Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bird Flu Blues: Time to Tune Up Our Pandemic Preparedness Plans

A news analysis by Declan Butler published today in Nature panned the WHO response to the recently reported Indonesian cases of human to human transfer of bird flu.  It appears that the response took considerably more time than the target of three weeks that WHO must meet for rapid intervention to prevent a pandemic.  The first person fell ill on 24 April and the full WHO team did not even arrive until more than three weeks later.  I guess its time to review those pandemic response plans and stock up on Tamiflu.

Nature reports:

A cluster of avian flu cases in Indonesia last month is being seen by many experts as a dry run for the handling of an emerging pandemic virus. But although the World Health Organization (WHO) says that all went well, some critics allege that the response to the virus — thought to have been moving between humans — shows how ill-prepared the international community and affected nations still are.

"Any chance of containment was absolutely hopeless," says Andrew Jeremijenko, who until March was head of influenza surveillance at the US Naval Medical Research Unit 2 in Jakarta. "If this was a test to see whether Indonesia could contain a virus, then they just failed miserably."

If this was a test to see whether Indonesia could contain a virus, they failed miserably.

The difficulties encountered also raise questions as to the practicality of a plan to try to stop an emerging pandemic in its tracks by rapid intervention. Modelling studies predict that if a pandemic virus emerges, the WHO would have at most three weeks to help the affected country to quarantine all carriers and treat those infected with antivirals (N. M. Ferguson et al. Nature  436, 614–615; 2005).

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May 31, 2006 in Asia, Governance/Management, International, Physical Science | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Sustainble Forest Management: A Long Way from Tipperary

The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) survey indicates only 5% of tropical forest is managed sustainably.  The trend over the last two decades, however, is in the right direction.  Sustainably managed forest has increased from 1 million hectares to 36 million hectares since 1988.  ITTO experts are meeting in Mérida, Mexico this week to discuss how countries can make sustainable forest management a reality.

May 31, 2006 in Forests/Timber | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 26, 2006

NY Proposes New Mercury Standard

The NY Times reported today that NY governor George Pataki has  proposed one of the most stringent mercury standards in the nation for electric power plants:       

Under the draft proposal, New York would cut the level of mercury from electricity-generating stations in half by 2010. By 2015, the new state mercury standard would be toughened further, requiring a 90 percent reduction from current levels.

The state rule would be significantly more restrictive than a federal mercury standard set last year by the Bush administration. Under the federal rule, power plants must decrease mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018. Another major difference is that the federal plan allows generators to trade pollution credits, while New York's does not.

If the state's new mercury rule is carried out, it would complete a far-ranging and comprehensive set of controls over the four most damaging air pollutants from power plants. A 2003 state program curtails nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which cause acid rain. Late last year, seeing the federal inaction on global warming, New York and six other northeastern states joined together to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the heat-trapping gases that contribute to climate change.

May 26, 2006 in Energy | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Laws Need to Protect Newly Discovered Species Before Their Location is Revealed

A letter by several biologists published in Science notes that biologists now face the same dilemma that archaeologists have long struggled with -- publishing their findings increases the likelihood that their discovery will be destroyed. 

Scientific Description Can Imperil Species

Scientists are racing to discover and describe new species in the face of a global biodiversity crisis. Ironically, in cases of commercially valuable taxa, publishing new species descriptions may inadvertently facilitate their extinctions. These descriptions advertise "novelties" for hobbyists and drive new markets. Most modern descriptions provide detailed information on the locality and habitat where the new species occurs, turning a scientific article into a treasure map for commercial collectors. Researchers in fields with application to bioterrorism are debating codes of conduct to ensure that their findings do not fall into the wrong hands, the so-called "dual-use dilemma" (1). Taxonomists describing new species that have the potential to become commercially valuable are also faced with a dual-use dilemma.


Figure 1A Goniurosaurus luii gecko


Three of us have published descriptions of new species of restricted-range reptiles and amphibians that tragically aided their commercial exploitation. Immediately after being described, the turtle Chelodina mccordi from the small Indonesian island of Roti (2) and the gecko Goniurosaurus luii from southeastern China (3) became recognized as rarities in the international pet trade, and prices in importing countries soared to highs of $1500 to $2000 each. They became so heavily hunted that today C. mccordi is nearly extinct in the wild (4) and G. luii is extirpated from its type locality (3). The salamander Paramesotriton laoensis from northern Laos was not known in the international pet trade prior to its recent description as a new species (5). Over the past year, Japanese (6, 7) and German collectors used the published description to find these salamanders, and they are now being sold to hobbyists in those countries for $170 to $250 each. Similar cases are known from elsewhere in the world and from other taxa.

