Category Archives: conservation

New article in Nature Energy: Adding power to the value of trees

The thick, mature trees that line the neighbourhoods of Gainesville, valueoftreesFlorida, cast cool shade onto the residences below. Like many cities, Gainesville has policies that restrict the cutting down of trees, on the basis that the 50-to 100-year-old large, healthy trees with unique value (sometimes called ‘heritage trees’) make the city prettier and clean the air and water. Studies also show that leafy streets help sell houses1, benefit mental health2, and reduce asthma3 and crime4.

While municipalities in the southern and western United States are creating ordinances and programmes that restrict clear cutting for development projects and encourage tree planting for aesthetic reasons, they may now have further reason to discourage residential tree removals and encourage extending the life of mature trees: the shade they provide offers significant energy benefits, too. In warmer climates, trees keep houses cool and reduce the electricity needed for air conditioning, which accounts for a large proportion of energy consumption in sunny states like Florida. Despite compelling scientific support for the benefits of urban and suburban greenery, mature trees are at risk due to the lack of valuation for their energy services to homeowners and communities, and due to lack of public information about their energy benefits.

Read the full article:

HOT, HUNGRY PLANET: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change

The world is on the cusp of a global food crisis. In only a couple decades, an additional 2.6 to 4 billion people will be sitting down at the global table wondering what’s for dinner. That’s the equivalent of adding another New York City each month to the world’s grocery lines for the next 35 years. In HOT, HUNGRY PLANET: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: May 9, 2017; 9781250084200; $26.99) I address what needs to happen to reconcile two extreme global threats: climate change and global hunger. Christiana Figueres, diplomat and former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, says Hot Hungry Planet is, “A deep dive into the realities of some of the Sustainable Development Goals. Through moving personal stories Palmer shows how increased food security and addressing climate change are mutually reinforcing. We can and we must do both at the same time.”

Hot, Hungry Planet focuses on three key concepts that support food security and resilience in a changing world: social, educational, and agricultural advances; land use and technical actions by farmers; and policy nudges that have the greatest potential for reducing adverse environmental impacts of agriculture while providing more food. Palmer breaks down this difficult subject though seven concise and easily-digestible case studies over the globe and presents the stories of individuals in six key regions—India, sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, and Indonesia—painting a hopeful picture of both the world we want to live in and the great leaps it will take to get there.

Early reviews:

“This lively, concise book is packed with practical and often surprising ideas for meeting the profound challenges of global food scarcity. Lisa Palmer is a clear-eyed realist, but her fascinating tour of our Hot Hungry Planet will leave you more optimistic than you may have thought possible.”―Dan Fagin, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Toms River:A Story of Science and Salvation

“A penetrating and sensitive analysis of the urgent need for a sustainable global food system despite widespread socioeconomic inequality, swelling population, and ominous climate change.”― Richard C. J. Somerville, Ph.D., climate scientist

“The global food crisis is a critical issue. Producing more food is key but insufficient by itself. Palmer speaks in no uncertain terms about the peril we find ourselves in. But she also manages to find the bright spots―areas of hope that those of us in the environmental, business, and policy communities can address to cope with and even reverse some of the most alarming trends.”―Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Food & Markets, World Wildlife Fund

“The time to talk about diet for the health of people without addressing the health of the planet is past. With inspiring examples of sustainable agriculture, thoughtful attention to matters as disparate as biodiversity and family planning, and precautionary tales from around the globe, Hot, Hungry Planet gives us a clear-eyed view of the perils we face, and the promise of overcoming them by truly understanding them.”―David Katz, M.D. President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and author of Disease-Proof, The Way to Eat,  and The Flavor Point Diet

“A deep dive into the realities of some of the Sustainable Development Goals. Through moving personal stories Palmer shows how increased food security and addressing climate change are mutually reinforcing. We can and we must do both at the same time.”―Christiana Figueres, diplomat and executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 2010-2016

Hot, Hungry Planet is a sober analysis of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in feeding a changing and growing world. Palmer takes her readers on a journey from Vermont through Colombia, India, and the shores of Lake Victoria, examining innovations for sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture all along the way. Her work trumpets the benefits of smaller, more varied systems of food production that increase yields without the ecological harms of monoculture. Above all else, Palmer pens a passionate plea for the inclusion of women in all levels of food production through education and smart investments that forge a path toward a planet that can feed itself in a hotter, more crowded future.”―Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute

Improving Irrigation Efficiency

Many of California’s major farming regions get very little rain, so irrigation is critical. As a result, 80 percent of the state’s fresh water goes to agriculture.

Drip farming example
More efficient irrigation by farmers could help California’s water supply.

Heather Cooley, the director of the water program at the non-profit Pacific Institute says many farmers are replacing traditional furrow irrigation, where the rows between crops are simply flooded, with highly efficient drip irrigation systems.

