24 February 2011

Key Topics for the UNFCCC COP Process, part 2

Continuing from part 1 my list of topics on which I think discussion will follow in the UNFCCC process over the next several decades...

7. Following a long discussion and possible agreement on tropical forests (item 2 in part 1 of this list), the temperate mixed forests and subarctic boreal forests (taiga) will become an issue to be addressed for the global north.  This will likely come alongside a discussion of tundra regions and thawing permafrost zones throughout polar Eurasia and North America.  The conversion of tundra to peat bogs and swamps or marshes on a global scale will, of course, bring about more discussion of continental carbon and methane emissions.  It will be a different discussion from the controls on anthropogenic methane emissions, however.  In a recent interview (pdf) in EOS (subscription required), the weekly news of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the lead editor of the 2009 AGU Monograph Carbon Cycling in Northern Peatlands was quoted:
"…The amount of carbon stored in northern peatlands is between 3 and 5 times that stored in the Amazon and about 50 times the global annual emissions of carbon through fossil fuel burning. There is concern that the carbon stored in peatlands may 'leak' back to the atmosphere as peatlands warm and respond to changes in rainfall. They could be a sleeping giant that still remains asleep, but if that sleeping giant wakes up, then we could have problems, and they could have a big effect on future climate."  
And still, as much as the process has focused on carbon dioxide all these years, we have known that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.  It is the "sleeper cell" in our human story of climate change in the 21st century.

8. With the rise of the discussion on continental methane (above) will come a closer look at ocean temperatures and their cycles, which we are only beginning to understand now, but hope to know a great deal more about by mid-century.  The principal contributor to predictions regarding sea level rise is not the volume of sea ice expected to melt, but the expansion of the water with warming.  In the meantime, the methane potentially to be released from sea-floor sediments (methane hydrate) as the oceans could dwarf any observations of naturally-sequestered land-based methane in permafrost, peat and wetlands.  As it is now, we know far more about the physics, thermodynamics and chemistry of the oceans than we know about the variety and behavior of land cover.  This is one reason why the influence and response of the land surface remains so poorly represented, comparatively, in climate models (maybe I should address that disparity in another post sometime soon).  In the meantime, our advanced knowledge of the oceans and their influence on the global climate will draw the discussion back from more obvious land-based changes, such as permafrost conversion, to the subtle changes happening in the world's oceans.  This will be the second great round of discussion on the world's oceans, with a focus more on the thermodynamics and chemistry of the ocean-climate system this time around (as compared with item 3 in part 1 of this list).

9. With the discussion brought around again to the global oceans, we will see more focus on fisheries (if any are still viable) in the climate negotiations.  National claims of territorial sovereignty and exclusive economic zones will come into conflict on a greater scale, and far sooner, on the sea than on land.  The US President is already taking comments from the public on strategic actions toward some rather vague objectives of a National Ocean Policy, a portion of which is oriented on climate change and ecological factors.

10. International groundwater basins will finally see some discussion.  I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but I get the impression that other countries see what the US and many of its states do not: surface water and groundwater are connected.  If that just seems natural to you too, then you're not a water lawyer in the US either.  Groundwater has been described, by engineers, in terms of "megawatersheds" because a single aquifer can span large areas and numerous topographic watersheds at the land surface.  For example, the Ogalalla Aquifer underlies portions of eight states in the midwestern US and receives percolated surface water (though very little) from several major and numerous minor watersheds, including the Missouri River and Arkansas River systems, while providing pumped water supplies to millions of farmers and residents of the American Great Plains.  In other areas of the world, aquifers nearly as large also span national borders, bringing into consideration the shared use of subsurface water resources just as on the surface in international river basins (item 6 in part 1 of this list).

11. Continental and coastal wetlands will re-enter the discussion as slowly disappearing and degrading hotspots of biodiversity.  Though the ranks of the protected wetlands areas under the Ramsar Convention have been increasing slowly, wetland areas in general are decreasing in number, size and quality around the world.  In their normal and natural state, healthy wetlands function as carbon sequestration mechanisms.  However, wetlands that lose their source of, and ability to cycle, clean water will turn hypoxic and can end up eutrophic, releasing carbon-based methane from plant materials in the decay and reduction process.  Continental wetlands act as chemical buffers, connecting surface waters with groundwater and filtering both.  Coastal wetlands act as both chemical and physical buffers, filtering nutrients from land-based runoff at a brackish interface while the vegetation, such as mangroves and grasses, protect the shore from the full brunt of land-falling storms such as tropical cyclones.  Just as sea-level rise will put saltwater pressure on coastal aquifers, coastal wetlands will come under increasing stress because of the rising salinity of their brackish waters.  I have written previously and at length on wetlands, for World Wetlands Day (2 February) in 2009 and this year.

12. As I mentioned in item 6 of part 1, International Rivers estimates that there are more than 45,000 large dams (taller than 20 m) around the world, with more than 5,000 of them over 50 years old and in need of repair or replacement.  It is suggested that all of these are increasingly hazardous because of their design on past understanding of the hydrologic cycle; they are not built to handle the accelerated cycle that is expected with global warming with stronger storms in some regions and reductions in rainfall elsewhere, not to mention changes in the timing of snowmelt and peak runoff seasons.  It is estimated that 40-80M people worldwide have been displaced by their construction over time, and that another 2M residents are displaced or have their livelihoods affected every year as new dams are built. On the other side of the debate, the International Hydropower Association has recently formed its own voluntary standards for dam construction, known as the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  These standards have already been derided by environmentalists as entirely self-serving for the industrial stakeholders that formulated the protocol and that fund and build such projects.  For that matter, funding for various and controversial projects is diverse and not always transparent; some stakeholders may provide funding simply as an investment in the infrastructure and expect a return on power sales, while others have less benign reasons for contributing.  One of the problem is that dams and hydropower are still viewed as "clean energy," while others cite the science of reservoir methane production and the downstream ecological and geomorphological changes and human impacts.  It has now been more than 10 years since the World Commission on Dams, convened by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (now the International Union for Conservation of Nature), issued its report.  The final report of the Commission was meant to "encompass basic values of human rights and sustainable development that are essential to minimizing the negative impacts of large dams on people and the environment."  Since that report, global dam-building has only accelerated in the number of projects under consideration and construction, with increasing media scrutiny of personal displacement, land rights abuses, and impacts to the livelihood of citizens around the world.  The media, however, remain neutral in their reporting.  It is up to grassroots supporters and their opinions voiced to larger international bodies and processes such as the UNFCCC and the World Bank itself to put the WCD policies and recommendations into action, making judgments on projects on a case basis and holding the dam-funding and -building groups to higher standards than we have seen thus far.

