Game Theory and Climate Change

I am a scientist and a professor; I teach physics and I publish original research – mostly in physics-related publications. My degrees are actually in chemistry but I have changed my focus over time. I use mathematics often, both in my teaching and in my research, so I am proficient in areas of math that relate to those endeavors, but I have never learned or used game theory. In this area I am as amateurish as most of you. That said, this blog is dedicated to game theory. Some, especially economists, advocate using game theory to analyze optimal strategies for mitigating climate change.

A few years ago, I made contact with a mathematician – an expert in game theory, to try to explore applications of game theory in a game-simulation that I am developing together with Prof. Lori Scarlatos from Stony-Brook University that I have mentioned in earlier blogs (July 31, 2012; February 18, 2013; July 2, 2013). I have treated all these efforts as interesting academic exercises with little prospect for immediate applications. That assessment started to change after reading Tracy Tullis’ seemingly unrelated New York Times article, “How Game Theory Helped Improve New York City’s High School Application Process”:

Tuesday was the deadline for eighth graders in New York City to submit applications to secure a spot at one of 426 public high schools. After months of school tours and tests, auditions and interviews, 75,000 students have entrusted their choices to a computer program that will arrange their school assignments for the coming year. The weeks of research and deliberation will be reduced to a fraction of a second of mathematical calculation: In just a couple of hours, all the sorting for the Class of 2019 will be finished.

To middle-school students and their parents, the high-school admissions process is a grueling and universally loathed rite of passage. But as awful as it can be, it used to be much worse. In the late 1990s, for instance, tens of thousands of children were shunted off to schools that had nothing going for them, it seemed, beyond empty desks. The process was so byzantine it appeared nothing short of a Nobel Prize-worthy algorithm could fix it.

Which is essentially what happened.

Before the redesign, the application process was a mess. Or, as an economist might say, it was an example of a congested market. Each student submitted a wish list of five schools. Some of them would be matched with one of their choices, and thousands — usually the higher-performing ones — would be matched with more than one school, giving them the luxury of choosing. Nearly half of the city’s eighth graders — many of them lower-performing students from poor families — got no match at all. That some received surplus offers while others got none illustrated the market’s fundamental inefficiency.

In 2003, New York City changed its method for matching eighth graders to high schools with a system, called a deferred acceptance algorithm, that was designed by a team of professors, including one who later won a Nobel prize in economic science. The key feature was mutuality: Students submit a list of preferred schools in order, and schools prepare an ordered list of students whom they want or who meet their standards. After rounds of computer matching, schools and students are paired so that students get their highest-ranked school that also wants them. Here, in simplified form, is how it works. In this example, each school can take three students, although it can list more, and each student can list up to three choices.

This effort describes a practical solution to a big, messy, issue in the city where I live. The school admissions process affects almost everybody here.

My thought process on the connection between deferred acceptance, game theory, and climate change relates directly to the following articles. I will explain later how I think this can help us reach a global agreement in Paris.

The first paper, “The collective-risk social dilemma and the prevention of simulated dangerous climate change,” emphasizes the difficult balance between the need for cooperation and the reluctance to participate in such a cooperative activity at one’s own expense:

Will a group of people reach a collective target through individual contributions when everyone suffers individually if the target is missed? This “collective-risk social dilemma” exists in various social scenarios, the globally most challenging one being the prevention of dangerous climate change. Reaching the collective target requires individual sacrifice, with benefits to all but no guarantee that others will also contribute. It even seems tempting to contribute less and save money to induce others to contribute more, hence the dilemma and the risk of failure.

Peter Wood wrote the second article, “Climate Change and Game Theory,” which is more of a review about the connection between the two areas:

Abstract: This survey paper examines the problem of achieving global cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Contributions to this problem are reviewed from non-cooperative game theory, cooperative game theory, and implementation theory. Solutions to games where players have a continuous choice about how much to pollute, games where players make decisions about treaty participation, and games where players make decisions about treaty ratification, are examined. The implications of linking cooperation on climate change with cooperation on other issues, such as trade, is examined. Cooperative and non-cooperative approaches to coalition formation are investigated in order to examine the behavior of coalitions cooperating on climate change. One way to achieve cooperation is to design a game, known as a mechanism, whose equilibrium corresponds to an optimal outcome. This paper examines some mechanisms that are based on conditional commitments, and could lead to substantial cooperation.

The connection between game theory and the IPCC efforts in gathering an international support for a global agreement has also been covered in the more popular press. Here is one example from the Guardian:

German academics have used the mathematics behind the strategic behaviour of countries to propose a way though the myriad impasses

America will never sign up, but the EU will if China does, which is unlikely if Africa doesn’t. No nation wants to go it alone but Russia doesn’t want to do anything, and the poor want the rich to absorb all the costs but the rich will only agree to sign if the poor do more.

Yes, I’m talking about the great game of the UN global climate talks, which resume in a few weeks’ time in Panama – the last gathering before the big annual meeting, this year in Durban, South Africa, at the end of November.

Once the details have been worked out, the same deferred acceptance algorithm that was implemented in the NYC school admissions process could be instrumental in attempts to implement global environmental agreements. One of the key obstacles to reaching such an accord is the ever-infamous NIMBY issue. The previous operating agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, restricted its scope of emissions reductions to developed countries. At the time, the US was the leading emitter. While the Clinton administration signed the Protocol, it never submitted it for ratification by the US Senate. The main reason was the argument that since China and India were not compelled to commit to change, the US would not ratify its inclusion either.

I was visiting Australia a few years ago when carbon tax had just been implemented there and it was a very lively discussion topic. The main argument that I heard was that Australia is a small country (23 million people as of 2013), meaning that what it does or doesn’t do wouldn’t make much difference in the global context. The argument that if Australia, a rich country, does not go along with a certain plan, then large developing countries such as China and India with much higher growth rates, will follow suit, didn’t carry much weight. Shortly after, the opposition party won the election there and abolished the tax as soon as it was feasible.

Deferred acceptance might be a great solution here. In most cases, the representatives of the countries that formulate such treaties don’t have the power to authorize them directly. They do, however, have the full power to formulate a working algorithm for the process. If the whole world made an agreement but its finalization was conditional upon ratification by large emitters such as the US, US politicians would be held to a considerably higher degree of accountability than usual. The blame for failure of such a global agreement would be clear. America is a strong leader in global policy. If Australia were to vote down a similar measure, there might be fewer ramifications – the rest of the world would likely still follow the new rules.

Incorporation of a game theory technique such as deferred acceptance in the coming Paris agreement has a decent chance of preventing the instances of abstention that severely limited the Kyoto Protocol, and might increase the likelihood of success.

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2014 – Flat Carbon Emissions Rate With a 3% GDP Increase: One Year is Not a Trend Maker But Can be an Attractive Candidate for a Reference.

Dear Readers: We apologize for the delay in this week’s post. We were experiencing technical difficulties with the website, but are now back up and running thanks to Brooklyn College’s excellent support staff.

Recently, a number of publications came out with great news: in the last year, global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions remained steady, even as global economic activity grew at a rate of 3%. The numbers come from a recent IEA (International Energy Agency) report:

Global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide stalled in 2014

IEA data point to emissions decoupling from economic growth for the first time in 40 years

13 March 2015

Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn.

“This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, recently named to take over from Maria van der Hoeven as the next IEA Executive Director.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year. The preliminary IEA data suggest that efforts to mitigate climate change may be having a more pronounced effect on emissions than had previously been thought.

The IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries. In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal. In OECD economies, recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth – including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy – are producing the desired effect of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one,” added Birol. “It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December: for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980’s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.

More details on the data and analysis will be included in an IEA special report on energy and climate that will be released on 15 June in London. The report will provide decision-makers with analysis of national climate pledges in the context of the recent downturn in fossil fuel prices, suggest pragmatic policy measures to advance climate goals without blunting economic growth, and assess adaptation needs, including in the power sectors of China and India.

“The latest data on emissions are indeed encouraging, but this is no time for complacency – and certainly not the time to use this positive news as an excuse to stall further action,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.

To put the achievement into context, let’s go back to the IPAT identity that I originally introduced in November 2012, which I have also referred to recently with regards to the energy policy in India (Feb. 24, 2015 blog):

There is a useful identity that correlates the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, in Governor’s Romney statement) with the other indicators. The equation is known as the IPAT equation (or I=PAT), which stands for Impact Population Affluence Technology. The equation was proposed independently by two research teams; one consists of Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren (now President Obama’s Science Adviser), while the other is led by Barry Commoner (P.R. Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:16 (1972). B. Commoner; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:42 (1972).)

The identity takes the following form:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Indeed, as the IEA mentioned, this is the first time in 40 years that a halt or reduction in emission of greenhouse gases was not tied to an economic downturn (the affluence term in the identity).

However, almost immediately after the IEA announcement, many voices pointed out that “one year is not a trend setter.” In this case, the skeptics are absolutely right. That said, it is great that this one example came out before the scheduled United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) convenes to (finally) draft a global agreement on mitigation. This marks a great global reference point; the “only” thing that we have to do is to continue the trend and draft it into an agreement. Since this phenomenon has already happened, it can no longer be said to be impossible, a fact that the new head of the IEA highlights in the announcement. To make it a trend we need an agreement that all countries will be committed to following; not just an accidental development.

Table 1 below summarizes the efforts of the 10 largest CO2 emitters, based on the latest findings of the 2014 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), compiled annually by the German organization Germanwatch. These 10 countries are responsible for 2/3 of all global emissions. The table shows their global share of the four factors that appear in the IPAT identity, with the resulting global share of the emission.

Key Data For the 10 Largest CO2 Emitters 2013-14
Table 1 –
Key Data for the 10 largest CO2 emitters.

The CCPI ranking in the table above shows the 2013 and 2014 Climate Change Performance Indexes that Germanwatch compiled for these countries.

The report then uses Poland (not one of the 10 largest contributors, but still among the worst in the EU) to illustrate the criteria for the ranking. These numbers reflect the CCPI’s new methodology (restructured after 7 years of operation), which includes weighting of the individual indicators with a much stronger focus on renewable energy and efficiency as the most prominent mitigation strategies.

Indicators Weighting Score Rank
Primary Energy Supply per Capita 7.5% 75.84 25
CO2 Emissions per Capita 7.5% 67.74 38
Target-Performance comparison 10% 63.55 35
Emission from Deforestation per Capita 5% 72.91 17
Development of Emissions
CO2 Emissions from Electricity and Heat Production 10% 69.84 29
CO2 Emissions from Manufacturing and Industry 8% 70.59 29
CO2 Emissions from Road Traffic 4% 12.62 58
CO2 Emissions from Residential use and Buildings 4% 22.48 56
CO2 Emissions from Aviation 4% 26.46 55
Renewable Energy
Share in Renewable Energy in Total Primary Energy Supply 2% 14.27 32
Development of Energy Supply from Renewable Energy Sources 8% 51.92 16
Efficiency
Efficiency Level 5% 47.24 52
Efficiency Trends 5% 86.16 9
Policy
International Climate Policy 10% 15.31 51
National Climate Policy 10% 41.87 33

Table 2 - Criteria and results for the Climate Change Performance Index for Poland

As these tables show us, the 10 largest emitters are not doing very well in terms of improvement. Only Germany and India, both of which we have examined here in previous series of blogs, rank as moderate with regards to progress. The rest are marked poor and very poor. In order to be able to convert the global 2014 flat emission rates from an incidental event to a trend, the 2015 Paris meeting will have to result in commitments dedicated to significant improvements in all of these countries. Let’s hope that can happen.

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India – Energy Policy and Climate Change

Last week I summarized India’s current energy policy in terms of three objectives: access, security and climate change. While I looked into the challenges and apparent contradictions in the first two objectives, I left the discussion of its policy on climate change for today’s post. My information source for all three objectives was the IEA report. Here is what they wrote about climate change:

Climate change

There is well-accepted recognition of the impacts of climate change among Indian policy makers and the general public, although priority is given to economic and social development. India is a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), but is not obliged to contain its carbon emissions as an Annex II country. Regarding international attempts to establish an internationally-binding regime to curb carbon emissions, India finds it unacceptable, stating that most emissions were produced by developed countries and that India needs economic development and industrialisation. India’s per-capita emissions are only one-third of the world average and 14% of per-capita emissions of OECD member countries. India took a leading role in the G77 during the COP 15 in 2009, denouncing any attempt by industrialised countries to impose carbon reduction targets on developing countries.

That said, India is increasingly engaged in reducing carbon emissions and alleviating environmental degradation. India announced its National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008, and during COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, India’s environment minister reconfirmed India’s goal to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 20% to 25% below 2005 levels by 2020. Frequent flooding and droughts, deforestation and desertification as well as possible glacial melting in the Himalayas have focused on climate change and provide strong impetus towards India’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

National Action Plan on Climate Change

The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) was prepared under the guidance and direction of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change and released in 2008 to achieve “a sustainable development path that simultaneously advances economic and environmental objectives”(PIB, 2008a). The NAPCC formed through India’s realisation of the necessity of comprehensive and urgent initiatives to address climate change and environmental issues at the national level. It also reflected India’s intention to behave as a responsible member of the international community, as well as its rejection to be burdened with emission reductions on par with developed countries.

The NAPCC argues that its success would be enhanced if “developed countries affirm their responsibility for accumulated greenhouse gas emissions and fulfil their commitments under the UNFCCC, to transfer new and additional financial resources and climate friendly technologies to support both adaptation and mitigation in developing countries” (PC, 2008).

One concept presented in the NAPCC is based on per-capita carbon emission, stating that each person in the world has “an equal entitlement” to the global atmosphere and committing that India’s per-capita emission will not exceed the level of developed countries at any point (PC,2008). The idea of equality and one of India’s key energy policy objectives – energy access – were reiterated in the NAPCC that called for protection of the poor and vulnerable parts of society through an inclusive and sustainable development strategy.

The NAPCC has eight Missions to achieve these principles, two of which are directly energy related: the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) and the National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency (NMEEE). The JNNSM, implemented by the MNRE, is a supply-side effort aiming to significantly increase the share of solar energy in the total energy mix. The NMEEE, implemented by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, is based on demand-side management. It expects that a series of programmes and schemes would result in a saving of 10 gigawatt (GW) by the end of 11th Plan in 2012. The NMEEE initiatives to enhance energy efficiency include a market-based mechanism, energy efficient appliances and financial mechanism to support demand-side management programmes. Other Missions also have indirect implications on energy sector. For instance, the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat aims to improve energy efficiency in the building sector.

