Archive for June, 2011

Folks, I am taking a much-deserved and needed break for a week.  Actually, I’ve been offline for a few days already.  See, while I am gone, WordPress and Hootsuite might kick out a post or two I have scheduled.  Nice.

In any case, I saw this story before leaving, and it made me happy.  As a former resident of Kentucky (my Geography Ph.D. is from there), I find it awesome that there are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are . . . Kentuckians.  Barrels, people, not bottles.  Barrels.  I really don’t care if the hipsters are the ones driving the supply, as long as there is a huge supply.  I plan to dent a bit of that over the next week or so in a nice, slow manner . . .

So, in honor of bourbon and the memory of my father, a quick story.  My father went to law school at BC in the mid-late 1960s, and one of the guys he lived with his first year was from Kentucky – of one of the distilling families, with one of those southern names that ends with “the third”.  Anyway, this gentlemen arrived on campus with a few crates of bourbon . . . without the tax seals.  When my father and some of the other folks in the house inquired as to how this was possible, our southern friend replied “Well, every year a truck backs up to Daddy’s house, and they just unload a bunch of crates in the basement.  Daddy won’t miss these.”  Now, I don’t remember which bourbon this was, but my dad said it was the good stuff.  In any case, the few crates that everyone had assumed would last a year did not make it out of the winter, and one day they are dry.  So, everyone heads down to the liquor store.  They head over to the bourbon, when, to my father’s surprise, our southern friend immediately ducks down and starts scrabbling through the bottom-shelf brands – “Old Dirty Sock” is how my father characterized them.  My dad, taken aback, asked what the hell he was doing – why weren’t they buying the same stuff they had been drinking?  There was no answer, and a second later bourbon boy hollers “Aha!” and emerges, toting a bottle of some cheap, no-name brand of bourbon.  My father looks at him and says “why the hell would you drink this?”  The Kentuckian points to the bottle, and says “you see that county there?” (bourbons typically identify the county in which they were distilled on the label).  “Yep” says my father.  “Well,” says our southern friend, “there’s only one distillery in that county, and it’s Daddy’s.”

That’s right, the good stuff in a crappy bottle.  There’s a metaphor here for development, but I am on vacation.  Feel free to work it out yourselves.

As regular readers of this blog know, I find myself occasionally embroiled in discussions of how those of us working on climate change might best engage the media and the public.  It happened in the earliest days of this blog, and again more recently – and my thoughts on this have turned up on Dot Earth at the New York Times site here and here (h/t to Andrew Revkin).  In the end, I think we need to be very open and transparent in what we do, but we need to engage people who work on messaging as professionals – scientists are generally poorly trained in this area, and our universities are mired in the idea that press releases will be sufficient for disseminating important ideas to the public or the policy community (see a good post on this at Marc Bellemare’s blog).

So, I was mortified today when I saw that Tom Paulson, a journalist in Seattle, was more or less denied permission to ask a question of a panel at the Pacific Health Summit . . . even when he was willing to follow Chatham House Rules (where comments made in a session are not for external attribution unless the speaker explicitly gives permission – it allows people to speak more freely, and resolve/address difficult issues more directly).  It is one thing to protect people talking about a sensitive issue (in this case, vaccinations) so they can speak freely at an event aimed at specialists, but entirely another to actively prevent the press from asking questions, even when panelists are free to refuse to answer, or to answer as they please, without fear of identification.  This does nothing to enhance the dialogue within the sessions, nor does it help to foster productive relations with the media.

Now, I was not at the event, and Paulson notes that there were prohibitions against the press asking questions at the event, so to some extent he walked into this one . . . but that does not absolve the organizers of this Summit of blame.  The rules themselves make little sense, unless there is such remarkable mistrust of the media in this community (and I speak from a pretty media-averse community these days) that the organizers felt nobody could be trusted.

This is not a press/media relations plan designed by professionals.  We in the scientific and academic communities need to get over ourselves – our data is not truth/justification/validation to anyone but us.  To most of the rest of the world, our findings are just different viewpoints to be considered.  I’m not saying this is how it should be . . . but this is how the world works.  We can sit around and demand that everyone understand us on our terms, but we’ve seen how that has played out for climate science, for those who argue against the “vaccines are dangerous” crowd, etc. (For those unclear on this, it has played out very, very poorly).  This strikes me as completely pointless, and forever doomed to failure.  My life is too short for pointless – I’m a pragmatist.  This is yet another screaming argument for the need to engage the professional messaging community.  It doesn’t ruin science to engage – it will make what we do a lot more effective.

