Friday, 11 November 2011

Stopping the Amazon going up in smoke

How scientists can read the omens forewarning of dangerous droughts in the Amazon rainforest. New post on Wyrd Climate..

Monday, 7 November 2011

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Cooking, climate change and saving lives

The connection - clean cook stoves that cut out the soot that exacts a terrible toll in the developing world, and stops it wreaking havoc with the climate. New posts on Earth Times and Wyrd Climate..

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Monday, 31 October 2011

Celtic knots and the tangle of human emissions..

.. amazing how the confused jumbled of numbers representing man's emissions can be laid laid out with clarity, with a splash of color, and an elegantly designed graphic. New post on Wyrd Climate.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Monday, 17 October 2011

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Sofa wearing a hole in your pants? Time to get off your butt..

.. and enrol in the citizen science army. Article on Earth Times about volunteering for research in the ecological front-lines of the planet.  

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Come to sunny Blackpool..

.. home to the golden-mile, the Blackpool Tower and the soon-to-be installed 800 shale gas-wells, all courtesy of your friendly fracking industry. If it's good enough for the States, its good enough for the UK..

Green Opinion: Only fools will rush in to frack in the UK... new opinion-piece in EarthTimes.

World Rhino Day 2011 - the rhinos want their horns back!

Sad to see in the 21st century that we have to take a chainsaw to the splendid rhino's horn, just to stop  irrational myths and greed push them over the cliff of extinction. 

Down on the rhino ranch, dehorning now critical... article on EarthTimes

Monday, 12 September 2011

A small 'pop' in France, nothing to see here, just keep on walking....

News of the nuclear 'contretemps' in Marcoule‏ had heads spinning for a while.. but the nuclear apologists breathed easy pretty quickly. After all this was only an tragic (and fatal) accident in a nuclear waste processing plant, not a running power plant - so no danger of runaway nuclear PR problems here. For a nation relying on nuclear power for 75% of its electricity, there was no doubt a long collective sigh of Gallic relief.

But it will be interesting to see whether French public opinion starts to ebb with the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear tide - the margin of support for nuclear is there, no doubt. But only 55% remained in support of keeping nuclear after Japan's exploding power plant episode - against 42% who support the Green plan to ditch nuclear and go 'clean green' for France's energy needs.

That small pop could soon become a big bang in France's nuclear debate..

Chinese medicine cleaning up its act?

Some hopeful first signs from the traditional Chinese medicine community - and the start of hope for the endangered rhino. But will this message flow through to changing the attitudes of those who make use of TCM? That may need some more passion, and not just box-ticking,  from those at the top of the TCM tree.

New article in the EarthTimes... Rhino horn use slammed by Chinese traditional medicinal practitioners

Thursday, 28 July 2011

All UK's canned tuna now 'wildlife-free'? Almost..

A glimmer of hope was flashed through the Pacific swell today, as Greenpeace announced that the last of the UK's big tuna companies – John West – had fallen into line over the dropping of destructive purse seine fishing. Now all tinned tuna sold in the UK will only use the more sustainable line and pole fishing methods, a significant victory for sharks, turtles and juvenile tuna. They have been scooped up in massive numbers, when fishing vessels use the indiscriminate netting of purse seines.

Purse seines are often combined with Fish Aggregation Devices (FAD), which send out signals to draw in tuna. They also have a big pull on other marine animals, though, such as turtles and sharks. When the huge purse nets are closed, it is often found that 10% or more of the catch are creatures other than turtles, which then get discarded as 'waste'. Switching to FAD-and-purse-seine-free methods cuts the bycatch by a tenth – to around 1%.

Additionally, John West has signed up to the Greenpeace-inspired Pacific Commons marine reserve. These are 4 areas in the western Pacific where it is hoped that all fishing and marine-exploitation can be halted, providing a breathing space for marine wildlife. Although though no formal agreement on banning fishing from these areas exists, pressure from Greenpeace and other ocean conservation groups, has led to many major companies agreeing not to fish there.

The ultimate aim is to stitch together much of the oceans that are outside of national waters into oceanic reserves. These would eventually take in some 40% of the world's oceans. That's a mammoth undertaking, but one that may be necessary to shield the oceanic ecosystem from a gathering collapse – and so sustainably secure their use for all. Greenpeace UK's director, John Sauven, said ''Marine reserves in the Pacific Commons would provide much needed protection for fish stocks, the oceans and the millions of people dependent on them for food and jobs.''