India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was sworn in on May 26, 2014. President Obama made a brief visit to India at the end of January this year, shortly after his newsworthy visit to China. At that time, he established an agreement with China about concrete steps that both countries must take to try to meet mitigation targets in preparation for the December 2015 Paris meeting. By many accounts, if a similar commitment had been announced as a result of the meetings in India, the prospects for a successful Paris meeting would have been considerably enhanced.

Here is the relevant fact sheet that was announced by the White House following that meeting:

Fact Sheet: U.S. and India Climate and Clean Energy Cooperation

To further support the achievement of our ambitious climate and clean energy goals, the United States and India have pledged to enhance our cooperation in this area.  The United States welcomes India’s intention to increase the share of renewable energy in electricity generation consistent with its intended goal to increase India’s solar capacity to 100 GW by 2022, and intends to support India’s goal by enhancing cooperation in clean energy and climate change.  Our two countries already have a robust program of cooperation, including the highly successful U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) umbrella program, and we will expand policy dialogues and technical work on clean energy and low greenhouse gas emissions technologies.

The United States and India agreed on:

  • Enhancing Bilateral Climate Change Cooperation: President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, stressing the importance of working together and with other countries on climate change, plan to cooperate closely this year to achieve a successful and ambitious agreement in Paris.
  • Cooperating on Hydroflurocarbons (HFCs): Building on their prior understandings from September 2014 concerning the phasedown of HFCs, the leaders agreed to cooperate on making concrete progress in the Montreal Protocol this year.
  • Expanding Partnership to Advance Clean Energy Research (PACE-R): Both sides renewed their commitment to the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center (PACE-R), a $125 million program jointly funded by the U.S. and Indian governments and private sector.  The renewal includes extending funding for three existing research tracks of solar energy, building energy efficiency, and advanced biofuels for five years and launching a new track on smart grid and grid storage technology.
  • Accelerating Clean Energy Finance: Prime Minister Modi emphasized India’s ongoing efforts to create a market environment that will promote trade and investment in this sector. USAID will install a field investment officer in India this summer, backed by a transactions team to help mobilize private capital for the clean energy sector.  In February, The United States will host the Clean Energy Finance Forum and government-to-government Clean Energy Finance Task Force to help overcome strategic barriers to accelerating institutional and private financing.  The Department of Commerce will launch a trade mission on clean energy.  The Export-Import Bank is exploring potential projects for its MOU with the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency for up to $1 billion in clean energy financing.  OPIC plans to build on its existing portfolio of $227 million in renewable energy and continue to identify potential projects to support utility-scale growth and off-grid energy access.
  • Launching Air Quality Cooperation: The United States will implement EPA’s AIRNow-International program and megacities partnerships, focused on disseminating information to help urban residents reduce their exposure to harmful levels of air pollution, and enable urban policy planners to implement corrective strategies for improving ambient air quality in cities, allowing for estimates of health and climate change co-benefits of these strategies.
  • Starting Technical Cooperation on Heavy-Duty Vehicles and Transportation Fuels: Both countries will discuss how to reduce the environmental and emissions impact of heavy-duty vehicles and transportation fuels by working to adopt cleaner fuels, emissions, and efficiency standards in India.
  • Initiating Climate Resilience Tool Development: Jointly undertaking a partnership on climate resilience that will work to downscale international climate models for the Indian sub-continent to much higher resolution than currently available, assess climate risks at the sub-national level,  work with local technical institutes on capacity building, and engage local decision-makers in the process of addressing climate information needs and informing planning and climate resilient sustainable development, including for India’s State Action Plans.
  • Promoting Super-Efficient Off-Grid Appliances: Strengthening our joint commitment to promote super-efficient off-grid appliances that can dramatically extend the range of energy services available to those lacking electricity, the United States and India intend to support the deployment of these resources to help meet India’s energy access goals.
  • Transforming the Market for Efficient and Climate-Friendly Cooling: The United States will develop an Advanced Cooling Challenge to catalyze the development of super-efficient, climate-friendly, and cost-effective cooling solutions optimized to perform in India’s climates.
  • Demonstrating Clean Energy Initiatives on the Ground: The United States will work with India on additional pilot programs and other collaborative projects, including developing an innovative renewable energy storage project and hosting a smart grid workshop.

The two countries concluded negotiations on a five-year MOU on Energy Security, Clean Energy and Climate Change to carry this work forward, to be signed as early as possible at a mutually-agreed upon date.

Shortly after the Modi–Obama meeting, a summary of the extent and practicality of India’s commitments appeared in a piece by Rakteem Katakey and Chisaki Watanabe, two Bloomberg contributors from New Delhi:

New Delhi – India’s audacious plan to create solar industry on the scale of China’s almost from scratch gained credibility with President Barack Obama’s pledge to lend U.S financial support for the program.

Without giving any detail or making any specific grant, Obama said the U.S will “stand ready to speed this advancement with additional financing.” The remark was made at a press conference on Sunday in New Delhi as Prime Minister Narenda Modi reiterated his aim for India to install by 2022 as much photovoltaic capacity as the U.S has now.

India’s ambition would require $160 billion, according to Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer at the New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment & water. It would spread solar panels across an area the equivalent of three times the size of India’s most populous city, Mumbai, and require the government to cut back on thickets of regulation holding up projects.

China vs India

China has 33.4 gigawatts of solar capacity installed now and custody of most of the top 10 panel makers worlwide. India has 3.3 gigawatts of capacity and no major PV manufacterers, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Though India may struggle to reach its solar goal, the government’s backing increases the prospect of success and, in any event, the target makes the country an attractive market, said Xie Jian, president of Chinese solar panel supplier JA Solar Holding Co.

JA Holding sees India as a key market, Xie said. His view is echoed by Shawn Qu, chief executive officer of Guelph, Ontario-based Canadian Solar Inc., who said in November during an interview in Wuxi, China, that he expects India to become one of the fastest-growing solar markets in the world.

Money remains an issue. For now, India is attracting a fraction of the funds heading to China, the U.S and Japan, which were the largest solar markets last year.

In spite of the challenges, my personal feeling is that if China goes along with the global commitment that they made during President Obama’s visit, India will not be an obstacle to a successful commitment for global mitigation of climate change during the upcoming Paris meeting in December. We will be closely following developments in India – especially with regards to their response to the recent major reduction in the price of fossil fuels.

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India – Energy Policy

Today I will focus on India’s current energy use and the policy decisions that are associated with its energy needs. Next week I will focus on future plans with an emphasis on mitigation and adaptation to climate change. This should provide all of us with a decent background to try to anticipate India’s “vote” in the coming 2015 Paris global meeting where nations around the world will try to draft a worldwide plan to achieve these objectives.

I will start with data about India’s present (2012) energy use and its self-sufficiency in providing enough energy to fuel its development aspirations. Figure 1 shows the 2012 energy mix and Figure 2 shows the trend in energy production and energy consumption over the last 20 years. Production is constant over this period, but consumption tripled to fuel economic growth. Such a trend is an obvious recipe for instability.

