Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate Change, Education, and Open Society

Over on the Wikieducator mailing list, there was an interesting discussion. It started out about the teaching of controversy, and migrated (hijacked?) to discussing global warming and specifically the e-mail controversy (starts here and continues here).

Having been in the environmental movement for over thirty years, including times as head of local and state organizations, I have heard these arguments many times. Of course, the topics keep changing over time, but the debates continue.

I have been thinking over this discussion lately and here are my thoughts.

Why is it that climate change is portrayed in the media as being so controversial? Almost all scientists agree that global warming is occurring. There are many, many science issues are much more controversial -- genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear energy are just two examples. Let us not confuse controversy over political issues (including what to about global warming) and with controversy over science issues.

But to me what is more important here are the issues of science education and openness.

Science Education

Many times these types of discussion lead to some important issues in education. Specifically, how do we teach science, the environment, and critical thinking. Unfortunately, most people do not understand how scientists actually work. Which I think that in itself tells us that science is not taught correctly (if at all). Many misunderstandings of science are related to not knowing the scientific method or how scientists reach their conclusions.

Scientists come up with ideas, test them, change their ideas, come to conclusions, submit their results to their peers, correct their conclusions, and repeat. We need to teach our students (and many adults, including policy makers) to getting them to think analytically, make observations, take notes, have an open mind, and do more problem solving.

With the increase in technology including the internet, it is somewhat ironic that we are also turning more to quick answers through the web. Often these are unscientific (and sometimes fraudulent) sites, but they are accepted as truth. It is an even more reason to increase science teaching and replace learning by rote.

Open Science and Freedom of Information

The real issue with the leaked e-mails, which has not been addressed by the media (except for the BBC*) is freedom of information and open science/open data. This is especially true since the scientists worked for a public university. Science should be open so that it results can be verified. Maintaining open data, so that others can benefit from the information, is especially important in the case of public issues such as the environment. Also important is that we know what methodology the scientists are using. These issues are especially important where many scientists over the world are working on the same or similar projects.

The public also has a right to know how their money is being used. For publicly sponsored research this right-to-know is especially important where the results affect public policy issues. Freedom of information is the only way in which the public can now what is going on. This applies not only to environment, but to communication technology, agriculture, defense research, etc.

The issues of open science and freedom of information can also be related to science education. If we want our students to understand and apply the scientific method, then we cannot hide scientists work from the public and make it appear as black magic. And as we all know black magic is pseudo-science :).

*Link is to the BBC's Open Secrets blog. There was also a piece on the BBC World Service's Digital Planet program, but I cannot find the web address for it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Agriculture and Environment

It seems all of the action on the environment within the last three or four months has been only on climate change and specifically the convention being held at Copenhagen. But unfortunately that has overshadowed other environmental issues. One important area that has been neglected by the mainstream media is agriculture and related issues such as food security and land use.

About two weeks ago there was the World Summit on Food Security held by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). There was little media attention and, even more disappointing, was that very little was done at the meeting to solve the issue of food security -- even the head of FAO was highly critical of the meeting.

First let us clean up what I feel is a misconception -- the "Green Revolution". The truth is the green revolution was not green. It led to a large increase in the amount of fertilizer and pesticide use. This in turn led to decreases in water quality and other severe environmental problems.


Agriculture and the environment are intrinsically linked. Agriculture affects the environment and the environment affects agriculture. Let us look at some of the ways they are linked.


Irrigated agriculture uses a tremendous amount of water and much of this water comes from underground sources. And most of this irrigated land either is land which should not be used for intensive farming or is used to grow crops for rich supermarkets.

I once traveled through the central valley of California, a semi-desert area, but which was green with vegetables. We stopped in at a restaurant and I remember seeing a sign saying "we only serve water on request, due to the water shortage". What an irony!

But probably the worst case of bad irrigation, was the ex-Soviet Union. Stalin had a brainy idea to grow cotton in the Central Asia desert region. To do so required large scale irrigation, removing water from the rivers which feed the salt lake, the Aral Sea. And now the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake, has shrunk to a fraction of its original size.

On the other hand, without water there would be no agriculture. Increased desertification and droughts are causing lost of the ability of people to grow their own food. This has been especially acute in East Africa where rains have failed to come for a number of years.


As mentioned above "modern" agriculture has caused serious pollution problems. A major problem has occurred due to use of nitrate fertilizers. Nitrates in drinking water is not a major problem for adults, but in children it can cause reduction in the amount of oxygen getting into the blood.

