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5 Myths About Sustainability

April 22nd, 2016

On Earth Day and everyday we all need to focus on ways to be more environmentally conscious and responsible. In Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson draw on the most up-to-date science to provide a handy guide that links knowledge to action. In the process, they debunk commonly held misconceptions about sustainability. The first step in affecting positive change is awareness:

1. Sustainability challenges are largely a problem of consumption.
In meeting the challenges posed by implementing sustainable practices, production and consumption should be viewed as parts of an integrated system. Demand may drive production, but production can influence consumption by creating a demand where there was none previously. (Pg. 16).

2. As we move toward more sustainable practices, precedence should be given to the environment; humans should be considered as negative pressures that put ecosystems at risk.
To meet the goals of sustainable development, there needs to be an integrated appreciation and understanding of the social-environmental systems that we are operating in or any solutions will be unbalanced and fall apart over the long-term (Pg. 53).

3. Better policies and technologies are all that is needed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
The complexity of social-environmental systems means that we cannot always predict the consequences of new technologies or policies. The pursuit of sustainability has to be an adaptive process in which we try the best possible solutions, moniter the results, and make adjustments as needed (Pg. 64).

4. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income) are useful metrics when considering sustainability.
Both of these measures do not take important elements into account. First, they measure flows (what is happening now) rather than stocks or assets (what’s left to draw on in the future). They also fail to recognize and integrate the social and environmental as well as the economic determinants of well-being. To achieve an accurate sense of how we are doing in regard to sustainability, other measures and indicators that are more inclusive and broad-ranging are needed (Pg. 76).

5. Implementing sustainable practices means sacrificing profits.
Not necessarily. When taking into account social-environmental systems, sustainable solutions can actually save money. For examples of sustainability success stories that aided in, rather than hindering, economic goals, see Chapter 6 of Pursuing Sustainability.

As we work to meet the challenges posed by climate change and environmental vulnerability, it is important to educate ourselves so that we can arrive at solutions that will work over the long term. This Earth Day, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson’s book is necessary reading.

Upcoming event with Oliver Morton and Future Tense

January 21st, 2016

Planet

On Monday, February 1 Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, will partner with Katherine Mangu-Ward at a lunch hosted by Future Tense to discuss the potential role of geoengineering in climate change in Washington D.C.. If you would like to attend, RSVP here. In the meantime, learn more about the topic on the Future Tense blog, excerpted here:

Geoengineering, the deliberate hacking of Earth’s climate, might be one of the most promising potential responses to climate change, especially in the absence of significant carbon emission reductions. It’s also one of the most controversial. We engineered our planet into our environmental crisis, but can we engineer our way out with a stratospheric veil against the sun, the cultivation of photosynthetic plankton, or fleets of unmanned ships seeding the clouds?

Conversations on Climate: How geoengineering has been used in the past

December 10th, 2015

PlanetIn The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton argues that geoengineering, the process by which Earth’s systems are manipulated, can be used in a positive way to address the problems caused by man-made climate change. Geoengineering is nothing new. Chapter 7 of The Planet Remade describes how it was used in the twentieth century to feed a growing population. A summary:

At the end of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the yield of wheat would soon fall short of the demand. Sir William Crookes, one of the leading chemists of the time, gave a speech in 1898 on the subject. The number of people who wanted to eat wheat was increasing, but by that point there was no more land on which to grow it. The solution? Increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil to increase the amount of wheat that a given parcel of land could yield. If this wasn’t done, Crookes warned, the world would face starvation.

Nitrogen was fixed on as the key to a solution because it is a necessary component of photosynthesis. It exists in the air we breathe in the inert form of two identical atoms attached to one another. In order to aid in sustaining life, it must be detached and fixed to some other element. This happens when bacteria in plants twist nitrogen molecules and insert hydrogen molecules into the resulting spaces, turning the nitrogen into ammonia. Later, the nitrogen is returned to its inert form. The process by which nitrogen is fixed and then unfixed makes up the nitrogen cycle. As this process has proceeded uninterrupted by humans for billions of years, it has been one component in supporting increasingly more complex life forms on Earth.

Crookes was hopeful that the problem could be solved. He called on scientists to figure out a way to fix nitrogen industrially. Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Freiburg, rose to the challenge. He and his laboratory technicians created a process by which fixed nitrogen was created by passing a continuous stream of nitrogen and hydrogen over a hot catalyst at very high pressure. His colleague Carl Bosch scaled the process up so that it could be used on an industrial scale. The process was quickly adopted globally to produce more food. By the end of the 1960s, the amount of nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process exceeded that fixed by all the microbes in the world’s soil. Both men won the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Their discoveries have had profound implications beyond the world of agriculture.

