Thursday, December 1, 2011

New carbon emission plan at Notre Dame--the good and the bad

This week the University of Notre Dame made a public commitment to control its emissions of greenhouse gases (as well as reduce water use and trash generation). The article announcing the plan to the university community can be found here, and the plan itself is here.

Here's my opinion on the plan--I'm glad that we now have one, but I don't think its very visionary. I think and hope that we can do better.

The university commits to reduce its *per square footage* emissions to 50% of 2005 by 2030. This plan allows for growth in the footprint of the university that could increase total emissions. These goals will be met by transitioning from coal to natural gas and efficiency gains in energy use on campus, rolled out over the coming decades. Renewables are not part of the plan, despite significant research at Notre Dame on renewable technology and overwhelming data that a transfer toward renewables is a vital part of the solution to the climate crisis. The College of Science Committee on Sustainability also recently put forward a proposal for a large solar array that would produce 8 million kW hours/year, or ~50% of the College of Science's current electricity usage. (The COS is the largest energy user on campus.) That array is not part of the new plan. The only renewable power on campus today are solar roof panels on an engineering building and one vertical axis wind turbine on top of the campus power plant.

On the one hand, the new carbon emission plan is an accomplishment. Making public announcements about greenhouse gas emissions is a first step toward making those reductions a reality. And Notre Dame is not a place to take on a commitment without intending to follow through. Though progressive on nearly all issues of human and environmental rights in its scholarship, research, and teaching, the University has not always been aggressive in adopting those goals through its own purchasing power and its influence in higher education. So this formal embrace of an important global problem is a significant step in the right direction. Another good thing about the Notre Dame plan is that it does not use carbon off-sets to achieve its goals. Many people deserve credit for getting the university to make any carbon announcement, including staff at the Office of Sustainability and undergraduate and graduate students through organizations such as GreeND, Students for Environmental Action, and student government. Faculty voices have been important too.

On the other hand, the plan is not ambitious, and it certainly does not live up to Notre Dame's vision as being a leader in solving the world's greatest dilemmas, social and environmental. Instead, the University appears to have prioritized financial conservatism and (probably) political concerns about appearing too "green" over the opportunity to signal strong climate values. Peer institutions have signed on to larger commitments, including greater investments in renewable technology, and have made their public commitments earlier, in partnership with other universities. For example, 650+ universities have signed the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, but Notre Dame has not. Some universities has stopped burning coal already, making the switch in natural gas (that emits less carbon when burned) and other energy sources more quickly than the Notre Dame plan. For example commitments of other universities, click here. A large solar array like the on mentioned above is already under construction at Princeton and a similar (but smaller) one is going in at the University of Michigan.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases every day. Each year more is released than the previous year. With each additional ton of CO2 comes a larger amount of climatic change and a greater possibility of catastrophic change. These changes threaten biodiversity and the livelihood of many of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Reducing our consumption of fossil fuels is, literally, the most conservative thing that we can do--it provides an opportunity to maintain life and our economy as we know it. And universities have a vital role in showing the rest of the world the importance of this problem. They can lead by example; they can convince by their actions. Notre Dame's recent plan just doesn't speak very loudly.

Despite the lack of leadership in this carbon plan, Notre Dame is a GREAT PLACE to study and work if you want to make a difference on environmental issues. The mission of the university is beautifully aligned with efforts to save the environment for the least fortunate and for future generations. For example, we have a new $10M program of research and outreach called the Environmental Change Initiative, and a strong alternative energy program called the Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame. As a faculty member and scholar trying to do her own part to make the world a bit better, I'm most fearful that the new emission plan will deter the best and brightest from our institution and undermine our most central value--to be the best university that we can be. I hope that doesn't happen.

I'm both thankful for and disappointed about Notre Dame's new carbon announcement. I'm a bit worried of what the rest of the world with think of our weak statement. But I recognize that a statement none-the-less is a step in the right direction. Finally, I hope that the announcement will spawn new enthusiasm and activism from members of the Notre Dame family. I'm a member of that family and proud to be.

Below is what my one my colleagues thinks about the new plan.

