Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

cultural bias trumps scientific logic

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

I am a great fan of CBC radio’s “Ideas” podcasts, hosted by Paul Kennedy. Past episodes are available without charge at, iTunes and other sites, and all are entertaining. But the episode I listened to last night was exceptional. The topic is cultural cognition, the tendency of persons to make up their minds about risk based on social and cultural values (prejudice) rather than empirical evidence. Here is a link to the 54-minute podcast:

This episode is one of a series recorded at the Stratford Festival. It features CBC Massey Lecturer and Founding Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs Janice Gross Stein; physician-scientist, author, and deep-sea explorer Dr. Joe MacInnis; and science broadcaster and writer Jay Ingram.

Paul Kennedy, “The Discovery of Other Worlds“, CBC Ideas, 1 December 2015.

Each of the three participants made important contributions, but I especially enjoyed that of Jay Ingram. His introductory statement begins at 12:51, ending at about the 31-minute mark. With the help of google, I was able to locate a short piece that Mr Ingram wrote on the subject three years ago. Here is a brief excerpt. (more…)

population ageing and economic growth

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Pundits frequently warn us to avoid population ageing, because of its negative effect on economic growth. FT reader Simon Ross, in contrast, sees population ageing as an opportunity to be seized.

An ageing population should encourage us to use the skills and experience that workers have developed during their careers into their later lives. A falling workforce can prompt us to improve both workforce participation among the marginalised, and levels of automation and efficiency.

…. Populations cannot grow forever. A falling population is an opportunity to reduce the cost of living as competition for housing and other resources falls, to reduce emissions and resource depletion, to move to sustainable energy production and to improve biodiversity from today’s low levels. For the individual, what matters is not the overall size of the economy but average per capita income, and how that income is distributed. [Emphasis added.]

Simon Ross, “Use the experience older workers have developed“, letter to the editor, Financial Times, 27 August 2015 (metered paywall).

Mr Ross is CEO of Population Matters, a UK-based advocacy group.

Pope Francis and environmental protection

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

Free market conservatives hate it, it fails to address the threat of overpopulation, and it dismisses carbon credits as a way to combat global warming. Nonetheless Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, will ultimately be recognised as one of the most significant events in the modern environmental movement. Above all, it takes a big step towards healing a breach between western religions and nature that dates back to the dawn of monotheism. ….

Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, … argued [long ago] in an essay on the origins of pollution that the arc of western religion has been to get the gods off our back so that humanity can do business. This started in ancient Greece, where moral space for exploiting nature was created by moving the gods out of the trees and exiling them to Mount Olympus.

The advent of monotheism took this further by bundling the deities into one God and placing Him in outer space. Throw in the Protestant revolution, which made material success virtuous, and it was but a short step to the throw­away consumer society Pope Francis rails against.

Eugene Linden, “A papal call to reconcile the natural, spiritual and industrial worlds“, Financial Times, 3 July 2015 (metered paywall).

American writer Eugene Linden (born 1947) has authored numerous books on environmental issues, most recently, The Ragged Edge of the World: Encounters at the Frontier Where Modernity, Wildlands, and Indigenous Peoples Meet (Viking, 2011).

For much, much more, see the 184-page encyclical letter of Pope Francis. It can be downloaded at the link below, which follows the opening paragraph of the encyclical.

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”



our relationship with trees

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Most often, the best treatment for an infected wild forest is to leave it alone, writes beloved naturalist Richard Mabey.

An insidious anthropomorphism governs our relationships with trees, from beliefs about their conception to judgments on their health. We persist in regarding them as frail humanoids in need of intensive care, not as autonomous organisms. For at least two centuries trees have been rebranded as the products of human enterprise, and their existence predicated on our behaviour as surrogate parents. We must plant, stake, weed them, employ hygienic or cosmetic surgery if they are to survive, and put them out of their misery when they don’t pass our tests of worthiness. What we shut our eyes to is that this pattern of ubiquitous, regimented intervention is part of what makes them susceptible to trouble. ….

A wood without any diseases or parasites would be a lifeless cohort of leafy poles. No leaf-eating insects, therefore no insect-eating birds. No rot-holes for bats and owls. No timber recycled back into the soil. Trees are social organisms. They tend to live with other trees, in a complex network of mutual dependency. They are linked by chains of benign underground fungi that distribute nutrients and information about insect predation, and which one ecologist has nicknamed “the wood-wide web”. If one species of tree succumbs to stresses, other species take its place. In individual trees, reduced vitality prolongs life. What we regard as “diseases” are often just the intricate exchanges and workings of the forest food-chain.

Exotic diseases, to which these exquisite networks are not adapted, are the exception, and there is no conceivable argument against a total ban on imports of tree material from areas where non-native afflictions are rampant. But we should reflect on how the ways we manage trees and woods provides conditions as conducive to epidemics as an overcrowded hospital: battery-grown saplings with minimal genetic variety; dense block planting with single species, often in unsuitable sites; suppression of natural regeneration; ignorance of trees’ natural immune systems and survival mechanisms. At every point we are the cause and aggravator of malignant tree diseases, but it is natural woodland that is likely to be the remedy.

Richard Mabey, “Wildwoods don’t need our help to survive ‘apocalyptic’ diseases“, Financial Times, 27 June 2015 (metered paywall).

UK nature writer Richard Mabey (born 1941) is author of numerous books, including Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants ( Ecco, 2011).

insuring against disastrous climate change

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

FT columnist Martin Wolf explains that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be seen as insurance, reduced probability of a huge catastrophe. We insure ourselves against disability or death, so why not pay also to insure the health and life of our planet?