The problem identified by Crookes had been solved, but at a cost. One cost can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the flow of nitrogen out of America’s heartland, through the Mississippi and into the Gulf has doubled. This abundant supply of nitrogen makes ideal food for photosynthetic algae to flourish, resulting in colossal algal blooms. As they decompose, they consume all the oxygen in the water, leaving none to support other life forms. As a result, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico become dead zones every summer.

Does this episode in history prove that humans can’t be trusted with geoengineering? Or can it be used more responsibly in the future to address the challenge of climate change? To answer that question, check out The Planet Remade here.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts hereUnited Nations Conference on Climate Change: Reading Roundup #COP21 >>

Conversations on Climate: Economists consider a hotter planet on PBS Newshour

December 3rd, 2015

NEW climate picIn Climate Shock, economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman tackle the likely prospect of a hotter planet as a risk management problem on a global scale. As 150 world leaders meet in Paris for the UN Conference on Climate Change, both took the time to speak to PBS Newshour about what we know and don’t know about global warming:


Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.

Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

Read the rest on the PBS Newshour blog.

Wagner coverGernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He is the author of But Will the Planet Notice? (Hill & Wang). Martin L. Weitzman is professor of economics at Harvard University. His books include Income, Wealth, and the Maximum Principle. For more, see www.gwagner.com and scholar.harvard.edu/weitzman.

 

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Conversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design and Ecology’s InterconnectionConversations on Climate: Paul Wignall says climate crisis is nothing new >>

United Nations Conference on Climate Change: Reading Roundup #COP21

November 30th, 2015

For the next two weeks, representatives from countries around the world will be meeting in Paris to discuss nothing less than the future of our planet at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Climate change is one of the most important issues facing the world today, and it behooves all of us to educate ourselves. PUP publishes a number of titles that have the information you need to understand the repercussions of climate change, and make informed choices that will promote sustainability. Browse many of them below, and be sure to take advantage of the free chapters and/or introductions that we have posted on our website. For the next two weeks, check back here to follow our Conversations on Climate blog series, including posts from Victor Olgyay and Gernot Wagner.

Morris Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels
Ian Morris
Chapter 1
Climate Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman
Chapter 1
 Life Life on a Young Planet
Andrew H. Knoll
Chapter 1
 Medea The Medea Hypothesis
Peter Ward
Chapter 1
 Sun The Sun’s Influence On Climate
Joanna D. Haigh & Peter Cargill
Chapter 1
 Worst The Worst of Times
Paul B. Wignall
Chapter 1
 Extinction Extinction
Douglas H. Erwin
Chapter 1
Tambora Tambora
Gillen D’Arcy Wood
Introduction
 Design Design With Climate
Victor Olgyay
Chapter 1
 Planet The Planet Remade
Oliver Morton
Introduction
 Ocean The Great Ocean Conveyor
Wally Broecker
Chapter 1
 Rules The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll
This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Conversations on Climate: How geoengineering has been used in the pastConversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design for Climate >>

PHISHING FOR PHOOLS and CLIMATE SHOCK included in the long list for FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award

August 13th, 2015

Climate ShockPhishing for Phools jacketThe long list for the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award has been published, and we’re thrilled to see that two Princeton University Press titles have been included. Nobel Prize winners George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s new book on on economic trickery, Phishing for Phools, and Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman’s examination of the global crisis of climate change, Climate Shock have both been listed in the top 15. Other titles appearing include Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk, Martin Ford’s study of jobs and automation, The Rise of the Robots, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s take on how to narrow the gender gap, Unfinished Business.

Read more about this year’s long listed titles and the other books recognized during the award’s 11-year history here.

The shortlist of up to six finalists will be published on September 22nd.  The £30,000 prize will be awarded on November 17th in New York.

Find sample chapters of Climate Shock and Phishing for Phools here and here respectively.

 

 

Book Fact Friday – Environmental Conflict

July 10th, 2015

From chapter 3 of The Battle for Yellowstone:

It is estimated that 30 million buffalo once inhabited the United States. In a matter of decades this number was reduced to 23 single animals. There were two main causes of this: first, they were the focus of mass hunting and second, the U.S. government ordered them slaughtered in order to starve the Native Americans as a military strategy. The 23 surviving buffalo made their home in Yellowstone and eventually swelled their numbers to about 4,000—today they make up the “Yellowstone herd.”

The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict
Justin Farrell
Introduction

k10517Yellowstone holds a special place in America’s heart. As the world’s first national park, it is globally recognized as the crown jewel of modern environmental preservation. But the park and its surrounding regions have recently become a lightning rod for environmental conflict, plagued by intense and intractable political struggles among the federal government, National Park Service, environmentalists, industry, local residents, and elected officials. The Battle for Yellowstone asks why it is that, with the flood of expert scientific, economic, and legal efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, there is no improvement? Why do even seemingly minor issues erupt into impassioned disputes? What can Yellowstone teach us about the worsening environmental conflicts worldwide?