Makeup of India Energy ConsumptionFigure 1

India oil production and consumptionFigure 2

The key realities that India is trying to address are summarized below:

Of the 1.4 billion people of the world who have no access to electricity in the world, India accounts for over 300 million. The International Energy Agency estimates India will add between 600 GW to 1,200 GW of additional new power generation capacity before 2050.[15] This added new capacity is equivalent to the 740 GW of total power generation capacity of European Union (EU-27) in 2005. The technologies and fuel sources India adopts, as it adds this electricity generation capacity, may make significant impact to global resource usage and environmental issues.[16]

Some 800 million Indians use traditional fuels – fuelwood, agricultural waste and biomass cakes – for cooking and general heating needs. These traditional fuels are burnt in cook stoves, known as chulah or chulha in some parts of India.[17][18] Traditional fuel is inefficient source of energy, its burning releases high levels of smoke, PM10 particulate matter, NOX, SOX, PAHs, polyaromatics, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and other air pollutants.[19][20][21] Some reports, including one by the World Health Organisation, claim 300,000 to 400,000 people in India die of indoor air pollution and carbon monoxide poisoning every year because of biomass burning and use of chullahs.[22] Traditional fuel burning in conventional cook stoves releases unnecessarily large amounts of pollutants, between 5 to 15 times higher than industrial combustion of coal, thereby affecting outdoor air quality, haze and smog, chronic health problems, damage to forests, ecosystems and global climate. Burning of biomass and firewood will not stop, these reports claim, unless electricity or clean burning fuel and combustion technologies become reliably available and widely adopted in rural and urban India. The growth of electricity sector in India may help find a sustainable alternative to traditional fuel burning.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) mentioned has written an assessment of India’s present energy policy with the following pessimistic conclusion:

“India’s energy sector is increasingly unable to deliver a secure supply of energy amid growing demand and fuel imports.”

From there it proceeds to describe the policy objectives:

Three main energy policy objectives are pursued by the Indian government:

First, access to energy is the foremost goal in India’s energy policy making, as nearly one-quarter of the population lacks access to electricity. This implies ensuring the supply of adequate and reliable energy to the Indian population amid growing energy demand, bolstered by economic growth.

Second, energy security is driven by increasing dependence on imported fuels, which is crucial to meet the India’s huge energy demand. Increased import dependence also exposes the country to greater geopolitical risks and international price volatility.

Finally, India is dedicated to the mitigation of climate change, although overcoming energy poverty and ensuring economic and social development remains a top priority.

As the IEA notes, there are often conflicts between the objectives. Here is what they write about energy access and energy security:

Nearly one-quarter of the population of India lacks access to electricity. It is important to understand this peculiarity of India’s energy situation where the majority of potential energy demand still remains unmet, unlike most developed countries where energy demand has reached or is close to saturation stage. The Indian government recognized that economic development is being hindered as a consequence of energy poverty. Thus, providing energy access to its entire population has been a top priority of Indian policy makers for a long time, making it equally or even more important than energy security. India’s major rural electrification scheme is an example of the government’s determination to expand access to electricity in India’s rural villages.

Energy security takes a central position in government policy making. The emphasis of energy policy until the 1990s was on electricity shortage and unsatisfied energy needs. However, increasing dependence on imported energy sources, mainly oil, but also natural gas and coal, resulted in greater government attention to the subject. Energy security is defined comprehensively in India, as “we are energy secure when we can supply lifeline energy to all our citizens irrespective of their ability to pay for it as well as meet their effective demand for safe and convenient energy to satisfy their various needs at competitive prices, at all times and with a prescribed confidence level considering shocks and disruptions that can be reasonably expected” (PC, 2006).

From this definition, India’s concern for energy security is threefold: First, India asserts that energy is a lifeline to all citizens, which should be factored into its energy security strategy. Second, India is anxious about sudden increases in global energy prices as they undermine the availability of energy to its people and exacerbate the national financial burden. Finally, there is a concern about possible abrupt supply disruption, which has led to efforts to diversify supply and fuel and acquire overseas assets.

It should be interesting to figure out how this reality maps into concern and action to meet the global demand to mitigate against climate change. We will have to wait until next week to address this matter.

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India – Climate Change Deniers?

Last week, I looked at the IPAT identity and the conflict between striving for affluence and aiming to keep greenhouse gas emissions from energy use low. One of the graphs showed that of the 25 major countries presented, India has both the lowest GDP and energy use per person. The graph showed that the affluence (measured by GDP/person) is approximately proportional to the energy use. I also mentioned the filming of the short movie “Quest for Energy,” which described India’s efforts to provide electricity to an area in India that was not connected to the electrical grid. During the filming we asked some of the people that were directly affected (those in the Sundarbans region) whether or not they minded paying slightly higher prices for electricity compared to people on the “mainland” – the area around Kolkata (Calcutta). The people in the “mainland” get most of their electricity from coal. The hope in providing the electricity in the Sundarbans was to try to “skip” the coal stage. It turns out that this was a bit more expensive. The answer that we got was that actually, they would be delighted to get their energy from coal and pay less, provided that it would be a “clean” coal that doesn’t contribute to climate change. We basically had to end the chat at that point. It became useless to try to explain that there is no such thing as “clean” coal unless the carbon dioxide generated is being sequestered, a process that would make the coal considerably more expensive.

My last blog also described one “shade” of climate deniers – the “fatalists,” that don’t believe anything can be done to seriously reduce anthropogenic climate change because countries like India will never agree to sacrifice their quest for economic development for the sake of global sustainability. Admittedly, my “shading” of deniers mostly focuses on the US landscape. A valid question to ask is whether India shares this attitude.

There is no question that there are climate change deniers in India. However, India recently had major elections that resulted in a big change of government. The Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi was the big winner. It is especially notable that all the big contenders within the election have recognized that anthropogenic climate change is a major threat that India has to face together with the rest of the world. Here is how Worldwatch Institute summarized the political landscape:

Perhaps for the first time in India’s election history, both Congress and the BJP-the two leading contenders-give fairly significant mention to climate change and the environment in their manifestos.

The Congress party states that “climate change has now emerged as a serious challenge for the world community” and has committed to implementing its National Action Plan on Climate Change, released last June, “in letter and spirit.” Shyam Saran, India’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, noted in a recent statement in Washington, D.C., that “climate change has now been fully integrated into the development process” and that detailed national strategies will be released soon. The party has also indicated plans to better conserve the Ganges River Basin and to safeguard India’s biodiversity.

With regard to India’s energy security needs, Congress has announced plans to add at least 12,000-15,000 megawatts of capacity each year through a mix of sources, including coal, hydroelectricity, nuclear power, and renewable energy-although the pace of oil and gas exploration will also be intensified.

The BJP has outlined a fairly robust set of measures as well, stating that it will “pursue national growth objectives through an ecologically sustainable pathway that leads to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, recognising that containing global warming is essential to protecting [the] life and security of people and [the] environment.” The party also notes that “mitigating this threat by building a low carbon economy is the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.”

In terms of energy infrastructure, the BJP proposes investing heavily in non-fossil fuel clean energy sources, with a goal of adding at least 120,000 megawatts of power over the next five years, 20 percent of this from renewable sources. This amounts to a near-doubling of India’s currently installed energy capacity. The BJP manifesto also includes measures to create incentives for environmental education, energy efficiency, afforestation, wildlife conservation, and low-water, low-chemical, and high-diversity agriculture.

Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, a famous Indian scientist and administrator has served until very recently as head of the IPCC and was its main spokesman. He was the face of the organization when in 2007 the organization shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

The people in the Sundarbans region fully realize, as most Indian citizens do, that India is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The monsoons are getting more intense on both the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the Sundarbans. With these intense monsoons come more intense and more frequent flooding. With the sea level rise, shallow wells quickly become too salty for use and extraction of fresh water becomes much more difficult.

