02.24.16

A new view on specialization

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Politics at 3:27 pm by justakim

Endemic species are ones that exist in small geographic areas. The most common examples of these are creatures that live on islands, where the species adapt to life on their little plot of land and become distinct from those on the mainland, or other islands. Similarly, animals that live on the tops of mountains effectively live on an island where there may be other environments not too far away that would suit them, but there is a vast distance between mountaintops that they are not well equipped to cross through.

For a long time, the notion of an endemic species evoked some sense of pity in me. It brings to mind images of flightless birds being devoured by invasive snakes, rats, humans, or whatever else might come their way. Little chicks helpless, unable to deal with change, species so specialized they can’t live outside the bounds of their little space walled off from the rest of the world.

But another word for specialization is efficiency. Endemic species have become so effective at living and reproducing in their habitats that they’ve given up on some flexibility in order to thrive in a very specific place. I can marvel at how the Olympic marmot co-evolved with the plants in the Olympics and make homes in extreme conditions where they have to hibernate more than half the year. I have to wonder at what great evolutionary marvels the dodo developed that we will never know about. I have to be impressed that despite the many adaptations polar bears now have, they can still re-learn how to fish like grizzlies.

One can consider companies in a similar way. Some companies develop in a certain business environment, and so long as there aren’t any drastic changes, a company could be very successful by specializing to that economic environment. This is why companies hate uncertainty. Not only does a business want to be able to plan ahead, the less change there is, the more a business can focus on improving efficiency to thrive in a specific regulatory, political, and economic environment. The more things change, the more businesses have to invest in being able to change their strategies to adapt to the changes in their world. Overall, there’s a tradeoff between being extremely efficient and being adaptable.

Both extremes can be admirable.

02.08.09

Green Should Not Be Wasteful

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy, Resources at 1:50 am by justakim

A while back, Thomas L. Friedman was on the Daily Show to advertise his new book Hot Flat, and Crowded. It may be that he oversimplified his explanation for the show, but I am terribly unimpressed. He said we should overinvest in green technologies, cause a bubble, and reap the benefits.

He said that the dot-com bubble left us internet infrastructure and the financial crisis left us with overpriced condos, and now we need a green bubble to get us out of the financial crisis.

The definition of a bubble is putting in more money than it’s worth. Period. If it is going to pay off in the future, that would be called an investment. So this guy wants us to throw more money into an industry’s R&D than it’s worth, he wants us to lure people into investing in the training, experience, and time that is going to dump their job when the bubble comes due. Ask those bankers and financial analysts if there’s too many to go around. He wants us to do it right now so that we can solve or past excesses, not by learning from our mistakes but by repeating them.

The money that Friedman advocates wasting could be better used in making bigger differences on other problems. Those people who are now considering their careers possibly for the rest of their lives may have been more valuable to society learning and performing in other industries. Our current opportunities as they are, to make investments, could be better spent on less ridiculous schemes.

We did not have to overindulge in internet startups to benefit from investing in IT infrastructure. We didn’t have to make ludicrous choices about home ownership in order to gain what dubious benefits we will get out of this mess. And we certainly don’t have to do it again.

To recognize underinvestment is one thing. To deliberately waste money when there are better uses is absurd.

07.02.08

Food Fiascoes

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development at 11:09 am by justakim

This little blurb from the Economist suggests that increasing organic farming will be detrimental to the poor because organic farming is more expensive, less productive, and uses more land. Combine that with sensationalist titles such as “Some 1.5 bln people may starve due to land erosion” and you have a disaster in the making, right?

That’s a very simplistic view of the situation.

One would think that by definition, intensive agricultural production would be more detrimental to the land than less-intensive practices. Perhaps you may have lower yield, or require more work to harvest, but in the long run it is better to preserve the land being used. Add to this the costs of seeds and rising cost of fertilizer (which is tied to the energy market, and monocultural practices that necessitate shipping food around while strangling local farmers, and one must wonder how the poor can afford to live with conventional industrial agriculture.

Distribution prices are going up. And who knows about distribution better than Wal-Mart? Over the last two years, Wal-Mart has been sourcing more produce locally. Not only are they in on the game, they’ve been anticipating it. The forward-thinking is brilliant and profitable.

Wal-Mart said that in the United States, produce travels an average 1,500 miles from farms to consumers’ homes, and it should be able to save millions of “food miles” — the distance food travels from farm to plate — through local sourcing, better packing of its trucks and improved logistics.

In an example, Wal-Mart said that by sourcing peaches in 18 states instead of just two, as it did before, it saves 672,000 food miles and 112,000 gallons of diesel fuel — or more than $1.4 million dollars in transportation costs per season.