    23 February 2011

    USGS "Global Change Science Strategy" draft open for public comment

    The US Geological Survey (USGS) has just made available for public review and comment a draft of their new Open File Report 2011–1033 (web abstract) titled "USGS Global Change Science Strategy: A Framework for Understanding and Responding to Climate and Land-Use Change" (pdf).  The review period is open until 8 April 2011.  The draft abstract follows:
    This U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Global Change Science Strategy expands on the Climate Variability and Change science component of the USGS 2007 Science Strategy, “Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges: USGS Science in the Coming Decade” (U.S. Geological Survey, 2007). Here we embrace the broad definition of global change provided in the U.S. Global Change Research Act of 1990 (Public Law 101–606,104 Stat. 3096–3104)—“Changes in the global environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life”—with a focus on climate and land-use change.

    There are three major characteristics of this science strategy. First, it addresses the science required to broadly inform global change policy, while emphasizing the needs of natural-resource managers and reflecting the role of the USGS as the science provider for the Department of the Interior and other resource-management agencies. Second, the strategy identifies core competencies, noting 10 critical capabilities and strengths the USGS uses to overcome key problem areas. We highlight those areas in which the USGS is a science leader, recognizing the strong partnerships and effective collaboration that are essential to address complex global environmental challenges. Third, it uses a query-based approach listing key research questions that need to be addressed to create an agenda for hypothesis-driven global change science organized under six strategic goals. Overall, the strategy starts from where we are, provides a vision for where we want to go, and then describes high-priority strategic actions, including outcomes, products, and partnerships that can get us there.

    Global change science is a well-defined research field with strong linkages to the ecosystems, water, energy and minerals, natural hazards, and environmental health components of the USGS Science Strategy (2007). When science strategies that cover these other components are developed, coordinated implementation will be necessary to achieve Bureau-level synergies and optimize capabilities and expertise.

    In October 2010, USGS realigned its management and budget structure to implement its 2007 Science Strategy. The new organizational structure, in which “Global Change” is one of seven key mission areas, lends itself to the advancement of the established six strategic goals. USGS global change science is formally represented by the “Climate and Land-Use Change” Mission Area in the FY 2012 budget (USGS, 2011).

    This plan was developed by the USGS Global Change Science Strategy Planning Team (SSPT) appointed by the USGS Director on March 4, 2010 and charged with developing a Global Change Science Strategy for the coming decade [pdf] (McNutt, 2010). USGS managers and science staff are the main audience for this science strategy. This document is also intended to serve as the foundation for consistent USGS collaboration and communication with partners and stakeholders.
    I have added links to the original abstract, for background information and ease of research.

    22 February 2011

    Guest Post: "A Missing Link in Climate Change Policy" by Bruce Campbell, CCAFS

    The following open letter appeared on the Climate-L mailing list earlier this month and was published on their website in association with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) on 8 February 2011.  The author, Bruce Campbell, is the Director of the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), a strategic partnership between the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP).  The 10-year CCAFS program aims to overcome the additional threats posed by a changing climate to achieving food security, enhancing livelihoods and improving environmental management. 

    Editor's Note: I wrote to CCAFS to obtain permission to reprint the letter, but have received no answer as yet, so this letter is reprinted here without permission of the author.  I have elected to republish the letter now as it is directly relevant to Item 4 in my list of potential UNFCCC COP topics that I posted yesterday.


    A Missing Link in Climate Change Policy
    by Bruce Campbell, Director, CGIAR - CCAFS

    Later this month, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change holds its first meeting, bringing together top policy-connected scientists from around the world. Over its ten-month tenure, the international Commission will come up with specific policies and actions needed to secure food for all in an increasingly uncertain climate.

    Climate change is probably the single greatest threat to future growth in agriculture. How successfully developing countries cope with it, starting now, will determine to a large degree whether they can feed their people, reduce poverty and maintain social stability as the global population climbs to nine billion by 2050.

    Scientists readily acknowledge that there is still much uncertainty surrounding their estimates of expected climate change impacts in agriculture. But one point on which they entirely agree is that agriculture is highly vulnerable even to a two-degree, or low-end, rise in average temperatures.

    Many studies now suggest that crops, livestock and biological diversity will all be profoundly affected by rising temperatures and other changes. For developing country farmers, this often means lower yields and incomes as a result of increasingly severe weather, changing rainfall patterns, worsening water scarcity and sudden outbreaks of diseases and pests.

    Last year’s flooding in Pakistan, for example, damaged food storage containers while encouraging a growing threat to food safety from a burgeoning population of poisonous fungi. Threats such as these are compounded by rising food prices, which can contribute to civil unrest, as we have recently seen in Tunisia.

    Science also points to possible solutions. Rural peoples are beginning to receive seasonal climate forecasts, for example, while innovative insurance schemes are helping them to manage the climate risks they already face. And researchers have identified new ways to help farmers address growing demand for food in the coming decades despite climate change, while significantly reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, which account for about 12% of the global total.

    The sheer variety of perspectives on the best ways to adapt agriculture to climate change and reduce emissions while boosting carbon storage in the soil has resulted in a confusing mix of messages, which are leading to inaction or, worse still, the wrong actions.

    We need new approaches for sharing knowledge and tools between scientists and decision makers at all levels, including farmers and the organizations that represent them. The idea is to make science more comprehensible and to involve all key actors in decisions about how its results are interpreted and used.

    As a start toward identifying solutions that hold the most promise, the CCAFS program is launching the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, to come up with the specific policies and measures that must be taken to boost food production, reduce poverty and cope with climate change in agriculture.

    The Commission’s unique mission is to identify the actions needed to address climate change and achieve sustainable agriculture and food security, by building upon existing knowledge. It will focus on specific policies and actions that move beyond general calls for action; it will focus on the food security of poor people. Given its composition of senior and internationally-recognized scientists, it also has the opportunity to provide a clear set of policy findings based on science, and link between national and international policy processes in the agricultural and climate sectors, and beyond.

    Their findings, expected by December 2011, should provide welcome guidance for translating scientific knowledge into action.

    21 February 2011

    Key Topics for the UNFCCC COP Process, part 1

    Following on my last post regarding the the UNFCCC COP process, and how I think it might make better progress over time, what next?  Allow me to put on my futurist hat and make a list of topics, somewhat in chronological order but interrelated, on which I think discussion will follow in the UNFCCC process over the next several decades.  Let me state clearly that I don't think that the UNFCCC process will fall apart or disband at some point, if it takes the proper steps to move from stagnant negotiation to progressive action.  I do think that the strength and composition of the most influential players may shift over time.