COOLEY: “You’re also seeing more farmers adopt scientific irrigation scheduling, where they’re looking at either, soil type or they’re looking at weather conditions to determine when to water and how much to water.”

But not all California farmers have adopted the new techniques.

COOLEY: “These efficiency improvements require an upfront investment. They may provide returns over the life of the device, but making that transition can be very difficult.”

If all California farmers implemented efficient irrigation practices, Cooley says it could reduce agricultural water use by about 15 percent. Cooley says incentives and technical support would help farmers make this transition. Given climate projections, it is becoming even more important for California farmers to conserve water since the future is expected to get hotter and drier.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: Close up of drip irrigation (copyright protected).

More Resources
The untapped potential of California’s water supply
The multiple benefits of water efficiency for California agriculture

Originally published in Yale Climate Connections
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How Rising CO2 Levels May Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

Specimens of goldenrod sewn into archival paper folders are stacked floor to ceiling inside metal cabinets at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The collection, housed in the herbarium, dates back to 1842 and is among five million historical records of plants from around the world cataloged there. Researchers turned to this collection of goldenrod — a widely distributed perennial plant that blooms across North America from summer to late fall — to study concentrations of protein in goldenrod pollen because it is a key late-season food source for bees.

SteveBurt/Flickr Honeybees feed on goldenrod flowers.

The newer samples look much like the older generations. But scientists testing the pollen content from goldenrod collected between 1842 and 2014, when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rose from about 280 parts per million to 398 ppm, found the most recent pollen samples contained 30 percent less protein. The greatest drop in protein occurred from 1960 to 2014, when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose dramatically. A field experiment in the same study that exposed goldenrod to CO2 levels ranging from 280 to 500 ppm showed similar protein decreases.

Read the full article originally posted in Yale Environment 360

A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis

  • November 17, 2015 By
    Broken Landscape River
    The world’s second most populous country – projected to be first by 2022 – is developing faster than ever before, roiling the social, political, and environmental landscape. [Video Below]


    In her new book, A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, From the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, environmental journalist Meera Subramanian chronicles India’s efforts to balance economic development and environmental protection, including innovative programs to educate youth about sexual and reproductive health.

    Subramanian was inspired by the five elements – earth, fire, water, air, and ether – to investigate five aspects of sustainable development: organic farming, clean cookstoves, freshwater, endangered species, and population and family planning. Traveling throughout the subcontinent, she found stories of “ordinary people and microenterprises determined to revive India’s ravaged natural world.”

    At  the Wilson Center book launch on October 13, Subramanian was joined by freelance journalists Priyali Sur and Lisa Palmer, who offered comments on the book based on their own reporting from India on the interconnections between climate change, food security, and gender.

    Sur, a former television reporter for CNN-IBN, has covered the spike in human trafficking spurred by extreme flooding in the northeastern state of Assam. “Vulnerability that arises from looking for livelihood options, wanting to get work, wanting to sustain the family and wanting to provide for the family, which I think is a [bigger] responsibility for the woman than the man, makes them more vulnerable, and traffickers recognize this,” she said.

    Palmer, a former Wilson Center fellow and current fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, discussed the technological revolution taking root in Indian agriculture. Some organizations, like the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, are supporting “climate-smart villages” in India, which use solar energy pumps and sensors to measure crop health and reduce water consumption. The organization aims to create 1,000 climate smart villages across six states including the grain baskets of Haryana and Punjab, said Palmer.

    Read the full article originally published in The New Security Beat by the Wilson Center

India’s climate tech revolution is starting in its villages

Camels pulling wooden carts loaded with coconuts plod down the main road amid speeding motorcycles, buses, rickshaws and cars. Farmers sit atop slow-moving oxcarts loaded with grasses and other cattle feed. In this region of central Gujarat, India, it appears that rural life has not changed for decades.

But drive down a dirt road outside the village of Thamna, about an hour north of Anand, and the 21st century comes into view. Solar panels drive a water pump that irrigates the fields of farmer Raman Bhai Parmar, 65, who grows bananas, rice and wheat on seven acres of land.

Raman Bhai Parmar
Raman Bhai Parmar. Photograph: Lisa Palmer

Parmar’s solar energy pump is one of the technologies being promoted by a new project designed to help rural Indians adapt to climate change. The project, run by the international NGO, the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS), aims to create 1,000 so-called climate smart villages across six Indian states including Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat.

Haryana and Punjab are known as the grain basket states of India, producing the majority of the country’s staple wheat and basmati rice for export to the Middle East and European markets. The pumping of groundwater for irrigation over the past thirty years has led to a spike in productivity and increased food security.

