Category Archives: Science

Why Do The Yaks Hate Us?

So instead of writing these massive book reviews, I thought I’d share a few tidbits from a book I’m currently reading. The book When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–Or Destroy It. Yes, more light reading. It’s written by Jonathan Watts, a China-based environmental correspondent for The Guardian in the UK. Based on his years living in China, the book takes a look at the four geographic corners of the country, chronicling the China’s environmental history, the damage that’s been done by rapid industrialization and whether the country can avoid becoming an environmental wasteland.

Reading through a chapter on the Tibetan plateau, Watts conveys in three paragraphs how subtle changes to economic policy can have significant impacts on climate. In this case, the impact is negative, but I think a takeaway is that it can go either way.

The culprit here is yaks. Yes, yaks, or more to the point, regulatory changes made in the 1980s that deregulated herd sizes for both sheep and yaks, the two primary livestock on the Tibetan plateau. Deregulation meant that herders could buy as many animals as they could afford, and a subsequent change to tax policy valued yaks at four times the amount of sheep (which on the face of it makes sense, yaks are pretty big). In addition, the government banned polygamy around the same time. All of this incentivized herders to increase the size of their yak herds, because it was now legal, a better value and a larger yak herd made up for the lost prestige of no longer having multiple wives.

Yaks grazing on the Tibetan plateau

More yaks meant more yaks grazing, and that quickly threw off the equilibrium between livestock and grassland that had been set over thousands of years. The overgrazing caused much of the plateau to rapidly become desert and less able to absorb moisture. This caused more heat to radiate into the atmosphere, and with much of the plateau at an elevation of 14,000 feet or more, this heat radiation had an outsize impact on climate. The result was that the Tibetan mountains have been warmed more than anywhere else in China, even with the massive amounts of pollutants created by industrial production in the country’s east.

Set right against the Himalayas, the adjacent mountains funneled water vapor directly into the stratosphere rather than becoming rain or snow, as it would have at a lower elevation. Water vapor has a greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, increasing climate temperatures even more. Because of its place on the globe–at an incredibly high elevation and next to the world’s highest mountain range–changes to the Tibetan land quickly impact climate on a global scale. As Watts writes:

Changes in the soil here fed back rapidly into the atmosphere, affecting global air circulation just as rising ocean surface temperatures affected storm patterns.

It’s a reminder of the law of unintended consequences. When dealing with the environment, every action has an equal and opposite reaction–but we don’t learn what it is until well after the fact.


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Filed under Book Review, Green, Science

All About Dams

I won’t say too much about this to belabor the point, but this is a great video put out by the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a group aimed at pushing the hydropower industry to better manage dams in order to reduce their impact, often great, on river ecosystems.

Dams are complicated things. They’re emission-free and have great side effects, like turning the Central Washington desert into a major agricultural region, but they’re hell on rivers. Salmon are some of the most well-known losers. But dams can impact everything from water temperature and sediment flows to flooding lowland valleys, which are important for animals in search of food in the winter.

I consider myself reasonably informed on Northwest issues, but I had admittedly never heard of “small hydro” until coming across this video on the blog for the American Alps Legacy Project. Let’s just say the video, in all its tongue-in-cheek glory, did its job by framing the debate from the get-go and successfully shaping my opinion, while getting quite a few laughs out of me as well. I’m on board with their view that we should make the most of the dams we have rather than building new ones that will damage creeks in the North Cascades like this.

Bottom line: It’s an impressive piece of work from a fairly small advocacy group.

Small Hydro Power from Tom11 Films on Vimeo.

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Filed under Communications, Green, Northwest, Science, Uncategorized

Green Gone Wrong: Or, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way Out of Global Warming

Green Gone Wrong, written by journalist Heather Rogers, is an expose of the green industry–organic food, carbon offsets, electric cars and their ilk–from the left. The author’s argument can be shaped like this:

Global warming is a real threat. Something needs to be done. But most of what’s being done under the guise of green isn’t solving the problem. In fact, it’s actually obscuring real solutions.

Take the hybrid car. CO2-spewing internal combustion engines  in cars have been replaced by hybrid electric engines, which at face value is a good thing. Score one point for the greens. But research has shown that Prius drivers actually drive farther, up to 25% more, once they own a hybrid. When people feel like they’re using less gas per mile, they often compensate by driving more miles. Net-net: They often end up using a similar amount of petroleum as they did when driving a car with an internal combustion engine.

And that leads to the book’s main point: The green industry as we know it is based on consumerism–switching from dirty products to green products–when in fact what we should be doing from an ecological standpoint is using less. That’s not a laine that goes over well in board rooms, and understandably so. The incentives of green capitalism, a term that Rogers uses throughout the book, are misaligned with what actually needs to be done to reduce atmospheric carbon in hopes of reversing–or at least stabilizing–climate change.

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Filed under Book Review, Economics, Green, Science

Powered by Algae

Via Fast Company:

A look at former BP executive Cynthia Warner, who left the company two years ago to become the president of Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based company focused on delivering solid-state energy from algae. The story is written in light of the ongoing Gulf oil spill caused at the hands of BP (what else?). But it’s also focused squarely on Warner as an energy exec who saw the light that the days of cheap and easy fossil fuel energy were quickly coming to an end–and that the only real solution was to aggressively turn toward renewables.

Putting the green in green energy

The attention-grabbing part of the article, and why I’m highlighting it here, is Warner’s explanation to that age-old question: Why algae?

The particular pie Warner wanted to bake was industrial-scale production of liquid hydrocarbons. While solar, wind, and geothermal work for electricity, she argues, the transportation sector needs energy-dense, portable fuel. Electric cars are still limited-range and expensive, and no one has yet debuted an electric jet. “Besides transportation, we use hydrocarbons for chemicals precursors and a lot of our building materials today. We would denude the planet if we had to go back to just building with wood.”

Some of her former colleagues had gone into biofuels, but she saw problems with the so-called first-generation biofuels brewed from corn, soy, sugarcane, or plant waste. All compete with food crops for arable land and potable water. “Most of the alternative choices I could see were short-term fixes with a lot of resource trade-offs,” she says. Plus, she was convinced that it was essential to find a solution that could “drop in” to the existing energy infrastructure, from pipelines to refineries to tanker trucks, representing a sunk cost of trillions of dollars. Alternatives like hydrogen, liquefied gas, and ethanol require new investment in processing, storage, and distribution. “Think of the savings to society and the environment of not utilizing all these new resources and tearing everything up. It just makes so much more sense.”

That seems key to me–that the energy of the future will need to take into account the existing infrastructure, avoid competition with food and can multiple readily. In testing that Sapphire Energy does, the company can go through 25 generations of algae in a single year. I don’t have a horse in the green energy race, but this seems to be one worth watching.

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