Figure 1 shows a climate vulnerability map; India, China and West Africa are noted as some of the most vulnerable regions. They are also among the world’s poorest and most populated regions. Most of these regions cannot afford adaptation through expensive construction. In many cases, the best solution that they can offer is to let affected people to try to move from the most vulnerable coastal region to the interior as climate refugees.

Climate vulnerability world mapFigure 1 – Climate Change Vulnerability Map 

Smith School at Oxford: Countries' Actions and Commitments to Climate ChangeFigure 2 – Countries Action and Commitments on Climate Change

In spite of all this, Figure 2, a global map of countries’ actions and commitments on climate change, clearly shows that India and China are among the most committed.

In the next two weeks I will focus on the specific challenges that India faces in its energy use and the actions that the country is taking to mitigate its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

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India – Lighthouse for the IPAT

India is “hot” now. I just got the recent issue of The Economist (February 21st), whose cover features a personification of India, riding high on a very attractive elephant that has a jet engine strapped to its side. With most of the world in some sort of stagnation, India, with its newly elected Prime Minister (Narendra Modi), is leading the way in economic growth among the large developing countries. The US, meanwhile, is in a very strong position among the large developed countries. President Obama visited India last month and met with Modi and other Indian officials. They have agreed to cooperate on the development and implementation of sustainable energy sources but – unlike with China – did not make any specific commitments. The main reason for this is that climate change is only one of the major concerns that India has in terms of its energy policy; until India can find satisfying solutions that balance these concerns, it cannot securely commit itself to any global agreements on energy use.

Given the pending December 2015 meeting in Paris, where many hope to finally get global commitments to take efforts to mitigate climate change, these meetings go a long way toward giving the world confidence that these commitments will not only be made, but also followed.

A few years ago (September 3, 2012), I described what I called, “Three Shades of Deniers.” Of these, the following is the one that concerns me most, especially because it includes some very good scientists:

The fatalists. This group fully agrees with both the science and its predicted impact, but believes that since the task of preventing it is so enormous as to be practically undoable, they might as well enjoy life for as long as it lasts. Unfortunately, many in this group are good scientists.

The first example that most of these “fatalists” bring up is India. I was focused on India’s efforts to balance between the pressing needs to alleviate poverty and mitigate anthropogenic contributions to climate change for many years. Many of these efforts can be quantified through the IPAT identity (November 26, 2012 blog):

There is a useful identity that correlates the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, in Governor’s Romney statement) with the other indicators. The equation is known as the IPAT equation (or I=PAT), which stands for Impact Population Affluence Technology. The equation was proposed independently by two research teams; one consists of Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren (now President Obama’s Science Adviser), while the other is led by Barry Commoner (P.R. Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:16 (1972). B. Commoner; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:42 (1972).)

The identity takes the following form:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Almost all of the future scenarios for climate change make separate estimates of the indicators in this equation. The difference factor of 15 in GDP/Person (measure of affluence), between the average Chinese and average American makes it clear that the Chinese and the rest of the developing world will do everything they can to try to “even the score” with the developed world. The global challenge is how to do this while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact.

The figure below, taken from my book, shows the dependence of the GDP/Person on Energy Use/Person for 26 countries, including both developing and developed countries. The data for this graph were taken from the 2002 CIA World Factbook.

Figure 1 for Environmental Justice Global Blog

On superficial observation, the dependence in the graph looks linear. Linear dependence indicates that the energy intensity, defined as the ratio of GDP/Energy Use, is constant and independent of the GDP of a country. The energy intensity is a true measure of the efficiency of energy use. The approximate independence of the energy intensity to GDP, directly contradicts the often-heard perception that developed countries use their energy more efficiently than developing countries.

More careful observation shows (Yevgeniy Ostrovskiy, Michael Cheng and Micha Tomkiewicz; “Intensive and Extensive Parametrization of Energy Use and Income in US States and in Global Environments”; International Conference on Climate Change: Impacts and Responses; 12 – 13 July 2012; Seattle Washington) that the energy intensity is weakly dependent on the GDP (inverse square root dependence), not because developed countries are more efficient in their use of energy, but because service starts to play bigger and bigger roles in developed countries and is considerably less energy dependent as compared to heavy industry.

In the next few blogs I will focus on the difficulties in reaching an international agreement on limiting the use of fossil fuel, what China and other developing countries are doing to change their energy use, and how the USA is reacting to these developments.

Since my paper with Ostrovskiy and Cheng is now published in a refereed professional journal, my focus has shifted to India, which, as I showed in the previous blog, is a somewhat more difficult, example. India is poorer than China. It’s also a democratic country, meaning that the issue shifts from trying to convince governments to take a certain action to trying to convince voters in a fast growing population that already numbers over a billion people.

The IPAT is not just a “formula.” It actually describes the driving forces for the anthropogenic contributions to climate change.

Figure 2, taken from the latest IPCC reports, shows the relative contributions of the four terms with the carbon intensity of energy defined as CO2/energy summarizing the last two energy terms. The balancing act of the socioeconomic terms with the energy terms is clearly visible, resulting in increased emission with the increased contributions from the socio-economic terms, dominated by the increased affluence of developing countries. The increase in emission associated with the first two terms of the equality is only partially compensated by the energy terms.Decomposition of the change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by decade

 Figure 2

Decomposition of the change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by decade (IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report)

A few years ago I went to India to try to see the balancing act for myself. Here is what I wrote about this effort (April 29, 2014):

I was able to interest a colleague of mine, Prof. Vinit Parmar from our film department, and we went exploring. We went to a region of India called the Sundarbans, which is part of the West Bengal State, near the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). The region is shared by India and Bangladesh and is the home of one of the world’s largest deltas, formed by the outlets of the Ganges, the Brahmaphutra and the Meghna rivers into the Bay of Bengal. About 4 million people live on the Indian side of the border. The land’s topography has made it difficult to extend the Indian electrical grid, and until 1995 most of the inhabitants lived a Hunter-Gatherer way of life: “hunting” fish and gathering honey in the Mangrove forest. Around 1995, the Indian government (with some help from the US government) decided to do something about it and try to deliver electricity to the region. They decided to do it by skipping the coal stage, instead delivering the electricity in the most sustainable way that the budget would allow.

We tried to monitor this process through a documentary film; to accomplish this we needed some help but the result, along with the full list of contributors, can be seen in the short film “Quest for Energy.”

The film illustrates the initial delivery of electricity in the small town of Gosaba. This delivery comes by way of a microgrid that runs through some of the main streets in town. Here, the microgrid doesn’t function as an additional, supplemental aspect of the main grid. In fact, since in this case, the microgrid is the only grid, in a sense, it resembles the main grid in the US more than 100 years ago. The proliferation of microgrids in rich countries is a boon to developing countries like India because it promotes further exploration and improvement of such technology. Hopefully these innovations will continue to be applicable not only in rich countries, where the microgrids function mostly as a form of adaptation, but also in poor countries where in many regions they are the only game in town.

Figure 3, taken from a 2002 seminar on energy and poverty reduction at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, shows the global access to electricity and reliance on biomass for energy use.Global access to electricity and biomass

Figure 3 – Global lack of access to electricity and reliance on biomass

The same seminar documents describe how India’s inhabitants fit in to the world’s access to and use of electricity as follows:

Of the 1.6 billion people today have no access to electricity, about 80% of these people are located in India (580 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (500 million). Four out of five people lacking access to electricity live in rural areas. By 2030, in the absence of radical new policies, 1.4 billion will still have no electricity

The next few blogs will continue my discussion of India, as I describe the country’s present energy situation and its efforts toward energy transition. I also plan to address the difficult balance it strives for between reducing its energy needs overall while also recognizing that some energy expenditure is necessary in its attempts to alleviate poverty.

