Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Water Vapor and Climate Change

Two short letters to the editor of the Boston Globe illustrate the need for better geographic education and better science education in general. The first is entitled "Why Fight CO2," and perpetuates the common assumption that since water vapor is a more major greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the latter does not need regulation. This writer misses several critical details, which a second writer outlines in "Defogging the denial in the debate over CO2."

Water vapor varies from zero to four percent of the atmosphere, but as the second writer points out, its overall concentration is not changing. Over the past half-century, carbon dioxide has steadily increased from about 0.028 percent to about 0.036 percent of the atmosphere. It is the rapidity of this change that is the essential part of the story, and what makes the enhanced greenhouse effect so frightening.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Boxing Day, Five Years On

I awoke Christmas morning to this sad reminder of the tragic events of Boxing Day, 2004, when over 230,000 people were killed in the world's most deadly tsunami. All was not negative, though, in this interview with Mark Fritzler of Save the Children. His response was surprising when Renee Montagne asked whether the Aceh region -- which had experienced the highest death tolls -- had returned to normal. It had not been normal before the tragedy, and the rebuilding has actually brought some improvements to the war-torn region.

Coincidentally, the Aceh region is home to some exquisite coffees. See Sumatra coffee and travel notes from Sweet Maria's.

The before/after images below are from the Earth from Space series compiled by The Guardian UK.

Thanks to my friend Wing-Kai for pointing me to this five-year remembrance from CNN. Reporter Dan Rivers revisits stories he covered at the time, including that of Fitri Ani, a woman who was three months pregnant the day she survived the tsunami. The report combines grim images from the original event with more recent reflections. It shows that even those lucky enough to survive endured an ordeal most of us cannot imagine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dinero al Norte

Thanks to my colleague Vernon for pointing me to Marc Lacey's fascinating NY Times cover article about impoverished families in southern Mexico struggling to send money north to their relatives in the United States. Although the trend Lacey describes remains relatively small, this story is relevant to many key facets of migration between Latin America and the United States.
As I write this, I am enjoying a cup of decaf coffee from Chiapas, the home state of some of the families mentioned in the article. Although the article does not mention coffee, it is an important part of the background. People continue to leave coffee-growing areas because prices fluctuate between low and lower, so that even people who own their own land often work as virtual slaves. Since people in this position are not often represented at "free" trade negotiations, their options become fewer year by year. Nobody should complain about "illegal" immigration before thoroughly understanding these dynamics, because the "legal" and "just" are divergent concepts. The same process is unfolding in coffeelands throughout the world; see these examples from Oaxaca and Chiapas, and know that a similar story is behind every cup of conventional coffee sold.

Back to the NY Times story: It was first brought to my attention when we were discussing the exodus of Brazilians from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. As the U.S. dollar has weakened, many who moved to Massachusetts in order to bring or send money back to Brazil have decided to leave. In many cases, these have been middle-class Brazilians who saw coming to this region for a year or two as an expedient way to earn money to invest in a business or a nicer home in Brazil. When the U.S. economy weakened, many of these folks found their way back home, revealing the extent to which some sectors of the Massachusetts economy had become dependent upon them.

The case in Mexico is similar in some ways, except that the migrants tend to be much poorer, and the ability to move back and forth is much reduced. An ironic consequence of the poorly-conceived border wall is that crossing once is so risky that people will remain in the U.S. who in previous years might have gone home. As Lacey points out, this is not an option for people who have risked everything for a chance to earn money in the North.

For some families of Oaxaca and Chiapas, the result of these current absurdities is that undocumented workers in the richest country in the world are receiving small payments from some of the poorest people in Mexico, hoping to keep them in place until the economy improves. Eventually, they hope, the work that U.S. citizens usually eschew will be available to them once again, and the remittances will resume their usual pattern.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wisdom from Bill O'Reilly

Bill O’Reilly’s recent column on climate change (“Hmm, is it getting a bit warm in here?” December 15) includes at least one welcome suggestion but also some very problematic ideas about climate science.

It is good that O’Reilly’s understands the value of “positive environmental behavior” and a cleaner Earth. His authentically conservative conclusion is that conserving resources is a good idea, whether the climate is changing or not. Most of the remedies that arise from concerns about a changing climate are simply good stewardship.

