Thursday, April 30, 2009

How Much Oil in Alaska?

*Note: my spring semester is over, so I will be publishing at a much greater frequency.

My goal is to dispel the falsehoods spread by talk show hosts and politicians. Last night an acquaintance said he had heard from several sources that there is about 60 years of oil for the U.S. in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge ANWR. I told him that what I had heard was that, given our current oil consumption rate, it was more like a two year supply (if it was our only source of oil).  To last 60 years the ANWR would have to contain more oil than Saudi Arabia ever had, and that gave him pause.

The problem is that people listen to talk-show hosts and believe everything they say. The talk-show host is not an expert on the subject, and what he says may be totally unreasonable, but many people accept his statements uncritically, and don't make an effort to find out for themselves.

When I got home that night, I looked up the statistics. According to Wikipedia ( "the total production from ANWR would be between 0.4 and 1.2 percent of total world oil consumption in 2030. Consequently, ANWR oil production is not projected to have a large impact on world oil prices..[24] … In 1998, the USGS estimated that between 5.7 and 16.0 billion barrels (2.54×109 m3) of technically recoverable crude oil and natural gas liquids are in the coastal plain area of ANWR, with a mean estimate of 10.4 billion barrels (1.65×109 m3), of which 7.7 billion barrels (1.22×109 m3) lie within the Federal portion of the ANWR 1002 Area.[17] … In 2007, the United States consumed 20.68 m bbls of petroleum products per day."

Using the mean estimate of 10.4 billion barrels, and an annual consumption rate of 20.68E6*365=7.54E9 barrels per year, it would take only 10.4E9/7.54E9=1.38 years to consume all of the oil. For the upper limit of 16 billion barrels we would have 16E9/7.54E9=2.1 years. Considering our rate of consumption of oil is continuously increasing, an estimate of two years supply is a reasonable upper limit.  So regardless of what Sarah Palin says, no, we don't have enough oil in Alaska to solve our energy problem.  In addition, if we do open the ANWR up to drilling, it would not contribute significantly to domestic crude oil production until 2018 (Wikipedia).

Water Pollution Case Study: Lake Erie

I grew up in Buffalo, New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when pollution was reaching its peak in the rust belt and the environmental movement was beginning. One of the watershed moments in the environmental movement was the discovery in 1978 of toxic waste underneath a school in Love Canal, near Niagara Falls and very close to Buffalo. Until I was six we lived down the street from Lake Erie, and I still recall walking along the shoreline with a clean-up crew. The Lake was very polluted at that time; signs posted near fishing areas stated severe limits on consumption of caught fish due to the threat of mercury poisoning. Not that there were many fish to catch; the only type of fish anyone caught was catfish. Why only catfish? Because catfish don’t need oxygen in the water to breathe; unlike other fish who use gills to extract dissolved oxygen from water, catfish obtain their oxygen by gulping air when they come to the surface. The problem in Lake Erie and many other bodies of water at that time was that it was eutrophic, i.e., oxygen-depleted. In the process of eutrophication, limiting nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen added to the water cause algae blooms. When the algae die, they decompose:

C6H12O6 + 6O2 = 6 CO2 + 6H2O

This consumes the oxygen dissolved in the lake water. In temperate regions such as upstate New York, lakes have two layers: a shallow, warm, buoyant layer and a deep, cold, dense layer. In a eutrophic lake, the shallow layer in contact with the atmosphere is oxygen-rich, but the deep layer becomes oxygen depleted because the dead algae sink to the bottom of the lake and decompose. In the fall and spring the density difference between the two layers disappears and they mix together. The problem is that, especially in the fall, the deep water has no oxygen, so when it mixes with the shallow water the resulting mixture does not have enough oxygen for fish to breathe, and they die in large numbers. This is still a widespread problem in many areas of the U.S.. In fact, there is now a huge “dead zone” near the Mississippi delta in the Gulf of Mexico that formed because fertilizer-derived nutrients caused algae blooms and eutrophication. The good news is that there is a solution. Simply removing phosphorous from detergents in areas surrounding Lake Erie led to a decline in algae blooms, and now the lake has mostly recovered. No one is worse off for using phosphate-free detergents, but for some reason in areas where regulations allow it (including my current home state of Tennessee) most detergents still contain phosphates, and eutrophication is still a problem.

Lake Erie is still not without problems. In summers, beaches are often temporarily closed after rainfall events. Why? Because wastewater disposal systems have limited capacity, and during heavy rains they fill up and then overflow into local streams, which flow to the lake. You may have noticed that water treatment plants and pumping stations usually have overflow ponds with pipes near the top that drain into a stream. When it rains, you can observe the overflow ponds fill up. Once they are full, any additional wastewater flows out through the pipe and dumps into the stream. Ironically, water in streams is usually dirtiest after rainfall events. Currently many cities are in the process of upgrading their wastewater systems under federal mandate. The problem is the same problem we face with highways; you can add more lanes, but traffic will build until a few years later it as just as congested as it was before you added the lanes. Population growth means that the ideal size of a service system is a moving target, and these systems frequently require expensive expansion projects. The city of Nashville had to increase its water bill in 2009 in order to pay for the expansion of its wastewater system, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lawn Care

I’m a pretty modest guy, but whenever I see my neighbors spending huge amounts of time and money maintaining their green grass lawns I feel smug. My yard requires almost no effort and no money to maintain. True, it’s a full acre, which is about 4-5 times larger than I would like, but the zoning rules in my suburban neighborhood require that lots be no smaller than one acre (see how fast that changes when gas permanently rises above $5 per gallon). As a result, I require a small lawn tractor to mow my lawn, and I feel guilty about the amount of gas I use, and the large amount of raw materials needed to make the mower (let alone the cost). We use a reel mower for small areas that are hard to get to. So other than mowing, my lawn is maintenance-free. Why? Because I let nature decide what will grown on my lawn. Nature wisely chooses the plants that are best acclimated to our climate. This leads to a rich diversity of healthy plants carpeting my lawn. What are my neighbors doing? They partake in a cultural aberration that is almost unique to the U.S. and that began after WWII: they are growing monoculture grasses. Only one grass species, nay, only one plant species is allowed to grow on their lawns. And if you have unlimited amounts of oil to provide energy for machines to mow, aerate, and edge, and to make fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, why be limited to only indigenous species? Why not choose a grass that you saw on vacation on a golf course hundreds of miles away? Maybe it’s not the species that is best suited to the local climate, but all of the chemicals will make up for that. If pests try to dig in your lawn, you can easily find poisons targeted for each type of pest. All it takes is time and money to kill every living thing but one: that single grass species that you love. If you’re wealthy, you can pay companies like Chemlawn to come and broadcast spray your yard every week with chemicals designed to kill everything except your precious grass. But don’t let your kids or pets play on the lawn! Well, no worries there, how often do you see kids nowadays playing outside? As long as you can see a uniform sea of green outside your window, who cares if your environment has become sterile?

Obviously what we’ve described is an unsustainable, even bizarre form of behavior. I feel smug because I haven’t mindlessly followed the self-defeating lawn care practices of my neighbors. Why fight against nature when it can be your ally? What is the purpose of a lawn, anyway? It’s nice to have a lawn for the kids to play sports on, but nowadays parents cart them off to manicured ball fields many miles away to play organized sports. Lawns today serve almost no purpose. Why do I have an acre of grass (actually, it’s mostly onions and clover)? I don’t want it because I don’t use it for anything. Yes, I did play with my kids on the lawn when they were little, but we could have done the same on a yard ¼ the size. We would have been happy to walk a block or two to play in a neighborhood park, but suburban neighborhoods aren’t set up that way. In fact, the design of suburban neighborhoods does not follow their function at all. People appreciate that machines like cars should be designed to perform their function most efficiently. But most people cannot even describe the function of their yard, so how could they decide on an optimal design?