Excessive runoff of nutrients from fields into lake and streams has caused algae blooms other eutrophication effects. Lake Victoria has especially had a problem.

Heavy use of pesticides has caused not only them to get into the water cycle, but have also caused problems with poisoning of farmers, and their families, who use the pesticides. Much of this is due to a combination of agriculture companies failing to provide proper labelling and training.

Land Use

We have often heard about clearing of forests to create farm land. This is a major problem, especially when done on a large scale by ranchers and corporate farms. For example, growing soybeans in the Amazon basin.

But we here less of loss of agricultural land due to land development for industry, shopping malls, office buildings, or simply due to the expansion of cities.


One critical aspect of agriculture that is often overlooked is seed management. Its importance can be demonstrated by the increased efficiency of agriculture in Malawi due to a government program providing support for seed purchase.

As I said in a post a while back, it is because of the seed issue that I am concerned about GMO's (the technology itself is not a problem). That is the issue of who owns the seed and whether the farmer has a right to plant the seeds from one crop to grow his next crop.

As the world population increases, the importance of food security increases, and the interplay between agriculture and the environment increase.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

India, What is Your Problem?

Frankly, I am getting very upset with the Indian government's position on climate change. They do not support emission reduction targets because as they put it "poverty eradication and social and economic development are first and over-riding priorities". Bullshit.

First, a startling fact: India has more people below the poverty line than all of Africa. Yet at the same time it has a large number of millionaires (in 2007 it had the highest growth rate of millionaires in the world), it has very large international companies (e.g. Tata), and it has had very high economic growth rate over the last few years.

India has very poor infrastructure, severe problems with caste issues, and serious health and literacy problems.

But what the Indian government has done is promote business and especially big business. It seems to want to encourage economic growth at all costs. Usually if companies are found to be polluting the local environment, infringing on land, violating labor laws, etc. very little is done. In addition, corruption is high in India (84th out of 180 countries in Transparency Internationals new report).

This is not to say that India is not doing some things right. For example, It did recently decide on a very large solar energy project.

The point of this is despite the rhetoric India is not developing sustainably. India is fast becoming a two-tier society.

Finally there is one more thing. Many people say that countries need to get to the economic level that the US and Europe enjoy. OK, but why do they need to get there in the same way? The development of these so-called industrial countries is the reason we have so many environmental problems in these countries. Remember that the Thames River in London was once an open sewer and cities such as Los Angeles still have huge air pollution problems. And most of these problems were caused by unrestricted growth.

Friday, September 11, 2009


There has been a lot in the media in the last few weeks about geoengineering. Among all these reports two have particularly caught my attention.

The first was the report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineering (IME) (see the guardian article here. The original report can be found on the IME website). The report recommended some geoengineering solutions for helping to solve global warming.

The first thing I thought when I heard about the report (on BBC world service radio) was "that is a typical report from a bunch of engineers". I am an engineer so I understand (even though not agree with) what they are saying. Engineers always think that technology is the solution and they have a tendency to think of "end-of-the-pipe" technology first (or as the global warming people call it, mitigation) -- the grander the better. In the field of waste management it took years to get engineers to think in terms of pollution prevention and clean technology, which does not produce waste, instead of treatment technology.

I perfect example of this is the top recommendation of the IME report: artificial trees. These are "trees" which pump air in through its "leaves" and then filter out the CO2. But of course it has to run on electricity, it has to be manufactured, and something has to be done with the captured carbon dioxide. Yes, the report stated that the artificial trees could be run on renewable energy, but (1) we are far from having that today and (2) we would need even more generation capacity than without having the trees. As for the captured gas, the technology of sequestering it is untested and not without sceptics. Why not use regular trees, which require no electrical input and do their own carbon sequestering?

The other media report that caught my attention was a Reuters article about geoengineering that included a method of producing energy by harnessing "dark matter". Hold it! First of all even physicists do not know what dark matter really is. Secondly, if he has found this great discovery about how to use dark matter, where is it documented? In other words, which journal has he published his findings? -- he could even get the Nobel prize with this discovery.

Simply put, do not believe everything that is in the media. And if sounds too good to be true, it is!

I believe in the following quote from Amory Lovins about energy is valid towards these points:

Technology is the answer, but what was the question?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Offsets - Get out of Jail, Free!

There is an article over at the US National Public Radio (NPR) website about whether no-till farming is good for carbon sequestering. An interesting read, but what really caught my attention was this quote about carbon offsets:

Offsets are like "get out of jail free" cards in Monopoly.