Dec. 1, 2011

by John Sitter, Professor of English, University of Notre Dame
"To the editor [of the Notre Dame Observer]:

Despite the characterization of the University’s new carbon emissions goals as “ambitious” by the Observer and “aggressive” by the campus Director of Sustainability, the plan announced on November 29th is not one of which Notre Dame should be proud. A decade ago the Sustainability Strategy might have been moderately progressive in higher education circles. Now, compared to the plans of leading universities doing their parts to address global warming, it looks more quaint than visionary

The first thing to note about our plan is that it makes no commitment to absolutely reducing carbon emissions, “dramatically” or otherwise. It merely promises greater efficiency, not a smaller footprint. The 2030 goal of cutting emissions by 50% per square foot (something Georgetown commits to do by 2020) may or may not result in significant reductions given Notre Dame’s rate of growth. Keeping our plan “really flexible” means avoiding commitment.

Where we aim to cut emissions by 70%--again, per square foot—schools ranging from Cornell to Weber State University in Utah have committed to carbon neutrality by that date.  Others have set that target much earlier: for example, Montana by 2020, Duke by 2024, Florida by 2025.  Brown has committed to cut carbon emissions 42% (total, not per square foot) by 2020 and Yale by 43%, while also setting a target of getting 25% of its energy from renewable sources. While Princeton is within months of completing a large solar array to provide 5.5% of its energy needs right now, the Notre Dame administration concludes that “it doesn’t make sense for us to invest heavily in solar or in wind.” We remain wedded indefinitely to coal, which puts roughly two times more carbon into the air than does gas, while Cornell and Duke abandoned coal earlier this year, and Brown switched from oil to gas.

The new Sustainability Strategy should be subjected to a careful, campus-wide discussion and then reformulated to reflect Notre Dame at its best. We need to be leaders, not foot-draggers, in addressing climate change.  In his eloquent inaugural address, Father Jenkins urged that we strive to make Notre Dame a “ healing, unifying, enlightening force for a world deeply in need,” enlarging our vision so that no one in the future might “say that we dreamed too small.” The current plan for slowing carbon emissions is too small."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Critical role for evolutionary biology in adaptation of nature

Excerpted from the 25th anniversary issue of the journal, Conservation Biology, by J. J. Hellmann and M. E. Pfrender:
"In 1978, at the first conference to discuss the emerging field of conservation biology, there were 4 billion people on Earth. Now there are more than 7 billion, with 10.1 billion projected by 2100. Sustainably meeting the needs of 10 billion people and conserving natural resources at the same time will require profound creativity and innovation. Scholars who study human-caused climate change have a word for this creativity, adaptation. Adaptation involves some acceptance that change is occurring and will continue to occur and an acknowledgment that new forms and combinations of nature are being created. Adaptation also requires humans to design new tools, draw upon new theories and resources, and manage natural and social systems to a greater degree than we have before.
To allow successful adaptation of ecosystems to global change, conservation biology will have to shift its perspective from backward to forward looking. Restoring and maintaining ecosystems to a historic baseline has been a common goal of conservation, but alterations in land cover, climate change, and environmental contaminants are making it impossible to recreate the past. Instead, society has to ask what kind of nature it would like to create and what ecosystem functions it would like to maintain.
We think conservation biology should strive to preserve economic, cultural, aesthetic, and option value with little or no reduction in the biological diversity that underlies that value. To achieve this, however, society will need to maintain genetic diversity and functioning ecosystems alongside humans. And it will be necessary to foster biotic changes that are achievable given the realities of global change.
We argue that adaptation of nature by humans to global changes such as climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and nutrient deposition will require a sophisticated understanding of evolutionary theory and genome biology because evolution is a key, and inevitable, response of organisms to changes in their environment. Furthermore, evolutionary factors can be manipulated to foster particular conservation outcomes. In other words, acknowledging and harnessing evolutionary adaptation will be critical to enabling humans to facilitate adaptation of ecosystems to global change.
...We think the role of evolutionary principles in conservation biology will expand in the future so that the following objectives of ecosystem adaptation can be achieved.
1. Reveal the effects of global change on biological diversity.
2. Understand natural resilience to global change.
3. Craft interventions to minimize effects of global change.
4. Predict responses to intervention.

...Conservation professionals and the public need to define the key objectives of conservation and find ways to achieve those objectives. Toward the former, we suggest a goal of maximizing genetic diversity to encourage adaptive evolution and increased recognition that populations and communities are likely to change in profound ways. To the latter, we argue that evolutionary principles offer the greatest potential to understand the future trajectory of biological diversity and enhance the likelihood of desirable conservation outcomes."