Don’t just settle for the mindless suburban mindset by growing a green grass lawn. Avoid the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides, and of fertilizers that pollute streams and cause eutrophication. Avoid wasting the large amount of time and energy required to maintain it. Don’t fight against nature: let the plants that are most fit win control of your yard, because nature knows best.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Evils of Coal

*I am rushing to post a few blogs for my Sustainability students to read before their final exam, so this entry is only partially complete.

*Note: An excellent recent article in the New York Times makes many of the points that I hope to make in this book. See:

"New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears" <>

From the global warming perspective, you might think that decreasing oil supply would be good because it would lead to decreasing CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, we are likely to turn to other fossil fuels that emit more CO2 per unit energy (*give table with CO2 per unit energy). And the dirtiest fuel we have available is coal.

Coal companies are now under pressure, and in classic corporate fashion are responding with an ad campaign that makes a joke of the truth. The ad I saw on TV last night emphasized in audio and text that coal is a clean fuel. Actually, it’s the dirtiest fuel I can think of. If you have ever held a piece of coal, perhaps on Christmas in a year you were “naughty”, you know that it is dirty. You touch it and your hands turn black. If you burn it you will see lots of dirty smoke, and when you’re done burning it you will have a pile of ashes. It’s very similar to charcoal; both form by partial oxidation (burning) of organic matter, usually cellulose-rich plant material such as wood, and both are dirty. Coal was the preferred fuel of the 19th century in England, when everything was covered with a layer of black soot. It was not coincidence that cancer was discovered in England at that time. A doctor noticed that chimney sweeps often had testicular cancer. This was because the sweeps were usually orphans pressed into hard labor, who were forced to take off all of their clothes so they could fit inside a chimney. They would climb the chimneys to clean them, and their bodies were always covered in black soot.

One of the first laws against air pollution came in 1300 when King Edward I decreed the death penalty for burning of coal.  At least one execution for that offense is recorded.  But economics triumphed over health considerations, and air pollution became an appalling problem in England.  ~Glenn T. Seaborg, Atomic Energy Commission chairman, speech, Argonne National Laboratory, 1969

But the most dangerous effect of burning coal is not the visible carcinogenic pollutants that are released when it is burned, nor the fly ash that remains after burning; it is the huge amount of CO2 that is released to the atmosphere. Coal is fossilized plant matter, so the reverse of Eq. 1 shows what happens when we burn it. Coal releases more CO2 per unit energy than any other form of fuel (see Table ?). So not only does use of coal lead to mountaintop removal, failure of coal slurry retention ponds (Martin County, KY 2000), pollution, and failure of fly ash retention ponds (e.g., Kingston, TN 2008), it also leads to maximum possible CO2 emissions and global warming. I’m sorry, what were the selling points for coal? Oh, that we have a lot of it? Well, we have a lot of sewage too, but that doesn’t mean we would want to use it for anything.

Let me give you some examples of how coal companies operate. Massey Coal is an example of the worst of American corporations. The movie “Sludge” shows how a subsidiary of Massey, Martin County Coal, released 306 million gallons of coal slurry into the Coldwater Fork of Wolf Creek in eastern KY in 2000, which contaminated local drinking water. A Martin County Coal representative told residents that the slurry posed no health threats because everything in the slurry could be found in the periodic table. Whoa, that was reassuring. Once the Bush administration took office, the investigation into the cause was shut down, the one dissenter was fired, and Massey was ordered to pay a fine of only $110,000, which amazingly was later lowered to only $1000 (*check). Yes, that’s what we pay those government regulators for. In 2008 Massey had accrued fines of roughly $2.4 billion for violations of the Clean Water Act; in 2008 they agreed to pay $20 million to the U.S. EPA. Also in 2008 Massey paid $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties resulting from a mine fire in West Virginia in 2006, the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry ( Recently I heard on the radio that Massey is involved in a lawsuit that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems a competitor, Harman Mining, refused to sell a coal mine to Massey, so Massey bought all of the property surrounding that mine and prevented access to the property. The competitor sued in court and won $50 million, but Massey appealed it to the State Supreme Court. Massey’s chief executive Don Blankenship arranged donations of $3 million to get Brent Benjamin elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the $3 million was spent on a character assassination campaign against Benjamin’s opponent). When Massey’s appeal made it to the Court of Appeals Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case, and ended up casting the deciding vote in favor of Massey. Gee, do you think he was biased? Do you think Massey bought the court’s decision? Why do we allow the public election of judges in this country, anyway? The U.S. Supreme Court head the case in March 2009, and we are currently waiting to see if they reinstate the judgement against Massey.

Here is some dirt on Massey CEO Don Blankenship from Wikipedia ( “On November 22, 2008 the Williamson (Daily News (Williamson, WV) reported that Massey CEO Don Blankenship compared the editor of the Charleston Gazette, James A. Haught, to Osama bin Laden at a public speech to the Tug Valley Mining Institute on Nov 20 [59]. In the videotaped speech, Blankenship called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid and former Vice President Al Gore "crazies" and "greeniacs" [60]. He referred to the support of President Jimmy Carter for energy conservation in the 1970s to communism: "Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that's the first stage."

On April 3, 2008, ABC News reported that CEO Blankenship attacked an ABC News cameraman at a Massey facility near Belfry, Kentucky as the camerman attempted to question Blankenship about photos published in the New York Times [61] showing Blankenship on vacation in Monaco with West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard. "If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot," Blankenship stated in the video[62]. Following the incident, Justice Maynard lost his bid for re-election to the West Virginia Supreme Court in the West Virginia primary election [63].

Clean coal is an oxymoron, similar to “healthy cigarettes”. Coal is the dirtiest form of energy we have. When Obama refers to clean coal, he means that all of the CO2 is captured and sequestered.

See Clean Coal Air Freshener parody:

Clean Coal:


If there is magic on this planet, it is in water. Loren Eiseley, in “The Flow of the River”, The Immense Journey.

Water is already a limiting resource in many areas of the world, and has been so throughout human history. The earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia such as Sumeria most likely crumbled due to water shortages, specifically salinization of irrigated fields that caused food shortages, and the armed conflicts that ensued (see “Water Conflict Chronology”, Gleick, 2008).

Little [1] gives an example that provides a clear contrast between the sustainable approach and “business as usual”. When farmers in Garden City, Kansas learned from state and federal geologists in the late 1960’s that the water they were pumping was geologic water and would soon run out, they responded in two distinct ways. Most purchased more pumps and began pumping faster. Others like Rodger Funk chose to change their farming methods in order to conserve water and keep their farms viable when the groundwater ran out. Funk started using methods like no-till agriculture, and planted crops like wheat and grain sorghum that required less water. The goal was to rely only on rainwater by capturing and using all rainfall, which averages 18 inches in southwestern Kansas.

In his article “How Much is Clean Water Worth”, Jim Morrison [2] makes clear that investments in water conservation and in preserving ecosystems that provide fresh water pay for themselves. In the field of ecological economics, ecosystems are capital assets because they provide services such as clean water. For example, New York City relies on the Catskill Mountains to the north to provide fresh water. It was cheaper for NYC to preserve that ecosystem by spending $1.3 billion on upstate sewage treatment plants than it would have been to build a filtration plant in the city for $6-8 billion and operate it for $350-400 million per year. Thus, the value of the water that the Catskills provides is easily hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars per year. The Catskills provide other ecosystem services such as flood control, food, and shelter, in addition to its scenic beauty and the recreation activities it provides such as trout fishing, both of which bring in lots of tourism dollars to the area. Another excellent example that Morrison [2] provides is the restoration of the Napa River in Napa, California to its original floodplain to reduce flooding. This project cost only $250 million, but it saved an estimated $1.6 billion in flood damage repair costs over the next century. And within one year of restoration, flood insurance rates dropped 20% and real estate prices rose 20%. There are many examples like this that illustrate that taking the soft path and relying on nature to provide ecosystem services is not only cost effective but preserves the beauty of nature.