    So, I present here my own list of the first six of twelve key topics for the UNFCCC.  As I said before, some of these should already have left the COP process behind for more independent negotiations in order to see progress.  We will begin with the three topics already introduced and now in ongoing discussion in the UNFCCC COP meetings, and then I add three more that will likely come up in the next year or so as major topics for negotiation and action.  I will follow this list of the first six with another post on six more topics that I see entering the UNFCCC process in the longer term, beyond the next couple of years.

    1. Carbon, methane and sulfur emissions are not really "dead" (as GOOD claimed for cap-and-trade markets) as the primary topic of discussion, no matter how misguided those discussions and negotiations remain, and efforts toward agreements to market and/or curb emissions on national and continental scales will continue.  Most countries will not let nearly twenty years of work, all of their effort since Rio and Kyoto, go to waste, especially as the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire at the end of 2012.  I think that few of those negotiations will bear fruit, however - if the MOP process can't solve the issues and get the US on board with a global agreement, the larger COP process will only bring more chaos to the proceedings.  It's a simple observation on national and transnational development in our era of an increasingly global and complex web of economics and trade: through the US and EU are hammering on China right now regarding emissions, twenty years ago it would have been Russia and Brazil, and ten years ago it would have been Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.  Ten years from now it may well be India and Brazil again, and twenty years from now it could be parts of Africa.  Meanwhile, US leadership pretends that we didn't do anything in our own industrial and economic development over the past century that they shouldn't all do in the course of their own national and regional evolutions.

    2. Tropical forests are next, with the process already begun on REDD, and now some evidence that REDD may need reform.  Of course, emissions and carbon issues each eventually needed reform and produced the Kyoto agreement, which has yet to make it through the stage of simple commitment, just before it is scheduled to expire.  I wrote more on the discussion of forests in that previous post, but it is important to indicate here that this is the discussion of and resolution on tropical forests, not forests in temperate regions (which I think will arise in discussion later).

    3. Polar regions may temporarily preempt the discussion on forests, however.  Persistent sea ice is dwindling rapidly in the Arctic, and scientists just announced that 2010 was a new record melt season on the Greenland ice sheet.  Meanwhile, the Antarctic edges have been showing more severe glacier break-up in the southern summer over the past several years, signaled most dramatically by the collapse of the Larsen-B Ice Shelf in 2002.  Glacier calving and loss of ice cover leads to trouble in shipping lanes near both poles, a faster sea route across North America through the "Northwest Passage," and territorial claims on the Arctic seabed that are in the process of resolution.  This will be the first round of discussion (though likely several years in duration) on the world's oceans, with a focus on the physics and thermodynamics of the ocean-climate system.  We are already seeing some of this discussion emerge in the scientific literature and in efforts to raise awareness regarding those island nations that could disappear entirely, in our lifetimes, because of sea-level rise.  A discussion of polar regions might end simply by sending the issue back to the UN for evaluation against the existing Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but some negotiation within the UNFCCC COP process will be needed to get the discussion to that point.

    4. Agriculture and food security: we are about to cross the 7B global population mark on our way to at least 9B by mid-century, while the planetary agricultural and ecological carrying capacity remains significantly less.  Food security remains the foremost topic on former World Bank president Robert Zoellick's list of priorities.  It is the entire focus of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), whose reports on the interactions between water and food security and a look ahead at farming through the first half of this century, both in the context of global climate change, were recently published.  With regard to agriculture and food, there are numerous issues that must be addressed soon, in an international forum, and in the context of climate change uncertainty: migrating zones of optimal farming due to weather and climate; shifting regions of soil suitability because of nutrient depletion and salinization; the availability of adequate water supplies for irrigated crops; the personal labor associated with various crop types, in light of mass emigration to urban areas; the markets for staple grains and commodities above simple subsistence agriculture; the development of genetically modified grains and modification of the processes by which fertilizers and pesticides are made and applied; the availability and prioritization of international food aid in times of crisis and disaster.  We are dealing with all of these right now on an ad hoc basis, especially the issues of food aid, markets, and disaster recovery efforts.  What we need, however, is a shift to anticipatory planning with global participation and reach.

    5. Tropical and subtropical glaciers, especially in highly mountainous regions (e.g. the Himalaya-Karakoram and Andes Ranges), are disappearing at an extraordinary rate, but what we can possibly do about that is still very much unclear.  The UN Environment Programme has released several publications on the status of mountain glaciers and their overall relation to human livelihoods and ability to adapt, though the details of glacier mechanics and processes remain difficult to understand and predict.  This is even more relevant where the glaciers feed shared water resources, as occurs in and downstream of the Himalaya Ranges in South Asia, on which I've written before as well.  Security fears, as analyzed recently by the India-based Strategic Foresight Group, have led to the tendency for countries to keep glacier surveys and other hydrological information to themselves as water resources become a strategic asset in international economic competition.  Most countries at risk of losing glaciers have approached the problem of water resource security with massive dam projects, but new projects are already testing old agreements and treaties.  Are there better ways?

    6. International river basins will finally come under discussion.  Those old agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan will require another look, as new circumstances and situations in water resources under the influences of climate change will invalidate completely the allocation bases on which bilateral agreements have been formed over the past century. UNEP estimates that there are 263 international river basins covering 45% of the Earth's land surface on the six major continents (excluding Antarctica).  The UNEP Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements lists 295 international agreements negotiated and signed since 1948.  However, the Atlas also lists 37 acute conflicts over water that have occurred over the same period, mostly related to water supply and infrastructure disputes, which generally means dam-building.  International Rivers estimates that there are more than 45,000 large dams (taller than 20 m) around the world, with more than 5,000 of them over 50 years old and in need of repair or replacement.  It is suggested that all of these are increasingly hazardous because of their design on past understanding of the hydrologic cycle, and are not built to handle the accelerated cycle that is expected with global warming.  It is estimated that 40-80M people worldwide have been displaced by their construction over time, and that another 2M residents are displaced or have their livelihoods affected every year as new dams are built.  Where dams are constructed on shared rivers, mutual concerns must be addresses adequately for all parties affected, something that we have seen less and less in such regions as the Mekong River and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
      Oh, by the way, some of these links and reports are already on my new Timelines page, and those things are already really helpful in keeping my historical links categorized and organized!  Better that they're out there for anyone to use, rather than hidden in my own bookmarks at home...

      18 February 2011

      If I ran the UNFCCC COP process...