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India – the Global Lighthouse

Toward the end of last year (December 9, 2014), I started a series of blogs taking stock of where we stand, in light of this year’s anticipated Paris meeting (December 2015) that will try (again) to formulate an international agreement to mitigate climate change:

I will try to welcome 2015 a bit differently. On November 11th, the US and Chinese presidents came to a landmark agreement: the US will accelerate the speed of its current reduction of greenhouse gas emissions so that its level by 2025 will be close to 30% below its level in 2005 (double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020). Meanwhile, China’s emissions will peak by 2030 – by which time sustainable sources should constitute at least 20% of its energy supply. People around the world saw this agreement by the two worst polluting countries as a good framework upon which to base a global agreement – one which will be discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled be held in Paris, France in December of 2015. Many eyes are now turning to India to see if it will follow. I will try to follow the global preparations for the December 2015 Paris meeting and include updates in this blog.

I promised in that blog that I would describe the energy transition processes in a few key countries. I started then with Germany (December 9, 2014), and will continue now with India. A recent (2014) ranking of carbon emissions by country puts India in third place with 5.7% (following China – 23.4% and US with 14.7%).

In terms of energy usage per person, however, the picture is different. Figure 1 shows the comparison with other key countries.

Energy Use Per Capita Figure 1

Figure 2 shows a more detailed comparison of the relevant parameters with China. It is clear from both figures that on a per person basis, India is far below all the rich countries and even many developing countries, most importantly China. By almost every measure, India is a very poor country that strives to catch up with the more affluent parts of the world.

Seeking Alpha: How Does India's Energy Consumption Compare to China's?Figure 2 – Comparison of the relevant parameters for energy consumption between India and China.

For a number of years, I have used India as my ideal, seeing it as a beacon; a lighthouse for the world in these matters. The country epitomizes many of the imperative changes necessary for a future with a much more equal world; one many of us want to see. Unfortunately, idealism aside, the world needs safeguarding against existential hazards such as anthropogenic climate change, and using India as a model for the scale of action might make mitigation seem like an insurmountable pursuit.

The figure below (marked as figure 9.4) shows why. The figure was taken from my book (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now- Momentum Press (2011)). Below the figure, I have included an excerpt from the book as an explanation. The figure serves as a focal point for an assignment in my courses on climate change. The courses are open to all of the school’s students, provided that they have passed the regular core requirements, including introductory offerings in both the physical and social sciences (what we call Upper Tier Core).

Climate Change: The Fork At the End of Now: Figure 9.4 US vs. India GDP

The figure shows the changes in the GDP per capita since 1960 for India and the United States. India was chosen as an example because it is the most populous country in the low- income group while the United States was chosen because it is the most populous country in the high- income group. You will notice something peculiar in the graph not yet mentioned in this book. The scale of the vertical axis is not linear: 100– 1000 is the same distance on the vertical axis as 1000– 10,000, which on a linear scale would take 10 times the space. Such a scale is called a logarithmic scale. It is used here because the Indian GDP per capita is more than a factor of 10 smaller than the US GDP per capita. If we showed both countries on the same linear graph, then the scale of the graph would have to be adjusted to that of the United States, and India will be extremely close to the horizontal axis. Plotting them on a logarithmic scale makes both economies visible and relatively easy to compare.

I will push this a bit further. Inspecting the two lines on this scale, we notice that the US line is approximately a straight line, while the India line changes to an increased slope around 1980. Straight lines on this scale means exponential growth with a constant growth rate (remember Chapter 2). One can calculate this rate from the graph. In this case I will skip the details. The rate for the United States is 1.5%. This rate is expressed in constant US dollars, which means that the inflation rate in the United States is discounted. We can do the same for India— the Indian economy grew until 1980 at an approximate rate of 0.9% in real US dollars, followed by an accelerated rate of approximately 2.5%. These calculations are performed with units that already discount population growth (because we calculate GDP per capita) and inflation in the United States. It is an old axiom of geometry that two unparallel, straight lines must meet somewhere. From the graph, we can calculate where the lines will meet. If the US economy continues to grow at the same rate that it grew since 1960, and the Indian economy continues to grow at the same rate that it grew since 1980, then the two economies will have the same GDP per capita in about 300 years. This time is way beyond “now,” but it is a trend that needs to be seriously considered. Presently the average American is richer than the average Indian by a factor of about 60. When the two extrapolated economies will converge in terms of an average individual standard of living 300 years from now, the GDP per capita of the two economies will reach the astronomical number of 3.5 million US$ (this is already after discounting inflation and population growth). Such is the power of an extrapolated exponential growth without imposed limits.

The students are asked to use the graphs to calculate the time it will take for an average Indian to have the same average income (in the form of GDP/capita) as an average American, assuming a business as usual scenario (i.e. extrapolating the future from the present). From this data, they continue to calculate energy use and climate change parameters of that world, again, based on a business as usual scenario.

More than two years ago (December 3, 2012), in a different context, I discussed a similar exercise where students had to predict a scenario of when the GDP of an average Chinese citizen might match that of an average American. At the time, I invited everybody to try their hand with their own scenario. I repeat the request here.

Next week I will start to focus on what India is doing right now.

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Addressing a Global Issue –Fall 2015: What Have I Seen, What Have I Done to Take Part?

This will be a short blog. Any collective efforts to make the world a better place for all of us and for future generations have to start with individuals. The purpose here is to attract contributions about some of these individual efforts. I am inviting comments about your experiences and thoughts. The comment can take the approach of trying to convince somebody to join in a certain collective effort, or can speak to your own actions – reporting which strategies worked and which didn’t. It can address an article or book you’ve read, or a movie, play or TV program you’ve watched that you think should be shared with others.  Tell us why you are interested in a specific topic, why you want to spread the word about it, how you plan to act on it or share it, and the results that you expect.

Much of what I focus on in this blog revolves around the interactions between humans and our environment, as well as their ramifications. As I continue to stress, many of the challenges that we face today can be framed in these terms. I will ask my students to participate and I am asking all of you to do so too. I will send individual email requests to authors who post comments that I find especially interesting, asking them to expand upon their thoughts in the form of guest blogs. I want this to be a lively and engaging discussion!

Please make sure that your comments are labelled with your real name and email and a short description of your background as it relates to your comment. The objective here is to relate the global issue that you want to address with your personal activity and interests.

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Extinctions in the Anthropocene

Yesterday (Wednesday) was the first day of classes in my school. I am scheduled to teach two related courses this semester: Energy Use and Climate Change for advanced undergraduates, and Physics & Society for physics seniors and graduate students. I am going to start both courses with the picture shown in Figure 1. At first glance, one might confuse the picture either with mediocre art or maybe more generously with science fiction. Yet the picture comes from an article that was just published in Science magazine, one of the most prestigious publications in science (I subscribe to it, but anybody can download this picture through Google images). I mentioned that article, “Marine Defaunation: Animal Loss in the Global Ocean,” (Science, 347, 247 (2015)) last week, together with the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Both publications deal with species extinctions of the past, present and future. The picture shows an artist’s representation of how the world once looked and how it might look in the future, both on land and in the ocean. As always, there is no way of knowing what the future will actually bring; the best we can do is to base our suppositions on models that we hope can inform us about what the future will entail. In this case, the picture’s scope extends from 50,000 years ago – the approximate time that early modern humans started to spread from Africa to Asia and Europe – to toward the end of this century (what I call the “End of Now” in my book).