Meanwhile, our available fish stocks are changing due to climate change and overfishing. Lobster, crab, and squid are increasing while bottom fish are decreasing. Bad news for some perhaps, but that just means more squid for me!

But Nils Stolpe, communications manager for the Garden State Seafood Association in New Jersey, argues that people’s seafood diets change for reasons apart from availability.

“The reason we’re getting more calamari is because we’re getting more sophisticated as seafood eaters,” he said.

“Ten, fifteen years ago nobody ate salmon, because we weren’t in tune with eating salmon. Now everyone’s growing it, and we’re a lot more familiar with it.”

…say what? All my Northwest brethren understand the inferiority of farmed Atlantic salmon. Where was this guy ten years ago, in a shack? Everyone growing salmon would indicate it has to do with availability. Whatever. It doesn’t matter to me if people eat squid because it’s the popular food, the price, or because they are inspired to diversity. Squid is good. Lobster is good. Crab is real good. Changes are not so good, but tasty.

Onto more bad food news… I picked up some ice cream. I accidentally picked up the wrong kind (cinnamon dulce de leche != chocolate) and in my disappointment, I was pondering the Haagen-Dazs lid and discover they are out to save the bees. They are donating funding to reserach into the mysterious disappearance of the bees.

In case you’ve missed their disapperaance,

Bustling colonies, tens of thousands strong, were emptying in a matter of days. Systematic searches for dead bees around the colonies mostly drew a blank… “Imagine waking one morning to find 80 per cent of the people in your community are just gone,” says May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

There is no shortage of potential culprits; European honeybees make up the vast majority of commercial stocks in the US and they are susceptible to myriad viral and fungal blights and two forms of parasitic mites, one of which wiped out about half of the American honeybee population in the 1980s. Yet, in this instance, the precise cause of the sudden decline, dubbed “colony collapse disorder”, remains elusive. The pattern of disappearance offers few clues, since CCD appears to be widespread and plagues non-migrating colonies as well as those that are moved from place to place to pollinate crops.

Diversity loss could be catching up to us as well. A larger diversity in pollinators leads to more successful pollination. Researchers found that diversity in time of day, and pollination height of pollnators leads to more effective pollination. Different pollinators come by at different times of day, and prefer a different height off the ground to pollinate, so they hit a certain band. Similar groups share similar body types. Some plants specialize and work with a specific pollinator and their success is linked with that one species. Others attract a diversity and benefit from diversity.

The aforementioned European honeybees have threatened many native bee species in the US, including (probably especially) kinds that don’t sting. Great choice, folks.

06.24.08

Move or Die

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation at 6:36 pm by justakim

Endemic California plants will become climate change refugees. As the climate changes faster than the general pace of evolution, the plants unique to California will have to find new places to live, or risk extinction.

“In nearly every scenario we explored, biodiversity suffers — especially if the flora can’t disperse fast enough to keep pace with climate change,”

…an island called California. *sniff* (book ref.)

06.19.08

It’s All in the Words

Posted in Behavior, Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Resources at 11:03 pm by justakim

Killing critters vs culling herbivores
Researchers looked back upon a controversial hedgehog culling
and used “content analysis”, a framework used by social scientists that basically looks at diction (vocabulary, wording). They found that different stakeholders discussed the same situation with completely different language.

“The pro-hedgehog lobby wrote about killing and animal welfare issues and used emotive or informal vocabulary, whereas the pro-bird lobby used more scientific language and vocabulary concerning wildlife and the Hebrides. Interestingly, media coverage of this controversy tended to use language similar to that of the pro-hedgehog groups. Our results show how content analysis allows differences in focus between stakeholder groups to be highlighted in a quantitatively rigorous way, and that this can encourage a dialogue to develop in which all stakeholders are at least addressing the same issues.”

…quantitatively rigorous? Yeah well, I don’t think you have to run statistical tests on word counts to know they’re approaching the situation differently and using their written skills to best frame their position. it does however make it easier to identify and address differences.

Miles Per Word
Changing how fuel efficiency is described can make a difference in what cars people buy. Rather than describing efficiency in miles traveled per gallon, if one were to describe it in gallons per 100 miles traveled, it would be easier to see how much of a difference it would make to take a very low efficiency car and improve it.

At 10 mpg, it takes 10 gallons to travel 100 miles. If that were doubled to 20 mpg, it would take 5 gallons. You save 5 gallons.

A car with 25 mpg takes 4 gallons to travel the same distance. Double that to 50 mpg would take 2. You save only 2 gallons.

We’re better off by having people ditch SUV’s for average cars than replacing average cars with better ones. This may seem pretty obvious for after all the SUV is the symbol of everything anti-environmental, but perhaps moreso when presented slightly differently.