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Socolow discusses 7 (now 9) wedges to stabilize gases that warm the climate

I've been frantically working on a paper for which I am suffering some significant writers block.

So today I defer to an interesting blog post by Rob Socolow (Princeton University) on where he talks about a paper that he published with Steve Pacala in 2004 about how to stabilize carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

In 2004, Socolow and Pacala argued that the challenge of stabilizing carbon emissions should be broken down into "wedges" or pieces of emission reduction achieved by a variety of different strategies such as efficiency gains, wind power, avoided deforestation, etc. They argued that a diverse portfolio of wedges--7 wedges to be precise--could level our emissions so that we could avoid catastrophic climate change and cap carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at twice the level it was before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Since 2004, we would now need 9 wedges, instead of 7, because our emissions have grown rapidly. But the point remains the same--breaking down the problem into more manageable pieces can make a large goal achievable. Socolow and Pacala's argument (today, as well as 7 years ago) also avoids the tendency among policy makers and the public to want to find one or a few best alternatives that by themselves substitute for our use of fossil fuels. That single best alternative is probably not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

Socolow's post also discusses how he and colleagues could have done a better job in 2004 talking about climate change and the risks and rewards of tackling the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Then and now, he suggests more frankness about how scientists themselves are worried about climate change and aren't happy that global warming is happening. He also thinks that proponents of particular strategies for reducing emissions should admit to the risks and downsides of their approach.

My take away from Socolow's essay is that scientists should keep doing the good work that they are doing, even though it's often difficult to explain uncertainty and there is a temptation is to emphasize the potential for bad outcomes because they don't seem to be getting their due in the public sphere. Transparency is key, as is a bit of encouragement by helping policy makers break down the problem and see where opportunities and "win-win" solutions lie. Climate change is a HUGE problem, but that doesn't imply that it is entirely unsurmountable.

And I would add--same goes for adaptation to climate change.

Read Socolow's essay here:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

2008 book has changed my perspective on climate change impacts

Mark Lynas's "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet" has re-calibrated climate change for me. And that's saying a lot because I think about this stuff pretty much all of the time. I've just finished reading Six Degrees (though I realize I am discovering this book three years after its publication), and I think its premise is brilliant. It's brilliant because it organizes the scientific literature on climate change into a unique framework, one that helps the reader visualize future outcomes. It takes the census-range of projected climate change that is likely to occur by 2100, somewhere in the range 2-6 degrees Celsius, and breaks that into single degrees. The first chapter, 1 degree, covers the impacts of climate changes that we see already today--things like shifts in species ranges, changes in fire frequency, and pest outbreaks. The second chapter imagines a climate that's 2 degrees warmer that the pre-industrial average temperature, a world that may have more intense hurricanes and summer drought in California due to decreased winter snow fall, for example. And so on. 

The reason Lynas's book has re-calibrated my thinking is that so much of the current conversation of about climate change--and indeed much of the research on ecological impact--are outcomes in chapters 1, 2, and 3. Degrees 4, 5, and 6 have much less research to draw upon and we have to look back to long-ago eras to get a sense of what the world might be like under these scenarios. For example, the last time the world was 3 degrees warmer was ~3 million years ago during the Pliocene and there was no permanent ice on the poles and probably no glaciers.  (Where will people get water that now depend on glacier melt?!) To imagine 6 degrees C, we have to go back even further in time, hundreds of millions of years before the present. 

Lynas makes a compelling case that to avoid a climate that is profoundly different than the one to which we and most species are adapted, society should limit climate change to 3 degrees C or less. To make sure that we do not pass 3 degrees, we probably need to prevent CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from crossing 450 ppm. Right now we are at 390--so we do not have much room left to grow. If we move beyond 3 degrees, than the strategies humans might use to just "live with" climate change are probably not going to work--they simply aren't up to the task. (This is the basis of the "cruel hoax" that Romm uses when describing the prospect of adaptation without mitigation.) 