Justin Farrell argues that the battle for Yellowstone has deep moral, cultural, and spiritual roots that until now have been obscured by the supposedly rational and technical nature of the conflict. Tracing in unprecedented detail the moral causes and consequences of large-scale social change in the American West, he describes how a “new-west” social order has emerged that has devalued traditional American beliefs about manifest destiny and rugged individualism, and how morality and spirituality have influenced the most polarizing and techno-centric conflicts in Yellowstone’s history.

This groundbreaking book shows how the unprecedented conflict over Yellowstone is not all about science, law, or economic interests, but more surprisingly, is about cultural upheaval and the construction of new moral and spiritual boundaries in the American West.

Book Trailer: Climate Shock

March 11th, 2015

In Climate Shock, Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman discuss the consequences of a hotter planet. Learn more about this fascinating book in the new trailer below.

 

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4KmqJgyI3w]

Check out the first chapter of Climate Shock for free, here.


 

 

bookjacket Climate Shock:
The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

CLIMATE SHOCK authors on TheAtlantic.com: Will camels roam Canada again?

March 3rd, 2015

Climate ShockThe last time concentrations of carbon dioxide were as high as they are today, write Marty Weitzman and Gernot Wagner, authors of Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, camels lived in Canada. That was a bit over 3 million years ago, of course. But how certain does science have to be for the world to act? Wagner and Weitzman had a terrific op-ed appear today on The Atlantic.com where they argue that climate is best thought of as a global-scale risk management problem. Check it out here:

Will Camels Roam Canada Again?

What we know about climate change is bad enough. What we don’t could make it even worse.

Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman

You are cruising down the highway at 65 miles per hour, reading a book in your self-driving car. Your life is in the hands of a machine—an eminently benevolent one. Meanwhile, in the lane next to you, an 18-wheeler using decidedly last-century technology—relying on a fallible human driver—appears to be swerving your way.

Your car’s computer is on the case. Equipped with orders of magnitude more computing power than the Apollo moon lander, it determines with all the confidence it can muster that there’s a greater-than-50-percent chance—it’s “more likely than not”—that the truck is about to hit you.

You may want to look up from your book. More importantly, you want to know with certainty that your onboard computer will hit the brakes, even if there’s a 49-percent chance that doing so will be a false alarm.

If, instead of “more likely than not,” the danger were “likely,” “very likely,” or even “extremely likely,” the answer would be clearer still. Even if there’s a 95-percent probability of a crash, there’s still a 1-in-20 chance that nothing will happen—but no one would gamble their life on those odds. Your car’s computer hopefully will have engaged the anti-lock braking systems already.

A perfect self-driving car doesn’t exist yet, nor has the world solved global warming. But it’s surprising that, by the standards that we’d expect in a car to keep its occupants safe, the governments of the world haven’t stepped on the brakes to avoid planetary-scale global warming disaster—a 100-year-storm hitting New York every other year, frequent and massive droughts, inundated coastal cities. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that it was “more likely than not” the case that global warming was caused by human activity. By 2001, it had progressed to “likely.” By 2007, it was “very likely.” By 2013, it was “extremely likely.” There’s only one step left in official IPCC lingo: “virtually certain.”

Read the rest at The Atlantic.com here.

 

The Politics of Precaution takes home the prestigious Lynton Keith Caldwell Prize at APSA

September 5th, 2014

Our heartfelt congratulations go out to David Vogel, author of The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States. The book was named winner of the 2014 Lynton Keith Caldwell Prize given by the Science, Technology, and Environmental Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

The Lynton Keith Caldwell Prize recognizes the best book on environmental politics and policy published in the past three years. The award was given last week at the annual APSA conference. You can learn more about the award and view a list of previous winners here.


bookjacket

The Politics of Precaution:
Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States
David Vogel

David Vogel, author of The Politics of Precaution, is crowned winner of the 2013 Levine Prize

July 18th, 2013

David Vogel, author of The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United StatesDAVID VOGEL – The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States

Winner of the 2013 Levine Prize, Research Committee on the Structure of Government (SOG) of the International Political Science Association

The Prize is awarded to a book that makes a contribution of considerable theoretical or practical significance in the field of public policy and administration, takes an explicitly comparative perspective, and is written in an accessible style.