The movie “Flow” [3] describes the problems of water exploitation by multinational corporations and the privatization of water supplies in developing countries. Since water-borne diseases are the leading killer of children less than 5 years old in the developing world, efforts to provide clean water in these countries should be a top priority. What is the best approach? Since water is essential for survival, we must consider access to clean drinking water a fundamental right. The chosen approach must therefore guarantee access to all. It is this one essential requirement that seems to have been overlooked in efforts to privatize water supply in countries like Bolivia. The World Bank pressured the government of Bolivia (which is deeply in debt to the World Bank) to privatize their water, which they did in 1999. Although the agreement was for the multinational corporation Suez to provide universal access to water, they neglected to provide water to the poorest citizens. Civil demonstrations turned into riots, and in 2007 the government rescinded their contract with Suez and returned the water to the people. In other countries like South Africa, even the poorest of the poor are required to pay for their water; when they cannot afford to pay, they are forced to steal water or drink unsafe water, which often leads to death.

Why didn’t privatization work in these countries? On the surface, it makes sense to contract a corporation with decades of experience to set up a water distribution system. This is a complicated, expensive task that many countries in developing countries are not prepared to execute. And when water is in short supply, it makes sense to treat it as a commodity, because charging for water encourages people to conserve it and not be wasteful. However, governments need to work with the corporations to ensure that they provide water even to the poorest. They should subsidize access to water so that the poorest do not have to pay. In the U.S. we subsidize food and water, heating oil, and telephone access, because these are essential needs (telephone access is necessary for emergencies). If private companies don’t build the water infrastructure in developing countries, who will? The government could oversee the planning and sub-contract the construction, but since it’s unlikely that anyone in the government has experience in developing water distribution systems, it’s doubtful that the process will be effective. Governments in developing countries need to work closely with multinational corporations to build their infrastructure. The goal is to build safe, reliable, and cost-effective water supply systems as quickly as possible to save as many lives as possible. The U.N. estimates that it would cost 30 billion U.S.D. to provide safe water to everyone in the world. This is a pittance; probably over 100 individuals in the world have that much money, and it could be used to save millions of lives each year. Ironically, 100 billion U.S.D. are spent each year globally for bottled water.

Another problem highlighted by the movie “Flow” [3] is the strong financial incentive for multinational corporations like Nestle and Coca-Cola to extract groundwater to bottle and sell. In most countries, including the U.S., you are allowed to pump as much groundwater as you please out of the ground, as long as you own the land. This is why smart people like T. Boone Pickens are extracting groundwater from their land for free and then selling it to cities. This policy is particularly unfair when multinational corporations like Coca-Cola buy land in developing countries, extract all of the water out of the ground at no charge, bottle and sell it for four dollars per bottle, and when the water dries up, pack up and leave the country. The indigenous people get no money from the sale of their most valuable resource, and they are left with no water. As long as people continue to pay outlandish prices for bottled water, there will be an incentive for corporations to exploit the developing world.

The movie "Flow" [3] and many other environmentally-themed movies and books paint a very bleak picture. That is because the authors are trying to motivate their audience and encourage them to take action to improve the situation. However, watching many of these movies or reading many of the papers may lead you to conclude that there are just too many problems and that we can never fix all of them. Just remember that you can always look at these problems in two ways: is the glass half empty, or half full? The reality is that several hundred years ago most human beings in towns and cities lacked access to clean drinking water, and a much higher percentage of humans died from water-borne diseases. In the developed world these diseases have been almost entirely wiped out, which was a huge accomplishment. What remains frustrating is that, although we know how to eliminate water-borne diseases, we haven't done so in many countries of the world. So while the situation has improved, it hasn't improved enough.

1. Little, J.B., The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source. Scientific American Earth 3.0, 2009.

2. Morrison, J., How Much is Clean Water Worth? National Wildlife, 2005: p. 24, 26-28.

3. Salina, I., Flow: For Love of Water. 2007, Oscilloscope. p. 84 min.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Biodiversity is measured by the number of species present in a system [1]. It is not accurately quantified because we have discovered only 1.5-1.8 million species, less than half of the total estimated amount of between 3.6-100 million ([1], p. 14). Most of the undiscovered species are small in size, but even rare large mammals are still occasionally discovered in remote localities. The factors that cause loss of biodiversity (extinction of species) are summarized by the acronym HIPPO (p. 50): Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Population, and Overharvesting. The driving force for most modern extinctions is human population growth, which directly leads to the leading cause of extinction, habitat destruction. The near extinction of the Vancouver Island marmot is a result of clear cutting of forest to harvest timber; humans either wipe out species’ habitats during the process of extraction of natural resources (in this case, timber) or occupy the land, killing or displacing species from their ecosystem.

Arguments supporting conservation of biodiversity:

· Ecosystems become less robust as component species become extinct, and therefore less effective at cleaning our air and water and enriching our soil.

· The current extinction rate is 100 to 1000 times higher than before man. Previous mass extinctions show that evolution requires ~10 million years to restore diversity to predisaster levels. Thus, our descendants will suffer.

· Once a species goes extinct, it is lost forever. With each lost species, we lose valuable scientific information and potential products including life-saving pharmaceuticals.

We can preserve a small number of species in zoos, but we cannot preserve most small species that are vital parts of ecosystems. Moreover, like species, once an ecosystem is gone, it is lost forever (even if we develop the technology to replicate entire ecosystems far in the future, the space will not be available).

I have personally witnessed the frailty of ecosystems, and the devastating feeling of loss at their passing. When I was a child, my family would vacation on the east coast of southern Florida, in West Palm Beach. Up until the early 1970’s there was a beautiful coral reef in Phipps Park. We would return each year to skin dive, and the incredible diversity of marine life fascinated me. Those experiences convinced me at an early age to become a scientist. However, the last year we went to Phipps Beach, about 1973, the entire reef was dead. All of the fish, eels, and urchins were gone, and the sand on the beachfront had washed away, exposing the dead reef. The reef was subareal in places, which I had never seen before. I couldn’t believe how one year could change paradise into a wasteland. I questioned people on the beach, and learned that during the previous year the anglers had started to catch parrotfish because they found them to be tasty. My theory was that overfishing removed one of the critical components of the reef ecosystem. Parrotfish graze on coral reefs, nibbling the reef down to keep it below the waterline, passing the hard parts through their digestive systems, and then excreting sand-sized particles. Without the parrotfish, the reef grew above the waterline and died, and without a living reef the entire ecosystem collapsed. This type of “domino effect” has been observed in many ecosystems, although in general ecosystems are more robust, and can survive the loss of multiple species or experience multiple forms of degradation before the completely collapse.

In his book “The Future of Life”, E.O. Wilson is most interested in small species including insects and microorganisms (his research specialty is ants). In terms of number of individuals, number of species, and even biomass, these are the dominant animal groups on earth; large mammals are relatively insignificant. Each species is a product of billions of years of evolution, and microorganisms hold a wealth of genetic information, yet we are unaware of the existence of most species. “Among the multicellular organisms of Earth in all environments, the smallest species are also the least known” ([1], p. 15). Many may prove to be invaluable as sources of medicines or for bioengineering, but only if we discover and study them before they go extinct. Some have unique properties that enable them to live in extreme environments of high or low temperature, pressure, and salinity. These organisms are being intensively studied because they may yield insights into the origin of life on earth and possibly other planets. Small organisms lie at or near the base of the food chain, and if enough of them go extinct the entire ecosystem could crumble, and biodiversity would plummet. Also, since life regulates the environment to keep it livable (the concept of Gaia) then extinction of these species may make the earth uninhabitable for us.