05.29.08

Unintended Consequences 2: Creative thinking

Posted in Climate Change, Politics at 7:35 am by justakim

As the EU combats climate change, Eastern European countries want previous economic setbacks to count.

The EU plans on cutting emissions by 1/5 of 1990 levels by 2020. Targets were distributed to each country based on their 2005 emissions.

Seven of the Eastern European countries want their economic downturn in the 1990’s to count as ‘reductions’ in emissions. They want what they did not emit in the past to count towards their goal.

“By 2005 a significant part of the 20 percent target — namely 7.9 percent — has already been realized,” said a proposal drafted by Hungary ahead of next week’s meeting of environment ministers in Luxembourg.

“In the opinion of Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia these early reduction efforts should be duly recognized and rewarded in the effort sharing and/or ETS proposal,” added the proposal, obtained by Reuters.

Being rewarded for having had economic trouble? Wow. As a friend noted, maybe we can still get something out of the Great Depression.

05.24.08

Unintended Consequences

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Pollution at 2:27 am by justakim

Trees

I was browsing one of those various stories about an organization buying some patch of forest for carbon sequestration purposes. It occurred to me that this was a very strange thought.

Start off with a straight market in emissions, a textbook example. In the market, each company has a different cost for reducing their pollution. The ones that have a harder time reducing pollution will pay the ones better suited to it, to pollute less in their stead. Pollution is decreased efficiently where those most able, do so. Total pollution goes down. Cool.

Why stop with companies? There are other places that can emit or remove your pollutant. Some energy sources are cleaner than others; buying from the cleaner sources should count for something. Why not trees? How does this work? You assume that the trees will remove pollutants. You assume that whoever owns the trees is going to cut them down anyway. Pay the tree owners to leave the trees up so they can continue to remove the pollutant.

It sounds great! Offsetting pollution and protecting trees at the same time. But something about this extension seems flimsy. Instead of reducing pollution among firms that are polluting, this would instead pay to make another place keep doing what it was doing naturally. So, the firms keep polluting and the trees keep breathing, they are just theoretically not going to get cut down or burned. This doesn’t strike me as a very effective strategy to reduce emissions.

What’s to stop someone from taking a step further. Surely some trees are better at carbon sequestration than others. Why not cut down one forest of less ‘efficient’ trees, and replant them with a nicely ordered tree farm that has more efficient trees? Trees that can be harvested. Perhaps one day the tree farms will be replaced with algae vats.

The entire line of thinking, of finding the cheapest cost ways to alter the projected path of carbon emissions seems misleading and ineffective, providing excuses not to reduce pollution and crowding out pollution reduction technology.

Cars

The result of unintended consequences (or ulterior motives) can be seen in the car market. Here’s a story where the Postal Service buys new alternative fuel vehicles.

The U.S. Postal Service purchased more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles. Gasoline consumption jumped by more than 1.5 million gallons as a result.

They replaced their Jeeps with Ford Explorers and found it hard to find the alternate fuel. Since the Explorer-based cars are less fuel efficient, consumption went up and efficiency went down. Brilliant.

A limited number of stations selling ethanol and the scarcity of vehicles burning it diminish the fuel’s appeal, according to a June 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. Three of the 26 ethanol- capable vehicles offered in 2007 were compact or mid-size cars, and the rest were large autos, pickups, SUVs or vans.

Fish

On an odder note, it seems that cleaning up pollution can sometimes have a negative impact on a species. The murk of pollution protected the stickleback from predation. An aggressive cleanup campaign in the 1960’s transformed Lake Washington from an open sewer into a clear lake.

But the lake’s recovery put at least one species in a pickle: the three-spine stickleback.

The small fish, formerly hidden in the murky depths, found itself swimming in plain view of predators like cutthroat trout.

Researchers now think the threat of predators spurred the fish into rapid evolution toward an older version of itself, evolutionarily speaking.

In the absence of pollution, the fish was suddenly made visible to its predators. The less protected were snapped up, and the ratio of fish with armor increased.

Interestingly, there are other clear lakes where the stickleback are not heavily armored, suggesting that something different is happening here. My thinking is this: In the presence of pollution, the fish favored other traits. With the sudden removal of pollution, there was no slow return to normal. All the fish who were caught unprepared were eaten and the ones with armor survived. It may not have been the best advantage, but it worked in a pinch.

Whatever the reason for the difference, it is interesting to see such an unusual and rapid effect due to cleanup. Things aren’t going to be quite like they used to be.

05.16.08

Sensitivity or Lack Thereof

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy at 9:43 am by justakim

China quake may cut carbon offset supply

I did a double-take when I read that title. It seemed a little insensitive given the 40,000 still missing. That seems a little more important than the lost revenue from carbon offsets and the rise in offset prices for everyone else.

Here’s Marketplace on the attempt to shore up 400 damaged dams.

