Category Archives: environment

Pope’s encyclical will speak directly to the people of Central America

In speculating about the potential selection of a pope from Latin America in March 2013, I wrote
However, in some ways, what might also change with the selection of a Latin American, African or Asian pope, is how the media, Catholics and non-Catholics listen to the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as their predecessors, have spoken very strongly not only on social issues, which get the most attention, but on issues such as the damaging effects of capitalism, poverty, inequality, climate change, the environment, migration, and war. Their stances on these important issues does not excuse them for the areas in which they have failed. But perhaps the selection of a pope from outside of continental Europe will force many to listen, not blindly of course, to what the Church has to say on many other important issues of the day.
Pope Francis has gone above and beyond what I thought might happen but I feel good about what I wrote two years later. Here is Jim Yardley in yesterday's New York Times discussing the highly anticipated encyclical on climate change that is scheduled to come out of the Vatican later this week.
In the leaked document, Francis often writes eloquently, citing scientific evidence about the human role in global warming. He repeats some of his familiar themes in calling on people to move away from a consumerist model that he says is depleting resources, to the detriment of the poor, and live simpler lives. He also calls on governments to work together for solutions at the global, national and local level — while at times focusing on specifics, like his opposition to carbon credits.
“In this encyclical,” he writes, “I intend especially to engage in a dialogue with everyone about our common home.”
Encyclicals, papal teaching letters to the Roman Catholic faithful, often fail to generate much outside attention. But Francis’ pronouncement on the environment and the poor has been eagerly awaited, especially by scientists and environmentalists, as a major event.
As a still very Catholic region region drowning in poverty and violence, the encyclical will speak directly to the people of Central America. It is one of the world's most vulnerable regions when it comes to suffering from the effects of climate change - rising sea levels, unstable weather patterns. Many Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans living in the US are the beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) because of climate-induced disasters. While not climate change-related per se, the encyclical's focus on the environmental will also have implications for mining, hydroelectric, and large-scale agricultural projects in the region. These projects have been known to contaminate water supplies and damage the land, displace the already vulnerable, and contribute to unequal representation of citizens in weak, democratic states.

See also Evan Barry's The Papal Encyclical: Driving Debate in Latin America for the AULA Blog.

The World in Recession

Earlier this year, we introduced a global economic indicator based on the trailing twelve month average of the year-over-year change in the amount of carbon dioxide measured in the Earth's atmosphere, where we correlated changes in that level with the incidence of recessions in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Here is what we noted at the time:

The amazing thing that we see coming out of this juxtaposition is that it would appear that the trailing twelve month average of year over year changes in carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere would appear to be somewhat well correlated, in real time, with the incidence of recessions in the U.S. economy, which we see in either a falling or flat level of increase in CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere.

That makes sense in that a contracting economy is likely to reduce its energy consumption which, in our largely fossil fueled world, produces a negative change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Meanwhile, a growing economy is likely to produce a positive change in the measured amount of carbon dioxide.

Here's where things stand through the end of May 2015:

Trailing twelve month average of the year-over-year change in the amount of carbon dioxide measured in the Earth's atmosphere, February 1960 through May 2015

We've added the vertical gray-shaded bands to indicate where nations other than the U.S. have experienced recessions. That data is based in part on the OECD-Based Recession Indicators for OECD-member and non-member economies, which unfortunately, do not provide a good indication of the scope or severity of the recessions indicated.

As a general rule of thumb for using this measure then, we would consider the global economy to be expanding when the pace at which atmospheric CO2 is increasing and for it to be either contracting or experiencing recessionary conditions when it is respectively falling or holding level.

At present however, the trailing twelve month average of the year-over-year rate of change in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is consistent with the falling or flat-pattern we observe during periods of recession on Earth.

Data Sources

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [File Transfer Protocol Text File]. Accessed 11 June 2015.

National Bureau of Economic Research. U.S. Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions. [Excel Spreadsheet]. Accessed 11 June 2015.

Federal Reserve Economic Data. OECD-Based Recession Indicators for OECD and Non-member Economies from the Peak through the Trough. [Online Database]. Accessed 11 June 2015.

Updates

This post was updated at 2:53 PM EDT to add the text indicated in boldface font.

Is Marijuana Sucking California Dry?

In March 2015, environmental scientists employed by California Department of Fish and Wildlife published a study examining the impact of diverting surface water to sustain marijuana cultivation upon four northwestern California watersheds. For a state that has been experiencing an extreme drought, the researchers were alarmed to find that marijuana growers were diverting up to 100% of the water flowing in a number of small streams in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties during dry periods for the purpose of irrigating their pot farms.

California’s Mediterranean climate provides negligible precipitation during the May—September growing season. In Northern California, 90–95% of precipitation falls between October and April [14]. Marijuana is a high water-use plant [2,15], consuming up to 22.7 liters of water per day. In comparison, the widely cultivated wine grape, also grown throughout much of Northwestern California, uses approximately 12.64 liters of water per day [16]. Given the lack of precipitation during the growing season, marijuana cultivation generally requires a substantial amount of irrigation water. Consequently, MCSs are often situated on land with reliable year-round surface water sources to provide for irrigation throughout the hot, dry summer growing season [7,8,12]. Diverting springs and headwater streams are some of the most common means for MCSs to acquire irrigation water, though the authors have also documented the use of groundwater wells and importing water by truck.