      This started as something of a rant on the ill logic of the UNFCCC COP process, following on my post on 14 December 2010, but I have elected to reframe this conversation in a more constructive tone.  Hopefully this will be better-received in the community than the mere rantings of a young(ish), topically- and socially-aware scientist with global aspirations.  I developed much of this discussion while gathering information for the beginnings of a timeline for use in my research, using Dipity, putting together dates and links for various meetings and reports that have come out regarding the relation between climate change and its anticipated impacts on numerous sectors of Earth science and society.  You can keep track of my progress on that mini-project on the Timelines tab listed near the top of the blog. 

      And before you start to think that this is an episode of world-bashing in the name of US unilateralism and stoicism, think again, because it isn't.  I'm with the rest of the world here when it comes to the issues that need to be addressed in the UNFCCC process, and how little progress it seems is being made year-to-year on those.  I'll even do a little bit of US-bashing on that regard below.  I will readily admit that US leadership does not seem to recognize much, if any, of the subject matter at issue in adaptation to climate change.  Heck, too many of our leaders are too busy denying that climate change is even a problem to be addressed, or that it's the fault of humans, or that the science is valid, or that their donors constituents want them to address it... While US scientists contribute a great deal to what we know about climate change and the abilities of humans and other species to adapt to the anticipated global adjustments, US political leaders are not the people that the rest of the world should want to follow.

      One of the principal issues is ignorance, though this is not limited to US leaders.  Before COP-15 in Copenhagen in December 2009, there was a Climate Change Congress of world-class scientists in the same city in March 2009.  The Congress hosted a comprehensive program and produced a Synthesis Report that was made available on 18 June 2009 to COP-15 negotiators, almost six months prior to the COP meeting.  There was no subsequent evidence that the "negotiators" at COP-15 had even glanced at the Congress Synthesis Report.  It is becoming more clear that the results of relevance are emerging from between-COP meetings and the science brought together there, rather than the "high-level" diplomatic-style negotiations of environmental ministers at the COP meetings themselves.  Scientists work constantly to lay the solid foundations for informed policy initiatives, but the politicians who actually lead the COP functions seem to bring their own agenda(s) and step right off of that foundation to their own sandy, quickly-eroded paths...

      It is frustrating to see this as an outside observer after sixteen meetings over almost twenty years thus far.  Because it was quickly overtaken over by political agendas, the UNFCCC COP process has never fully evolved to the conceptual ideal of a "framework" of climate-change-related discussion with action-oriented spin-off activities.  This is the function of a "framework process" is it not?  To generate the initial discussions and activities that could then spin off and stand on their own as international agreements, conventions and treaties.  Over time these spin-offs would show the step-wise progression of international focus while the framework convention itself continued to evolve, constantly incorporating emergent concerns that had reached critical mass through a long process.  If I ran the UNFCCC process, this is how it would cycle: 
      1. Popular recognition:  local and global NGOs raise awareness and present empirical evidence of sectoral need.
      2. Scientific backing:  independent and government science provides proof of need for action, with scenarios of possible futures.
      3. Political support:  government accepts NGO pressure and scientific proof as call to action.
      4. Political advocacy:  cooperative builds between and among individual countries.
      5. COP meeting:  awareness building, stakeholder enlistment, and UNFCCC support for spin-off meetings.
      6. Spin-off:  meetings and work of NGOs, scientists, and government delegates, independent of UNFCCC COP.  The MOP process is a perfect counter-example here.
      7. International consensus:  declarations, agreements, and signatory conventions that are recognized and backed by the UN.
      There would be no partisan politics involved, just delegates who represent the peoples of their respective countries.  The science remains inherently apolitical, and the NGOs are allowed no partisan attacks or political harangues against individual groups.  If the spin-off meetings cannot proceed constructively, offending parties found by the larger group to be blocking the process are sent home for replacement by the time of the next meeting.  As Benjamin Franklin appealed to his fellow signatories of the Declaration of Independence, just as the American Revolutionary War was just heating up, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

      I mentioned above the counter-example of the MOP meetings.  At Copenhagen in 2009, The COP-15 meeting was collocated with the fifth Meeting of Parties (MOP-5) to the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended as the principal international agreement on emissions reductions and the global "carbon economy."  Again, in 2010, MOP-6 was collocated with COP-16 in Mexico.  At the risk of meeting fatigue, which I recognize is a real issue for leaders and NGOs involved in these processes, I would suggest that having the COP and MOP scheduled together, every year, is the very reason that COP has not spun off anything new since the Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005.  Every COP meeting since then has been dominated by the mechanics, wrangling, and negotiations of bringing the Kyoto Protocol to resemble real action on carbon emissions and climate change, all of which discussion should be limited to the MOP sessions instead.  There needs to be a clear separation, so that COP business as a "framework process" can proceed forward while the MOP is worked out on an independent schedule of meetings and agreements.  MOP discussions on the Kyoto Protocol might earn a side meeting at the annual COP meeting, but no more than that, because there are other issues and potentially more successful spin-off agreements to be addressed by the COP delegates.  For that matter, the US remains the biggest obstacle in the MOP process, still having refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol; that shouldn't hold back the rest of the world from making progress on the numerous COP issues within the scope of UNFCCC regard.

      On the issue of emissions reductions and the Kyoto Protocol agreements, commentary from and centered on the US is pessimistic, at best.  One of the principal instruments of the Protocol in application to growing countries is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which was intended to allow flexibility in meeting emissions targets (limits) during their economic development.  While industrialized countries are subject primarily to efforts at emissions reductions, spurring ideas on how to keep their economies growing through this period of shifting energy sources and industrial-commercial transition, countries on their way into industrialization have a way to continue development in a responsible manner.  Instead, leading idea-oriented magazine GOOD has just recently declared that "Cap and Trade is Dead" and asks, "Now What?"  If we take that attitude for the industrialized countries, what hope do we have for the CDM?  We are seeing the early stages of an executive exodus from the UNFCCC forum.  Led by the US example left over from the Bush Administration, individual countries like Japan are instead shifting their aim to bilateral agreements and solutions.  To counter this movement and keep the issues and agreements aligned, the UNFCCC process needs to extend its reach, consciously and overtly, instead of simply leaking over semi-covertly at media and academic insistence into other global discussions such as the Davos World Economic Forum, which seems to have become such a massive event that lots of networking but little actual work really gets done there or in follow-up.  It is, seemingly, more in the lead-up to such large events such as Davos WEF that participants are more thoughtful and focused, with their own agenda in formulation and their "elevator speeches" in preparation.