Wilson views human beings as a part of nature; we cannot be separated from it because it is part of us. Our ancestors evolved in the environment over millions of years; we are happiest when we are in the same environment occupied by our ancestors (e.g., in a savannah). Because of our brains and the energy we obtain from fossil fuels, we have the power to destroy nature; we have already destroyed a large percentage of natural habitats and caused the extinctions of many species. However our brains also give us the ability to consider our choices, and we could choose to dedicate some of our resources to preserving ecosystems. We have the power to save nature because we know what factors cause species to become extinct (HIPPO) and we have a plan to reduce or eliminate those factors at a relatively low economic cost ([1], Chpt. 7). However, if we don’t take action soon, we may pass the “point of no return” and become unable to save nature. This may make life difficult or impossible for us, as nature is our “life support system”.

Wilson advocates the purchase by non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) of large undeveloped contiguous tracts of land in areas that have high biodiversity and set them aside as reserves in an effort to preserve as many species as possible. The global “hotspots” that are a high priority to purchase are at risk and have high concentrations of species ([1], p. 160). Scientific considerations dictate that each reserve should be large in area because the number of species a reserve can support is roughly proportional to the fourth root of its area ([1], p. 58); also, large size makes them less vulnerable to human activities and invasion of alien species ([1], pg. 177). The reserves should be implemented in three steps to maximize their effectiveness ([1], pp. 177-8): 1) creation of reserves, 2) restoration by reclaiming developed land to enlarge reserves, and 3) connect reserves using large natural corridors. Other elements of the plan ([1], pp. 161-4) include preserving existing frontier forests, ceasing all logging of old-growth forests, protecting freshwater and marine ecosystems, continuing scientific and mapping studies of species and ecosystems, using biodiversity to improve health and make money, and supporting population planning to reduce the rate of increase of human population. Together these changes will help reduce the negative impacts represented by the letters in “HIPPO”. The plan is economically feasible because the total cost of $30 billion is only 1/1000 of the current annual world domestic product. It is politically feasible because it relies on NGO’s and private donations.

One of the arguments against Wilson’s plan is that it is just another example of wealthy developed countries using their money to steal land from poor countries. How can Wilson’s plan be made attractive to the governments and citizens of developing countries, and how could it actually benefit them? To understand how people in developing countries will react to conservation proposals proposed by citizens of developed countries, we have to put ourselves in their position. They will ask “why should we agree to the demands of the U.S. to limit our economic activities and preserve our natural areas for the global good when the U.S. has already become rich by plundering their own?” The U.S. must accept that other countries will not agree to make sacrifices if the U.S. does not make some of its own.

In general, people in developing countries want to raise their standard of living, and land is usually essential to accomplish that goal. They will resent the purchase of land in their countries by foreign concerns unless they actually profit, not just in the short term by a lump sum payment, but in the long term. Conservation must be made profitable for native peoples, perhaps by promoting ecotourism or by identifying or growing plants for pharmaceuticals. Once the native people recognize that the preserved land is a long-term source of income, they will be motivated to protect the land. Involving natives in the process of making decisions that affect the reserve, and guaranteeing that the reserve will be a source of jobs and income, gives natives a stake in conservation.

1. Wilson, E.O., The Future of Life. 2002: Knopf.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Peak Oil

The public hates negativity and pessimism. When Geophysicist M. King Hubbard predicted in 1956 that oil production in the U.S. would peak in the early 1970’s, both the scientific community and the public made him a pariah. However, when production peaked in 1970 as he predicted, many scientists accepted him as a prophet (most of the public remained unaware of his predictions). Many people don’t remember that up until the early 1970’s the U.S. was the Saudi Arabia of the world. However, since the early 1970’s the U.S. has increasingly depended on foreign countries like Saudi Arabia to feed its voracious appetite for oil. We now rely on unstable third world countries to fuel our cars, and we finance despots and wars to maintain our precious oil supply. Even George W. Bush acknowledged in 2008 that the U.S. is addicted to oil. The effects on foreign countries of the U.S. addiction to oil are very similar to the effects of the U.S. addiction to illegal drugs: the flow of money from the wealthy U.S. leads to corruption, crime, and political instability in third world countries. Our addiction has caused scores of countries and millions of people to suffer. Moreover, our dependence on foreign countries for oil has obviously decreased our national security.

Now that the U.S. depends on foreign countries for 2/3 of its oil, we must be concerned not only about the reliability of our existing suppliers but also the natural limits to oil production. When will global oil production peak and then begin a steady decline of decreasing supply and increasing demand and cost? In his book “Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage”, a Geologist from Yale University named Kenneth Deffeyes [1] argued that the peak would be somewhere close to the year 2005. I used data made available by BP Oil on their website to plot world oil production through 2007:


The data indicate that oil production peaked in 2006 (we will need to collect data for a few more years to confirm this). The increase in gasoline prices and the gas shortages of 2008 certainly made U.S. citizens acutely aware of their addiction to  gasoline:


Good evidence that the peak has already arrived is given by Andrew Nikiforuk in his book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent”[2]. He notes that the biggest supplier of oil to the U.S. is no longer Saudi Arabia, but our next-door neighbor Canada. U.S. citizens are happy because there is less of a risk that money we spend on oil will end up in the hands of terrorists who target us. However, Canadian oil primarily comes from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, and mining of this “dirty” oil creates huge environmental problems, including much higher CO2 emissions per unit energy because large amounts of natural gas are used to refine this dirty oil. Production of tar sand oil emits roughly 100 to 650 pounds of CO2 per barrel, compared with North Sea oil that emits only ~20 pounds per barrel. Nikiforuk calls this “a switch from bloody light oil to dirty heavy oil”, and concludes that it is not in the best interests of the U.S. or Canada.

Of course, the concept of peak oil is neo-Malthusian. There is a finite supply of oil in the ground, so it cannot last indefinitely. I don’t think that Cornucopianists dispute this; rather, they believe that through our ingenuity we will find other sources of energy. However, it bears reminding that any non-renewable resource can ultimately become depleted, so taking the long-term view, it makes sense to increase our reliance on renewable sources of energy. Non-renewable resources are finite and subject to Malthusian limits. Renewable resources are unlimited.

Let me give an example of how knowledge can give you an economic advantage. I have always favored small cars, initially because they produce less pollution, but later because I knew the price of gas would increase due to Malthusian limits. Having small, fuel-efficient cars gave me some decided advantages. For example, in the wake of hurricane Rita in 2008 there were gas shortages in several major cities, including my home in Nashville. My family’s fuel-efficient cars were able to get us through the weeklong shortage without a refill. Also in 2008, the price of gas increased to $4 per gallon. Suddenly everyone wanted to trade in his or her large SUV’s for smaller, more economical cars. The value of large vehicles plummeted, and it became so bad that car dealers stopped buying large used SUV’s, and wouldn’t even take them for trade-ins because they were piling up in the dealer’s lots. Domestic auto manufacturers, who had promoted large vehicles for years, were caught off-guard. The market had changed suddenly, and most of the vehicle models they offered were no longer in demand. Sales and profits plummeted, and the auto manufacturers started hemorrhaging money. In this case, the market punished both individuals and large corporations for their short-sightedness. Individuals not only were stuck filling up their gas-guzzling trucks and SUV’s with $4 per gallon gas, but the value of their vehicles plummeted and they had great difficulty selling them. Although the price of gas dropped precipitously in late 2008 due to the economic recession, I can state with confidence that it will soon go back up to $4 per gallon and higher. Take my word for it: don’t buy a large vehicle. It is a bad investment. Purchase a small, economical car, preferably a hybrid car, because it will not only be a better investment, but will also be better for the environment.