I could not say it better myself.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Free trade and climate change

It has been reported last week that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has ruled against China on whether they can restrict media (books, movies, etc.) to only those imported by state-run companies.

What is interesting is the reasoning in the ruling. Something not mentioned in some of the news media's coverage is that WTO says that China can restrict media for reasons of censorship. That I think sends the message that what we care about is "free trade" and do not care about human rights, freedom of speech, etc.

What has this to do with the environment? Just last month the WTO and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued a joint report on free trade and the environment.

The problem with free trade is, well, that it is not free trade. Countries which are the biggest pushers of the free trade rhetoric, such as the United States and the European Union, also have tariffs and quotas for everything from steel to sugar. Companies which claim to want free trade are also the same companies that push for government intervention to "protect their industry". I would further argue that there will never be such a thing as free trade, the stakes are too high.

With that in mind, is free trade good for the environment?

The problem is that the WTO and other free trade advocates are constantly saying that anything which restricts free trade is bad. Yes, in the report WTO hints that you could incorporate climate change regulations into free trade agreements (such as the current Doha round of negotiations); however, their history shows otherwise. It has consistently said previously that non-trade issues should be handled by other international laws and bodies.

The problems with free trade I feel can be summed up in three ways: movement of polluting industries and varying regulations, removal of barriers which are beneficial to the environment, and technology transfer. We have already seen with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that many industries have moved to Mexico which has much more lax environmental regulations. Despite all the talk of corporate responsibility, most companies will only operate to the level of government standards, even if those standards are very poor. Even the ISO 14000 (environmental management) standard only requires meeting the country in which it is located standard.

Removal of trade barriers which are beneficial to the environment can often occur because they are considered anti-free trade. Again it has been developed countries which have complained the most to WTO about countries developing countries barriers against polluting industries, food safety, and climate change.

Technology transfer is often considered important for improving the environment, especially for energy. Yet the same free trade people are also the people who talk a lot about protecting their "intellectual property". They hide the technology under so-called trade secrets and try to prevent the technology from being spread unless they get a slice (a big slice) of the pie.

Again I will repeat there is no such thing as free trade. It is all just a dream.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Agent Orange, again!

It seems that Agent Orange is back in the news, again! You would think with all of the years that have gone by since the Vietnam war this issue would be a rest.

For those who are not familar with agent orange, it is a mixture of herbicides composed of predominately 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T that was used by the US as a defoliating agent in the Vietnam war. The major problem was its toxicity much of which is due to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) which was a contaminate.

The US government has only provided a very amount of funding. Almost all of the funding has come from other governments and NGO's.

I sometimes think that the missed name US Department of Defense (DOD) is probably the worst environmental polluter of them all. And proud of it at that. Its legacy in Asia is particularly bad. Agent Orange in Vietnam, unexploded ordinance in Laos, mine fields in Korea, depleted uranium in Iraq.

In this age of "corporate responsibility" (a much overused term anyway), the military simply wants to take no responsible for its actions. Instead they hide behind the cloak of "national security" (I have discussed this before) or simply ignore the issue.

Agent Orange is a classic example. The military denies that the agent orange is toxic. They often state there is no evidence. Huh? The International Agency for Cancer Research (part of the World Health Organization) has determined there is enough evidence to classify TCDD as a known human carcinogen. Further the military state that they needed to use it to clear the fields, and it was therefore necessary. So what?

Why does the military think not take any responsibility? I feel it is simply arrogance. The military thinks it is special and therefore anything it does is right and does not care what anybody else says. It has what it feels is it mission and it will do anything to fulfill that mission. Add to this the fact that it claims that it can go anywhere in the world to support "American" interests (even if it has nothing to due with the US). And you have an corporation which is reponsible to no one but themselves.

Issues like this must also be taken from the Asia perpective, which is often forgotten or ignored. Firstly, many Asia see the US as a bully and agent orange and other similar problems simply reinforce that viewpoint. Secondly, as we have seen in the climate change debate between India and the US, developing countries have complained (rightly or wrongly) that developed countries (and especially the US) are responsible for most of the environmental damage that has been done. Again the US military actions reinforce this view. Lastly, countries such as Vietnam do not have the resources to clean up the mess and why should they pay for problems they did not create.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Peru fights biopiracy

An interesting thing is happenning in Peru. Peru's government is fighting against biopiracy by showing to other countries patent offices that pending patents were developed using the traditional knowledge of Peruvians.