Defaunation Over TimeFigure 1
Timeline of marine and terrestrial defauntation

 To fit the provided space, the horizontal baseline was presented on a logarithmic scale (August 6, 2012 blog). Additionally, to give us an idea of the environment, not only do the climates of the past and present show up on the middle of the diagram, but the projected IPCC temperature rise (October 14, 2014) is superimposed on the area that represents the future.

The starting supposition in both publications is that we are now living in the Anthropocene (May 14, 2013 blog) period. “Officially” we are not there yet, but with 7 billion people (as of October 2012) and growing, the change in designation becomes inevitable and humans will soon officially become the dominant part of the “natural environment.” A fully qualified group is now discussing the issue, Here is their charge:

The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is an interdisciplinary body of scientists and humanists working under the umbrella of the International Commission on Stratigraphy and tasked with developing a proposal for the formal ratification of the Anthropocene as an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale. On occasion of its very first meeting, the AWG together with HKW convene a socio- and science-political forum, bringing together scientific experts, political stakeholders, media outlets, and an interested public. The forum presents insights into current scientific findings in defining a global impact of human activities and debates the far-reaching implications of the Anthropocene hypothesis for science and society alike.

Extinction Chronology Figure 2
Comparative chronology of human-associated terrestrial and marine animal extinctions.

Kolbert’s book takes the position that we were basically dominant as soon as humans started to move around about 50,000 years ago. Her reasoning is that we almost immediately started to use killing tools whose effectiveness were independent from our body size and our physical strength. The book focuses on the role that humans play throughout the entire period depicted by the picture. There is no question in my mind that the official designation of the time period will not be quite so broad.

The Science paper emphasizes defaunation in the oceans; its main argument is that in comparison with that on land, the process started much more recently in marine environments, and thus, in principle, is still reversible. Figure 2 illustrates the timeline for land defaunation (again, the image was posted through Google Images, not directly taken from the Science paper). The loss of species shown is confined mostly to megafauna – a class of animals often defined as having body mass that exceeds 45 kg. Many of these species became extinct in Australia between 16,000 – 50,000 BCE. These include monotremes, various marsupials (the largest one exceeding 2 tons), big birds, and large reptiles. There has long been a dispute over who is to blame for these extinctions, but recent studies show a clear “preference” for humans as a cause.

Here is a short (non-exhaustive) list of what is included among the North American megafauna:

Pleistocene fauna in North America included giant sloths; short-faced bears; several species of tapirs; peccaries (Including the long nosed and flat-headed peccaries); the American lion; giant tortoises; Miracinonyx (“American cheetahs”, not true cheetahs); saber-toothed cats like Smilodon and the scimitar cat, Homotherium; dire wolves; saiga; camelids such as two species of now extinct llamas and Camelops; at least two species of bison; stag-moose; the shrub-ox and Harlan’s muskox; 14 species of pronghorn (of which 13 are now extinct); horses; mammoths and mastodons; the beautiful armadillo and the giant armadillo-like Glyptotherium and giant beavers as well as birds like giant condors and other teratorns. The nine-foot sabertooth salmon lived at the time as well. In contrast, today the largest North American land animal is the American bison.

The global extinction phase in the figure is represented by the dodo, an animal that became extinct once the island of Mauritius was settled by humans (July 30, 2013 blog). Mass marine extinction, which is shown as a small vertical blue line that hugs the origin of the figure, only started in the 20th Century, with the advent of industrialized fishing.

The Science paper differentiates between these different kinds of extinctions:

Local extinction

Defaunation has caused numerous geographic range constrictions in marine animal species, driving them locally extinct in many habitats. These effects have been particularly severe among large pelagic fishes, where ~90% of studied species have exhibited range contractions (8, 14) (Fig. 3). Local extinctions, however, are not unique to large pelagic predators. Close to a third of the marine fishes and invertebrates off the North American coasts that can be reliably sampled in scientific trawl surveys (often small to medium bodied species) have also exhibited range contractions (Fig. 3). Such contractions can result from the direct elimination of vulnerable subpopulations or from region-wide declines in abundance (14). Available data suggest that the magnitude of the range on tractions for this diverse set of trawl-surveyed marine species is, on average, less than the contractions observed for terrestrial animals such as mammals, birds, and butterflies. Though data deficiencies are abundant, most marine animal species also do not yet seem to exhibit some of the most extreme range contractions recorded for terrestrial animals. Asian tigers, for example, have lost ~93% of their historical range (15), whereas tiger sharks still range across the world’s oceans (16).

Ecological extinction

Reductions in the abundance of marine animals have been well documented in the oceans (17). Aggregated population trend data suggest that in the last four decades, marine vertebrates (fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals) have declined in abundance by on average 22% (18). Marine fishes have declined in aggregate by 38% (17), and certain baleen whales by 80 to 90% (19). Many of these declines have been termed ecological extinctions—although the species in question are still extant, they are no longer sufficiently abundant to perform their functional roles. Ecological extinctions are well known in terrestrial environments and have been demonstrated to be just as disruptive as species extinctions (20). On land, we know of the phenomenon of “empty forests” where ecological extinctions of forest fauna alter tree recruitment, reshape plant dispersal, and cause population explosions of small mammals (1, 20, 21). We are now observing the proliferation of “empty reefs,” “empty estuaries,” and “empty bays” (7, 14, 22).

Commercial extinction

Species that drop below an abundance level at which they can be economically harvested are extinct from a commercial standpoint. On land, commercial extinctions affected species ranging from chinchilla to bison (23). Cases of commercial extinction are also common in the oceans. Gray whales were commercially hunted starting in the 1840s.

By 1900, their numbers were so depleted that targeted harvest of this species was no longer regionally tenable (24). Likewise, the great whales in Antarctica were serially hunted to commercial extinction (25). Not all species, however, are so “lucky” as to have human harvesters desist when they become extremely rare. Demand and prices for certain highly prized marine wildlife can continue to increase as these animals become less abundant—a phenomenon termed the anthropogenic Allee effect (26). Individual bluefin tuna can sell for >US$100,000, rare sea cucumbers >US$400/kg, and high-quality shark fins for >US$100/kg. Such species are the rhinos of the ocean—they may never be too rare to be hunted.

How could man – a comparatively small animal with (at best) a bow and arrow, be responsible for the extinction of beasts such as the wooly mammoth? Kolbert’s book presents an interesting theory: big animals like the mammoth or today’s African elephants and rhinos are big for a reason. They didn’t use to have any natural enemies.

A very large animal is living on the edge with respect to its reproductive rate. The gestation period of an elephant, for example, is twenty two months. Elephants don’t have twins, and they don’t start to reproduce until they are in their teens.

With such restrictions, they can survive only because they didn’t have predators that could take them on. Once man was able to develop the tools and the social skills to take them on, they didn’t stand a chance. It’s true that the human population was still small and the people killed only the animals that they needed for survival. With the help of computer modeling, however, researchers have found that such a dynamic was more than enough to cause mass extinction within a few hundred years – in geological time, that is an instant.

