Many years ago I was interviewing for a job, sort of (but that is a different story). A famous evolutionary biologist at an esteemed University (not naming names) asked me why I did research on so many different things, and was I worried about being a dilettante, superficially engaged in many things, deeply engaged in nothing. I was surprised, offended, and set on my heels by the question. I answered the question poorly. However, I now appreciate that experience because I have reflected on this dozens of times throughout my career specifically because of this traumatic event.
In a previous blog post I mentioned how the COP21 Paris climate talks may be of particular importance to conservation scientists. The Paris Climate Talks are over and the Paris Agreement stipulates that the world’s leaders are committing to reducing emissions to keep the planet from warming 2 degrees centigrade. Skipping past the gnarly details, this is a very interesting outcome for at least three reasons.
It being the holidays, I am taking a bit of a different approach to the Blog today. Also, it is brief.
The scientific literature evaluating the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act is large. The USFWS has been pretty open about publishing status and expenditure data. Numerous researchers have culled through these data to look at critical habitat listings, recovery plans, expenditures, trends in status, the relationship between spending, critical habitat listing, recovery plan completion and status. The list goes on.
What has been largely missing has been an analysis of the impact of section 7 consultations, where the USFWS decides whether or not a proposed action imposes undue risk to the species. This is made difficult by the fact that there are thousands of consultations, formal and informal, and the agency does not enter these all into computers and make them publicly available. And, this is the aspect of the ESA that us constantly under threat of revision under proposals to change the ESA. The ESA is viewed by some as too restrictive on economic growth, and too costly to private landowners, preventing them from doing what they want with their land.
There have been two previous attempts to take a look at a small sample of these consultations to decide what happens. Until now. This week Jacob Malcolm and Ya-Wei (Jake) Li from Defenders of Wildlife published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In this paper, they aggregate over 88,000 records of consultations to ask how often consultations with the USFWS result in development projects being denied. The answer? Twice in 88,000 cases between 2008 and early 2015; essentially never.
This is big news for the conservation community because it suggests that either (a) the ESA is ineffective at stopping development that harms endangered species; (b) agencies have learned what does and does not pass muster and hence refrains from asking when the answer will be ‘no.’ I would like to think that the latter is the correct interpretation. However, previous constrained attempts to analyze section 7 consultations found more declinations of permission ~1980 and early 2000’s. Hence, there isn’t compelling evidence that the ESA ever did shut down development through consultation.
Perhaps this is not a surprise.
Until recently, extinction was a natural and complex process where some species survived and others went extinct at the whim of mother nature (and with the help of some handy adaptations). Today, it is much more like the reality show, “Survivor”, where groups must fend for themselves in the wild while also competing in man-made challenges to survive to the next round. Contestants are slowly eliminated until there is one “sole survivor;” and the show is over. The same thing is happening for wildlife today, minus the million dollar prize and the ability to change the channel.
If you ran into one of these “survivors” on the street, you may get star-struck. This is what happens to me when I see seabirds. There are 346 species of seabirds in the world, and most don’t poop on your car in the parking lot at the beach. These are the superstars that evolved in the wildest of conditions. They live a life at-sea in search of food over thousands of miles, yet they breed almost exclusively on the most remote islands. Here, seabirds build nests in trees, set them on the ground, or claw out their own tunnel with their extremely sharp bill and nails to lay eggs and rear chicks underground. But 30% of all seabird species are threatened with extinction. This means that 1 in 3 species that you may observe is a “survivor” but whose team is being slowly eliminated. So when I go to the coast or out to sea, like near my home in Monterey Bay, I don’t just see gulls stealing hot dogs. I see incredibly large and beautiful fish-eating birds that migrated to the region from islands as far away as New Zealand and who survived an awe-inspiring set of challenges (both natural and man-made) along the way.
Take the Pink-footed Shearwater as an example. As the name says, this seabird has light pink feet, and a pink bill, and visits the North Pacific coast in the summer and fall. During these seasons, I often see them within the dense flocks of Sooty Shearwaters or around pods of dolphins and whales that are all circling Monterey Bay while feasting on the fishy riches that have made the region famous. But, Pink-footed Shearwaters breed over 6,500 miles away on three Chilean islands: Isla Mocha, off the central Chilean coast, and two islands that are part of the Juan Fernández Islands.