This is a good trend. Biopiracy is a very serious problem. What many big companies, mostly based in the US and Europe, are doing is going into developing countries and stealing (and I think that is probably too light a word) their knowledge and then getting patents with this knowledge. The most criminal aspect of this is that often the local population are now preventing from using this knowledge. Meanwhile, the company gets huge profits, none of which go to the local people. What is also disturbing is that this knowledge often comes from some of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

There are other related issues, which are directly or indirectly related to biopiracy. Vaccines and drugs which are tied up in patents so they are either not available or too expensive. Genetically modified organisms (GMO's) which are sold with the provision that the seeds cannot be reused, make poor farmers purchase more seeds, rather than using their own stock.

So the action by the Peruvian government is very welcome. I can only hope that more governments will follow their lead.

I also must add, however, that there is some hypocrisy to this announcement. The government of Peru has done a number of bad decisions with respect to the peoples of the Amazonia. The president has even made the remark that some tribes "do not exist".

Friday, June 26, 2009

International Renewable Energy Agency

The Worldwatch Institute is running a series on the newly formed International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) which is to meet next week to decide on a headquarters and elect the first director general.

UPDATE (9 July): IRENA has chosen Abu Dhabi as its headquarters and Helene Pelosse as director-general

I actually missed the announcement of the agency formation in January,but I welcome the formation of such a agency.

There is currently only one major international agency which is direct responsible for energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA).
But it is mostly a club for rich, energy consuming countries. The amount of its budget designated for renewable energy has recently increased to 2 percent. And all of its members are also members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Take a look at its website and the first thing you see are links to oil and gas market reports and the oil and gas prices.

So let us welcome the new IRENA and hope that developing countries and others get a voice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Globalization, Economic Crisis, and Human Rights

Amnesty International annual report has rightly said that the global economic downturn is responsible for an increase in human rights abuses.

Actually, I think it is a consequence of our "globalization" over the last few years that has caused the problems, not just the recent downturn. The recent downturn has simply increased the problem. But I do not think it is the fault of globalization, but rather the way it has been practiced.

To me it seems while the developed countries have pushed globalization of goods and services, they have at the same time pushed for anti-globalization of people. In other words, while encouraging open borders for trade, they have closed borders for people. At the same time xenophobia and nationalism have been increasing. I also think that the excuse of a "war on terror" (not only in the US, but world-wide) has contributed to the problems.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jatropha, implications for Asia

There is an interesting article over at EcoWorldly about jatropha, claimed by some as a wonder crop for biofuels (haven't we heard that before?). That article is about Africa, but what about its implications for Asia. Here in Thailand (and in the Philippines) the government has been pushing for its use.

Jatropha is a suggested biofuel crop which is poisonous, and hence has no value as a food crop.

Jatropha has been pushed because the proponents claim the plant can be grown in poor soils and with little water. But the EcoWorldly article contains some fascinating statements a manager of a major plant oil company. He says that Jatropha needs fertilizer and water just like any other plant and is prone to disease if not grown as an intercrop. He also made the comment that if grown on marginal lands you will get marginal yields.

So what does this imply for Asia. One is that their needs to be more independent research into using Jatropha as a biofuel, especially in terms of its effect on farmers. Secondly, all the evidence points to the use of Jatropha only as an intercrop, which is not what is being pushed in Thailand.

Friday, June 5, 2009

My Doubts about CDM

Update: There is a new Reuters report on a major problem with the carbon market.

At the Entech exhibition I mentioned in a previous post I did notice a number of exhibitors talking about CDM (clean development mechanism) services.

CDM is a mechanism under the Kyoto protocol which allows companies to develop project which will reduce emissions below the current level. Only projects in non-industrial countries can be eligible for the CDM. These project then earn emission credits (called certified emission reductions (CER)) which can then be traded.

My observations makes me wonder if the CDM will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. My concerns raise from the fact that there have been a quite large number of companies which have either been started to provide "CDM Services" or have created a new section for the services. These companies almost all emphasize the financial aspects of CDM and most of the employees appear to come from the financial side of things.

The problem that I fear is with this emphasis on markets that the main idea - reducing carbon emissions - will be diluted at best and ignored at worst. We can look no further than the financial markets in general with their so-called innovative finance - such as derivatives, short selling, etc. (See my take on the financial crisis here.) For example, pension funds are supposed to be about providing an after-retirement income - instead many are now broke.