1. Deffeyes, K.S., Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. 2001, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 208.

2. Nikiforuk, A., Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. 2008, Vancouver, BC, Canada: Greystone Books.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Outline


What is sustainability?

Why should I try to live sustainably?

Unsustainable Societies

The Collapse of Ancient Civilizations
Ghost Towns

What is the Evidence that our Current Lifestyle is Unsustainable?

How Should I Start Living Sustainably?·

What are the near-term challenges to sustainability?

Population Growth



Energy Resources: Introduction

Energy Supply and Demand

Sustainable Energy Policy

Peak Oil
Global Warming

The Evils of Coal




What are the Solutions?

Stabilize Population (brief)

Switch to Renewable Energy

Why Not Nuclear?

Change the energy infrastructure

Hydrogen for energy transportation

Change the Economics

Economics and Capitalism

Personal Financial Considerations

The Role of Corporations

Change the Way You Live: Living for the Future

Reduce Your Consumption
Reduce Your Waste
Change Your Home
Move to High-Density Housing Close to Your Workplace
Design Your Home Wisely
Sustainable Architecture
Make your home efficient
Energy Conservation
Water Conservation
Change Your Transportation
Change What You Drive
Change How You Drive
Use Mass Transit
Change What You Eat and Drink
Change How You Use Your Land
Sustainable Landscaping
Organic Gardening
Be Good to the Environment
Steps I have taken to reduce my impact on the environment

The Role of Education

Where is the U.S. Headed?

What if the Worst Happens?


What is Most Likely to Happen

Friday, April 10, 2009

Steps I have taken to reduce my impact on the environment

I've been pretty busy the last two weeks, so while I have several sections that are partially complete, I don't have a completed section of text to post. In the meantime, I thought you, my readers, might be interested in looking at what I have done so far to reduce my environmental impact.  I think that it's important to "walk the walk", not just "talk the talk".

  • Reduce
    • Have reduced consumption of meat, particularly red meat
    • Print less frequently, almost always duplex
    • Water
      • Low-flow showerheads
    • Electricity
      • Switched from desktop to notebook computers, use energy-saving modes, turn off at night
      • Have replaced over half of my lighting fixtures with compact fluorescent bulbs
      • Use motion-activated security lights
      • Routinely shut off lights in rooms that are not being used
      • Have energy star-rated clothes washer, dishwasher, window AC unit, printer, computer monitor
      • Use smart outlet strips to reduce vampire currents
    • Gas/Transportation
      • Bought fuel-efficient cars
      • I drive a 1994 Saturn with > 115,000 miles that gets ~30 mpg
      • Combine errands to save gas and time
      • Keep car tires properly inflated
      • Shop at local farmer's market each week, purchase locally-grown organic foods
  • Reuse
    • Have always avoided disposable products; recently stopped using disposable water bottles
    • Stopped using disposable shopping bags, or when I do I reuse them for storing recyclables (paper) or as trash bags (plastic)
    • Give old products to Goodwill or Amvets rather than throwing out
    • I have worn hand-me down clothes my entire life; I had two older brothers, and more recently I wear hand-me down clothing from my father, father-in-law and brother-in-law (everything but underwear)
    • Buy used clothes at the thrift store
  • Recycle
    • Recycle cardboard boxes, paper, plastics, aluminum, glass, tin cans, batteries, computers
  • Increase efficiency
    • Paid extra $ for energy efficient HVAC
    • Bought house close to work
  • Have continuously increased the proportion of organically-grown foods in diet (including those purchased in supermarket)
  • Started a compost pile
  • Started organic farming of vegetables
  • Do not use pesticides, very limited use of locally applied herbicide (not broadcast)
  • Stopped using antibacterial soap (contains triclosan, which is an endocrine disruptor, can react with chlorine to form chloroform, a carcinogen, and can promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria)
  • Invest in green (socially responsible) mutual funds
  • Caulked windows
  • Started using phosphate-free dishwashing detergent
  • Switched to paperless bill paying and billing
  • Reduced the volume of junk mail we receive (I forget how I did this)
  • Set the thermostat temperature low in winter and high in summer:


Plans for future:

  • Switch to TVA's Green Switch program to invest in alternative energy sources
  • Use a clothesline instead of a dryer
  • Replace old incandescent holiday lights with light-emitting diode lights(LEDs)
  • Have chickens in backyard for eggs & meat
  • Grow tra (Vietnamese catfish) in a pond
  • Replace all disposable batteries with rechargeable batteries
  • Replace refrigerators, clothes washer, and dryer with Energy Star models
  • Cancel newspaper

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What is sustainability?

Till now man has been up against Nature; from now on he will be up against his own nature.  ~Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future, 1964

I became interested in the idea of sustainability early in the 1970’s when I was in junior high school. I distinctly remember reading a book called “Future Shock” by Alvin Tofler. I can’t find a copy of the book today, but my recollection is that it described the huge amount of waste that our society produces. The book took the Malthusian approach, named after Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 published a paper titled “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. Malthus argues that agricultural production would limit human population growth. Unchecked population growth could lead to a “Malthusian catastrophe” in which widespread starvation would reduce the population to a level that could be supported at a subsistence level. This bleak view of the future was later supported by studies of animal populations. For example, at times when food is abundant, deer populations increase at an exponential rate, but when food is scarce for extended periods of time (due to drought, extended winters, etc.) deer will die in large numbers, and the deer population plummets. This cycle repeats indefinitely, and widespread recognition of this problem is the justification for the culling of deer populations by hunters. The Malthusian concept has more recently been extended to all resources that are essential for maintaining our current lifestyle, including metals and oil, and people who subscribe to this view are labeled “neo-Malthusians”.

I think all of us have seen the Malthusian concept in action. For example, in my laboratory I have succulent plants in two pots that I purchased about ten years ago. If you take good care of plants, they grow over time, and their pots must be replaced with bigger pots to accommodate the growth. Humanity’s pot is the earth, and unfortunately it is fixed in size. Being lazy when it comes to plant care, I never changed the pot, so the plants were very healthy while growing then reached the limits of growth and partly withered. Branches fell off and died, and now the plants seem to have reached a steady-state where their growth is not prodigious and the existing branches appear a little less healthy. This is analogous to the Malthusian catastrophe: once the sustainability limit is reached (in this analogy the limit is set by the amount of root that can fit in the pot), there is a die-off and the human population (or in this case plant mass) decreases, and then continues at a subsistence level thereafter. Cornucopianists argue that we can grow the pot, but notice that for plant growth to resume we must grow not only the pot but also the amount of soil, water, and fertilizer. Any one of these essential components could limit growth; unlimited plant growth can occur only if there is unlimited growth in the availability of these critical resources. Can humans grow the supply of every resource that we need, indefinitely?

The Malthusian view is generally supported by scientists, particularly ecologists who see it at work in ecosystems as described above. The opposing view is espoused by “cornucopianists”, who contend that Malthusian limits do not apply to human populations because our intelligence can overcome those limits. Cornucopianists can be considered optimists because they believe there are no limits to growth, while Malthusians are more pessimistic. The debate between Malthusians and Cornucopianists is embodied in the bet that scientist Paul Ehrlich made with economist Julian Simon in 1980. Ehrlich posited that population growth would increase demand on a limited supply of metals, causing the price of those metals to increase in one decade. Simon won the bet because the price of all five metals decreased. However, Simon lost a less-known wager that he made with David South of the Auburn school of Forestry in 1995. Simon wrongly bet that timber prices would decrease in five years. Of course, as a scientist I believe that economists like Simon are wrong, and to support my view I simply point out that economists’ predictions about the future are more often wrong than not; witness the economic collapse of 2008 that was completely unanticipated. As pointed out by the biologist E.O. Wilson in his brilliant book “Consilience”, economics is not a science because it has essentially no predictive power.