In the oceans, the process is just starting. 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans, which have an average depth that exceeds 2.2 miles. Marine animal ranges are naturally much larger than those of terrestrial animals with similar body weight. Man’s access is much more limited, or has been up to now. The balance has yet to be completely monopolized by humans. To some extent, fish can still flee from human predators as well as from the changing environment caused by anthropogenic climate change. However, our ever increasing population and technological developments are starting to close that gap. Hopefully, going on the business as usual warming scenario shown in Figure 1, we still have some time to restore the balance.

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Maine: Codfish Adaptation – Fishermen’s Distress and What the Rest of the World Can Do About It.

With a few small changes, the title of this blog could represent (and ring true for) almost anywhere on Earth. I am focused on Maine right now because I think that something can be done about its situation that could be successfully adopted in other locations.

Last week’s blog centered on two articles in the New York Times that addressed the recent migration of codfish away from Maine’s coast and the regulatory agencies’ reaction of limiting fishing in an attempt to minimize the stress on the fish. The imposed limits had a major impact on the ability of the fishermen to make a living. The three key paragraphs in the Wines & Bidgood article read as follows:

In decades past, the gulf had warmed on average by about one degree every 21 years. In the last decade, the average has been one degree every two years. “What we’re experiencing is a warming that very few ocean ecosystems have ever experienced,” said Andrew J. Pershing, the chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute here.

Joe Orlando, 60, who fishes from a Gloucester, Mass., base, said the effect of the ban was terrifying. “It’s completely, completely over,” he said. “I got a house, kids, payments.”

But many other fishermen do not blame climate change. They blame the regulators, calling the moratorium cruel and needless, because they say their latest cod catches are actually better than in recent years. More than a few talk of a conspiracy between scientists and environmentalists to manufacture a fishing crisis that will justify their jobs.

The second article considerably expanded upon the history of the problem, all the way back to the end of the 19th century when climate change was not yet a real issue:

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — IN November, regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down recreational and commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, that enchanting arm of the coastal sea stretching east-northeast from Cape Cod. They did not have much choice: Federal law requires action to rebuild fish stocks when they are depleted, and recent surveys revealed cod populations to be at record lows, despite decades of regulations intended to restore them.

Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years. There have been a few upticks along the way, such as one bumper year in the mid-1980s when the cod catch reached 25,000 tons (due, in part, to an unnecessarily large expansion of the fishing fleet), but for the most part the trend has been noticeably downward since the era of the Civil War.

Again, the difference between the two perspectives is hidden in the numbers and the first paper provides some of those. Major changes in any species’ abundance can result from large modulations in reproduction rates, mortality and/or migrations. Within these parameters, the shift can often be traced back to changes in either the habitat or the species’ vulnerability to predation. For the fish in Maine the changes in predation are coming from overfishing and now the changes in the habitat are dominated by climate change. The main effect of climate change that impacts the fish is the temperature rise. In decades past, the water was warming by an average of one degree every 21 years; in contrast, over the last decade, the water was warming at a rate of one degree every two years! This is not surprising because over the last decade almost every year was the hottest in history – this is climate change and the cod is trying desperately to adapt, but the fishermen don’t want to hear about it.

Figure 1 shows the global situation as recorded in the IPCC’s latest report about other species that are trying to adapt by moving:

Graph of maximum speed a species can move (km per decade)Figure 1

Most of the species mentioned in the graph can move. Trees and other plants cannot. They move through selective pollination and through changes in predator distribution. It is estimated that the massive Boreal Forest that covers most of inland Canada and Alaska, most of Sweden, Finland and inland Norway, much of Russia, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Japan – and represents 29% of the world’s forest cover – will be unrecognizable in terms of species distribution toward the end of the century.

The potential speed of movement is given for various species (not fish – sorry – we will get back to them shortly) in different scenarios. In the past, I’ve discussed various RCP scenarios (October 1428, 2014). The RCP2.6 scenario is the “environmentally friendly” one, in which the increase in temperature at the end of the century stays below 2oC; the RCP8.5 scenario, meanwhile, is the “business as usual” scenario where the global average temperature is projected to increase by close to 5oC. In an environmentally friendly scenario nobody moves; in the “business as usual” scenario, everybody must move to follow preferred environments. The uncertainties here are very large, though, and we still have a lot of work to do.

Fish are important and relatively easy to follow. Figures 2 and 3 show historical fish migrations based on NOAA data.

Graph of Change in depth of marine life in USThe distance that corresponds to a change of latitude by 1 degree is about 69 miles.

Graph of Change in Latitude for Marine Life in USFigures 2 & 3

There is no question that cod are trying to adapt to the climate by migrating north and going deep. If we are making a living out of catching the fish we ought to adapt to the fish’s adaptation. The only way that I know that this can be done is through education (of people, not fish) but how? Maine, like any other place in the US and the rest of the world has plenty of opportunities for adult education. Searching for adult education in Maine gets me to a site that tells me that I have 4,953 courses to choose from and directs me to find a local program. I went to Maine’s largest city, Portland, which is located on the coastline, and clicked climate change. I found three relevant courses: one about composting, one about Transition towns or how shifting energy practices are changing our lives, and one on “The Wisdom to Survive” – testimonies by scientists about climate change. But how likely is it that the fishermen who already have a house, kids and payments will register? What’s the reality of educating this demographic? Alternatively, can we find a Katherine Hayhoe (see last week’s blog) in the form of a scientist/fisherman that can chat with the fishermen like Katherine was doing with the evangelists in Texas? I am sure that we will find many. It is likely that all of them go fishing as a recreational activity, though, earning their livelihood in science (like Katherine Hayhoe does). Unlike the fishermen of Maine, most of the evangelists in Texas that Prof. Hayhoe was interacting with do not make their livelihood in religion.

It seems to me that a much better alternative is for the government to create a small paid internship program where willing fishermen could take some of their vacation time to join the scientists in trying to map where the fish are going, then hopefully discuss the broad results with their friends and fellow fishermen. The focus would be on data collection rather than opinion or advice. A good host for such a program would be the Island Institute:

The Island Institute works to sustain Maine’s island and remote coastal communities. Our core program areas—including economic development, education, community energy, marine resources, and media—are driven by the requests of community members themselves. Our core commitment to the islands of Maine includes sharing what works among these diverse communities and beyond.

The Island Institute is already partnering with Maine’s Fishermen’s Association, which has experience in raising funds and being involved in community education. The internship program to connect professional fishermen with scientists would require the Institute to expand its activities beyond its current geographic foci, to target vulnerable populations in need of help. My first exposure to their activities came at a 2013 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Boston where they reported about their NSF (National Science Foundation) funded research effort in community education. NSF is insistent that its funded efforts will have a comprehensive assessment component that specifies goals and progress in achieving the goals. If the Island Institute is able to secure NSF funding for the internship program, it will be money well spent.

I am now at the tail end of a semester break. Among other things, I am filling my spare time reading The Sixth Extinction, a new book by Elizabeth Kolbert, which focuses on man’s role in major species extinction. I’ve also been reading, “Marine Defaunation: Animal Loss in the Global Ocean,” an important paper that came out in Science Magazine (Science, 347, 247 (2015)). Many of us probably need to look up what that means, so to save you the trouble, defaunation (according to Wikipedia) is:  the “loss of animals from ecological communities.” A recent New York Times article highlights that study. Next week I will try to expand from the situation in Maine to the oceans at large.

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