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Archive for March, 2008

We’re glad to see that John Tierney gets what we were saying about climate change and behavioral economics the other week.

In his ‘Findings’ piece this week, Tierney points out that:

“We’re not good at making immediate sacrifices for an abstract benefit in the future. And this weakness is compounded when, as with climate change, we have a hard time even understanding the problem or the impact of our actions today.”

He quotes the University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler, co-author of a new book “Nudge,” in  suggesting that people need help when it comes to actually acting on any desires they have to do something about climate change.

“Getting the prices right will not create the right behavior if people do not associate their behavior with the relevant costs,” says Dr. Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics. “When I turn the thermostat down on my A-C, I only vaguely know how much that costs me. If the thermostat were programmed to tell you immediately how much you are spending, the effect would be much more powerful.”

No word, though, where (or even if) we can buy ourselves such a device.

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It’s not from elephants, though, and no animals are killed for it.  Mammoth ivory, the NY Times tells us, is a commodity in increasing abundance as the arctic tundra of Siberia is melting.

There’s a lot of it out there to be found, apparently:

The Siberian permafrost blankets millions of square miles, ranging in depth from a few feet to more than a mile and resembling frozen spinach.

Hidden in one of the upper layers of this mass, corresponding to the Pleistocene Epoch, are the remains of an estimated 150 million mammoths.

The trend has conservationists delighted that it leaves living animals less threatened.  Palaeontologists, though, are less sanguine.  As author Andrew Kramer writes:

In their growth rings and possible prehistoric human butcher marks, [mammoth tusks] hold a wealth of data on the ancient climate and peoples of Siberia that could shed light on, among other things, the debate about whether climate change or overhunting, or both, felled the mammoths.

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Many people feel that biofuels are not exactly the solution to climate change that others — especially in the current US administration — are claiming them to be.

They were joined by a number of European ‘top scientists’ this week, the Guardian reports.

In particular, says the article, Professor Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has warned that biofuels “could exacerbate climate change rather than combat it.”

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Proponents of sustainable living, recycling, ethical consumption and carbon offsets may be dismayed to hear that an environmental hero, James Lovelock — he of the original ‘Gaia’ hypothesis — thinks that all those ideas are pointless.

We have about twenty years left to enjoy life as we know it and then we’re essentially doomed to global disaster, Lovelock tells the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead in a profile that’s well worth a look.

“More alarming even than his apocalyptic climate predictions,” Aitkenhead reports, “is his utter certainty that almost everything we’re trying to do about it is wrong.”

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“Australia already has the worst record in the world for conserving its beautiful and unusual wildlife,” says the UK’s Independent in what’s already become a gloomy week for the world’s fauna and flora — and it’s still only Tuesday here in California.

Some 40% of all the mammal species that have become extinct over the past 200 years, says writer Kathy Marks, were Australian.  Now, it appears, climate change threatens a whole bunch more antipodean mammals — as well as frogs, turtles, finches and more.

Elsewhere, we learn that bats are suffering a terrible die-off in the Eastern USA, for a reason yet to be identified.

Frogs, meanwhile, have long been known to be under tremendous environmental pressure.  Some are now disputing the idea that Global Warming is the trigger, the NY Times reports today.  But even if that’s so, it does seem that the virus that causing much of the distress to frogs is spread by humans.

Finally, lovers of common Britain’s wildflowers — often otherwise known as weeds — are lamenting their diminishing presence in the nation’s fields and woods.  Intensive (i.e. in-organic) farming practices get the blame here.

Dynamic change is a part of nature.  Even large die-offs and population surges are common (think locusts, gypsy moths, squid).  But that’s not to defend our fooling with a system we hardly understand — a point likely to be brought painfully home to anyone on America’s East Coast bitten by a bug that a now-dead bat ought to have been snacking on this summer.

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. . . and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, no less.

Commodities and basic resources (like water and good arable land) are in increasingly short supply worldwide, notes the Journal. And while we’ve managed to avoid the wholesale disasters Malthusians have regularly warned against in the two centuries since Thomas Malthus wrote, this time, say authors Justin Lahart, Patrick Barta and Andrew Batson, things could be different.

One issue, they say, is that we already appear to have pushed the earth past a tipping point on climate change. Quoting Dennis Meadows, co-author of the 1970’s classic, “The Limits to Growth,” the article suggests that “environmental catastrophe may be inevitable even ‘if you quit damaging the environment.'”

The threats we currently face may, as in the past, spur technological innovations that enable both human populations and their living standards to keep growing. But unless and until that happens, competition for scarce resources will mean that “violent conflicts could ensue,” the article notes.

It’s interesting to see carbon-tax proponent Joesph Stiglitz quoted so much in the article as an authority and to see that the Journal takes human-caused global warming as, essentially, a fact.

All in all, it’s a clear-eyed look at the global-scale economic and political challenges we face when it comes to the distribution of our most fundamental resources. Although hardly revelatory, its conclusion is still welcome:

Indeed, the true lesson of Thomas Malthus, an English economist who died in 1834, isn’t that the world is doomed, but that preservation of human life requires analysis and then tough action.

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Since long before Joni Mitchell lamented how we’d paved over our paradises with parking lots, critics have regretted the degree to which human development comes at the expense of the natural landscape.

But we live in interesting times and one aspect of them is the renewed power that agriculture has in the economic balance of things. It has Allison Arieff in the NY Times joking that “housing developments may need to be razed to clear the way for more farmland.”

It’s an attractive notion. But too bad that the impetus for this change is the ethanol boom. As James J. Cramer points out in the other story referenced above:

Ethanol is an entirely inefficient method of producing energy, by some estimates consuming almost as much as it generates. It’s a fuel no one really wants. It’s difficult to transport because of its corrosive nature. And subsidizing it is causing runaway food costs and a nasty bout of inflation that’s hitting the poor hardest.

And that’s not to mention the environmental downside of running a vast proportion a nation’s farms as intensive, inorganic-chemical-supported mono-cultures.

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