I like Grist, most of the time . . . and then there are times when it grates a bit.  Jess Zimmerman got me with one of the latter today – in a post about the grave condition of our oceans.  First, I guess I just like my info delivered straight, not . . . well, this:

Ocean ecosystems are taking a faster nosedive than anyone predicted. Without urgent action, coral reefs and entire fish species could disappear in a generation. Why is this happening? Do you really need to ask? Hint: It rhymes with shmarbon shmioxide.

Shmarbon shmioxide?  Really?

CO2 in the atmosphere increases the temperature of ocean water, throwing off the pH and making the oxygen-hogging algae population explode. Result: OCEAN DOOM.

Ocean doom?  That is the summary of this report?  This does not enhance the readability or accessibility of the report.  Hell, I feel like it trivializes the report, which I suspect was the opposite of Zimmerman’s intent.

But here’s the thing: Zimmerman’s summary mischaracterizes the report.  The title of the press release is the first hint:

“Multiple ocean stresses threaten ‘globally significant’ marine extinction.”

The second hint is the first bullet point of the press release:

  • The combination of stressors on the ocean is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history

And finally, just reading down a bit, it becomes clear that climate change is one of three major stressors that combine to cause the challenges we face.

The group reviewed recent research by world ocean experts and found firm evidence that the effects of climate change, coupled with other human-induced impacts such as overfishing and nutrient run-off from farming, have already caused a dramatic decline in ocean health.

Increasing hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and anoxia (absence of oxygen, known as ocean dead zones) combined with warming of the ocean and acidification are the three factors which have been present in every mass extinction event in Earth’s history.

So, to Jess Zimmerman and Grist, please, please take a bit more time reading press releases (God forbid you read the report before reporting on it) and try to get the messages right.  The collapse of our oceans is an incredibly important challenge that is vastly underreported and very poorly understood by the general public (earlier post on this here), and addressing the causes of the depletion of the oceans (and some really significant terrestrial impacts as people look for new sources of protein – see chapters 2 and 13 in Delivering Development) will require addressing how we grow our food and dispose of our waste, and how we choose to fish the oceans for generations to come.  Climate change and CO2 emissions are part of the problem, no doubt, but without a comprehensive approach, we will collapse our fisheries no matter what we do on climate change.

The AP is running a story on food prices – and it is heavily focused on the problem of commodities speculation.  Actually, it is heavily focused on French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the causes of the food price increases.  While Sarkozy acknowledged the importance of issues like climate change, he quickly moved past these causes:

Sarkozy said the difficulties go far beyond the whims of nature. He said financial market specialists — instead of agricultural trading houses — had taken over the global farm market and called for change.

“Take the Chicago market,” said Sarkozy, listing how the derivatives exchange totals 46 times the annual U.S. wheat production and 24 times that of corn. He said 85 percent of the contracts on commodities futures markets are held by purely financial players “with no link to the commodity itself.”

“The example shows to what extent our world has lost a sense of value, a sense of reality, a sense of capitalism to serve the development and happiness of people,” Sarkozy said.

It is worth noting that Sarkozy is no leftist . . . though he will likely be painted as one for that last sentence.  Then again, anyone who notes that markets might have negative as well as positive effects will be painted as  anti-capitalist/naive/out-of-place ideologue (see the comments on Dot Earth’s mention of my concerns over climate change communication).

Let me note that Sarkozy is not demonizing all speculation – nor do I.  As I discussed in an earlier post, speculation plays an important economic role that can distribute the stresses that lead to future price spikes over time, thus ameliorating future crisis.  However, this is not to say that speculation should just run unregulated – basic regulation that keeps speculation within productive parameters would likely enhance its value in the food security arena.  (See this IFPRI forum for more on the role of speculation in world food markets)

However, more information for these markets would probably help as well.  While the USDA and other organizations offer estimates of global and sometimes national-level agricultural production, it would be good to have concrete, sub-national datasets on ag production updated in real time – this would remove some of the uncertainty in commodities markets that can then be leveraged into arbitragable price instability . . . and that alone might start to clean out the more problematic players in agricultural commodities markets.