Is there any significant likelihood that policy action will eliminate the risk of climate disaster? At present, the answer is no. ….

Climate Shock , a punchy new book …, explains why action is both so difficult and so important. The challenge is “almost uniquely global, uniquely long-term, uniquely irreversible and uniquely uncertain”. The book’s big contribution is on the last point: uncertainty. Climate change is a problem of insurance. For this, it is not median outcomes that matter most, but the outliers — the “fat tails” of the probability distribution of temperature. ….

Framing the challenge of climate change as a problem of insurance against disaster is intellectually fruitful. It also provides the right answer to sceptics. The question is not what we know for sure. The question is rather how certain we are (or can be) that nothing bad will happen. Given the science, which is well established, it is impossible to argue that we know the risks are small. This being so, taking action is logical. It is the right way to respond to the nature and scale of possible bad outcomes.

The authors [of the book] suggest that the very least we need to do is impose a global price on emissions of CO2 at $40 a tonne …. Now, however, the actual cost imposed on emissions is closer to minus $15 per tonne, because of vast subsidies to fossil fuel energy amounting to $550bn a year.

Martin Wolf, “Why climate uncertainty justifies action“, Financial Times, 9 June 2015 (metered paywall).

Martin Wolf is reviewing Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet (Princeton University Press, 2015), by Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman.

Gernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Martin Weitzman is professor of economics at Harvard University.

EconTalk host Russ Roberts interviewed Professor Weitzman on June 1st 2015. In the one hour podcast, they discuss his new book.

global warming continues

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

no slow down in global warming
Joe Romm, “NOAA Study Confirms Global Warming Speed-Up Is Imminent“, Climate Progress, 5 June 2015.

There is more at the link.

HT Mark Thoma.

Japanese turn away from seafood

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

Globalisation is affecting eating habits in Japan. The Japanese are consuming less seafood, more beef and other meats. This is not necessarily an unwelcome trend. It does relieve pressure on the stock of fish, leaving room for increased consumption in the rest of the world.

Japan may have brought sushi and sashimi to the world’s dining tables, but its younger consumers are turning their backs on fish in favour of burgers and fried chicken. ….

Japan’s fisheries ministry is hoping that appointing Kirimichan, a popular character in the shape of a salmon fillet, as a brand ambassador will shore up demand and lure younger customers to supermarket fish counters. ….

Meat consumption per capita in Japan overtook that of fish in 2006, and according to the fisheries ministry, annual consumption of fish per person fell by a third, from a peak of 40kg in 2001 to 27kg in 2013. This compares with a world average of about 20kg. ….

The slump in Japanese fish demand comes as consumption elsewhere in the world has been booming.

Emiko Terazono and Kana Inagaki, “Japanese youth turns its back on fish“, Financial Times, 26 May 2015 (metered paywall).


economic consequences of global warming

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Pilita Clark, environment correspondent for the Financial Times, reviews a book on the economic consequences of climate change, and possible responses to it.

The correct economic solution [for global warming] has been well understood for years, they [Wagner and Weitzman] argue: stop subsidising fossil fuels by about $15 a ton of C02 globally, and create a price of at least $40 a ton. But Climate Shock advises economists to stop demanding a global carbon price and start working on more politically possible solutions, such as fuel economy standards. That sounds dull compared with geoengineering. But it is also infinitely safer.

This is not a book for people deeply versed in climate policy, few of whom will find its contents remotely shocking. For the intelligent lay reader wanting a lively, lucid assessment of the economic consequences of global warming, however, it is well worth reading.

Pilita Clark, “‘Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet’, by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman“, Financial Times, 30 March 2015.

The first chapter of the book, published recently by Princeton University Press, can be viewed here.

global warming and US politics

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Martin Wolf looks at the implications for climate change of the Republican victory in recent midterm elections.

The most important consequence of this election may therefore be to bury what little hope remained of getting to grips with the risk of dangerous climate change. Countries cannot keep bits of the atmosphere to themselves. Moving off the world’s current trajectory is a collective task. Without US will and technological resources, the needed shift will not happen. Other countries will not – indeed cannot – compensate.

Many Republicans seem to have concluded man-made climate change is a hoax. If so, this is quite a hoax. Just read the synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One is asked to imagine that thousands of scientists have put together a complex fabrication in order to promote their not particularly remunerative careers, in the near certainty they will be found out. This hypothesis makes no sense.

Martin Wolf, “Republican midterm victory bodes ill for warming planet“, Financial Times, 12 November 2014.

Martin reminds us that the US is not only “the world’s largest and most technologically advanced economy, guarantor of the open world economy and greatest military power”. It “is also the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and among the highest emitters per head”.

deforestation and global warming

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The UN says the world must cut carbon emissions by some 40-70 per cent by 2050. This target cannot be reached if the current rate of deforestation does not dramatically slow. But any action to protect the world’s forests creates a dilemma: how can these vital areas be protected without unfairly holding back the economic growth of developing countries?

An important part of the solution is to enable rich-nation emitters to pay developing countries to maintain their forests. Compared to other carbon-reducing policies – such as investment in renewables – this is a very cheap option. ….

[But,] there is a constant risk that the protection of one part of a forest merely leads to another part of it being chopped down instead. Even if the government is fully committed to a scheme, its governance systems may not be able to protect an area from illegal destruction. International bodies therefore need to put in place agreed systems to certify that forests have both truly been protected and that the schemes are additional to plans that existed without the extra funding.

The role of forests in cutting carbon“, Financial Times, editorial, 26 May 2014.