Malthus has been buried many times, and Malthusian scarcity with him.  But as Garrett Hardin remarked, anyone who has to be reburied so often cannot be entirely dead.  ~Herman E. Daly, Steady-State Economics, 1977

*Mention Club of Rome study “Limits to Growth”

Sustainability refers to the long-term ability to maintain an ecosystem or human society. In this book we will primarily discuss the sustainability of human societies because that is what the reader is most familiar with. However, I would argue that we cannot maintain human society without also preserving our supporting ecosystems and their biological diversity, because we depend on those ecosystems to provide our food, water, air, and medicines. In short, ecosystems provide many life-support functions that we take for granted, but we must always remember that without those ecosystems we would likely perish. Fortunately, most of the solutions I prescribe for preserving human society also help to preserve our supporting ecosystems.

Important components of sustainability are illustrated in the figure Three_spheres.jpg. As shown in the figure, the three pillars of sustainability are Social, Economic, and Environmental (or the equivalent three P's: People, Prosperity, and the Planet). As we’ll discuss below, our human population continues to increase at an exponential rate, which requires us to accommodate that growth in our temporary plans. However, we must remember that exponential rates of change of any kind are unsustainable and lead to unstable systems. To provide for growth in a sustainable fashion we most engage in sustainable development, which will allow us to "leave future generations the capacity to live as well as we do today" (Robert Solow).

One of the main messages of this book is that our society will experience resource shortages in the near future. Some resources will become of short supply within the lifetimes of my generation (baby-boomers). Others will become scarce during the lifetimes of our children. To understand this problem, we must introduce some terms and concepts. Renewable resources can be created, whereas non-renewable resources either can’t be created or are created at such a low rate that we essentially have a fixed supply of them. Non-renewable resources are fixed in quantity, so the faster you use them, the faster they run out. Fossil fuels fall into this category because it takes millions of years for nature to produce oil and coal from plants. In general, we are more at risk of running out of non-renewable resources. However, we can also run out of renewable resources if we use them much faster than they are replaced. For example, marine fisheries are collapsing worldwide because over-fishing has decreased the populations of certain fish species to critically low levels; those fish species may become extinct, or if left alone to breed they may regenerate their populations to preexisting levels, but that could take many decades. You may have noticed that certain species of fish such as haddock have essentially disappeared from grocery shelves; this is because the commercial catch of haddock has declined rapidly in recent years, and its conservation status is now considered “vulnerable” ( The figure resource_availability shows how the amount of a resource can grow or shrink, depending on the relative rates of replenishment (input) and extraction (output). Our haddock example is of type (b), where we the rate of extraction exceeds the rate of replenishment. Resources that fall in this category are the ones we must be concerned about, and we will examine many examples, particularly water. In case (a), the rate of input equals the rate of output, and we have what’s called a steady-state in which the amount of resource available for use remains constant. Steady-state systems are stable because they don’t change, and the optimal use of renewable resources is to maintain them at a steady state. The sustainable approach to managing renewable resources is to harvest the resource at the same rate they are produced. Sustainable use of renewable resources is desirable because it guarantees long-term availability of those resources.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Global Warming Conclusion (Incomplete)

*Note: make sure you click on the hyperlinks to see the figures. For the sake of expediency I am temporarily using figures from authors (primarily Mann and Kump, 2009), but will soon replace the most important figures with my own versions.

*Note: Some sections of this blog are simply notes, placeholders for sections that I still must write. Some of the notes follow those of one of my colleagues, Jonathan Gilligan, who is an expert on global warming. But I am anxious to start posts on other subjects, so this will be the final blog on global warming, even though I haven't completed the first draft on that topic.

How Will Global Warming Affect us in the Future?, or What changes are likely to occur in the near future, and what will be the consequences?

How Sensitive is the Climate to Changes in CO2 concentration?

"Climate scientists compare model predictions with estimated changes in average temperatures in the northern Hemisphere derived from proxy data. The proxy temperature estimates match the model simulations well when the assumed equilibrium climate sensitivity is 2-3°C, meaning that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations will lead to a roughly 2-3°C warming of the globe (this is the famous hockey-stick figure produced by Mann):

Northern Hemisphere Temperature Changes over the Past Seven Centuries

The most likely changes in the near future are represented by the IPCC (2007) "middle of the road" A1B emissions scenario (pg. 86). CO2 emissions will peak in the year 2050 (pg. 104a), and atmospheric CO2 conc. Will level off at ~550 ppm (pg. 104b). The corresponding increase in temperature between 2000 and 2100 is 3 deg. C (pg. 88), causing sea level to rise ~0.8 m = 31.5 /12=2.625 ft. (pg. 99). This will cause the global loss of 2223 km2 of land, $944 billion and 145 million lives (pg. 111).

Known Consequences: Sea Level Rise

Projected sea level rise

  • Sea level rise: 4” in 20th century, 8-28” in 21st; Large areas will become flooded, including much of south Florida and many inhabited Pacific islands (entire countries). Flooded coastline
  • Increases in coastal erosion: Up to 260 ft on open beaches
  • Landward shift of existing estuaries
  • Disastrous impact on existing developments along coastal zones

Potential Impacts of Global Warming

  • Doubling greenhouse gas concentrations ↑ avg. global temp 1.5–9°C (IPCC 2007).
  • Global warming leads to significant changes in rainfall, soil moisture
  • Agricultural activities and world food supplies affected greatly by climatic factors
  • Global warming affects the frequency, intensity, and distribution of natural hazards such as hurricanes and other storms
  • Higher incidence of weather extremes (high T, floods and drought); causes ↑ in weather-related deaths)
  • Migration of plants and animals to higher latitudes
  • Economic losses from seal level rise and storms; could bankrupt insurance companies
  • ↑ in infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses
  • Countries that contribute the most to climate change will suffer the least.

Reducing the Impact of GW

  • Identify the historic changes that have occurred
  • Predict the potential changes in the future
  • Political commitment: Reconcile the conflicts between the
    • environmental need for reduction of greenhouse gases
    • economic demands for more fossil fuel
  • Mitigate: reduce the emission of CO2 until it stabilizes at 550 ppm (scenario A1B)
    • Use fossil fuels releasing less CO2
    • Use alternative renewable energy
    • Conserve energy
    • Store CO2 in forests, soils and rocks (sequestration of CO2)
  • Economists say that cost of emissions reductions will be less than the economic damage in the absence of mitigation
  • SCC = Social Cost of Carbon: cost to society of emission of one metric ton of carbon (equiv. to 10,000 miles of driving). Integrated assessment models estimate that SCC = $30; this cost would be made up by a 9 cent per gallon tax on gas.
  • Is it fair for rich developed nations to decide whether action is worth taking, when it is the poor developing countries that will suffer the most?


The approach many people take to climate change is similar to the approach they take when driving in a lane that is about to close. Prudent people change lanes when they see the warning sign; the probability that they will be able to change lanes without slowing down is high because they have a lot of time and therefore opportunities to change lanes. However, some people won't change lanes until they are forced to when their lane ends. Because they didn't make good use of the warning sign, they have only one chance to change lanes. The probability of their being able to change lanes without slowing down or stopping is low, and they may find it very difficult to change lanes and get back up to speed. They may even get in an accident. They miss most of the opportunities to make change easy. Likewise, if we keep driving down the same path and don't heed the warning signs about global warming, and change our lifestyles only when we are forced to, we will miss most of the opportunities to make change easy, and we may be forced to drastically slow down (greatly decrease our consumption rates and quality of life) in order to make the change.