Both moves are big steps forward in aiding marine wildlife conservation, and in creating sustainable tuna stocks – the UK gobbles down the second biggest helping of the global tinned tuna catch. Tuna are under serious threat, with 5 of 8 species on the slippery slope towards extinction. Reducing the catch of young tuna – who often get caught in purse seine nets – together with improved protection in the Pacific, may be the start of a reversal to that seemingly inevitable slide.

In announcing the moves by John West, Sauven was hoping they could create wider waves globally. ''Just a few months ago, only a minority of tinned tuna retailers had cleaned up their act, but in a short amount of time there’s been a groundbreaking shift across the tinned tuna industry,'' he said. ''This move is hugely important beyond the UK too, because it means that changes will have to happen at sea. We should now start to see a real shift towards greener tinned tuna around the world in the very near future.''  

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Who wants to win this one?

Arctic sea-ice in race to bottom...  published on the Earth Times yesterday. 

What is happening in the Arctic offers an interesting pair of dilemmas. As the sea-ice slips inexorably towards extinction, there is a a good chance that the alarm bells will go off very loudly across the world. That could be enough to jolt us out of our sloth-like tackling of the climate change juggernaut.

But the problem is that, because we've been wearing ear-mufflers all this time, hearing those alarm bells now may be just a tad too late to stop us from getting toasted. That very human weakness of short looking the other way will have aught us out.

The second dilemma rests on another aspect of humanity's foibles. Greed. One man's disaster is another's opportunity. Despite those alarm bells, the Arctic is on the verge of a black gold rush, as oil companies queue up to exploit the resources uncovered by global warming - a warming they have had a big hand in creating.

Almost reeks of the arsonist collecting the fire insurance premiums, that one..

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

It's all his fault..

Protecting the 'known unknowns' from extinction ... published on EarthTimes yesterday

The China conundrum - two eco-wrongs don't make a right

China seems to have developed something of a split personality overnight, in the global warming stakes. After a decade of being painted as the villain of the piece, with many wagging their fingers disapprovingly at China's multiplying smokestacks, a paper published overnight has turned things on their head. It seems that China's noxious emissions have actually been helping to cool the climate, if the tabloid interpretation of the study, published online by the PNAS, is to be believed.

If CO2 emissions are the bad boy of climate change, then SO2 is the newly painted hero, helping to vanquish the seemingly irrepressible warming, that carbon dioxide has trailed in its wake. The paper has tied the recent slowing down of global warming, over the decade since 1998, to a burst of sulfate emissions from China's coal-burning power stations.

Of course, the idea that global warming has left the scene over the last decade is something hotly debated. Cherry-picking years on the wildly wiggling graph of global temperatures can easily 'prove' that global warming is 'absent' at any time in the last 40 years– conveniently forgetting that it is the long term average that matters. Yearly changes are the rule, and invariably larger than the 'drip-drip' feed of a warming climate, due to greenhouse gases.

But on most measures of global temperature, averaged over 10 or 15 years, the decade since 1998's El Nino has certainly shown a slower rate of warming – still warming, just not as fast. So asking why that might be the case is an important line of inquiry to follow. And the answer gleaned by this research team is that the rise in the China's dirty-coal burning, from 2000 onwards, has helped partially mask the warming from CO2.

Sulfate particles from coal combustion cause a hazy smoke around power plants – and that haze helps to reflect sunlight back into out into space. So more sulfate emissions means more cooling. This isn't the first time that something such as this has happened. The period from 1940 to 1970 saw massively rising sulfate pollution, which rose three-fold over that period. And global temperatures were definitely affected – with an general flat-lining of global temperatures over that period.

But sulfates particles don't hang around in the atmosphere. They get washed out – literally – falling as increasingly acidic rain. It was the deafening-hush of forests, stripped of life by acid rain, that led to action to remove sulfates from smokestack fumes, across the industrialized world, in the 1970s. It worked, but that also heralded the start of three decades of faster rising temperatures across the globe.

Now that respected researchers are again making a link between increased SO2 and global cooling, you can almost here the mental cogs turning amongst certain 'business-as-usual' opinion-makers. Maybe we shouldn't be scrubbing out all those nasties from smoky Chinese coal-powered stations. Perhaps we should be paying the Chinese to keep pumping out their sulfates, and 'cancel' global warming for ever.

The problem is that the global ecosystem isn't a single-issue problem. We are assailing Planet Earth on many front simultaneously, producing effects that both reinforce, and cancel, in ways that will always be poorly understood. The real lesson is that we need less of both CO2 and SO2, and all the other pollutants that our society so blithely foists on the natural world. We can only right these wrongs by learning to live within the limits of the planet that sustains us; not by wildly pressing levers in the hope we can 'fix the machine'.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Thursday, 14 April 2011

They'll all be humming this one down at the beach

Whales have their own musical culture that's passed under the water-waves, rather than over the airwaves..