One clarifying point is that Lynas's view of climate change takes a long perspective on the changing climate, and some changes that he discusses will take hundreds or thousands of years to occur. But they are a likely eventuality of changes that we make to the atmosphere today. For example, sea level rise will probably occur slowly, though the rapid ice melting we have seen recently implies that the rise could be faster than we previously thought. The same goes for the complete elimination of glaciers and for warming the Arctic so completely that carbon stored in the permafrost is released to the atmosphere. Lynas makes a very compelling case, however, that the feedbacks in the climate system that will alter our planet so strongly--even the slow ones--are things that we will not be able to control once they get started. And these run-away processes are further reasons to get our climate act together.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Adaptation as a costly endeavor

Just found this blog post by Joe Romm, and it seems very interesting.  I hope to write on this idea sometime in the near future as related to adaptation for nature/wildlife.  In the meantime, I suggest checking it out:
Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery

Climate change adaptation: interdisciplinarity on steroids

I am at the Steve Schneider memorial symposium and am tweeting about a number of very interesting talks. In putting my own talk together, “Integrative climate science for this century: in training and practice,” I've been thinking about interdisciplinarity and thought that I'd blog about that today. 
For the last decade or so, academics have been told--and some resisted--that multiple disciplines need to work together to do the next generation of cutting edge research and craft thoughtful and realistic solutions to the world's ills. Steve Schneider was a leader in advocating this idea, explaining to Deans and funding agencies that interdisciplinarity is the wave of the future. For the most part, academics have been listening to this call and many interdisciplinary opportunities can be found today with rewards that make for a successful academic life. (For example, see
But what fields really *require* interdisciplinarity? Answer: climate change adaptation. "Adaptation" means living with climate change and taking steps to reduce the negative effects of climate change where we can. Adaptation is the complement of mitigation, tackling the problem of climate change itself. Adapting to smaller amounts of climate change will be more effective, achievable, and economical than adapting to large climate change so we need to get moving on creating a cleaner economy. Adaptation is not a substitute for mitigation.
But, we are committed to warming already--our planet's climate is changing and greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Therefore, adaptation is going to be essential. Adaptation includes the construction of sea walls to prevent flooding, installing air conditioning to reduce mortality during heat waves, and building new irrigation infrastructure to maintain crop yields during drought. In my area, climate change adaptation will involve planting new things in new areas, designing new and improved parks and greenspaces, and working together to combat new pests and invasive species.
Can any of these adaptation strategies be addressed by science alone? By engineering? By economics? By sociology? No; it will take them all. But who among us will be able to garner all of these fields? Again, Steve Schneider did a darn good job at promoting and living interdisciplinarity, but many more need to follow his lead. Colleagues and I think that collaboration using innovative social networking tools can help, and we need that collaboration to happen fast because climate change is a problem for now, not just future decades. 
The folks responsible for implementing adaptation have no problem with interdisciplinarity--they will use whatever tools and thinking will help. But academics need to find ways to become still *more* interdisciplinary. They need to find creative ways to publish interdisciplinary work and deliver ideas to the folks that need it. In my opinion, academia, and the NGOs that function like academia, have tremendous potential to drive innovation in adaptation, pushing for new solutions that will work, will be accepted, and are cost effective. So I hope that universities can fly the flag of interdisciplinarity even higher. And I'm grateful that Steve Schneider showed us the way.
Watch the talks at the Schneider seminar at:, and see Tweets on the hash tag, #Schneider2011.
Schneider links:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why "Managed relocation" and not "Assisted migration" or "colonization"

There is a growing scientific literature about the role that humans might play in helping species move to new locations under climate change.  Colleagues and I first wrote about the idea in 2007 in an article in Conservation Biology called, "A framework for debate of assisted migration in an era of climate change." The idea is that humans could help species that are limited in their ability to move or shift geographically under climate change. These limitations could arise from human land uses that are incompatible with species movement (think: agriculture for a forest-dwelling species) or natural restrictions on species dispersal (think: small, walking beetle populations moving hundreds of miles).

And moving is thought to be the primary way that species respond to climate changes--some individuals disperse (fly, walk, or disperse their seeds) to locations that are newly suitable and other populations die-out where conditions become unsuitable. That's what happened to many species (but not all) when the climate has changed (naturally) in the past. But this time is different because the climate is changing very rapidly (and it's hard for many species to move quickly) and lots of human activities stand in the way (such as urban development).  So maybe people could step in and help put species that are strongly affected by climate change where they need to go. Now, this has lots of potential problems associated it with it, but that's not the topic of my blog today.