O’Reilly’s interpretation of climate science and its implications, however, is flawed in several important ways. First, he asserts that “only the deity knows for sure whether the planet is in danger from warming.” It is one thing to exaggerate the uncertainty about climate change; it is quite another to assert that such uncertainty is inevitably permanent. We already know enough about our interruption of the carbon cycle – and its results – to act.

Second, O’Reilly describes the growing consensus on climate change and the growing business interest in alternative energy, and assumes that the latter caused the former. A far more reasonable interpretation is that the smart money is following the science. It is laughable to suggest that the “climate change industry” has somehow outflanked Big Oil in its ability to influence governments.

The reality is that the evidence is mounting in favor of the most direct explanation for climate change: roughly half the carbon that accumulated in fossil fuels over eons has been released in just two centuries, increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide dramatically and increasing average temperatures steadily.

Near the end of the article, O’Reilly expresses a desire for an affordable system to provide renewable energy for his home; on that, we can agree. At the very end of the article, however, he could not resist a flippant dismissal of the science that underscores the need for such innovations.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


As people from throughout the world gather to talk about climate change, it is good to explore some of the questions that will determine whether Copenhagen will be about hopes realized or hopes dashed by business as usual. Many stories are circulating in the media, globally and even here in the United States. Here are a few that I believe cut to some of the more important aspects of possible futures.

The December 4, 2009 installment of Living on Earth is an in-depth discussion of several ways in which the Amazon region of the world is involved -- and implicated -- in climate change. I followed this with particular interest, since I did my dissertation research in Rondonia and am currently working on the second edition of a book about the region and how it is perceived. The entire program is valuable; I find the Cattle Climate Connection segment particularly interesting, as it connects food and land use to a problem we normally associate only with transportation and electricity generation.

On the day prior to the Copenhagen conference, National Public Radio described recent surveys that indicate waning interest -- and even belief -- in climate change. The physical processes that drive climate change are not like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus; "choosing" whether or not to believe does not change the process -- only choosing to act can do that. This story links attitudes to some of their causes, including -- oddly enough -- a sense of futility. As Al Gore has pointed out, one reaction is to move quickly from disbelief in the whole process to a sense that the process is unstoppable -- these positions are exactly opposite, but yield the same result.

As if to signal a new administration's willingness to accept -- and act on -- scientific consensus, the Environmental Protection Agency chose the opening of the Copenhagen conference to release its finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants that threaten public health. NPR's All Things Considered describes the legal basis for this finding and its implications.

Finally, All Things Considered desribes the opening of the conference itself and reasons for skepticism about action that might be taken.

Bolivia Elections

Evo Morales has been re-elected in Bolivia -- a sign of the growing strength of the political left in Latin America. Although NPR's Morning Edition Saturday provided this insightful overview on election eve, the Morales victory was not mentioned on Morning Edition the Monday after the Sunday election. I went to BBC for its analysis, which predicts a deepening of the "social revolution."

As in Honduras (most recently) and elsewhere, the range of diplomatic options open to the U.S. is somewhat limited by our past involvement in Bolivia -- in this case our support of Colonel Banzer.

Following the election, however, the U.S. government did issue somewhat guarded congratulations to President Morales.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Finca y Feathers

This article from Coffee & Conservation discusses a wonderful preserve I visited with students on my first two study tours in Nicaragua. Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm) is an idyllic, mountaintop retreat that provides good, healthy food, incredible mountain views, and exquisite coffee.

On arrival, students have wondered how they could possibly survive for two whole days in a place with such limited access to electricity, clubs, and other essentials. In each case, however, the students have enjoyed their time. I did not return on the 2009 tour and will not make it back in 2010, but I do hope to take students to FEV again some day.

The only problem with Nicaragua is that each time I go, I learn of one or two additional places that I want to take my students, so choosing the itinerary becomes more challenging each time. It is a good problem to have, though.

Finca Esperanza Verde, by the way, is the location of a certain incident involving a very large insect, a much larger spider, and quite a few shrieks from my 2006 student group.