Watching Mitt Romney get hammered for daring to suggest that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is a real problem has, yet again, got me thinking about how to explain to people the generally-held view of the scientific community on this topic.  I think we make something of a mistake when we argue there is a scientific consensus – if we agree with the Miriam Webster definition of consensus, “general agreement: unanimity”, what we have doesn’t quite rise to this standard.  There are a few folks out there that insist that the huge majority of people working on this issue are wrong, and there is really no way to resolve or mitigate the issues of concern that animate many skeptics.  So every time we say consensus, we are opening ourselves up to the criticism that “Person X disagrees,” thus invalidating (for many) the claim of consensus, which then is (illogically) extended to mean that all arguments for anthropogenic climate change are invalid.

However, thanks to Grist, I stumbled across another means of communicating the state of the science of climate change: a very cool visualization of the evolution of the literature on the subject, from 1824 to the present.  The folks at Skeptical Science have divided the climate change literature into three camps: skeptic, neutral and pro-anthropogenic climate change.  They then classified each of the 4811 papers they could find on climate change into one of these three categories.  Now, their classification system is unique and, in my opinion, somewhat problematic in that they have stretched a bit in placing some pieces into the skeptical or pro categories (see their explanation under the animation).  That said, by 2011 their visualization is striking:

Yeah, no matter how you classify things, unless you completely and utterly pervert the literature, this picture is striking.  The vast bulk of the literature either tests a climate change issue without directly addressing the causes of climate change (neutral) or comes down supporting a human cause for (at least some of) observed climate change.  Only 187 papers since 1900 have argued against the idea.  Go to the visualization, and you can drag the slider across the bottom and watch the literature emerge over time.  It has never been a close raise between those who deny the human causes of climate change and those of us who see clear human causes – the pro-anthropogenic climate change crowd wins by a mile.

Is this consensus?  No.  But does it help people see that the dissent in the scientific literature is diminishingly small and always has been?  Less than 4% of all articles published on climate change argued against human causes.  If unanimity is the standard, then we need to start questioning a lot more than climate change . . . like gravity, for example.  We still have a few unresolved issues with that particular force (really), but I don’t see anyone grabbing onto those tiny knowledge gaps to suggest that we shouldn’t pay any attention to it and exiting through a second-floor window is perfectly acceptable.  This slider shows you one representation of the literature, a literature that represents a clear plurality view in favor of ACC (though given many of the “neutral” papers are reporting on work done because the authors accept the fundamental premise of ACC, suggesting a significant majority in this camp).  Enough with the irrational doubt – let’s focus on the real challenges (better understanding the mechanisms of change, the total human contribution to observed change, and the likely resilience of ecology and society in the face of the challenges that now loom . . .

David Cameron gave a speech yesterday at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation conference.  It deserves to be read in full – I don’t agree with every word (and how I disagree with many of Cameron’s stances), but it is one of the clearest statements on why we must continue to deliver aid to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

On the down side, Cameron starts out a bit too market triumphalist for my tastes:

At home we don’t tackle poverty by state hand-outs; we help people get into work, to stand on their own two feet and to take control of their own destiny.  The same should be true of development.  No country has ever pulled itself out of poverty through aid alone, so this government will take a new approach.  The same conditions create prosperity the world over.  They include access to markets, property rights, private-sector investment and they make up what I see as the golden thread of successful development.  Ultimately it’s the private sector that will be the engine for growth and that’s why this government’s efforts will increasingly focus on helping developing countries achieve that growth with the jobs and opportunities it will bring.

