New Global Land Rush Trampling Human Rights

A new rush on land in developing countries is trampling land rights in impoverished communities. Over the past five years, the Liberian government sold or leased more than one third of the country’s land for logging, mining, and agriculture. The government of South Sudan ceded control of nine percent of the new nation’s lands even before announcing its independence. http://bit.ly/xm828y

Extreme Winter Weather–Groundhog Day Edition

January crocuses in Maryland. Credit: Dan Klotz

When is partly cloudy and 70 degrees Fahrenheit considered extreme? When it happens in Washington, D.C., on February 1st and the temperature ends up more than 25 degrees above normal.

On Groundhog Day, the delightful weather makes for an interesting backdrop as the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal showcased another back-and-forth on the political debate about climate change. But the bottom line is: it’s here, it’s extreme, and we need to get used to it.  http://bit.ly/xqLdHm

Climate Change Activists Need To Talk About Population Too

Maps prepared by Population Action International overlay data on populations with high growth rates and low resilience to climate change.

“The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word ‘environment’ a connotation of naivety in some political circles.”

These words come from the foreword of “Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” a landmark United Nations report that was written when the world’s population reached five billion. The report triggered the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio De Janeiro and a number of United Nations treaties and agreements all focusing on sustainable development.

It’s now 2012, and a new Earth Summit is being prepared for June of this year.  But what progress has been made in sustainable development in the past two decades, and how can you answer the problems without looking at the growing population? In my next piece for NationalGeographic.com, I take a look at how these questions were addressed at an Aspen Institute event this past Thursday. http://bit.ly/xtJndW

On Fourth Down, Only Go For It If You’re Gonna Make It

It’s the second quarter, the Giants are down 2-0 (yes, that’s a baseball score in a football game, the first sign of trouble), and Big Blue has the ball in the red zone, fourth and inches.

“Kick the field goal,” I say.  “It’s a low scoring game, the Giants offense is nowhere, why squander the opportunity to score?”

“You have to go for it,” my friend Sean says.  “Show some faith in your offensive line.”

Tom Coughlin, Giants coach, didn’t hear either of our opinions, but he listened to Sean and went for it. Atlanta got good penetration, met Giants running back behind the line of scrimmage, but Jacobs spun free and forward and gained the first down.  Big Blue scored a touchdown shortly thereafter, and the team caught fire. Final score, 24-2.

Driving home after the game, the post-game chatter was all about the Falcons coach Mike Smith and what a turkey he was for going for it twice on fourth and inches from around the Giants 25. Smith was a turkey because his team failed to convert both times. Coughlin’s decision was lost amid the dominant play by his team after they converted; Smith’s decisions were highlighted as the reason his team lost.

Smith, apparently, is a big reader of all the analysis dedicated to whether to go for it or not.  It seams that almost every year the New York Times sports section comes up with an analysis on why you should always go for it. He went for it in the regular season, against the division rival Saints, and failed. He went for it twice in this game, ostensibly for the same reasons that Coughlin did–showing some faith in his team, providing the opportunity to spark some momentum, a naive belief that it would work?–but only one coach wears the dunce cap.

My own analysis, done without the benefit of a degree in statistics or eager graduate students at my disposal, is that you should go for it unless failing at it will hurt more than kicking the field goal or punting.  In today’s game, the Falcons had just marched down the field, failed the conversion, and forced QB Eli Manning to throw the ball away in the end zone, earning a safety for intentionally grounding the ball.  The Giants then forced an Atlanta punt, and finally moved the ball downfield–failing on the fourth down play would mean squandering the little momentum that had been built up be a long drive by coming away with zero points. “Kick the field goal,” I said.

In the end, Tom Coughlin is the genius that fired his team up, while Mike Smith is the coach that went down with his ship. Perhaps the right decision was made only because it worked.

But how would you factor that into a statistical analysis?

 

 

Do we Really Need to use Human Medicine on Farm Animals?

This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration restricted how a critically important drug for humans is used in farm animal production.  What this means, and how industrial farm animal production is a leading contributor of antibiotic resistant bacteria, is the subject of another piece I wrote for NationalGeographic.com. http://bit.ly/x0l057

Photo credit: USDA/Keith Weller

Has the Chesapeake Bay turned the corner in 2011?

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A piece I wrote for NationalGeographic.com looks at how we’ve moved closer to a cleaner Chesapeake Bay in 2011.  A concerted push to cut back on factory farm run-off and other pollution, plus reductions in the amount of Atlantic menhaden caught at the mouth of the bay, could add up to better water quality and a healthier ecosystem.  http://bit.ly/xaPgzq


Sunrise off of Sandy Point State Park, MD. Credit: Dan Klotz


On raspberries, and climate change

When I was a teenager in New York City, one of the most important discoveries I made was that wild raspberries grew in the local parks.  The fruit was delicious, of course, and I could count on the berries appearing at the end of July.

As I grew up, though, a funny thing happened.  When I came back to the raspberry patches at the end of July, they were gone and eaten by other people or creatures. I learned that the raspberries were now ripening earlier in the season.  Today, you can count on picking wild raspberries in the Bronx in early July.

One of the long-proven impacts of climate change is the disruption in the growing seasons.  It is the anecdotal evidence that, for me, drove the point home that climate change is real.  It is not just the world that is changing, but my childhood haunts were changing as well. But far more has been proven to be at stake.  Again and again, studies have repeatedly confirmed how climate change is disrupting the growing seasons and is challenging how we live on this planet.

Are my childhood raspberries relevant now that world leaders once again failed to agree on halting the pace of climate change?  Is this an issue that affects us in small and personal ways? Or is climate change a larger planetary catastrophe in the making? Judging from the questions posed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which met most recently in Durban, South Africa, last week, climate change is a more anecdotal problem, one that runs secondary to the major economic questions of the day.

Should developing countries be allowed to pollute the world as much as developed countries have already? Should developed countries stop polluting if developing countries can still do so? Should we save the environment at the expense of the economy? But what if the environment as we changed it disrupts the economy?

The debate is dominated mostly by those countries with large-scale economies though, and the impacts of climate change have not been felt universally on more than a personal level, on the scale of my raspberries.  Countries such as Canada can pull out of the current treaty with impunity, cynically talking about the impossibility of making economic sacrifices to reduce emissions.  For small island countries, however, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels, addressing climate change is a critical component of their international diplomacy.

The international deliberations have taken place for decades now; as one college student put it quite memorably, “You’ve been negotiating my entire life.” The lack of progress is tied directly to this lack of universal urgency.

Ultimately, the problem will not be solved at large international meetings, where the push for consensus—a solution that everyone agrees on—results in all parties agreeing to agree, but not agreeing to take action.  The Durban talks, for example, ended with an agreement that a new agreement will be negotiated.

In reality, climate change can only be tackled in the prologue leading up to these meetings.  If consensus is needed, then representatives from every country must attend these meetings with an urgent mandate to reduce emissions.  To expect countries to negotiate on reducing emissions without committing themselves to that goal is absurd.  What we have as a result is a permanent process, not a solution to the planetary threat of global warming.