Vervet monkeys in Tanzania. Vervet monkeys cry out to alert fellow monkeys to predators even though it calls attention to themselves. Photo: Africa Dream Safaris

[Short answer: No.]

By Verlyn Klinkenborg
9 October 2014

(Yale Environment 360) – Ever since Darwin, biologists have been arguing about altruism — the concept that an individual may behave in a way that benefits its species, at a cost to itself. After all, the self-sacrifice implicit in altruistic behavior seems to run against the grain of evolutionary theory, which proposes that the well-being of a species depends on robust, individual self-interest. Many biologists argue that in the non-human world what looks like altruism — benefiting another at a cost to oneself — may be merely the final refinement of self-interest, self-interest operating not at the level of the organism or the species but at the level of the gene.

This is all very interesting. But the discussion nearly always concerns the behavior of individuals within a single species — the warning cries of vervet monkeys, which alert their fellow monkeys to predators while calling attention to themselves; the self-abnegation of a stinging bee. What I wonder is this: Is altruism possible across species boundaries? Can an individual from one species, at cost to itself, act in a way that benefits individuals from another species? And — the crucial question — can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species?

I ask because we need to know now. According to a new study from the World Wildlife Fund, the population of aquatic and terrestrial animals on this planet has dropped by half since 1970. Let me choose a better verb. Half the animals on this planet have been destroyed in the past 44 years. Let me put it another way. We’ve destroyed half the animals on this planet since 1970, even while our own numbers have doubled.

This is a little like biological altruism — intention isn’t important. In order to be altruistic, a creature doesn’t have to intend to be altruistic. To cull half the animals on this planet, we didn’t have to intend to. We did it with our eyes closed and our fingers crossed and our minds elsewhere.

Nor did we — whoever we are — choose to swell our own numbers from some 3.7 billion to roughly 7.2 billion. They’re both effects of a cause we don’t understand, which is our nature as a species. Here we all are — whoever we are — and nowhere to be found are all those vanished animals and their doubly vanished, unbred, unborn descendants.

You could argue, I suppose, that doubling the number of humans didn’t require halving the number of animals. Yet think of it this way: Could you cause the human population to double by halving the number of animals on earth? Of course not. But could doubling the number of humans have somehow done away with all those animals? The answer is obviously yes. Point to more immediate causes, like habitat destruction, if you like, but they are merely the effect of our numbers. What makes us so good at destroying such vast quantities of other creatures is simply the vast quantity of us — and who we happen to be.

Here’s who I think we are. We resemble every other species on this planet. None of them seems to be able to favor the well-being of any species but its own. If a species escapes its natural bounds — think Japanese knotweed or lionfish or even whitetail deer — it spreads until it reaches its natural or unnatural limit. [more]

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species? via Wit's End

Masthead for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) site:  Protecting employees who protect our environment. Graphic: PEER

By Rebecca Trager
22 October 2014

(Chemistry World) – A pro bono network that will provide legal protection for US scientists in government and academia has been launched by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), an environmental group based in Washington, DC. The new Alliance for Legal Protection of Science (Alps), will provide legal information, counselling and formal representation to embattled scientists at no cost to them.

“We have public scientists at universities and in the government who are being hassled basically because of their research,” says Kyla Bennett, the project’s director. “A lot of the work that these scientists are doing is of potentially great significance to regulation and even stock prices. There is both industry pressure and political pressure on these scientists to stifle or change their science.”

Bennett emphasises that these researchers need to pursue their work without fear of getting fired, losing their grants or being presented with intrusive public records requests that are designed to hamper their work. Because individual researchers are often ill-equipped to counter what Peer calls well-funded ‘harassment campaigns’, the intent is for Alps to help by organising legal and other resources to protect the targeted scientists and their work. […]

Charles Monnett, a wildlife researcher who was suspended from his job at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for six weeks in 2011 amid questions about his data and whether he had wrongfully released government records, is also very enthusiastic about the new programme. Monnett and others suggest that he was penalised over his observations of drowned polar bears that became an iconic illustration of climate change in action.

Monnett, whose scientific integrity came under attack, ultimately received $100,000 (£62,000) to settle a whistleblower complaint against the agency. He says he never resumed his former duties overseeing a $50 million portfolio of 20 to 30 studies, and retired from the agency last year due to health issues he says were brought on by stress. [more]

Free legal help for embattled US scientists

The former mayor of Cheshire, Scotty Lucas, 81, at his home, with the Gavin power plant in the background. Scotty Lucas is the former mayor of a town that no longer exists. This riverside village became briefly famous in 2002, when American Electric Power, the utility that operates two large coal-fired power plants here, bought it for $20 million — a deal the company preferred over dealing with residents' ongoing complaints about air pollution. Photo: Richard Martin

By Richard Martin
16 October 2014

(The Atlantic) – Scotty Lucas is the former mayor of a town that no longer exists. This double obsolescence seems to faze him little, which is not all that surprising considering that he has outlived his wife, one of his children, and the town he spent most of his 81 years in.