Well, this is a bit muddled.  First, last I checked England (and Great Britain more generally) was home to a robust welfare state (well, until various Tory governments from Thatcher to Cameron took a hatchet to it) that provided the safety net that enhanced the quality of life of its citizens.  On the other hand (and second), I agree that no country has ever been lifted out of poverty through aid alone – but then, that’s not what aid does.  At best, aid catalyzes much larger processes of change – and sometimes those changes play out constructively (I discuss this at length in Delivering Development).  Third, the only countries to have really changed their status in the last half century have done so by rejecting things like the open market and behaving in very politically repressive ways to get through a serious of difficult transitions that eventually made them competitive in global markets and able to productively take in foreign investment – so this claim about what works isn’t fully supported by the evidence.  Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion suggests that this might be changing as a new pile of countries “graduate” from low-income to middle-income status, but this is still unclear as many of the new “graduates” from low to middle income status have just crept above that line, often with no transformation of their economic fundamentals (leaving them vulnerable to slip-back) and still containing huge numbers of very poor people (creating the same problem, and calling into question the very concept of “graduation” to middle income status).

This is not to say that I don’t think markets have any value – I just fear those who place absolute faith in them, especially given that the environment is the site of perhaps the most serious market failure we’ve ever seen.  However, as the speech progressed, I became somewhat more comfortable as, at least in the context of development, Cameron takes a somewhat more moderate tack:

We want people in Africa to climb the ladder of prosperity but of course when the bottom rungs of that ladder are broken by disease and preventable death on a massive scale, when countries can’t even get on the bottom rung of the growth ladder because one in seven of their children die before they reach their fifth birthday, we have to take urgent action.  We have to save lives and then we can help people to live.  So that’s where today’s announcement fits in.  Because there cannot really be any effective development – economic or political – while there are still millions of people dying unnecessarily.

Absolutely correct – the “bottom of the pyramid”, as it were, often finds itself left behind when economic growth programs rev up . . . this is well-understood in both academia and the development institutions.  Indeed, it is not controversial for my Bureau (DCHA – the folks who deal with disasters and conflict) to argue that its work is fundamental to creating a firm foundation for future development efforts because we address the needs of vulnerable populations who might otherwise be overlooked by Agency programming.

But what I most like is the kicking Cameron hands out to those who argue we don’t have the money for aid in these hard economic times.  The kicking comes in two parts – first a moral argument:

When you make a promise to the poorest people in the world you should keep it.  I remember where I was during the Gleneagles Summit and the Live 8 concert of 2005 and I remember thinking at the time how right it was that those world leaders should make such pledges so publicly.  For me it’s a question of values; this is about saving lives.  It was the right thing to promise; it was the right thing for Britain to do and it is the right thing for this government to honour that commitment.

So to those who point to other countries that are breaking their promises and say that makes it okay for us to do the same, I say no, it’s not okay.  Our job is to hold those other countries to account, not to use them as an excuse to turn our back on people who are trusting us to help them.  And to those who say fine but we should put off seeing through those promises to another day because right now we can’t afford to help, I say we can’t afford to wait.  How many minutes do we wait?  Three children die every minute from pneumonia alone; waiting is not the right thing to do and I don’t think that 0.7% of our gross national income is too high a price to pay for saving lives.

I actually think that most people in our country want Britain to stand for something in the world, to be something in the world.  And when I think about what makes me proud of our country, yes, I think of our incredibly brave service men and women that I have the honour to meet and see so often; and yes, I think of our capabilities as an economic and diplomatic power; but I also think of our sense of duty to help others.  That says something about this country and I think it’s something we can be proud of.

Where . . . the . . . hell . . . is . . . the . . . American . . . political . . . leadership . . . on . . . this?  Dammit, the British just took the “City on a Hill” mantle from us.  Most Americans want America to stand for something in the world, last I checked.

Oh, and Cameron addresses the unaddressable (for America, it seems) in his speech: that development, in reducing the need for future wars and humanitarian interventions, actually is cost-effective:

If we really care about Britain’s national interest, about jobs, about growth, about security, we shouldn’t break off our links with the countries that can hold some of the keys to that future.  If we invest in Africa, if we open trade corridors, if we remove obstacles to growth, it’s not just Africa that will grow but us too.  And if we invest in countries before they get broken we might not end up spending so much on dealing with the problems, whether that’s immigration or threats to our national security.