I love America. I love the diversity of America, I love America’s natural landscape, and I feel very lucky as a women to have been born at this time in America. To be clear I do not think that America is perfect by any means; there are a lot of things that we need to be better at. One of those is our response to climate change. As COP21 nears the end of its second and final week I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be an American scientist at this moment in history. Is there anything I should or could do in my career that would affect even in a tiny way how our country responds to climate change? Here are a few of my thoughts.
1. America is lagging behind (way behind) other countries in belief and concern about climate change. This is embarrassing, especially when the actions of my fellow American’s could undermine the COP21 negotiations (for more on that click here). I guess the glass half full way of looking at this is if you are interested in translation ecology the USA has a high need.
Source: Ipsos MORI
California forests give us clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, lumber and recreation. But they are threatened by a maelstrom of environmental drivers of change, which have intensified across four years of drought. Consider just one indicator of forest health: In its most recent survey (May), the US Forest service said more than 12 million trees in California were dead. A scientist using new technology to measure drought stress said this week to the number may soar to 120 million — one-fifth of the state's forests.
We need a new vision for managing our wildlands with policies based on science and acting in the interest of the greatest public good. Horrific recent events should inspire reform of not only wildfire management, but also of our overall forest-health stewardship and governance.
The incentives -- and opportunities -- for real progress have never been greater. Federal agencies (which manage 19 million acres, or 57 percent, of California forests) have a new National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Plan. The U.S. Forest Service is writing nearly 150 new fire plans. The top officials of the departments of Interior and Agriculture and of the White House Office of Management and Budget recently asked Congress to adequately fund the soaring costs of wildfire suppression (an estimated half of the USFS budget in 2015), so that they can stop borrowing from agency budgets for fire prevention, forest research and recreation.
Climate optimism, steady state economics, the rise of global extremist groups and conservation: COP 21, Paris. Connecting disparate dots. (#COP21PARIS).
The Climate talks in Paris (COP21) opened this week (Nov 30) and who, exactly, should care? Yes, this is the 21st annual meeting. Yes, all the previous agreements appear to have had minimal effect on rates of burning fossil carbon. Remember Kyoto (1997)? It came into effect in 2005; with a target date of 2012. It seems few countries took any direct action to meet Kyoto goals as we zipped straight past 2012, increasing global emissions more or less on the business as usual trajectory (see global emissions graph below). Countries such as Australia took the bold move to set carbon taxes, but then the government changed and away went taxes.
As conservation biologists, why should we pay attention to the Paris talks? Clearly national governments have not gotten serious about policies that curtail emissions. The con sequence is that conservation researchers have been busy exploring adaptation options to the ~ 4oC we expect by the end of the century. We spent a decade trying to persuade the world that climate change would have adverse impacts on nature (large biotic turnover, ecosystem change, increased extinction; reduced ecosystem services). Contrast the literature on ecological impacts of changing climate to the one that argues that climate change is a crime against humanity accountable in the world court by virtue of stripping oceanic nations of their, well, nations. If a threat of war crime accountability does not change government policies, a little extinction, with all due respect to polar bears, won’t either.
So maybe ecologists follow the 99 % of humanity and ignore the COP process. The fact that Paris is reeling from recent acts of terror and now gobs of heads of state are rolling into town is likely to generate more interest than normal, but actual government action? Get real, says my inner skeptic.
On the other hand, there are clear signs of progress on a number of fronts that starts to make one think that maybe we won’t stay on this path to burning every last gigaton of carbon at our disposal. Here are five facts to help you think positively about ongoing climate progress in actions*:
1. US Carbon emissions have been declining since 2007 (EPA 2014 GHG Survey)
2. The cost of photovoltaics is 5% of what it was 20 years ago (Bloomberg)
3. The cost of a battery in a Nissan Leaf is now just $5000, 1.3 of what it was when the car emerged.
4. Wind power now costs less than gas.
5. There are fewer coal plants each year in the US.
1. The Pope is out stumping the climate change message to the 16% of global Catholics
2.Gallup reports that since 2010 the fraction of Americans who think that worries about climate change have been exaggerated has declined 6% and those who think it is underestimated has risen 10%.
3. The New York Times reports that even most Republicans back climate action.
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