However, the region faces increases in temperature up to 5C by 2080 and wheat is particularly vulnerable to heat stress. A recent study by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute indicates that climate change may reduce wheat yields in India between 6% and 23% by 2050. Environmental problems such as depleting groundwater and variable rains – delayed monsoons and intense rainfall – limit yields. Indian farmers also typically use almost twice the amount of fertiliser needed, damaging soil, contaminating groundwater and adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the full article originally published in The Guardian.

Can Ecologists and Engineers Work Together to Harness Water For The Future?

1024px-Pangani_River1The Pangani River in Tanzania is important for many reasons: its three major dams provide 17 percent of the country’s electricity; it sustains thousands of farmers and herders living in the basin; and its flow of fresh water supports humans, industry, and ecosystems. But most interesting might be the innovative water policies that govern withdrawals, infrastructure projects, and ecosystems along its banks.

Climate change and population dynamics could cause trouble for the Pangani Basin and many others like it. More people are expected to depend on the flow of fresh water while at the same time rainfall and glacial meltwater from Mt. Meru, Mt. Pare, and Mt. Kilimanjaro are diminishing.


Around the world, water managers are adjusting to a similar quandary. Precipitation patterns and river flows are becoming more uncertain as the past is no longer a reliable guide for the future. Planners are adjusting to changes in the water cycle by integrating policies with flexible structures and ecosystems.

Flexibility Over Scale

In the November 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, I wrote about how leaders in sustainable water management are finding common ground with two historically antagonistic approaches: engineering and ecology.

I talked with Mark Fletcher, a water engineer and the water business leader at UK-based Arup, a global company of consulting engineers with 14,000 employees. Modular is one way to describe his brand of sustainable water work.

“We had assumed that the world was static,” Fletcher told me. “We knew that the climate was predictable. Due to climate change or due to a changing climate, it is harder to predict things. So rather than build overly conservative monolithic solutions, we now design systems that can be tweaked and twiddled.”

A good example is osmosis desalination. “You literally stack desalination units, much like you would batteries, until you solve your problem,” he said.

From Fletcher’s perspective, the world has no need for more Hoover Dams, given the uncertainty around the global water cycle of the future. I write:

Fletcher favors natural solutions. In New York City, for example, new plans for city orchards and 9,000 grassed bio-swales, which resemble marshy depressions in the land, will slow the flow of storm water from sidewalks to water catchment basins. “Think of them as green sponges all over the city. The water gets soaked up and you avoid pumping every time it rains,” he says. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Furthermore, rather than design water treatment plants that can accommodate extreme rainfall, he prefers multiple local responses that can be changed and adapted, much in the way that a Lego building block is removed and added.

Fletcher suggests that the solution to water management under climate change is beyond engineering. That’s why ecologists John Matthews, coordinator of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, and LeRoy Poff, a professor at Colorado State University, have been leading a team of 27 researchers at the U.S. National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland. The team includes economists, hydrologists, policymakers, and engineers. Climate change, they say, has prompted the researchers to work together on an integrated approach to freshwater adaptation. Rather than isolating water management issues within a single field, such as engineering or hydrology, the team’s multifaceted work is developing solutions for decision-makers. Think of their combined work as a chemical reaction. Instead of one element, such as engineering, working in seclusion on a freshwater adaptation project, their form of synthesis science means suddenly more ingredients are added to the beaker.

The research team that Matthews and Poff lead identifies markers of resilience of both infrastructure and ecosystems in basins. They are using the analysis so that ecological principles are incorporated into future water management projects from the very beginning.

Resilience markers include variation of flow, seasonal and temperature changes, and connections to flood plains, for instance. The specific indicators vary from river to river, but the principles remain the same.

Matthews says that the Dujiangyan system in China’s Sichuan Province is a model for integrating policies with engineering and ecology in a sustainable way. Built in 256 BC, the water diversion system still operates today.

According to Kathleen Dominique, an environmental economist at OECD, flexible approaches are necessary to adjust to changing conditions at low cost.

For the Pangani Basin, leaders have established ecosystems as a priority, keeping river flow available to wetlands, riparian forests, and mangroves, and the plan is to adjust water policies with the changing needs of communities. Similarly, the European Union’s water directive is now adjusted every six years to examine all changes and uses of rivers, not only those related to climate change.

For a deeper look at how people are working to become more resilient, improve water security, and preserve ecosystems by incorporating ecological principles into water management, read the complete article in Nature Climate Change.


Ocean Acidification Poses Risks to Coastal Economies

Oysters, scallops and clams … they’re an iconic part of American cuisine and a critical source of jobs in many coastal communities. But the nation’s approximately one billion dollar shelled mollusk industry is at risk.

When cars, factories, and power plants emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some of the pollution gets absorbed by the oceans – increasing their acidity and making it hard for mollusks to build their shells.

According to a new report, the problem has economic consequences for coastal communities – from Maine to the Chesapeake Bay, and from the Louisiana Bayou to the Pacific Northwest.

Continue reading and listening at Yale Climate Connections.

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