      So all of these things considered, it might seem that carbon is on the way out as a medium of international negotiation to determine the winners and losers under the influence of ongoing climate change.  Next up for discussion and negotiation are forests, for which a mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) was first introduced at COP-11 in 2005.  The REDD mechanism, a system of "carbon credits" tied to activities to preserve natural areas in forested countries, was set to paper at COP-13 in 2007 as part of the Bali Action Plan.  It has gone through several iterations and refinements over the years and COP meetings, even through opposition by the US, with hopes that REDD will soon emerge as a successor international agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.  The United Nations has, appropriately, declared 2011 the International Year of Forests.  Following the complete collapse of COP-15 negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009 and minor last-minute victories at COP-16 in Cancun in 2010, the time for discussion on forest resources has come.  But it seems to me, from initial forays into the topic, that forests bring about something akin to a hostage negotiation, so it makes such international dialogue more contentious.

      To be sure, REDD still has its faults and may not yet be formulated to do what it intends.  A recent study published by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and reported by ScienceDaily recognized that agreements such as REDD "have too often ignored local needs, while failing to address the most fundamental challenge to global forest management - that deforestation usually is caused by economic pressures imposed from outside the forests."  At the high-level tables of COP meetings, this is just more evidence that the representatives are out of touch with the populations for whom they claim to negotiate and work.  It is at this point in time and work that an effort such as REDD, with such recognition and viable alternatives, must be taken away from those tables and back to the people involved and affected where the real work of locals can proceed - in other words, REDD must be taken out of the UNFCCC's hands at COP meetings and developed as a process that has a chance of working out well.  As the chairperson of the group that produced that IUFRO study said,
      "We are not saying we need to abandon a global approach to forest governance, but we do need to establish the appropriate roles... The REDD process, for example, might provide a great way to raise money for sustainable forest management and other forest programs, but much of the details and operational aspects would be undertaken at the regional and national levels."
      Because the work behind REDD had reached a critical mass with the plan adopted at COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, if I ran the UNFCCC COP process then the issue of tropical forests would have been spun-off from the "framework" COP process to its own sequence of meetings and negotiations with an agreement and charter, based on the relevant parts of the Bali Action Plan, at COP-14 in 2008.  Alas, it remains now in common negotiation along with the Kyoto Protocol at COP/MOP events, and for how much longer depends on the willingness of political negotiators to let go, so that those more knowledgeable and representative of the issues can move forward in their hard work to bring about satisfactory agreements and conclusions.

      So then, will the COP discussion come to water next?  Not likely, in my view.  There is an immense, vertically integrated, global effort at national and international organization around water as a medium not simply for the declaration of human rights, but also for the elevation of whole peoples from poverty.  On the one hand, the topic of water is not yet ready to die a horrible death in the public consciousness as a subject of overly bureaucratic and meaningless debate in such a forum as the UNFCCC COP meetings as they now proceed.  On the other hand, I think that those who work in water may not be as patient waiting for results in that forum as the forest community, which has seen more than five years pass from the time the subject was initially broached at COP-11, through the formulation of the Bali Action Plan and REDD, to the present ongoing disagreements on tropical forest sustainability.  Over that amount of time, the advocates of responsible water management have already brought about their own improved level of awareness and critical mass in the global development and environmental communities, though not necessarily yet in the dedicated science community.  To bring water as a medium of economic development into the COP process would actually be a step backward for the water community, unless such provision can be made for incorporation of the existing ongoing discussions about water issues without bringing all progress to a halt for 5-10 years while the rest of the UNFCCC process catches up.  Eventually, however, the emissions and forest and water communities must all come together in a properly integrated approach to climate and development issues.

      16 February 2011

      Federal Science and OSTP Patterns

      There is a disturbing pattern emerging from the US President's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  This is the principal group with access to the President's ear when it comes to such important issues as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in both education and practice.  Along with the numerous federal agencies that support basic and applied research across the country, the OSTP helps decide the priorities in research and application of science funding throughout the federal government.  Although I'll grant that it's just two instances thus far, they are very specific, and still indicative of more systematic problems in federal support for science in our country.

      On 24 January of this year, the Associated Press reported:
      "President Barack Obama's top adviser on energy and climate matters is stepping down, two White House officials confirmed Monday. The departure of Carol Browner underscores that there will be no major White House push on climate change, given that such efforts have little chance of succeeding on Capitol Hill."
      Much more was made of the issue, especially the expected stiff opposition from incoming Congressional Republicans toward much of the President's agenda on climate and energy issues. But shouldn't that just embolden the fighters on the side of the President and Congressional Democrats, if the Republicans insist on making public health a political issue? I would have thought so, but then...

      The next day, 25 January, the President delivered his State of the Union address to Congress. The text was leaked by a few outlets several hours prior to the address, and I was able to give it a quick read (note: I did indeed check the leaked text against the speech in real-time, and it was accurate). My results, as tweeted: "lots of change, support for infrastructure, four mentions of water, zero climate." OK, so maybe I understated the support for infrastructure, but the number of times water was mentioned is overstated, since two of those were in direct relation to the freshwater/saltwater salmon issue and thus basically a joke afterward.  But is it not interesting that, in the time leading up to the President's address during which issues for the speech were being argued and debated in the White House, one of the overarching issues of our time and this President's administration, "climate" would be removed entirely from the speech?

      Those from Greenwire and the New York Times saw Ms. Browner's departure as
      "...a sign of a sea change in President Obama's approach to energy issues, experts say, marking a shift from advancing new climate and energy programs to defending the economic value of the policies that his administration has put in place over its first two years." 
      That was still before the State of the Union address confirmed only part of their supposition.  There was definitely a shift in the works, with no mention of the President's energy and climate bill that had just died an agonizing death in the lame-duck session of the previous Congress, no commitment to introduce new legislation in that regard, just a quiet backing down and diversion to other topics, specifically "innovation."  It is widely accepted that Ms. Browner saw the writing on the wall (and in the speech) and knew that her job was suddenly superfluous...

      So, forward a couple of weeks to the federal budget debates, in which we are presently embroiled.  Or, rather, we would be, if there was a fight to witness...but there really isn't this time around.  The President's agenda and aims, even from this more recent State of Union address, suffer death by so many little cuts.  It should not be the President's goal to guess at the middle ground in an anticipated debate with appropriators in Congress and then jump right to it, because those feisty Republicans in the House of Representatives will just take that offered budget and have their way with it anyway, so why not start from a stronger position and find a better middle ground? But instead of a fight, there is just a sad recognition of the state of science in our national priorities, despite the President's best intentions.