Lucas’s one-story brick home, with a bass boat in the driveway and wrought-iron patio furniture, is one of the few still standing in Cheshire, Ohio. This riverside village became briefly famous in 2002, when American Electric Power, the utility that operates two large coal-fired power plants here, bought it for $20 million—a deal the company preferred over dealing with residents’ ongoing complaints about air pollution.

I visited Lucas, who presided over the now 140-year-old town a few years before the AEP buyout, on a mild September afternoon, as puffy white clouds melded with the smoke and steam billowing from the nearby Gen. James M. Gavin Power Plant. Built in the early ‘70s, Gavin is the largest coal plant in Ohio and one of the largest in the United States. Just down the Ohio River is the smaller, older Kyger Creek plant, which has been burning coal to make electricity since 1954. […]

“It’s not very rewarding to look back on all the work we did [before the buyout],” he said. Lucas remembers when Cheshire didn’t have paved streets or running water, and he remembers working to develop the town. “We did all that. We had three playgrounds, and good schools. It was a great place to raise a family. That’s all gone,” he said.

The plants, though, are still there, consuming about 35,000 tons of coal every day. A gray mountain of coal ash looms above what’s left of the town. AEP, though, may not have entirely escaped liability for the environmental effects of the plants: In early September a new lawsuit was filed against AEP on behalf of 77 contractors and families of contractors who worked at the coal-ash landfill. (Last week, the Sierra Club outlined plans to sue over Clean Air Act violations at the site.) Seeking unspecified damages, the contractors' complaint claims that workers were “exposed, unprotected, to coal-combustion-byproduct waste, a radioactive amalgam of hazardous constituents that pose known risks for human health.” With no one left to buy out, AEP says it plans to fight the lawsuit. [more]

For $20 Million, a Coal Utility Bought an Ohio Town and a Clear Conscience

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SRKW calf L120 with aunt L27 and mom L86 off Eagle Point. Calf L-120 was declared dead in October 2014. Photo: Dave Ellifrit / CWR

By Gary Chittim and Elizabeth Wiley
21 October 2014

SEATTLE (KING 5 News) – The death of a baby southern resident orca is part of a trend that doesn't bode well for survival of the endangered pods.

On the same day the "L" pod thrilled whale watchers with a late season visit to the waters near Vashon Island, researchers announced the death of L-120, an orca born seven weeks ago.

L-120 apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research said.

The pod was offshore for a week to 10 days, and the orca designated L-120 might have been lost in a storm in the middle of last week, researcher Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research said.

No orca births were recorded last year and it's been three years since the J, K, and L pods produced a baby that survived more than a year.

The southern resident population has dipped to 78, which is less than it was in 2005 when NOAA added the southern resident orcas to the Federal Endangered Species List.

Researcher Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island said to be healthy the southern resident pods need to produce four or five babies a year. He believes a lack of salmon for the orca to eat is weakening the animals, and if salmon numbers don't improve, the orcas could be in serious trouble.

Other scientists say the orca bodies are so contaminated that the mothers are feeding toxic milk to their babies. [more]

Seven-week-old orca calf has died, group says

Global miner BHP Billiton and Indonesian partner PT Adaro are developing what could become the single largest mine in Indonesia in terms of land area. The IndoMet mine complex in Central and East Kalimantan provinces on Borneo comprises seven coal concessions, which cover 350,000 hectares, or about five times the size of Singapore. Graphic: Global Forest Watch

By David Fogarty
20 October 2014

(mongabay.com) – Global miner BHP Billiton and Indonesian partner PT Adaro are developing what could become the single largest mine in Indonesia in terms of land area, with BHP owning 75 percent. The IndoMet mine complex in Central and East Kalimantan provinces on Borneo comprises seven coal concessions, which cover 350,000 hectares, or about five times the size of Singapore.

In total, the area has an estimated 1.27 billion metric tons of coal resources, according to Adaro, mainly coking coal used to make steel.

In detailed responses to questions, BHP says it is making progress on developing the first mine in the complex, called Haju. Infrastructure development is underway, including road works and a port along the Barito River. Haju is planned to produce one million metric tons of coal per year. Haju mine itself will cover 660 hectares and initial production is expected in 2015, BHP says.