On a brighter note, this chart in the Economist piqued my interest. US private giving is off the chart. To put that into context, I browsed the source, the Index of Global Philanthropy. Total per capita giving is among the highest following Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. However, total giving is huge; $129.8 billion with the UK following at $20.7 billion while Norway’s at $3.7. We have a lot of money, and we give a lot of it. Good deal.

I also noticed that private overseas giving is closely related to the US business cycle.

Speaking of giving, thanks for taking my survey. I’m still taking responses.

FinAid bunny

05.12.08

What About Gas?

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Politics, Resources at 11:08 am by justakim

“You’re an economist. What about the gas price?”

There’s two reasons I don’t talk much about the gas prices. One, every economist out there is talking about it, and some like env-econ do a fine job of covering every ounce of it. The other reason is that I don’t think just making it cheaper is the answer, which is something many people don’t want to hear. This does not mean I don’t sympathize with people who are adversely impacted recently, but that I think we made less-than-optimal decisions and now we’re paying for it.

Inspired by a conversation last week, here’s my bit on gas prices:

Me: Even now, our gas prices are so darn cheap relatively speaking.
Cohort 1: Cheap? Compared to what?
Me: Compared to Europe, for a start.
Cohort 2: Actually, I just saw a report recently about how we’re 100+ expensive…

Don’t believe us? here are the numbers in question. We’re around 108. European countries have high prices because of high taxes that are used to develop other transportation infrastructure, like mass transit. 18 cents doesn’t compare to a couple bucks. If the price goes up by a dollar here, that’s a significant increase while in Europe, it’s a smaller percentage. Price shocks are bad. It is harder to adjust to a sudden and possibly temporary price change than to shift production and consumption to a predictable future. If you’d known in advance that prices would suddenly go up, you would have planned for it. If you’d known all your life that gas is expensive, you would have made life choices accordingly. Your city might not look the same.

I know that there are people who don’t want anything to do with those ‘socialist’ European countries, but one might consider that our price is much closer to Russia’s.

When I was twelve, I laid out the itinerary for the family vacation. I took out some maps. I hit as many national parks as I could within our two week time frame. I was very proud of myself. I find the summer vacation as important as anyone. But I don’t think the American way of life requires that we remain vulnerable to the whims of a volatile, cartel-operated market. That just doesn’t seem American to me.

05.09.08

Lakes

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Health, Pollution at 9:15 am by justakim

There have been a slew of stories lately related to different bodies of water.

For instance, there is a report on the rapid warming of Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world. There have been changes to the plankton communities and it is causing concern for all the other, particularly endemic, life in the lake. This includes the Baikal seal.

There are also concerns about the impacts of a soda plant planned in Tanzania. Despite its move to 22 miles away from Lake Natron, there are still worries that the facility will impact the population of lesser flamingo. 3/4 of them migrate here to breed.

In Canada, hundreds of ducks died by settling into a wastewater pond of an oil sands plant. Apparently, the ‘sound cannon’ which is supposed to scare off birds by simulating gunshots was not put into place. I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of these devices.

On Sunday, another oil sands developer, ConocoPhillips, said its workers noticed a growing number of waterfowl on a settling pond at its Surmont project, south of Syncrude, last week.

After trying unsuccessfully to scare them away with air horns, two were captured and taken to a veterinarian in Fort McMurray, Alberta, for examination.

Sinking deeper into the gutter, traces of drugs can be found in sewage water, giving a surprising amount of detail on drug use.

The Milanese are partial to a line or two of cocaine. The same goes for many drug users in London, although they dabble in heroin more than their Italian counterparts. Both cities like ecstasy at the weekends and cannabis pretty much every day. Welcome to the results from a new branch of public health: sewage epidemiology.

But wait! It gets better. All sorts of chemicals can be found in our water systems.

Think Zoloft and other mood-enhancers. Anti-depressants are some of the compounds found in treated wastewater. Scientists have also discovered trace amounts of everything from Ibuprofen to antibiotics. Dana Kolpin, of the U.S. Geological Survey, says the government is just beginning to study the effects of this drug cocktail on marine life, and we don’t know a lot yet, but the risks of not finding out are huge.

As of February, Teleosis has collected 700 lb of pharmaceuticals in 6 months…. And what is the pharmaceutical response to that?

According to the Marketplace interview:

“We think that’s a solution that’s actually looking for a problem.”

Marjorie Powell represents the industry’s main lobbying group. Powell says one, pill-flushing is a minor contributor to pharmaceuticals in the waterways. Two, she argues, consumers can safely dispose of unused drugs by throwing them in the garbage in tightly sealed containers.

“Therefore, we think that focusing on creating a take-back program is establishing an enormous level of effort for very little return.”

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