Take Afghanistan.  If we’d put a fraction of our current military spending on Afghanistan into helping Afghanistan 15 or 20 years ago just think what we might have been able to avoid over the last decade.  Or take Pakistan.  Let another generation of Pakistanis enter adult life without any real opportunities and what are the risks in terms of mass migration, radicalisation, even terrorism?  That’s why UK support over the next four years will get four million more children in Pakistan into school.  This could be life changing for those children and it can be part of the antidote to the extremism that threatens us all.   So it’s not just morally right to invest in aid, it’s actually in our own interests too.

God help us, Ron Paul seems to be the only candidate for anything willing to say that the wars we are in are costing a hell of a lot of money, and might not have been necessary.  Of course, Ron Paul doesn’t like aid, either . . . actually, he doesn’t seem to like much of anything.  Nobody is really taking his hobgoblin act all that seriously, which means he isn’t going to shift the debate here.  Cameron, though, really glues his fiscal conservativism to a rational argument for aid – maybe we just should have worked on the aid side of things, at a fraction of the cost, and averted the whole mess in the first place.  Lord help me, the Tories are sounding reasonable . . .

Now, Cameron’s ideas for transforming aid are vague, mostly about focusing on results and enhancing accountability.  This is all well and good, but amazingly thorny.  There’s been quite a bit of discussion about evaluation in the development community (great summary list here)  and this blog (here, here and here) of late, and if nothing else, the reader might come to grips with the huge challenges that we must address before we can get to a realization of Cameron’s otherwise nonoffensive ideas.

I suppose it was asking too much to hope a leader talking about transforming development might mention that the global poor might actually have ideas of their own that we should start learning about before we go barging in . . .

Schuyler Null has a post up on The New Security Beat on the 2010 revision of the United Nations (UNDESA) World Population Prospects, noting that this new revision suggests that by 2100 roughly 1 in every 3 people in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa – a total of 3.36 billion people.  It is far too early to pick apart these projections, especially as the underlying assumptions used to guide their construction are not yet available to the public. Null is quite right to note:

the UN’s numbers are based on projections that can and do change. The range of uncertainty for the sub-Saharan African region, in particular, is quite large. The medium-variant projection for the region’s total population in 2100 is 3.36 billion people, but the high variant projection is 4.85 billion and the low variant is 2.25 billion.

A few preliminary thoughts, though.  I pulled up the data for a country I know reasonably well – Ghana.  Under this new revised projection, Ghana’s population is expected to reach more than 67 million by 2100.  Peak population growth is supposed to take place between 2035 and 2040, with steady declines in population growth after that.  With life expectancies projected to rise to 79 years by 2100, certainly a lot more Ghanaians will be around for a lot longer than they are today (current life expectancy is just shy of 60 years).  That said, these numbers trouble me.  First, I don’t quite see how Ghana will be able to sustain a population of this size at any point in the future – the number is just too massive.  Second, it seems to me that the life expectancy estimates and the population size estimates contradict one another – as Charles Kenny quite ably demonstrates in Getting Better, as life expectancies rise and more children reach adulthood, the general trend is to lower total fertility.  The only way Ghana’s projection can be made to work is to assume massive demographic momentum that I am not sure will play out in the face of expected declines in infant mortality and the increased cost burden for prospective parents supporting older family members for much longer than they do today. In other words, this seems to me to be a rather dire overestimation of where Ghana is going to be in the future.

Now, this is just a quick cut at what appear to be the assumptions for one country, but I worry that this potential overestimation has a certain political utility.  The Malthusian specter, however inaccurate it may be, remains a great motivator for aid and development spending.  Further, presuming massive demographic momentum requires we assume that adequate reproductive health options are not in place in places like Ghana.  Given that the monitoring of reproductive health, presumably to better direct development interventions, seems to be a large focus of UNDESA’s and other UN organizations’ mandate, they might have a bit of a built-in bias against a lower population number because such a number would presume significant progress on the reproductive health front, thus challenging the need for this particular service.  In a wider sense, it seems to revive fears of a population bomb, albeit in this case limited to Africa.  While I have no doubt that demography will be an important challenge to address in the future, I think the current numbers, even the low estimates, seem overstated.

Besides, any projection of any social process 90 years into the future probably has gigantic error bars that could encompass anything from negative growth to massive overgrowth . . . the problem here is that policy makers often fail to grasp this uncertainty, see the 100-year projection, freak out entirely and reorient the next 5 years worth of aid programming to address a problem that may not exist.