The company says the current area covered by the seven concessions will be reduced over time and returned to the government, in line with regulations that mandate 50 percent of the exploration area be returned within a set timeframe. That means the mandated maximum holding of the total area of the seven concessions is expected to be no more than about 175,000 hectares, BHP says.

Conservation groups, such as the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (or Walhi) fear the project will cause widespread deforestation in an area of the province that still has large areas of rainforest. “It is expected that only a fraction of this area will be actively mined at any given time, about 5,000 hectares. Additionally, there are other restrictions on how much of this can be used, for example under forestry laws,” BHP said. [more]

Indonesia developing mega coal mine five times larger than Singapore

 How skeptics view global warming: the escalator; how realists view global warming: the trend. Graphic: Skeptical Science

By Michael Mann, John Abraham, Dr. Peter Gleick, Scott Mandia, Richard C.J. Somerville
20 October 2014

(EcoWatch) – Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry has authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming that “there is less urgency to phase out greenhouse gas emissions now” than in the past. This could not be further from the truth.

She ties her argument to a new study she has co-authored, as well as the global warming speed bump (or faux pause). Neither offers a compelling reason to avoid reducing emissions. Her study looks at recent temperatures and uses them to try and determine how much the atmosphere will warm from our CO2 emissions.

The result is a figure low enough for contrarians to trumpet, but still not really that far from the official figures provided by the UN’s IPCC, the gold standard of climate science. This is why the new study (and the others very similar to it) have elicited only a collective yawn from serious academia.

So the piece repeats the same tired claims about lowered sensitivity, using the “pause” meme and her own study as justification for delaying action. According to her (and of course the contrarians) a limited set of studies using a single incomplete methodology are reason enough to put off getting serious about climate change. One of us (Dr. Mann) addressed this misguided claim about climate sensitivity to CO2 earlier this year in a detailed piece in Scientific American.

To summarize the article, it turns out that even if one assumes these recent studies are correct, this buys us only a decade of extra time before crossing the internationally agreed-upon limit of 2°C of warming. This means that even if Curry’s correct, it may just be the difference between bad and terrible consequences of our inability to get emissions under control.

This understanding is shared by all the mainstream climate scientists who have examined the breadth of the scientific literature. For example, Oxford University professor and IPCC author Dr. Myles Allen told Carbon Brief that a reduction in climate sensitivity as presented by Curry and others “is hardly a game-changer” because it “would mean the changes we expect between now and 2050 might take until the early 2060s instead.”

In a response from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Peter Frumhoff describes it even more eloquently, saying that Curry’s call for delay “is like refusing to treat a patient because you can’t tell if their fever is 103 or 104 degrees.” [more]

Wall Street Journal Runs Op-Ed Advocating Against Action on Climate Change

Creationism: The belief that Kirk Cameron knows more than Stephen Hawking. Graphic: Unknown

By Keith M. Parsons
15 October 2014

(Huffington Post) – I grew up in the heroic age of American science and engineering. In my lifetime, the space program put men on the moon, the interstate highway system connected the continent, Salk and Sabin conquered polio, and computers went from room-sized behemoths to hand-held wonders. In my youth, America clearly led the world in its ability to conduct large-scale science and engineering projects. True, some of these projects were morally disturbing. The Castle Bravo test of March 1, 1954, a 15-megaton thermonuclear blast at Bikini Atoll, caused radioactive fallout to rain down on unsuspecting victims. Yet the nuclear tests also represented scientific and engineering expertise of the highest order. […]

Fifty years ago science was king. Science had respect; it was bigger than ideology. No longer. Radio blowhards contemptuously dismiss scientific findings and endorse ideological claptrap. Anti-science stalks the halls of Congress and kooky ideas are rife among Boards of Education. Formerly, all parties in public debate, liberal and conservative, displayed deference to science. Now we have Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, openly denouncing the findings of climate scientists as a hoax. The Texas State Board of Education, which is dominated by religious fundamentalists, prefers the propaganda of ax-grinding cranks over the recommendations of hundreds of qualified scientists and scholars.

How did this happen? How did bay-at-the-moon lunacy come to occupy a more prominent place in our public discourse than textbook science? How, indeed, has it ever come to be thought that there is still a scientific debate over evolution, or that pluperfect nonsense like creationism is worthy of a hearing? How did there come to be a multi-million dollar "creation museum" in Kentucky, with full-scale models of dinosaurs fitted out with saddles? (Why saddles? So Adam and Eve could ride them around Eden. Duh.) […]

Big money is the worst enemy of science.