As I was writing this I noticed a news story about speculating being done in the carbon trading causing wild fluctuations in the price of carbon. An emission trader was even quoted as saying that people should become used to these fluctuations.

The main problem with speculating here is two fold. The purpose of the CDM is to give an incentive for non-industrialized countries to reduce emissions, fluctuating prices reduce that incentive by putting uncertainity into their minds. Secondly, speculating is simply a way for traders (ah...speculators) to make money and has nothing to do with sustainable development.

It should be noted there have been other problems that have come up in relationship to CDM. Especially notable is that fact that some CER's have been given to pre-existing projects -- instead of new projects as is supposed to happen. Also, there is some question as to whether reforestation projects (a part of CDM) can compete with palm oil plantations for money.

Let us get back to concentrating on reducing the amount of greenhouse gases.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Death of a Lake or How Not to do Agriculture.

An amazing series of pictures of the Aral Sea appear on the Earth Observatory of NASA.

The pictures show how the Aral Sea (actually a salt-water lake) has dramatically reduced in size over time.

So why did this happen? Well, in all of Stalin's wisdom he decided that the Soviet Union should grow cotton in the desert! Of course, cotton uses a lot of water, so they needed to irrigate it and did so by with drawing water from the two rivers which feed the lake, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya.

This is an example of how disasterous doing agriculture without an proper thought about the environment can be.

And by the way this is not due to failed socialism or such. A similar use of heavily irrigated water to feed a dry area is used in California to grow huge amounts of vegetables. It accounts for 80% of California's water usage.

Friday, May 22, 2009

I just attended the 2009 Entech exhibition, which is an environmental technology show held in Bangkok, Thailand annually. My first reaction to the show when I walked into the exhibition hall was "how tiny". It was one of the smallest exhibits in the ten years I have been attending and half the size of last year's.

By the way if you think the reason for the decline in exhibitors is the recession, think again. The previous week was Intermach a machinery exhibition. It was three
times the size of Entech and about the same as the previous year.

For all the talk of lately about the environment, global warming, energy, etc. this exhibition did not show it. It makes me wonder if green washing is not even worse than we thought.

As the exhibition claims to be the most important environment show in Southeast Asia (even though almost no exhibitors are from SE Asia outside of Thailand), I also wonder what this implies on the issue of sustainable development.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dirty Fuels

There is an interesting article recently in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) concerning the greenhouse gas emissions in producing oil from tar sands.

For a brief introduction, tar sands are bitumen, a tar-like petroleum substance, trapped in a matrix of sand and rock. There are two processes used to obtain the bitumen. About 70% of the tar sands are first open-pit mined and then placed in ponds. Hot water is added to the ponds and the bitumen floats to the surface. The bitumen is then removed and processed to create a synthetic crude oil. The remaining 30% of tar sands are processed by introducing steam into the ground and then the water and bitumen are pumped out again into ponds.

The result of the ERL review article shows that the amount of greenhouse gases released to produce the synthetic crude oil is higher than that for conventional oil production.

The results are not surprising. The problem is that to remove the bitumen and then further process it requires energy.

There are other problem also with tar sands. They are high in sulfur and the hot water processing releases highly toxic hydrogen sulfide. This has caused problems previously.
And then there is the threat to wildlife (in addition to the mining itself). Last year in Canada (where most of the commercial tar sand operations exist) 500 ducks landed on one of the ponds described above. All but five died. In addition the incident was found out by a tip-off, not under the companies reporting requirements as required by the Canadian government.

Oil shale is in some ways similar, but worse. Oil shale is a rock which contains a mixture of organic compounds called kerogen (despite its name it does not contain oil). In order to get a petroleum product the rock needs to be crushed and then heated to a very high temperature, which of course requires a large amount of energy. This energy is substantial, it is nearly the energy value of the resulting "shale oil".

Coal liquefaction technology converts coal to a liquid fuel (the specific fuel depends on the process used). Here we must add energy to this conversion. Again it has been shown that the greenhouse gases produced exceed that from direct combustion of the coal. I will say it again, there is no such thing as "clean coal"

Yet these technologies -- tar sands, oil shale, coal liquefaction -- have all been pushed by the energy companies. Yes, some energy companies are looking into hydrogen and other alternative energy sources, yet they are for "unconventional oil" and against measures to reduce global warming (see previous blog).

I believe that the energy companies are really not wanting to get left behind in the race to develop new energy markets. But they do not want anything which will reduce peoples need for energy, since they are in the business of selling energy resources.