Committee statement about the award:

“In recent decades, the politics of risk regulation has played a growing role all round the world. In his carefully crafted and compelling book The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States (Princeton University Press, 2012), David Vogel explores the changing transatlantic policy divergence in risk regulation. Dealing with an impressive number of issues, ranging from food safety and agriculture to air pollution, consumer safety and chemicals and hazardous substances, this well-written and policy-relevant book formulates an original framework to explain the regulatory and perception gap between Europe and United States.

“This historically-minded book also covers more than a half century of policy development, from the late 1950s to the present, a period during which the United States lost its status of regulatory leader at the expense of the European Union, where the precautionary principle has become prevalent. This is a convincing and illuminating book on a broad topic that students of risk regulation, environmental policy, and comparative public policy should find most helpful. The Award Committee is pleased to select this excellent book as the 2013 recipient of the Levine Award.”

View the Levine Award information on the GOVERNANCE Blog: http://governancejournal.net/levine-book-prize/

The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States by David VogelThe Politics of Precaution examines the politics of consumer and environmental risk regulation in the United States and Europe over the last five decades, explaining why America and Europe have often regulated a wide range of similar risks differently. It finds that between 1960 and 1990, American health, safety, and environmental regulations were more stringent, risk averse, comprehensive, and innovative than those adopted in Europe. But since around 1990, the book shows, global regulatory leadership has shifted to Europe. What explains this striking reversal?

David Vogel takes an in-depth, comparative look at European and American policies toward a range of consumer and environmental risks, including vehicle air pollution, ozone depletion, climate change, beef and milk hormones, genetically modified agriculture, antibiotics in animal feed, pesticides, cosmetic safety, and hazardous substances in electronic products. He traces how concerns over such risks–and pressure on political leaders to do something about them–have risen among the European public but declined among Americans. Vogel explores how policymakers in Europe have grown supportive of more stringent regulations while those in the United States have become sharply polarized along partisan lines. And as European policymakers have grown more willing to regulate risks on precautionary grounds, increasingly skeptical American policymakers have called for higher levels of scientific certainty before imposing additional regulatory controls on business.

David Vogel is professor at the Haas School of Business and in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Toby Tyrrell, author of On Gaia, explains how he came to question the Gaia Hypothesis

July 8th, 2013

We interviewed Toby Tyrrell about his new book “On Gaia” last week. This week, we’re proud to link to this article in which he details some of the research that led him to view the Gaia Hypothesis with a critical eye:

Nitrogen is exceptionally abundant in the environment, it makes up 78 per cent of air, as dinitrogen (N2). N2 is also much more plentiful in seawater than other dissolved forms of nitrogen. The problem is that only organisms possessing the enzyme nitrogenase (organisms known as nitrogen-fixers) can actually use N2, and there aren’t very many of them. This is obviously a less than ideal arrangement for most living things. It is also unnecessary. Nitrogen starvation wouldn’t happen if just a small fraction of the nitrogen locked up in N2 was available in other forms that can be used by all organisms; yet biological processes taking place in the sea keep nearly all that nitrogen as N2. If you think about what is best for life on Earth and what that life can theoretically accomplish, nitrogen starvation is wholly preventable.

This realisation led me to wonder what other aspects of the Earth environment might be less than perfect for life. What about temperature? We know that ice forming inside cells causes them to burst and that icy landscapes, although exquisite to the eye, are relatively devoid of life. We can also see that ice ages – the predominant climate state of the last few million years – are rather unfortunate for life as a whole. Much more land was covered by ice sheets, permafrost and tundra, all biologically impoverished habitats, during the ice ages, while the area of productive shelf seas was only about a quarter of what it is today. Global surveys of fossil pollen, leaves and other plant remains clearly show that vegetation and soil carbon more than doubled when the last ice age came to an end, primarily due to a great increase in the area covered by forests.

Although the cycle of ice ages and interglacials is beyond life’s control, the average temperature of our planet – and hence the coldness of the ice ages – is primarily determined by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. As this is potentially under biological control it looks like another example of a less than perfect outcome of the interactions between life on Earth and its environment.

Look further and you find still more examples. The scarcity of light at ground level in rainforests inhibits growth of all but the most shade-tolerant plants. There’s only really enough light for most plants at canopy height, often 20 to 40 metres up, or below temporary gaps in the canopy. The intensity of direct sunlight does not increase the higher you go, so having the bulk of photosynthesis taking place at such heights brings no great advantage to the forest as a whole. Rather the contrary, trees are forced to invest large amounts of resources in building tall enough trunks to have the chance of a place in the sun. This arrangement is hard to understand if you expect the environment to be arranged for biological convenience, but is easily understood as an outcome of plants competing for resources.

Source: “Not Quite Perfect”, Planet Earth Online: http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/features/story.aspx?id=1492&cookieConsent=A

 

Read a sample chapter from On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth [PDF].