Today I'm talking about terminology.  Soon after we wrote our Conservation Biology paper, my colleagues and I were criticized for using "assisted migration."  For one, it sounds like something that birds do in the winter, at least that's what some journalists thought. (In fact, "migration" is a term that paleoecologists use to describe changes in tree species' distributions during the past ice age, but that doesn't appear very high in the list of definitions at Webster's.) Second, "assisted" implies something positive, something helpful, and though the intentions of the activity might be good, it's not the business of science to judge an action without studying it first.  So these are good points.

Next, we convened a meeting of experts in fields closely related to climate change, conservation, and invasion biology, and we asked them what this idea should be called. There were some excellent people at that meeting: ecologists, leaders of natural resource agencies, economists, ethicists, and even the late Steve Schneider (see The group came up with the term "managed relocation." This term avoids the problems of assisted migration and has the added--and very important--benefit of including all of the steps that one might take in helping a species move and establish in a new location. These steps include withdrawing individuals from source populations, placing those individuals in the target (new) location, fostering young populations to help them flourish, monitoring those populations over time to see how their doing, and, even, jumping in to try to manage or undo an introduction that has gone awry (such as being too successful and too harmful to other species in the introduced region). We MUST do these later things if we are going to think about this idea in a responsible way.

There's still another term out there--"assisted colonization."  This word was first used in articles by Hunter (2007, Cons Bio 21: 1356) and Hoegh-Guldberg et al. (2008, Science 321: 345) to avoid the confusion of "migration" and focus on the process of population establishment. But this term runs the risk of being pretty normative (see above about positive connotation), and it does not include all of the stuff after colonization that should be part of a responsible introduction attempt.

So what about this vocab mess?  My preference is for managed relocation (though it doesn't really roll off your tongue, does it?).  I think that we can use assisted migration and assisted colonization to refer to managed relocation as well, but we need to be extremely careful not to judge this idea before it's been well tested, and we MUST think of this strategy as composed of multiple steps with careful assessment and execution at each step along the way, including steps after colonization.

I must say, however, that it is extremely exciting to see this literature growing, whatever terms emerging authors choose to use.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The value of dystopia

I've been spending some time recently with colleagues in English and Sociology (John Sitter and Andy
Weigert). We are creating a minor in sustainability--an entirely new entity for my university--and a new introductory course for students in this field. We're going to teach the course with multiple faculty, with multiple perspectives, because no one can embody alone the lofty idea of sustainability and all its challenges and opportunities. So, among other things, I've been learning from my humanist colleagues about literature and how people use stories to envision sustainability. And here is where I've learned about the importance of science fiction in environmental policy and decision-making. Think 1984. Think Fahrenheit 451. Narratives about the future--good futures and bad ones--are critical to helping us decide what world we want and what one we want to avoid.

We are going to ask our sustainability students to read T.C. Boyle's novel, A Friend of the Earth. So I just read it myself. For an ecologist and climate change researcher, this is a really distressing book. It describes a world of extreme weather and widespread species extinction and habitat loss. The novel's main character, Ty Tierwater, struggles with this degraded world at the end of a life of radical environmentalism. A life that clearly did not achieve its aims. Because humans failed to preserve the natural world, Ty himself fails in a personal and debilitating way. Through his personal struggle, Ty invites us to ask--is this the world that we want? If we don't want this world, we will have to take corrective action now. The kind of corrective action that Ty himself couldn't convince us to do.

My colleague, Andy, tells me that Boyle's kind of futuristic storytelling is a useful, emotional tool that can guide our decisions and values in the present. Consider the idea of Peace: How do you know how to get it if you can't visualize it? You might never truly get there, but we can aspire to Peace if we can visualize it. The same goes for futuristic dystopia. How do we know what world we do *not* want if we can't visualize that too? I'm now realizing that the narrative description of profound climate change could be much more compelling than "2-6 degrees Celsius by 2100." (What's that? And that doesn't sound so bad...)

My final thought is that good dystopian literature should also tell us what to do to avoid getting the undesirable. But Boyle doesn't really do this. Without a call to action and a sense that dystopia is inevitable, I just end up depressed.  Looking forward to asking students if they find any hope in Boyle's portrayal of the future.