People who say that we don't have to worry about making changes to the earth, or that the changes we make may even prove beneficial, should think of this analogy: the earth is a complex system that we don't understand. Making changes to it without knowing the consequences is like an untrained mechanic bashing the working engine of a flawless Ferrari with a wrench in hopes of improving it's performance. The Ferrari is a complex system of working parts, and almost certainly any change that is made to a Ferrari in perfect working condition will have deleterious effects. In fact, breaking one part of the engine can lead to other parts breaking down if it is kept operating (and we can't stop the earth system from operating in order to repair it). An induced oil leak in the Ferrari would cause a breakdown of the lubrication system, and the resulting friction would lead to overheating and deformation of the mechanical parts, leading to an irreversible failure of the engine system. Our tweaking of the much more complex earth system, with its many working connected parts, could lead to the failure of individual parts, or in the case of a domino effect failure of complete subsystems (atmospheric or oceanic circulation patterns, ecosystems, etc.). The precautionary principle states that we would be unwise to make global-scale changes without having any idea of what the consequences will be. As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. In the case of global climate, we know there are known unknowns, and there are almost certainly some unknown unknowns.

Humans have adapted to the earth's surface environment over several million years; Homo sapiens have existed since the beginning of the Holocene epoch 10,000 years ago. During that time the earth's climate has been relatively stable (*check). However, the rates of change of atmospheric CO2 concentration and global temperature are greater than at any time in earth's history, and if continued will outpace the ability of plants and animals to adapt by migration and certainly by evolution (which occurs at a much slower pace). Humans may be able to adapt through use of technology, but much of human society cannot afford the costs of these technologies, so the death rate in poor undeveloped countries will skyrocket. This is one of the great injustices of global warming: those most responsible for global warming (e.g., U.S. citizens) are likely to suffer the least from it. We are wealthy, so we can afford to buy and operate another air conditioner, to import bottled water and food, etc.. Another injustice is intergenerational: we may be making many areas of the earth uninhabitable for our offspring. Almost certainly, life will be more difficult for the next generation, who will be burdened not only with the consequences of global warming, but also an enormous financial debt (witness the exploding budget deficit of the federal government) and shortages in key resources such as oil. The current generation must look for ways to soften the blow that will be delivered to our offspring as a result of our actions and decisions. Most parents make sacrifices for their children’s welfare; the truly responsible parents also make sacrifices for their children’s future (e.g., saving money for them to go to college). We must now make other kinds of sacrifices, ones that will make our lifestyles more sustainable and therefore easier for our children to maintain. We will discuss this in great detail in the coming chapters.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Global Warming: Part II

Development of a Scientific Consensus

*Note that my references are incomplete; I am struggling to get my Bibliography software to work on my computer.  Here I have written what I felt, but I may later have to edit out some of the harsh criticisms in order to avoid the appearance of bias. - John

Although I study the earth, scientific research today is very compartmentalized, so that scientists are often not aware of developments even in closely-related subdisciplines. In some respects, this compartmentalization was necessary to allow some scientists to focus their energies on developing knowledge in narrow domains. This has led the public to perceive many areas of research as irrelevant: “why would anyone spend their life learning the reproductive cycle of fruit flies?” However, these seemingly small problems are all inter-related, and understanding in one narrow area often promotes advances in other areas. The truly large problems like global warming consist of countless overlapping problems. To develop a comprehensive understanding of a global problem requires that scientists from many subdisciplines must collaborate. The trend in scientific research in recent years has been to promote interdisciplinary research, because it is the areas of overlap between subdisciplines where progress is often made. This is because, when forced to communicate, scientists in closely-related fields are confronted with unfamiliar ideas, and they must reconcile their understanding with that of their colleagues, who often have a different perspective on the bigger problem.

Because of the compartmentalization of science and the fact that I was not involved in climate research, I was not aware of the early research on global warming. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1990’s when I was teaching an introductory Environmental Geology class that I started tracking the issue, first in newspaper reports and then in the scientific literature. My recollection is that the issue had not yet become thoroughly politicized, and I personally pride myself on my objectivity, so I believe that I was able to interpret the scientific data in an unbiased manner. I concluded in the late 1990’s that global warming was occurring; then in the early 2000’s I first became confident that humans were contributing, and then that they were the primary cause of warming.

The development of the climate science communities’ understanding of the global warming issue tracked my own. In 2001 the IPCC concluded that warming was occurring at that time, that “There is a discernible human influence on global climate”, and that the mean surface temperature will ↑ 1.5° to 6.0° during the 21st century. President Bush was skeptical & asked the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (the most prestigious scientific organization in the U.S.) for an independent report, which was published in 2001 and fully supported the conclusions of the IPCC report[1]. In 2003 (?) the American Geophysical Union published its position paper which stated that “In view of the complexity of the Earth climate system, uncertainty in its description and in the prediction of changes will never be completely eliminated…AGU believes that the present level of scientific uncertainty does not justify inaction in the mitigation of human-induced climate change and/or the adaptation to it.” In 2004 the American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded that “even if measures to reduce global warming are put into place today, some increase will still occur and ways will be needed to adapt to it; that adapting will be challenging, costly and imperfect; that ecosystems around the world are already being affected by global warming; and that acting in advance of problems is necessary to reduce damage.” Finally, in 2007 the IPCC released its 4th report, for which the committee received the 2007 Nobel Prize. It stated that “"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal...Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations", where “very likely” means a greater than 90% probability. Yet for all of the reports, and the huge amount of research that informed the report writers, and the enormous amounts of money spent on that research, the U.S. government chose to ignore and even distort the findings of the reports. My question is, why pay scientists to do the research and then ignore their advice?

I will refer to those who continue to deny the reality of global warming as climate contrarians. Hansen (2006) points out that “contrarian” is a better description than “skeptic” because healthy skepticism is necessary for good science. In contrast, contrarians ignore all evidence except that which supports their beliefs, and that evidence usually turns out to be anecdotal. MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen has accused global warming supporters of advocating a “religion”, but it is contrarians who ignore all of the evidence and rely on faith. My guess is that many of the contrarians are also creationists, because both show contempt for science and are adept at ignoring evidence.

In his book “State of Fear” author Michael Crichton claimed that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists to increase their funding. It is accepted that scientists sometimes overstate the significance of their results to gain publicity and funding; however, it’s extremely cynical to think that nearly all scientists studying climate change are fabricating their data. Crichton’s mentor Richard Lindzen, one of the last respectable scientists who remains a climate contrarian, made the same claim in a 2006 editorial (*reference), but in fact the climate change advocates he referred to wanted the government to increase funding for research into alternative energy sources, not for their field of climate science. In fact, Lindzen and other contrarians have been back-pedaling for years, first claiming that warming was not occurring, then that it was occurring but that humans were not the cause, then that humans are the cause but that it is not an important issue (Begley 2007, Newsweek). Another prominent contrarian is Fred Singer, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Virginia until 1994. Singer may have been at the cutting edge of climate science research decades ago, but now he is not even a scientist; rather, as President of an organization he founded called Science and Environmental Policy Project, he is a lobbyist who oil companies pay to spread uncertainty about climate change. In an ironic twist, he was involved in an effort to discredit the claim that second-hand smoke causes cancer ( In March 2009 there was a meeting of the Climate Change skeptics in Chicago, and I read in the paper how a beleaguered Singer was trying to set his contrarian colleagues straight on some of the science, reminding them that yes, CO2 is a greenhouse gas; that is a fact and we can’t legitimately claim otherwise. I hope Singer is enjoying the company of the dwindling number of contrarian wackos.