Withholding locality information from new species descriptions (8) might hamper profiteers, but it also hampers science and conservation. However, with the aid of the Internet, scientists can now monitor commercial demand for species just as commercial collectors can monitor scientific journals. This means prior information exists on which taxa will likely become commercial commodities (we should become concerned for any newly described species of Chelodina and Goniurosaurus). In such cases, taxonomists should work closely with relevant governmental agencies to coordinate publication of the description with legislation or management plans that thwart overexploitation of the new species. Of course, this will not always be easy or successful, and may lengthen publication time, but alternative solutions that allow taxonomists to continue their work without contributing to species decline are wanting.

May 26, 2006 in Biodiversity | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Forecast for the Temperate Zone: Hot and Dry?

Link: Enhanced Mid-Latitude Tropospheric Warming in Satellite Measurements

Science published a study by Fu that examines 27 years of satellite data indicating that,  relative to the global-mean trends of the respective layers, both hemispheres have experienced more tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling in the 15 to 45� latitude belt.  This pattern indicates a widening of the tropical circulation and a poleward shift of the tropospheric jet streams and their associated subtropical dry zones.

May 26, 2006 in Climate Change | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Corals Join the Endangered Species List

Two species of Caribbean coral — acropora palmata, or elkhorn, and acropora cervicornis, or staghorn — were listed as threatened species earlier this month.  They have declined 97% since the 1970s.  According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, elkhorn and staghorn were the dominant species on the Caribbean reef as recently as the early 80's.  They face many threats, but the most significant may be climate change.NY Times report

May 26, 2006 in Biodiversity, Climate Change, Governance/Management, Law, Physical Science, Sustainability, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

The Exxon Valdez Disaster Continues

Link: Exxon Valdez: The Disaster Continues

According to a follow-up study by Short published in Environmental Science and Technology, oil from the spill remains throughout the tidal zone of Prince William Sound, which may explain why sea otters and ducks in that area have recovered more slowly than other nearby populations.  Thousands of sea otters, seals, birds and other marine species died immediately after 11 million gallons of oil were spilled from the Exxon Valdez.  Oil continued to be found in the area over the next decade, but most researchers believed it was confined mainly to the high tidal regions, where the shore is only covered with water at high tide -- which should not have affected sea otters and marine ducks that frequent lower tidal regions.  Over the past few years, studies by Short and his colleagues determined that a significant percentage of areas (about 10%) have subsurface oil in lower, middle, and higher tidal zones. Short's new study estimates that sea otters dig three pits a day and encounter oil about once every two months. These encounters likely explain why sea otters and sea ducks have not been reproducing successfully in the area.

May 26, 2006 in Biodiversity | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

What is the Value of this Ecosystem Service

Link: Making the Miracle Last

A promising new antibiotic reported in Nature is derived from a bacterium called Streptomyces platensis, recovered from a South African soil sample.  It is one of 83,000 natural extracts screened for antibiotic activity. The compound may be effective against a whole range of so-called Gram-positive bacteria, including several of the "superbugs" plaguing hospitals, such as Staphylococcus strains resistant to every known antibiotic except vancomycin.

May 26, 2006 in Biodiversity | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

African Glaciers: Going, Going ...

Link: African Glaciers: Going, Going ...

A study by Taylor in Geophysical Research Letters documents that East African equatorial glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate and will disappear in a generation due to climate change.  Some glaciers are receding by tens of meters annually, and the total area covered by ice shrunk by one-half between 1987 and 2003. With less than one square kilometer of ice remaining, the glaciers will likely vanish within 20 years.

May 26, 2006 in Climate Change | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Bird Flu Blues Hit Markets

Link: Down with the flu |

The Economist reported yesterday that news of human-to-human transmission of bird flu in a rural Indonesian family pushed financial markets down even though the World Health Organization stated that there was no evidence the virus has mutated into more dangerous forms.

May 26, 2006 in Economics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 15, 2006

IUCN Water for Schools Project

Those of you who are IUCN Commission on Environmental Law members or anyone else who is looking for a way to help with drinking water issues, visit the IUCN  Water for Schools - Schools for Water link.  The IUCN has become a partner in the Global Water Challenge.Global Water Challenge

May 15, 2006 in International | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Americans favor international courts involvement in environmental issues

Link: World Public Opinion

The support of the American public for international courts adjudicating treaty compliance issues is strong, even when it comes to environmental issues. 69% say that a country's compliance with its environmental laws should be subject to international adjudication. 66% say that a country's right to fish should be judged by international courts.