'Remixes' top humpback whale song charts..  published on EarthTimes today

Monday, 11 April 2011

Wind power 'not renewable' claims overblown - and missing the point

The news that harvesting the wind for  power may itself hit climate-changing problems has lathered a lot of froth in the blog-o-sphere. But looking to what natural limits there may be for sun, wind and wave power is a long way from saying that they can't be part of a sensible sustainable future. And maybe we should actually be looking to cool our energy burn-out, rather than pushing ever higher towards such limits.

Wind power may have limits - but we don't need to push them.. article published on EarthTimes

Friday, 8 April 2011

Legislative ping-pong in Washington

Exciting stuff on the lawns of Capitol Hill the last two days

Ping! the Senate slams the EPA into the clear....
.... Pong! the House knocks the ball out the court in a huff

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Where we will we turn when the oil runs out?

Article published on EarthTimes a couple of days ago :  Will 'Peak Oil' save the planet?

Look out the window, the chances are you'll see the price of oil rising to the stratosphere... if this is a sign that Peak Oil is here to stay, is that good news or bad for the planet? 

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Organic food: not a fad, but a foundation for the future

Like many issues related to the environment, organic food is one that is often seen through a something of a soft-focus lens. A 'healthy, nicer and tastier' message has dominated the sales message from purveyors of organic food. And it has achieved wonders for the organic 'brand' – when times were good. Whilst there is a little extra change in their pockets, consumers can be quite happy to shell out for food that is better for the environment; or lacking in worrying pesticides; or that they think will taste better.

But when times are tight, and people are focused on just ensuring there is food on the plate, those 'fluffy' concerns can drop away alarmingly quickly. The report from the UK's Soil Association, of a fall in organic food sales in 2010, is one of the latest strands of evidence of this. The soft-sell approach, of tying the message of environmental issues to a 'cuddly' consumer appeal, makes the organic food something of a fair-weather banner.

That is a shame – and also a worry. Because, behind the benefits that individuals may receive from chomping down on that tasty organic tomato, there's a more concrete hard-headed reason to go organic. It's a little more complex, and a little more scary – the future of our food security may depend on it.

At the heart of organic farming – since ideas around a more natural system of food production were first being molded – is the health of the soil. Healthy organic soil is a complex and thriving ecosystem in its own right, home to fungi, earthworms, bacteria and a host of tiny insects and arthropods. Plant matter is broken down by the actions of this bustling community, building up stocks of humus, which improves the soil's texture and ability to hold water. Carbon is stored, mineral elements made readily available, and plant health boosted, through a partnership between roots, and the fungi that grow with them.

The pioneers of the organic movement saw industrial agriculture's liberal application of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers as destroying this community – and so the vitality of the soil. Given that the whole basis of modern life is rooted in the bounty of that soil, poisoning it with chemicals is a dangerous short-term expedient; one that is likely to come back and bite us, if it continues unchecked.

When soils become sterile, and just bare repositories for industrial farming's chemicals, they become vulnerable. They are lost to winds and rains, as the lack of humus no longer holds them together. Without organic matter to bind nutrients, the plants growing in them need artificial fertilizers just to keep going. And when Peak Oil starts to make inorganic fertilizers too expensive too apply, industrial farming methods on a barren soil could lead to plunging harvests.

That is the most basic argument for going organic – recognition of the fact that our very future depends on healthy soils that will continue to feed us. If that argument was made more forcefully – and 'food security' is a button that governments will respond to if pressed – then it's possible that real action may follow. Not just from the fickle consumer, but from concrete government action to tackle the hidden costs of industrial farming – and so move us towards safeguarding the fruits of the land for our children and grandchildren.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

The unfolding of new clean energy opportunities

The scope for finding ways to unlock energy from the natural processes of the planet never ceases to astound. From wind to sun to wave - and now to the electric potential of estuaries, as fresh water meets salty sea water. Necessity is once again getting maternal with invention..

New eco-battery potential where rivers meet sea.. published on Earth Times yesterday

Monday, 28 March 2011

One for the sweet-tooths..

I just love the idea of the Earth being formed from fluffy soft goodness! Geology isn't all about hard rocks and big bangs - maybe planets started with soft whispers..