There were two upsides to the recent global economic downturn.  One was largely limited to the developing world, at least at first glance.  Due to the continued economic growth of many developing economies even as the OECD economies contracted, there was actually a measure of convergence among economic productivity levels globally (with the huge caveat that the data on this is a bit shaky).  I’m not sure many living in the OECD would have seen this as an upside, except in hoping that this growth would foster greater consumption and the emergence of needed markets in which we might sell our stuff and therefore trigger our own recovery.  The other upside, though, was of global import – less economic activity notably lowered global greenhouse gas emissions, slowing our otherwise breakneck effort to change the global climate.  Yeah, great!  That downturn could really help . . .

Oh wait, it only lasted one year.  And now emissions appear to be surging past even our not-so-happy scenarios into the void beyond the worst case.  Climate Crocks has the chart (click to enlarge):

What does it mean?  Hard to say.  All I can say with certainty is that we are hurling ourselves down a very uncertain, unclear path without any safety nets.  I find that deeply worrying.

A while back, I had a blog post on a report for ActionAid, written by Alex Evans, on critical uncertainties for development between the present and 2020.  One of the big uncertainties Alex identified were environmental shocks, though in that version of the report he limited these shocks to climate-driven environmental shocks.  In my post, I suggested to Alex that he widen his scope, for environmental shocks might also include ecosystem collapse, such as in major global fisheries – such environmental shocks are not really related to climate change, but are still of great importance.  The collapse of the Gulf of Guinea large marine ecosystem (largely due to commercial overfishing from places other than Africa) has devastated local fish hauls, lowering the availability of protein in the diets of coastal areas and driving enormous pressure on terrestrial fauna as these populations seek to make up for the lost protein.  Alex was quite generous with my comments, and agreed with this observation wholeheartedly.

And then today, I stumbled on this – a simple visualization of Atlantic Fisheries in 1900 and 2000, by fish haul.  The image is striking (click to expand):

Now, I have no access to the datasets used to construct this visualization, and therefore I can make no comments on its accuracy (the blog post on the Guardian site is not very illuminating).  However, this map could be off by quite a bit in terms of how good hauls were in 1900, and how bad they are now, and the picture would still be very, very chilling.  As I keep telling my students, all those new, “exotic” fish showing up in restaurants are not delicacies – they are just all that is left in these fisheries.

This is obviously a development problem, as it compromises livelihoods and food supplies.  Yet I don’t see anyone addressing it directly, even aid organizations engaged with countries on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, where this impact is most pronounced.  And how long until even the rich really start to feel the pinch?

Go here to see more visualizations – including one of the reach of the Spanish fishing fleet that makes clear where the pressure on the Gulf of Guinea is coming from.

Updated 7 June 2011: I can find no evidence that any of my TIAA-CREF funds are holding Glencore.  So far, so good . . .


No Glencore in my Vanguard 2025 Fund (kid’s college fund).  Sadly, though, there is Gazprom.  And probably a hell of a lot of other problematic stuff . . . nobody is clean, I tell you.



As a geographer, I spend a lot of time thinking about interconnections – how events and processes in one place influence events and processes in other places.  I use these interconnections as a teaching tool in my courses, to help students understand how, for example, our levels of consumption here in the US preclude similar levels of consumption for the rest of the world (not enough resource out there to make that happen).  I am always careful to make sure that the students understand that I am as bound up in these linkages as they are – I certainly do not live off the grid, walking/riding a bike everywhere and eating only food I grow (or that is grown locally).  But it still hurts every time a find a new way in which I am bound to, and therefore a cause of, some of the processes I find most frustrating in the world.  So, this excellent post on FairPensions was a bit tough.  Simply put, Glencore, a well-known problem company that trades heavily in the food commodities markets (and appears to be making those markets, as it were, to its own advantage) has been fast-tracked into the FTSE 100, and therefore is now likely part of a lot of the mutual funds and pension plans to which we all make contributions.  I’m going to have to check on this, and pray that TIAA-CREF has some sense, but . . . dammit.

For an earlier discussions of food insecurity and the commodities markets, see here, here and here.