Support for international courts may be particularly high because public opposition to US interrogation practices that violated the Geneva convention prohibition on use of torture.

May 15, 2006 in International | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Public supports stiffer fuel economy standards

Link: World Public Opinion.

Congress has blocked changes in the CAFE standards for cars since 1995.  But according to World Opinion Poll, Americans favor higher fuel efficiency standards.  It cites a February 2006 survey by Pew Research Center, which showed 86 % favor requiring better fuel efficiency for cars, trucks and SUVS and only 12% oppose stricter fuel efficiency requirements.  Other polls during the last 10 months underscore public support for higher fuel efficiency standards:

lA poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and fielded by Knowledge Networks in January 2005 asked respondents to assume that requiring car manufacturers to meet higher fuel efficiency standards would mean “it would cost more to buy or lease a car.” Nonetheless, 77% supported requiring them, with just 20 percent opposed. This was a bipartisan view, favored by 74% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats.

Polls also show that the American public does not believe the U.S. government is doing enough to conserve energy. In November 2005, the Civil Society Institute asked respondents whether, in view of reports that fuel supplies were likely to get scarcer and more expensive, they believed the United States had done enough to develop alternative energy resources and to conserve fuel use, through steps such as requiring more efficient vehicles. Eighty-two percent of the respondents said the United States had not done enough; twelve percent said the United States had done about the right amount. Three percent believed the United States had done too much.

The same survey found that nearly eight in ten Americans agreed with the statement, “We need higher federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles now in order to conserve more energy, making us less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and to reduce the ill effects of global warming.”

May 15, 2006 in Energy | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Species Diversity and Ecosystem Functioning -- Bunker et al. 312 (5775): 846a -- Science

Link: Science: Species Diversity and Ecosystem Functioning

Bunker and Naeem have written a letter highlighting the importance of the recent study by Wills reported earlier by this blog.  The Wills study noted that nonrandom processes play a key role in maintaining diversity in tropical forests -- forest tree diversity increases as individuals age because of preferential survival by individuals of locally rare species.

Bunker and Naeem argue that all three mechanisms supported by those results imply that species diversity increases ecosystem functioning:

First, the Janzen-Connell model (1, 2) predicts that species escape their specialist herbivores, predators, and pathogens when they are locally rare, whereas common species are more readily attacked. Losses of carbon and nutrients to natural enemies result in lower growth rates and thus lower primary productivity (3). Second, niche complementarity occurs when species exploit resources in different ways and results in more complete resource utilization and thus higher productivity (4) and has been shown to contribute to increased functioning with diversity (5, 6). In tropical forests, tree species may differ in their ability to acquire soil resources, resulting in more complete resource capture and thus higher productivity. Third, facilitation occurs when one species directly benefits another but experiences no harm (7) and has been shown to contribute to increases in ecosystem functioning with diversity (8, 9). In tropical forests, a tree species might fix nitrogen that becomes available to its neighbors. In this case, the tree's neighbors will experience increased growth rates if nitrogen is limiting.

When any of these three nonrandom mechanisms are operating, species extinctions will result in a decrease in productivity due to increased losses to natural enemies, failure to fully utilize essential resources, or the loss of direct benefits of facilitation. In contrast, neutral models of species coexistence (10-12) assume species are functionally equivalent, and therefore ecosystem functioning will not be dependent on species diversity. Wills and colleagues provide strong circumstantial evidence that even in highly diverse tropical forests, biodiversity enhances ecosystem functioning.

May 12, 2006 in Biodiversity | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Blame Climate Change Not Hunter for North American Mega-Extinction

According to a recent study published by Guthrie in Nature, climate change drove mammoths and horses to extinction in Alaska and the Yukon Territory almost 12,000 years ago, not human hunting.  Science report  Guthrie's study contradicts previously published studies, noted in this blog, that suggested human hunters were the culprits.

May 11, 2006 in Biodiversity, Climate Change, North America, Physical Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Green Campuses

My university's Sustainability Council is about to begin its second year.  So far, it has raised consciousness, greened our new buildings, supported greener operation of our existing physical plant and operations, funded a number of small staff, faculty, and student sustainability projects, and brought several sustainability scholars to campus.  Willamette Sustainability Site   It is a grassroots effort that receives significant support from the President, the Board of Trustees, as well as administration, faculty, staff, and students.  Although there are many small next steps to be taken,  I am wondering what the next giant leap should be.  My current nomination is a carbon neutral campus.  Can this be accomplished and how???  Please submit links to your campus sustainability efforts and let me know what you think about a carbon neutral campus.