Earth started out as 'candy floss' on EarthTimes

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Frankenfoods don't pass the 'euck!' factor test

Monsanto's boardroom no doubt cracked open the bubbly this week, with news that Europe's highest court has ruled against France, for its 2008 halt to the growing of genetically-modified maize. The ruling, by Paolo Mengozzi, the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice, may have been founded on a technicality. However, it's one that the big biotech companies will only be too happy to widen from a crack to a flood, of their so-called Frankenfoods onto the European market.

But does it actually matter? Isn't GM really a worry for the last decade? After all, the US and much of the developing world has been swamped with GM maize and soya for a decade or more, with no mass outbreaks of mutancy. And scientists are constantly holding out the promise of the feeding of the starving masses, saving the earth's climate, and even longer shelf-life tomatoes – all to come from their hubbling-bubbling genetic cauldron.

The problem is that, like radiation, or human cloning, GM isn't about the science, however compelling and plausible. It's about gut reactions – the 'euck' factor. If scientists are splicing genes from a fish onto the genes from a tomato, there aren't many of us whose stomach wouldn't do a little turn at chomping down on the result. The bottom line is that scientists are not omnipotent – they do get things wrong, sometimes spectacularly so.

Nature is exceptionally complex, far too impenetrable to ever be broken down and understand by even the cleverest of minds. So caution should be the keyword in taking any science off of the drawing board and putting it onto the consumers plate. And a pretty good test is what your gut tells you about the technology being pushed. If you feel queasy, then, to me, that's a good sign to be extra-special cautious – and to look for ulterior motives.

So forget the legal loopholes, and the lawyers arguments, and the scientific debate, worthy as they may all be. At the end of the day, policy must be a matter for the people – and if Europeans don't want GM food, why should the US, biotech firms and free-trade bigwigs be able to force it on us?

Monday, 21 March 2011

Has 'Climate-gate' changed the AGW forecast amongst TV weather-casters?

A new study from Washington's George Mason University has thrown a revealing light onto just how damaging the storm around 'Climate-gate', which hit at the tail-end of 2009, may have been - particularly in affecting opinion-formers' views on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). At the time, much negative commentary in the media surrounded the leaking of stolen private emails, which were sent between climate scientists in the UK and the US. Many sought to claim that these emails proved a measure of deception from the scientists involved - and even put into doubt the validity of AGW.

Subsequent independent investigations have exonerated the scientists involved, with nothing more threatening than a certain over-defensiveness by them – not surprising, in the face of relentless pressure from the climate-change skeptic community. The basic science of AGW still stands. But how did the story play out within the wider community?

Answering that question was the aim of this new research, a combined study conducted between the Climate Change Communication and Social Science Research Centers. It surveyed a broad sample of television weather-casters, across the US, when the media furore was at its height. Questions were asked about their knowledge of, and opinions on, the issues surrounding Climate-gate. Published results in the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society showed that, of those aware of the story, 42% felt more skeptical that global warming was in fact happening – presumably because of the issues raised by the controversy.

One of the researchers, Ed Maibach, sees this as worrying, given the importance of TV weather forecasters in leading public opinion on climate change issues. He said “most members of the public consider television weather reporters to be a trusted source of information about global warming”. Other surveys of American public opinion have seen global warming slip down the list of peoples major concerns.

This all goes to reinforce how quickly rational scientific debate be overwhelmed by an emotionally powerful competing story – which Climate-gate certainly was. Further research is now being conducted by the same unit, into how TV weather-casters can help educate their audiences, on the links between weather events and broader climate change issues. Maibach is hopeful that weather-casters can have an important positive role to play in this area. This all goes to show – the need to focus on a proper telling of the AGW story has probably never been more important.

Vernal Equinox - time to kick things off!

The sun is shinin', the grass is growin', and all around Mother Nature is bubblin' - so it's a perfect time to start my scribblin. This time of year is one of those reset buttons on the planetary clock; when the Earth crosses over into the summer side of her yearly arc round the Sun (well, that's if you're in the northern hemisphere!)

So time to cast eyes forward, and look forward to the verdant eruption of spring. And it does feel, after all of the dark days, political and real, that the world has seen over the winter, that now -- maybe -- the global village is going to witness a new flowering.

Exciting times, just a little bit  scary, but I'm an optimist, so let's hope people round the world can build up from the rotten edifice that has collapsed so dramatically in the Arab world -- and maybe in the minds of us apathetic lot in the West too.

I'll be posting odd'n' sods of new stories, ideas, and events on the environmental side of things -- ones that interest, excite or annoy me. Hopefully they'll do the same to some of you out there -- though probably not in the same proportion!