      Even before the White House submitted its FY2012 budget request to Congress, those in the House had already proposed to gut the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and cut (still further) funding to NASA, our premier national agency for both scientific and popular "innovation."  NASA remains mired in some recent legislative and political wrangling over Constellation, the successor program to the space shuttle, even as manned space flight (other than the ongoing International Space Station) is becoming less a realistic and necessary priority for the agency.  In a hearing on funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) it was even noted that there had been "abuse of the agency’s refreshment purchases at official conferences to the tune of $500,000 during 2008 and 2009, suggesting that it could be a place to cut costs."  Never mind Congress' own recent decision last September with the NASA "Authorization Act’s provision to fly an additional space shuttle flight before the fleet retires, at a cost of $500 million."  Sometimes I can only shake my head at the incongruity of it all, but sometimes there's a good reason to speak up too...

      To wit, on Monday this week (14 February) the White House released the President's own federal budget request for FY2012 with many promised funding cuts, through not all in the areas that might do the most good.  Let us remember that FY2011 was a wash, that the President's budget proposal for the current funding year (ending in September) was defeated in Congress and left funding for federal programs and agencies in a stop-gap measure called "Continuing Resolution" (CR). Continuing, because it just takes the previous year's (final, approved) budget and copies it over to the current year; resolution because the people who thought that was a good idea were forward thinking in the face of others too irresolute to make a compromise or decision for themselves.  It is in the midst of such a CR period that we get special spending measures running rampant through Congress with little thought as to the historical or future implications, such as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which has left NASA in that quandary over being forced to spend budgeted money on the Constellation program after that was canceled, and forced to spend money (from where, no-one yet knows) on yet one more space shuttle mission after NASA had already declared the end of that program.  Despite some huge accomplishments in mission extension beyond planned lifetimes, those are more the exception than the normative function, and NASA knows painfully well the results of program fatigue.

      So what we see now is flat or declining spending on ostensibly growing programs, or some that need to grow but cannot because the old budget is set into CR mode while priorities have changed, drastically in many cases.  The new budget requests for FY2012 come out and look a shock to the system, a sharp turn in priorities.  And yet, at the same time he proposed to freeze all non-security spending for several years (effectively, a partial-CR mode for much of the government) the President called for American innovation in order to "Win the Future" in his address to Congress.  From where, Mr. President, should that innovation come if not the very science-based agencies that your new budget provides only minimal advances in funding support?  The mathematics of how much funding we might see is pretty wonky, to say the least, but the major American science agencies stand to see little improvement.  Here I present a sampling of impacts, limited primarily to agencies operating in the Earth Sciences:

      EPA: one of the hardest-hit agencies in Congressional deliberation before the White House request, the President's budget proposal was of little help.  From Greenwire and the New York Times, on 14 February:
      "U.S. EPA would take a 12.6 percent funding cut under President Obama's budget request for fiscal 2012, which would shrink the amount of grants for state and local water projects while keeping money flowing toward enforcement and the new air pollution regulations that House Republicans are trying to starve of funding."
      The compromise position would suggest that both sides win by cutting all of these programs at once, which results in a huge loss for citizens and public health.  Of particular interest to me, here, are the President's own budget cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and a great deal of water infrastructure funding, albeit most contained in earmarks by legislators.  Almost $1B would be cut from two revolving fund programs that provide money to states for their water investment activities.  Not only will the Federal government stop spending so darn much on ensuring the provision of clean water for ecological and municipal use, but they're going to keep the states from doing it themselves too.  The EPA will be hobbled, a shell of its former self.

      NASA: the country's premiere space science agency is suffering under mixed mandates and directives, with uncertain funding sources and visions for the future.  Just a little of what I mean here is mentioned above.  More is buried in the agency's own budget projections, with minimal spending on critical Earth Science missions and educational efforts.  Though NASA Administrator Bolden tried to put a positive spin on federal developments in his response to the President's State of the Union address, it is clear to me even on the outside of that bureaucracy now that the agency is in something of a state of shock.  While space and planetary missions continue to produce fantastic insights and discoveries, not one budget line in Earth Sciences looks adequate for a mission development or launch in the next five years, by which time every one of NASA's existing down-looking satellite fleet will be beyond its operational life-span.  That so many existing missions have outlived their design life is quite an engineering accomplishment, but such luck should not make for policy decisions such as programmatic underfunding on the scale of $1B or more.  And by the way, Administrator Bolden, presentation of your response statement as a "blog post" does little to support your position, especially when you've disallowed comments on your so-called-blog! Who are you more afraid of, the irrelevant cranks, or those of us with enough education and understanding to make a legitimate criticism of your agency-cum-bureaucracy?

      NOAA: the country's premiere atmosphere and ocean science agency (it's right there in their name) falls under the domain of the Department of Commerce, which stands to see overall budget cuts in the neighborhood of 11-16% depending on which version of the budget (White House and Congressional, respectively) wins out.  Because the country's vital weather forecasting and observation services require operation and maintenance, there is nothing to suggest that NOAA's diverse operations and research portfolio might suffer disproportionately from such funding cuts, given the remainder of the DOC that is covered by that Congressional proposal.  NOAA's specific request for FY2012 is barely 2% less than the budget provided by CR, and yet NOAA co-operates extensively in research programs and satellite systems with NASA, so those are areas that I would expect to see suffering from flat funding profiles.  Never mind that all we know about our weather, including day-to-day predictions and it's relation to so many other Earth systems, including the oceans, comes through NOAA.  Never mind that predictions of El Niño and La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, and what they mean for drought conditions and water resources forecasting in the US, all come from NOAA research and modeling.  Never mind that weather has the largest and most under-valued, under-appreciated impact on human society of any of the daily-to-annual-to-lifetime factors that we might consider...  The widely-reported "water-energy nexus" that has everyone's attention these days? Not only is the basic description incomplete, but the trade-offs contained implicitly in that "nexus" are driven by weather!  As Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under-secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA's Administrator, and arguably one of the most capable leaders in the federal government today, put it following the budget announcement:
      "Perhaps most significantly, this budget clearly recognizes the central role that science and technology play in stimulating the economy, creating new jobs and improving the health and security of Americans... Americans rely on NOAA science, services and stewardship to keep their families safe, their communities thriving, and their businesses strong. Our work is everyone’s business."
      It was really too bad that NASA's administrator did not take the time to make such a well-crafted, self-supporting statement as Dr. Lubchenco.  He might have helped secure NASA's participation in what is left of America's future in technological innovation and readiness for the future climate of competition, both environmentally and economically.

      USGS: the country's premiere land-surface science agency stands to see marginal gains, primarily in land observation programs (e.g. satellite projects) and ecological studies and restoration efforts.  A new network of Climate Centers established by the Department of Interior, to work with and complement the regional meteorology-oriented River Forecast Centers operated by NOAA's National Weather Service, will see a boost of only $11M.  The Landsat Data Continuity Mission, a cooperative program with NASA and other agencies for which the first new-generation satellite is still scheduled to launch in December 2012, may see a boost in funding of as much as $48M under the proposed budget.