May 9, 2006 in Air Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, North America, Physical Science, Social Science, Sustainability, US, Water Quality | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Sometimes Governments Listen: Threat to Lake Baikal Averted

Last week, while I was still away, President  Vladimir Putin ordered the rerouting of a Siberian oil pipeline to avoid the northern shore of Lake Baikal, a world heritage site.  See  UNESCO site on Lake Baikal

                                        Graphic: Route of Proposed Pipeline
Putin reversed a controversial government decision in March to allow Russia's pipeline company Transneft to build the line within a half mile of Lake Baikal. The 2600 mile pipeline will provide oil to markets in Asia at a cost of $11.5 billion, which reportedly will be closer to $ 12.5 billion after the rerouting.

Russian environmental groups had protested the initial routing decision.  Pacific Environment  The NY Times  wrote about the impact of public protests on the routing decision: NYTimes link

Rare public protests followed the approval in March of the initial route, with rallies from Moscow to Irkutsk, the Siberian region bordering the lake.  "It was not a huge wave," Aleksandr Shuvalov, deputy executive director of Greenpeace Russia, said of the protests, "but it was a wave."  The pipeline's route, so close to Lake Baikal, raised concerns that an oil spill in the seismically active region could contaminate Lake Baikal, which holds more than 20 percent of the world's fresh water and an abundance of unique wildlife species. Not only environmental groups, but also Russian scientists opposed Transneft's planned route.  A commission of specialists from the Russian Academy of Sciences initially opposed the route on environmental grounds. Its recommendation was rejected and a new review ordered with new specialists. 

Mr. Putin's decision on Wednesday was an unexpected reversal and appeared choreographed for state television networks. Meeting with federal and regional officials in Tomsk, a Siberian city, he publicly chided Transneft's director, Semyon M. Vainshtok, after asking if there was an alternative to the contested route. "Since you hesitate, it means that there is such a possibility," Mr. Putin told a visibly uncomfortable Mr. Vainshtok. "If there had not been such a possibility, you would have said 'no' without any doubt."

Mr. Putin then ordered that the route hew more closely to one previously recommended by the Academy of Sciences but rejected by a regulatory agency. He said a new route should be charted at least 40 kilometers, or nearly 25 miles, from Lake Baikal. That would put it outside of Baikal's watershed, environmental groups said. 

Mr. Shuvalov called it "a victory of common sense."  The reversal underscored Mr. Putin's highly centralized power and his penchant for dramatic gestures. Wielding a pen in front of an oversize map of the Baikal region, he swept aside decisions by several government agencies, as well as those by Transneft, which had warned that finding another route would be prohibitively expensive.

Mr. Vainshtok and other officials from Transneft could not be reached for comment. They had said that the planned route would be safe and that moving it could add nearly $1 billion to the cost of the pipeline. When Mr. Vainshtok, in the televised exchange, suggested that the pipeline would have to move "much farther north," Mr. Putin responded curtly.  "If there is at least a tiny chance of polluting Baikal," he said, "we, thinking of future generations, must do everything not only to minimize this threat, but to exclude it." 

May 4, 2006 in Asia, Biodiversity, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, EU, Governance/Management, International, Water Quality, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

A British Perspective on Fuel Prices

I love reading the Economist.  Here's its take on the American reaction to high fuel prices.  I have one quibble with the Economist's perspective: it is not inconsistent to object to the profits of price-gouging oligopolists and to advocate higher taxes on fuels.  In the first case, the money goes to the rich getting richer -- in the second case, the money goes to the public and could be used to deal with critical energy-related problems: creating more efficient, sustainable and available public transportation, encouraging more sustainable energy production and use, etc:

Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute points out, there is no debate as to whether these penumbras and emanations include the right to cheap petrol. Americans are convinced that the rising price of petrol—the average price of a gallon has reached $2.90 and some places are charging more than $3—is nothing less than a violation of the rights they won from George III; and they have no doubt that the people doing the violating are the oil companies. Aren't the oil companies making record profits? And didn't the chairman of Exxon, Lee Raymond, just get parting “compensation” worth about $400m? “Does everybody love Raymond?”, asks Mr O'Reilly. “I don't. I think he's a greed-head.”

You can quibble for as long as you want about the economics of all this. You can point out that the price of petrol is fixed by global forces—from rising demand in India and China to political instability in Nigeria and, particularly, Iran—rather than devilish CEOs. You can point out that, so far, rising petrol prices have had remarkably little impact on the economy. The oil shocks of the 1970s sent inflation soaring and tipped the world economy into recession. Today the American economy is motoring along on a full tank, with low inflation, low unemployment and rising consumer confidence. You can point out that Americans don't know how lucky they are—a gallon of petrol costs $6.4 in Britain. You can even argue that it is their fault for driving gas-guzzling SUVs and living in McMansions miles from anywhere.

