25 October 2005

World Series of Conservation?

It's not my Sox in the World Series this year. ("There's always last year," was the word in Red Sox Nation after the ALDS.) But I can't stop watching baseball. The White Sox have proven to be a formidable American League force, even at Minute Maid Park. Could it be another curse broken? Another Year of the Sox, albeit not of the scarlet variety?

All during this series -- imagine it as the series of the Chicago Climate Exchange versus Houston Big Oil -- I'm struck by the tenor of the commercials: the words "conservation," "fuel economy," and "fuel-efficiency" are filling the airwaves through advertising.

Of course, one expects Honda's claim to have the highest efficiency of any auto manufacturer, but then there's the very unlikely GMC, claiming its Envoy Denali has "fuel efficient technology" behind its massive front grille. Now that's be professional grade.

Here's Ford and Chevy duking it out over who provides more fuel economy in a full-size pickup. Then Ford listing its goals for hybrid and ethanol cars and trucks.

And Chevron talking about the future: "innovative technology," "alternatives" and "conservation." That's right, conservation. An oil company calling for conservation. At over $60 a barrel, I guess they can afford it. But it's made for an interesting twist between innings.

I've long thought that if there was money to be made in being green more companies would get on the bandwagon. Maybe we're heading for a tipping point?

And now, back to the game...

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15 October 2005

Hurricanes & Climate Change

Color-enhanced Sea Surface Temperature 50 KM Global Analysis,11-14 October 2005. Archived at the National Climatic Data Center.

Last year, four successive hurricanes crisscrossed Florida; this year Katrina, Rita, and Stan have pummeled the Gulf of Mexico region. According to CNN, tropical storm Vince "strengthened briefly to a hurricane, making 2005 officially the second-busiest hurricane season on record." Vince made landfall in Spain, the first time a cyclone has struck that country in recorded history.

Has this hurricane season been stronger than normal? Is global warming to blame? While pinning the blame on global warming for any single extreme weather event is facile, some recent studies do show an alarming rise in the intensity of tropical storms. Intensity is linked to rising sea surface temperatures. It is widely known that such storms gather strength from warm ocean waters; therefore, as ocean temperatures rise it's likely we'll see more storms of greater violence.

In a recent issue of Science, Peter Webster and Judith Curry document a "60 percent jump in major hurricanes with winds of 131 mph or more and a 1-degree increase in the tropical ocean surface temperature." The study claims that category 4 and 5 hurricanes -- the most intense -- have doubled in the tropics in the last 35 years. Nevertheless, they also warn that more study is needed, given how little is known about the patterns of hurricanes throughout history.

Back in August, NOAA experts determined there were optimal conditions for hurricanes this season, including unusually warm ocean surface temperatures and low wind shear. They upgraded their prediction to "11 to 14 tropical storms from now [then] through November, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes." The greatest hurricane season on record was 1933, "when 21 systems reached tropical storm status or greater. The next most violent year was 1995, with 19 storms."

Thus far, CNN reports, 2005 "is one of the fiercest on record, with more than 17 named storms and nine hurricanes." Not all have hit land, but we have seen the results of those that have and it isn’t comforting. This summer also brought us the earliest Category 4 hurricane recorded in the Caribbean, Dennis, which hit Cuba and Haiti before landing in west Florida from 4-11 July.

Not everyone believes there is a link between the violence of this hurricane season and global warming. Last month, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told a Senate subcommittee that this is part of a natural cycle that began in 1995 and could last another decade. According to Mayfield, this is "driven by the Atlantic Ocean itself along with the atmosphere above it and not enhanced substantially by global warming."

However, Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists told CNN in September that, "warmer oceans are converting low-grade storms into powerful hurricanes." She said that warm water to a hurricane is "like throwing gasoline on a fire."

While Webster and others feel secure that global warming may not have an impact on hurricane generation "for another 100 years," most agree the debate on the issue is healthy for science, especially if it leads to further study of one of Mother Nature's cruelest aspects.


07 October 2005

Caring, or A New Conservation Ethic

Over the past several weeks, in the conference centers of Monterey, the wilderness of Yosemite, and the halls of my company's offices in suburban Washington, our talk has been about drawing a closer connection between conservation and people. We've come a long way, but still have miles to go before we can say we've expanded the boundaries of our own conservation ethic.

I've been thinking a lot lately about conservation ethic. One phrase that keeps coming back to me is Robert Michael Pyle's statement that "People who care conserve, people who don't know don't care." It's a powerful truism and one to which we should pay heed. Our movement is often accused of being elitist and defeatist and, frankly, those criticisms are far too often accurate. Beautiful photos of pristine places beg the question, "What about the people?"

(Pyle's words came back to me during tonight's playoff battle of the Sox. It was late in the game, my beloved Red Sox had bases loaded and blew several chances to tie the game or take the lead. Johnny Damon was up, surely ready to play the hero. My nine-year old son, who learned to care about baseball -- and my team -- during the 2003 ALCS, was on tenterhooks: would Damon do it? When the Caveman struck out, stranding three base runners and turning the BoSox into WoeSox once again, my son was apoplectic. "Now I know you are a true fan," I told him. "You really cared." I haven't seen him that upset since he learned that polar bears were losing habitat to global warming!)

We need a new conservation ethic that clearly redefines the human + nature equation: that human beings are not apart from, but rather a part of nature. We need to articulate the real connections between conservation and restoration of the earth's natural functions -- also known as ecosystem services -- and their real implications for the people of the earth. Moreover, that we care about people as much as the earth's other species. Without this, we will sink in a downward spiral of our own making.

Whether we're talking about food, fuel, fiber for clothing or paper or a myriad of other goods and services nature provides, we need to stop "seeing the natural world as a resource for the economy," as James Gustave Speth writes in his book, Red Sky at Morning, "rather than seeing the economy as nested in the natural world."

We have obligations to the world that go beyond our self-interest, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, and until we own up to this our conservation ethic will ring false for the majority of the world's people. Our new conservation ethic must be as inclusive as it is pragmatic, and as interconnected to the other issues of our time -- poverty alleviation, terrorism, AIDS/HIV -- as to the natural world we hold dear.

We need to remember this whether we're on higher ground in one of this nation's important National Parks, the sterile corridors of an office in northern Virginia, or the cozy confines of that little bandbox of a ballpark that is Fenway.

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