      NSF: finally, some good news did appear on 14 February:
      "The National Science Foundation (NSF) today presented the President's $7.767 billion budget request for NSF for fiscal year 2012.  NSF Director Subra Suresh said the request is 'designed to maintain the agency's position as the nation's engine of innovation in science, engineering and science education.'
      "The request represents an increase of $894.5 million, or 13 percent, over NSF's current operating level. The President's 2012 budget targets scarce federal resources to the areas critical to winning the future: education, innovation, clean energy and infrastructure.
      "Suresh said the budget request meets the three major goals of NSF's strategic plan: to transform the frontiers of research and education, to innovate for society by linking fundamental research to national challenges and to perform as a model organization within the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of modern science and engineering."
      The NSF's diverse investments in academic research, its sole purpose for being, account for more than 20% of all federal funding of pure and applied research at institutes of higher education in the US. The NSF is one of the focal points of federal STEM education efforts, though not the only one.  The Department of Education, with support for primary education, needs even greater support in these areas.  Innovation doesn't start at the college or graduate level, but rather deep in the halls of the elementary schools where kids are just beginning to form opinions on science and math at subconscious levels.  If investments are not made there, and quickly, the innovators of our next generation of Americans won't even arrive in a college program where NSF funding could do them any good.  They need good support, stronger curricular programs in science and math, and great role models in their teachers and the larger community of educated leaders.

      So this leads me to suggest the second instance in that pattern I mentioned above.  The White House released its omnibus federal budget request on the morning of 14 February, followed throughout the day by individual agencies releasing and commenting on their own portions of the budget in more detail.  On the same day James Kohlenberger, the chief of staff for the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, resigned!  Maybe it was like Ms. Browner's situation: for her, there was no more climate policy to manage, so her job went the way of the dodo...  Now, as federal science policy altogether is sacrificed by the White House on the altar of expected stiff Congressional opposition, so goes his own job too.

      Should the members of the President's OSTP have remained resolute in their fight for what they saw could be done with science in our country, the situation of the present budget setbacks might not look so dire.  Instead, we have seen these two high-profile figures in federal science (and numerous other actors in the White House, mind you) give up and leave, with no apparent plans for their futures outside the White House circles of power.  Can we as Americans really afford the decimation of regulatory authority at the EPA, among all the other setbacks in federal science at NASA and NOAA and USGS, not to mention flat spending on academic and non-commercial science and education through NSF?  No, not now, and not in the long run toward true innovation that could possibly "win the future."  The only way to get there may be to "win" such a future by lottery, because these policies suggest that we certainly aren't going to earn it with investment, hard work and good ol' American ingenuity.

      The President saw it coming when the new Republican-dominated Congress was elected, and had the chance to counter the expected funding cuts to some of the most important programs for our nation's future.  But now we see a larger part of the truth, and it is obvious that the White House is hardly putting up a fight...

      07 February 2011

      New maps of surface permeability will aid hydrologic modeling

      This story of newly published results came from press releases on 24 January 2011 from the ScienceDaily and PhysOrg.com science news networks.  A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia with co-authors around the world has just been published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters describing a nested dataset of surface soil permeability to a depth of 100 m.  The spatial resolution works out to approximately 115 km for the global land-surface dataset and just under 10 km for the North American dataset.  This new product, along with recent datasets describing enhanced mapping of both surface watershed and subsurface aquifer maps, will be a boon to hydrologists and water resource practitioners seeking to describe better the processes of groundwater recharge, a hot topic as so much of the world's groundwater is now mined beyond the point of sustainability.
      This new dataset, based on surface land cover and soil types and their underlying geology, follows quickly on the release of the most detailed dataset on land cover yet compiled, reported by ScienceDaily in March 2008.

      As the releases state for this new subsurface permeability dataset:
      "Using recent world-wide lithology (rock type) results from researchers at the University of Hamburg and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Gleeson was able to map permeability across the globe to depths of approximately 100 metres. Typical permeability maps have only dealt with the top one to two metres of soil, and only across smaller areas.
      "'Climate models generally do not include groundwater or the sediments and rocks below shallow soils,' says Gleeson. 'Using our permeability data and maps we can now evaluate sustainable groundwater resources as well as the impact of groundwater on past, current and future climate at the global scale.'
      "A better understanding of large scale permeability of rock and sediment is critical for water resource management--groundwater represents approximately 99 per cent of the fresh, unfrozen water on earth. Groundwater also feeds surface water bodies and moistens the root zone of terrestrial plants."
      Why is this so important?  Groundwater constitutes about 99% of the fresh, unfrozen water on the Earth's land surface.  It is often accessible, sometimes easily so, but still more costly to extract and deliver than surface water in rivers, lakes and reservoirs.  And even more to the point, surface water and groundwater are connected.  Yes, you read that right - despite whatever your state laws and property rights might say, or whatever the EPA rules are, or whatever some engineers decide is the easiest way to handle a project, the ground- and surface waters are two parts of the same system.  I belabor the point, which may seem obvious to scientists, because legislators and those who decide on the provenance of land and mineral and water rights just don't seem to see it in most cases. 

      In the nascent and growing culture of modeling for prediction in water management, there is a significant need for expansive data resources on which to base modeling formulations and validate the results.  Because the subsurface is the poorest-observed branch of the water cycle, there is an acute need for better descriptions of the subsurface environment.  Because groundwater makes up such a large portion of human water use across much of the globe, and especially in the developing world, there is an acute need for accurate characterization of shallow groundwater behavior for both empirical reasons and for inclusion in water-cycle models.  Until we can accurately assess the regional dependence of a population on its surface and groundwater resources, we won't be able to characterize effectively either of these societal interactions with the natural and increasingly modified water cycle.  Without such attention, the numerical models that could be so powerful in our assessment of supply and sustainability will remain left out of their proper role in application to guidance on water usage and policy development.  This new map, with such an intentional methodology and detail put forth by the researchers, is a huge step in the right direction.

      The formal citation of the study article is:
      Gleeson, T., L. Smith, N. Moosdorf, J. Hartmann, H.H. Dürr, A.H. Manning, L.P.H. van Beek, and A.M. Jellinek, 2011: "Mapping permeability over the surface of the Earth." Geophysical Research Letters, v. 38, no. 2. DOI: 10.1029/2010GL045565
      The authors hail from the University of British Columbia, the USGS, the University of Hamburg, and Utrecht University.  Support for the study was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the German Research Foundation, Utrecht University, and the USGS.

      05 February 2011

      charity: water -- hiring at all levels!