Why do a handful of prominent scientists like Lindzen resist accepting the consensus of the scientific community? I can think of three possible explanations: they simply delight in being contrarians; their scientific judgment is biased because they are unable to separate the political and scientific dimensions of the issue; or they are being paid by oil companies or other vested interests to publicly voice their opposition to the consensus. I like to think that Lindzen is not guilty of the latter, but decades ago there were many scientists who accepted payments from tobacco companies to make fraudulent claims. From the oil company perspective, it is a very effective strategy to pay relatively small amounts of money to a few respected and vocal dissidents in order to lead the public to believe that scientists are undecided on the issue, when in reality a consensus has existed for years. I’ve read that as a survivor of the Holocaust Lindzen tends to favor the underdog, and the same may be true of Singer, who had to flee Austria during the Nazi occupation (Begley, 2007).

Hansen (2006) gives one of many examples of the dishonesty of global warming contrarians when he describes a paper by Patrick Michaels, who deliberately deceived his readers into believing that Hansen’s (1988) global warming scenarios were inaccurate. To support this false claim, Michaels (*ref.) compared global mean temperatures measured between 1988 and 1997 with the only one of Hansen’s three “predictions” made in 1988 that did not agree with the data, which was a scenario for extreme warming. Hansen’s middle-of-the-road best estimate agreed with the data almost perfectly, but readers of Michael’s paper were led to believe that global climate models were completely inaccurate. Because many global warming contrarians now seem to be knowingly promoting false information, it might be tempting to scientists and global warming activists to stretch the truth or make false claims to promote their cause. The other side has an unfair advantage because they allow themselves to lie. Do not give in to this temptation. First, scientists must not tarnish the reputation of science and their host institutions by lying. Integrity is the most critical trait of a good scientist, and scientists who knowingly promote falsehoods should no longer be allowed to wear that noble title. Furthermore, it is not necessary to resort to falsehoods when the truth is on your side. I am an optimist who believes in the old adage “the truth shall prevail”; however, I often get frustrated because it takes so long to prevail.

Why did it take so long for a scientific consensus to develop? Because Earth's climate is a very complex system with many feedback loops; makes it very difficult to confidently predict future climate. Furthermore, science can’t prove anything; it can only increase our level of confidence that humans are causing global warming.

Response of the Public and Politicians to Global Warming

Denial and the politicization of global warming unfortunately has slowed our societies response to a potentially terrible threat. It is unclear to me why conservatives became the global warming skeptics as opposed to liberals. Global warming should not be a political issue, but rather a scientific and moral issue. As evidence mounts that global warming is human-induced, conservatives dig in their heels and deepen their denial. Rather than face the facts and make some hard decisions, they would rather bury their heads in the sand and label an entire field of human endeavor as fraudulent. Conservatives have adopted a conspiracy theory that requires that nearly every scientist in the world, each of who has devoted their lives to the search for truth, is knowingly contributing to a lie. They claim that all of the data has been fabricated. How cynical can you get?

I asked my Sustainability class if they could explain why, until recently (2009), most Republican members of Congress tended to be contrarians. They hypothesized that the Republican party generally promoted legislation favorable to large business such as oil companies, and many were given political contributions by those companies. Due to the efforts of oil companies to spread doubt, most Republican congresspeople honestly believed there was no consensus on global warming, but others likely knew that warming was happening and either dismissed it as unimportant or allowed their votes to be swayed by oil money. But why did party members who are not politicians and therefore did not get “paid off” by oil companies so fervently believe that global warming was a hoax? How could so many subscribe to a belief that defied all of the evidence? It’s hard not to draw an analogy to religion. However, with religion, it’s easier to understand “faith”, because those beliefs are indoctrinated in people at an early age, and there is a very large, well-funded system to support their beliefs. Where does the faith of global warming contrarians come from? It comes from a very large, well-funded system of oil companies and politicians. But those oil companies and politicians did not speak directly to the voters and inculcate those beliefs. They had intermediaries who spoke to the masses, similar to the role that priests play in organized religion. In conservative politics the intermediaries who speak to the masses are in the media (note that media forms part of the word intermediary), and they have a powerful influence on listeners beliefs. It is well known that conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh talks not to the facts, but to the beliefs of his listeners (see Al Franken’s books “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them” and “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot”). My brother Mike once told me that people don’t tune in to Limbaugh’s show to get information, but rather to hear excuses, e.g., “I don’t have to make sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint because Rush Limbaugh says that global warming is a hoax.” What’s scary is the fervency of their beliefs and the anger they express when they talk about government funding of “junk science” (it’s so easy to dismiss any evidence you don’t agree with as “junk science”). They act like religious fundamentalists, but we aren’t talking about religion, are we?

Rush Limbaugh claims to be a patriot who only wants what’s right for this country. But when Barack Obama took office in 2009, Limbaugh said repeatedly that he hoped Obama’s economic policies would fail. Yes, he wanted America’s economy to go down the toilet just to prove that he was right and Obama was wrong. It is more important to Limbaugh that he be right than for America to succeed. Do you think Limbaugh will ever admit that he was wrong on global warming?

Rush Limbaugh and his audience should know by now that they have been bamboozled by big oil. The subtlety and effectiveness of the oil companies campaign against global warming science is frightening. The general belief in the U.S. is that you can accomplish anything if you have enough money, and the oil companies have proved it. The evidence suggests to me that lobbying by oil companies delayed political action on global warming by at least ten years, allowing them to earn record profits. They also eliminated competition (see the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”). Governments around the world could learn a lot from the disinformation campaigns of big oil companies like Exxon-Mobil. Unfortunately, the world will not be a better place if they do. If you think that oil companies do not have such power, consider that Exxon Mobil is larger than the economies of 180 nations (Speth, p. 62). It has great power, and uses it to fight government regulation and oversight. Auto manufacturers were the same until recently, when they plunged into near bankruptcy and were essentially taken over by the U.S. government in 2009.

Another example of corporate shortsightedness and dishonesty is given by American auto manufacturers, in particular GM. These companies’ efforts to swindle consumers, mislead politicians, and silence consumer advocates like Ralph Nader are legendary (see the movie “Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man”). Over the years, there have been many good reasons to downsize cars, the generally unknown problem of peak oil being only one of them. Government and States (particularly California) have tried to regulate the industry and encourage or force them to build smaller, more efficient cars. Auto manufacturers fought them every step of the way. Companies like GM would regularly develop prototypes of such cars, only to shelve them. In one case they actually built and leased a remarkable electric car called the EV-1, but after successfully pressuring California into dropping their stricter emissions standards, the EV-1 program was shut down. Then, in an unbelievable display of corporate arrogance, GM forced the leasers to give up their beloved, nearly brand-new cars so that GM could make the cars disappear (in junkyards) and the public forget about electric cars (see the move “Who Killed the Electric Car?”). Once the price of gas went up to $4 per gallon in 2008, GM could not sell their gigantic Humvee’s and SUV’s, and taxpayers are now handing GM billions of dollars to stay afloat. Why are we all paying for the monstrous mistakes that GM executives made? Nearly everyone knew that this would eventually happen, but GM was always focused on short-term profits to maintain high executive bonuses and keep investors happy. Clearly, executives of auto manufacturers like GM never gave a thought to the long-term viability of their companies. Now that the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars to keep GM afloat, President Obama is insisting that they develop of sustainable business plan. Shouldn’t investors and the corporate boards have been demanding that all along? How could all of these people be so irresponsible?

It’s time to end the denial and take action. An April 2006 poll showed that 70% of Americans are willing to make sacrifices to stop global warming. Our country needs to invest in insurance against global warming. We spend trillions of dollars per year for national defense as an insurance policy against external aggression, but we spend zero dollars to insure ourselves against the threats posed by global warming (Pollack, 2005). In this case, the old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is appropriate: it is usually a lot cheaper to prevent a problem than to deal later with its consequences.

[1] Note that in his second term Bush admitted that the earth was warming and that we were probably contributing, but he chose to do nothing about it.