But you might as well hold your breath for all the difference it makes. No less than 69% of Americans think that the rise in petrol prices has already caused them either severe (23%) or moderate (46%) hardship. Nearly two-thirds think that the president has a lot of influence over the price of petrol. The result is that a presidency that has already been battered by Hurricane Katrina and bruised by the Iraq war is being bombarded by soaring petrol prices. Mr Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low of 32%; economists are warning everyone that the price of petrol will rise higher as the summer driving season starts; and pundits are suggesting that Mr Bush may be a Republican Jimmy Carter, destroyed by Middle Eastern terrorists and rising oil prices. All he needs is a cardigan and a liking for the word “malaise”.

The Economist (subscription)

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May 4, 2006 in Climate Change, Economics, Energy, Governance/Management, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Details on the Fuel Economy Suit

Link: LawFuel

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo today (Wednesday) filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush Administration for failing to address the impacts of its new federal fuel economy standards for SUVs and light trucks on air quality, fuel conservation and global climate change.

Spitzer and Cardozo were joined in the filing by eight other state Attorneys General and the District of Columbia. The lawsuit, filed today in the 9 Circuit Court of Appeals, alleges the National Highway Traffic th Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), which require the government to determine the impacts of the new regulations on both fuel conservation and the environment.

The basis for the lawsuit is set forth in a comment letter by the plaintiffs submitted to NHTSA on November 22, 2005. The letter stated that NHTSA “failed to consider alternative approaches that would have promoted energy conservation, made meaningful contributions to increased fuel economy and encouraged technological innovation. In addition, NHTSA failed, in all respects, to consider the environmental consequences of its proposed overhaul of light truck standards, failed to consider the changes in the environment since its last Environmental Impact Statement in the 1980s, and failed to evaluate the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions despite identifying the threat of CO2 and global climate change as new information concerning the environment.”


The letter also stated that the standards, which shift the mile-per-gallon requirements from a fleet-wide basis
to a new structure based on weight categories, “create incentives to build larger, less fuel-efficient models, which will jeopardize air quality and the climate.”

The final standards, issued in March, also contain an attempt by the Administration to argue for preemption of California’s landmark law, also adopted by New York, requiring reductions in vehicle emissions that contribute to global warming. The published document included a 52-page discussion asserting that only the federal government can regulate motor vehicle carbon dioxide emissions.

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May 4, 2006 in Climate Change | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

States sue EPA over Refusal to Regulate CO2 in New Source Performance Standards

Yet another salvo in the war between the states and the Bush Administration: the states sue EPA for failing to regulate CO2 in the new NSPS for electric generating plants.  The states continue to aggressively seek policy changes responsive to global warming concerns.  Link: Green Car Congress

Nine state Attorneys General today sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to adopt strong emission standards to reduce air pollution from new power plants across the nation. The District of Columbia and the City of New York also joined in the legal action.

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA review and revise emission standards for new pollution sources every eight years to ensure that they protect public health and the environment. On February 27, 2006, EPA issued revised regulations in accordance with a court order. However, the revised standards fail to regulate power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the major contributor to global warming....

Joining New York State in the suit are California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York City, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. A coalition of environmental organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Environmental Defense filed a related petition today.


The suit charges that EPA’s rulemaking in this matter is inadequate in two fundamental ways:

  • EPA refused to regulate carbon dioxide, despite overwhelming research and scientific consensus that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and thus harms “public health and welfare.” EPA’s claim that it does not have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions is contrary to the plain language of the Clean Air Act.
  • EPA failed to set adequate standards for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, power plant pollutants that contribute to soot, smog, acid rain and higher levels of respiratory disease. The law dictates that the emission safeguards be set at levels that require use of the best demonstrated technology, but EPA is setting weak standards that can be met through less effective technologies.

A growing body of evidence, including reports from the National Academy of Sciences, NASA and major universities, has found that increasing global temperatures will have dramatic effects in the United States, including rising sea levels, worsened air quality, water shortages and droughts, and increased intensity of hurricanes.

    Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions responsible for increasing temperatures worldwide. According to current projections, dozens or even hundreds of new coal-fired plants will be built in the United States over the next 15 years. Under the current rule, these plants would face no requirement to control or reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Since the power plants have a life span of 40-60 years, the plants built in the near future will determine the level of our carbon emissions for generations.

The suit may be targeting powerplants, but forcing the EPA to regulate CO2 from that sector would also force regulation in the transportation sector.

May 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)