinz Foundation. But what most don’t know when they donate to a cause to “save the rainforest” or “save the polar bear” is that their money could end up being used for partisan activities that are only tangentially related, if related at all, to the cause for which they are intended…

…Because of the complicated web of 501(c), 527, and PAC organizations, it is clear that individuals who donate to a 501(c)(3) organization intending to contribute to the cause of the organization, have no clear mechanism for verifying that their donation was used for the cause. Unsuspectingly, these donors may be contributing to partisan activities when they originally intended their donation to aide an environmental cause. Additionally, there is not sufficient oversight over these organization to police their political and campaign activities.

Are contributors to environmental groups really so naïve that they do not understand the political implications of the groups they donate to? I doubt it.


A Call to Reinvigorate Environmentalism…

September 23rd, 2008

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I recently came across an interesting article by Jeffrey St.Clair published in February 2007. St.Clair is a progressive journalist/activist and is an outspoken critic of the effectiveness of environmental NGOs:

A kind of political narcolepsy has settled over the American environmental movement. Call it eco-ennui. You may know the feeling: restlessness, lack of direction, evaporating budgets, diminished expectations, a simmering discontent. The affliction appears acute, possibly systemic…

…this much is clear: the vigor of the environmental movement has been dissipated, drained by the enforced congeniality displayed in our disputes with Clinton and Bush, the Democrats in congress, and the grim, green-suited legions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Despite the rampages of the Bush administration, the big green groups can’t even rouse themselves into much more than the most reflexive kind of hysteria, fundraising letters printed in bold type…