      The NGO charity: water has an ambitious agenda:
      "charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. We've set an aggressive goal: to provide clean water to 100 million people in the next ten years and solve 10% of the global water problem. To do this, we're building a staff of passionate and creative people to join our mission."
      charity: water is currently hiring for several positions:
      • Executive Assistant to founder and CEO Scott Harrison.
      • Chief Happiness Agent, more than a "receptionist" as "the first face people see when they walk through the door...the voice they first hear when they call...the person they're most likely to remember when they think of their experience with us."
      • Director of Water Programs, to drive "strategy and build partner capacity to fund $2B in projects over the next 10 years," among numerous additional executive leadership responsibilities.
      • Chief Systems Architect, "to be the strategic leader, visionary, and key architect to drive all software and web development efforts."
      • Software Developer (New York City area only), to "help develop state-of-the-art web applications and integrate these applications with our back-office systems."
      • Director of Fundraising, "the strategic leader, visionary, and key architect to drive all offline fundraising efforts, including major individual, corporate and foundation support."

      You can find more information and requirements for each of these positions, as well as instructions on how to apply, at their Jobs Page.  Good luck to any and all applicants!

      02 February 2011

      World Wetlands Day 2011: Forests and Wetlands

      Two years ago I put up a decent, now "sticky" post on the background and origins of World Wetlands Day, celebrated every year on 2 February as the date the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (site available in English, Français and Español) was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. As I wrote then, a 2002 document stated that
      ''the Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world."
      By the time of my post in 2009, the official site listed 158 signatories (countries, protectorates, and former states) to the Convention who have collectively designated more than 170 million hectares (1.7M sq km) in 1,831 wetlands sites for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. In the following year, one signatory (Turkmenistan) had been added and the total designated wetlands area comprised more than 185 million hectares (1.85M sq km) across 1886 designated sites. That was good progress, I would say, in a year of great controversy over the potential role of wetlands and their cousin peatlands in climate negotiations that came to something of a head the previous autumn at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

      Since World Wetlands Day in 2010, one more signatory to the Convention (Lao PDR) has been added, bringing the total number to 160.  The total designated wetlands area has risen to almost 187 million hectares (1.87M sq km) across 1912 designated sites.  Again, much progress in a year of little indication elsewhere of mass movement toward sustainability.  While most of the world's leaders floundered about on climate issues in the time leading up to COP-16 in Cancun, while politicians remained stuck on CO2 emissions standards and international finger-pointing over responsibility and leadership, and while significant flaws in the embryonic process to protect tropical forests through the REDD process were exposed, the rest of the world kept moving forward through a year of significant weather anomalies and wondering where we will eventually end up.  The health of our global wetland areas remains a key indicator of that destination.

      For this 40th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention, the theme of World Wetlands Day in 2011 is "Forests for Water and Wetlands," aligned with the United Nations declaration of 2011 as the International Year of ForestsWetlands International describes several of the numerous connections between forests, wetlands, and the waters that flow between them.  Forested wetlands such as mangrove swamps, peat swamp forests, and freshwater swamp forests, bring special benefits to their surrounding environments including
      • biological diversity,
      • freshwater management,
      • carbon storage, and
      • water quality.
      Mangrove swamps that thrive in brackish semi-marine environments provide significant coastline protection from tropical cyclones and accompanying storm surge waves. Freshwater swamp and fen forests, especially in river floodplains, serve a valuable in floodwater storage and flood wave attenuation. The ecology of all of these forest environments serves effectively to filter the water that flows through them, improving water quality in downstream areas. The health of a watershed is intimately related to the health of its forests.

      But forests, of all kinds and around the world, are in danger from harvesting, development, drainage and conversion, and terrestrial nutrient pollution. Coastal mangrove forests in river deltas are also subject to the runoff from upstream, carrying sediments and agricultural pollutants. River flood events carry runoff and discharge pollutants and trash into the floodplain forests and then recede, leaving a toxic legacy behind. Timber harvesting in both tropical and temperate forests leave little protection for the underlying peatlands and swamps, which erode under the increased exposure. With the loss of the physical environment, we see the loss of species habitat and biodiversity at the same time that downstream water quality is irreversibly degraded.

      Conservation International has, just today, published a list of "The World's Ten Most Threatened Forest Hotspots."  As stated in their press release,
      "These forests have all lost 90% or more of their original habitat and each harbor at least 1500 endemic plant species (species found nowhere else in the world). If these forests are lost, those endemic species are also lost forever. These forests potentially support the lives of close to one billion people who live in or around them, and directly or indirectly depend on the natural resources forest ecosystems provide...
      "Forests overall cover only 30 percent of our planet's area and yet they are home to 80 percent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. They also sustain the livelihoods for 1.6 billion people, who directly depend on healthy forests for income. The trees, flowers, animals and microorganisms found in forests form a complex web of life. The interactions between the species and the ecosystems in them function as natural factories of some of our most basic needs, like clean air, healthy soils, medicines, crop pollination and fresh water."

      Where are these designated hotspots around the world?  Many are isolated areas, including New Zealand, Sundaland (the Indo-Malayan archipelago), the Philippines, Madagascar, and Indian Ocean Islands. There, the forests are important for the health and sustainability of those island ecologies, of course.  Other identified forests at risk are integral to the character of their continental and coastal watersheds:
      • Indo-Burma (Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Mekong River basins)
      • South American Atlantic Forest (Parana River basin and coastal Brazil)
      • Mountains of Southwest China (upper portions of the Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze River basins)
      • California Floristic Province (Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins and coastal California)
      • Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa (Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique)
      • Eastern Afromontane (Nile River basin and Lake Tanganyika)
      So many of these forest areas span transboundary river basins, where all of the resources must be shared and managed properly or will be lost forever in the midst of international struggles over resource rights and responsibilities.  Loss of forest areas because of logging, conversion to agriculture and pasture lands, urban development, and dam-building all pose threats not only to the forest ecology and biodiversity of the areas, but also to the quality and value of water that passes through those.  And not only do these large areas with significant ecological and habitat degradation need help, but also the remaining forested areas everywhere.

      When the state and national forest land near your city or town is leased for grazing and mineral rights or sold for logging or development, downstream areas will suffer.  It is far too often that the government does not recognize the connections between their decisions and what will happen downstream, both in space and time, because of those actions.  We need to stand up for our forests and help to prevent further encroachment and degradation, and not just for the health of the forest and its ecology, but also for our own needs.  This is an issue of the quality of our environment, which supports our quality of life in so many ways that we often recognize only when they've gone.  For the sake of our forests and the ecological support that they provide, for our water and for ourselves, we must act as individuals and in community to preserve and protect what we are still seeking to understand in our forests and wetlands.