Big Tobacco found the way to fight science. What do you do if the science shows that your product is deadly, killing tens of thousands of your customers a year, yet that product brings you profits beyond the dreams of avarice? You deny the science. You hire your own "experts" to do science your way and reach the conclusions you require. It is easy. […]

By generating doubt about the science, Big Tobacco avoided meaningful regulation for years. What worked for Big Tobacco now works even better for Big Oil and Big Coal. By funding obscurantist opposition to climate science, they have effectively scuttled any reforms that might threaten their profits.

Indeed, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway show in their superb book Merchants of Doubt, manufacturing doubt about science is itself now a big business. [more]

How Did We Become a Society Suspicious of Science?

Suni, a male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni died on 17 October 2014. Photo: The Ol Pejeta Conservancy

By Jeremy Hance
20 October 2014

(mongabay.com) – Rhino conservation suffered another tragic setback this weekend with the sudden death of Suni, a male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni's passing means there are only six northern white rhinos left in the world, and only one breeding male.

"Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race," wrote the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in a statement.

Suni was not killed by poachers like so many rhinos in Africa today, but was found dead in his enclosure. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy will conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Suni was 34-years-old and the first northern white rhino to be born in captivity.

Northern white rhinos once roamed portions of Uganda, Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The history of the species has already been one of near-misses. After the devastating rhino poaching crisis of the 1980s, the wild population was reduced to just 15 animals. However, this population eventually doubled, until rhino poaching for horn became rampant again in the mid-2000s. The last known northern white rhinos in the wild disappeared from Garamba National Park in the DRC around 2006. It is believed they were slaughtered by poachers.

Today there are only six left, all in captivity: two at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, one at Dvůr Králové Zoo—the only zoo to succeed at breeding the animals—and three in semi-captive conditions at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. [more]

With death of rhino, only six northern white rhinos left on the planet

Satellite data show 402 square miles of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in September 2014. This represents an increase of 290% compared to September 2013 when deforestation totaled 103 square kilometers. It was possible to monitor 93% of forest area in Legal Amazon while in September 2013 monitoring covered a smaller area (79%) of the territory. In September 2014, deforestation concentrated in Rondônia (33 percent), Pará (23%), followed by Mato Grosso (18%) and Amazonas (12%), with minor occurrence in Acre (10%) and Roraima (4%) and Tocantins (1 percent). Degraded forests in Legal Amazon totaled 624 square kilometers in September 2014. Compared to September 2013 there has been an increase of 3,797%, when the forest degradation totaled 16 square kilometers. Graphic: Imazon

By Jonathan Watts 
19 October 2014

Rio de Janeiro (The Guardian) – The deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has accelerated rapidly in the past two months, underscoring the shortcomings of the government’s environmental policies.

Satellite data indicates a 190% surge in land clearance in August and September compared with the same period last year as loggers and farmers exploit loopholes in regulations that are designed to protect the world’s largest forest.

Figures released by Imazon, a Brazilian nonprofit research organisation, show that 402 square kilometres – more than six times the area of the island of Manhattan – was cleared in September.

The government has postponed the release of official figures until after next Sunday’s presidential election, in which incumbent Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ party faces a strong challenge from Aécio Neves, a pro-business candidate who has the endorsement of Marina Silva, the popular former environment minister .

But the official numbers are expected to confirm a reversal that started last year, when deforestation rose by 29% after eight years of progress in slowing the rate of tree clearance.

Among the reasons for the setback are a shift in government priorities. Under Rousseff, the government has put a lower priority on the environment and built alliances with powerful agribusiness groups. It has weakened the Forest Code and pushed ahead with dam construction in the Amazon.

The environment ministry has tried to step up monitoring operations and campaigns to catch major violators, but farmers and loggers have also become more sophisticated by clearing areas of less than 25 hectares – below the range that can be detected by the Deter satellite, which the government had been using until recently.

More precise images should be available with a new satellite that has come into operation, but it is thought that better pictures will be likely to show even sharper deterioration.

Covert GPS surveillance of timber trucks by Amazon campaigners has shown how loggers evade the authorities. Much of the timber is laundered and sold to unwitting buyers in the UK, US, Europe and China, Greenpeace revealed this year.

Despite the worsening situation in the Amazon – and São Paulo’s most severe drought since records began – the environment has played little part in the debates between the two presidential candidates. [more]

Amazon deforestation picking up pace, satellite data reveals

 

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