Converting liters to gallons, a single marijuana plant can consume up to 6 gallons per day.

TakePart summarizes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists' research and findings:

They chose four areas, all surrounded by forests, and all with streams containing endangered salmon. The scientists estimated that the growing operations were using between 138,200 and 191,265 gallons of water a day. People in Northern California, for comparison, use an average 172 gallons of water per day per person.

Marijuana growers were taking 100 percent from three of the streams studied and 25 percent of a fourth stream.

Those streams aren’t just picturesque—they’re critical to the survival of the coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Doing some more quick math, the estimated cultivation of 23,033 to 31,878 marijuana plants in these regions was consuming the same amount of water per day as somewhere between 803 and 1,112 people. Or rather, 28 plants consume the same amount of water as the average northern Californian.

But that's just that small region. To find out how much water is being diverted to grow marijuana in California, we need to know how many plants are being grown throughout the state.

Map - U.S. Outdoor Cannibis Cultivation Areas - Source: http://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/cannabis/production-distribution.html

To determine that, we're going to use the same methodology that was done in a study by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center for its 2010 drug market analysis of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Central Valley California. Here's how they described it:

California Produced More Outdoor Grown Marijuana in 2009 than Mexico: (Method 1-Seizure Based): Mexico’s 29,025 MT production was eclipsed by California’s cannabis output of 49,105 Metric Tons in 2009. How was the California output computed? To determine the California output potential we used different (published) methods in an attempt to determine the accuracy of these estimations.

First we began with the 2009 DC/SEP actual seizures of outdoor marijuana, 7,365,760 plants which weighed 5,140 MTxii We applied the WDR median percentage (15%) and calculated that 49,104,576 marijuana plants was the production potential for California in 2009. Applying the Gaffney formula to determine metric tonsxiii, this equates to a gross weight of 49,105 MT of marijuana possibly produced in California during 2009.

We found the number of marijuana plants seized by law enforcement in California in 2014 and an estimate of the total crop that was seized compared to previous years in the Washington Post:

The number of marijuana plants seized and destroyed by the Drug Enforcement Administration fell slightly last year and remained sharply lower than the record numbers seen at the dawn of the Obama administration. According to the DEA's records, 4.3 million marijuana plants were destroyed last year, down from 4.4 million the year before and 10.4 million in 2009.

With 2.7 million plants destroyed, California alone contributed 63 percent of the total haul last year. But California's numbers have fallen sharply during the Obama administration, taking the national numbers down with them. "Coinciding largely with the downsizing of, and then ultimately the disbanding of, the state's nearly 30-year-old Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) program, DEA-assisted annual marijuana seizures in California have fallen over 60 percent percent since 2010," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, in an email.

Those numbers give us what we need to estimate the number of marijuana plants grown in California in 2014. Since the number of plants seized by law enforcement has dropped only because of the Obama administration's changes to federal drug enforcement policies, all we need to know is by how much those enforcement efforts have declined. Since those seizures have fallen by 60% from 2009's levels, we just need to multiply 2009's 15% of plants seized figure and to reduce it by 60%. Doing that math:

15%*(100% - 60%) = 6%

We find that law enforcement authorities believe that they seized about 6% of the number of marijuana plants grown in California in 2014. To find the total number of marijuana plants being grown in the state that year, we just need to divide the number of plants seized in 2014 (2.7 million) and divide it by 6%. The result of that math puts the estimated number of marijuana plants currently been grown in California at 45 million.

Outdoor Cannibis Cultivation Area - Source: http://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/cannabis/production-distribution.html

Multiplying those 45 million plants by 6 gallons of water per day puts the total water consumed by pot farmers at 270 million gallons a day - the same amount of water that would be consumed by 1,569,767 northern Californians. With the average time to grow a mature plant being about 105 days (or 3.5 months) long, providing enough time for two full crops per year, that works out to be 56.7 billion gallons a year, which works out to be 174,006 acre feet of water consumed per year.

That puts marijuana cultivation at a little over double California's strawberry crop when it comes to annual water consumption.

California's Annual Agricultural Water Use (In Million Acre Feet) - Source: Slate http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/business/moneybox/2015/04/150417_SLATE_Chart_CaliWater02.jpg.CROP.original-original.jpg

From the numbers presented in the chart above, it is pretty clear that marijuana cultivation is a smaller contributor to California's overall water shortage problems compared to other commercial crops, even though it would rank in the top 10 of California's thirstiest crops. However, the irrigation practices of marijuana growers in a number of the state's watersheds is causing considerable ecological damage, as the growers who unlawfully divert any portion of the water flowing in natural streams to irrigate their pot crops during California's dry seasons would appear to be little more than environmental rapists who are facing too few consequences under the Obama administration's politically selective law enforcement policies.

References

Bauer S, Olson J, Cockrill A, van Hattem M, Miller L, et al. (2015) Impacts of Surface Water Diversions for Marijuana Cultivation on Aquatic Habitat in Four Northwestern California Watersheds. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0120016. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120016.

Holthaus, Eric. Stop Vilifying Almonds. Slate. [Online Article]. 17 April 2015.

Ingraham, Christopher. Facing budget pressures, the DEA is pulling up less weed. Washington Post Wonkblog. [Online Article]. 24 March 2015.

U.S. Department of Justice. Central Valley California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Marijuana Production in California. [PDF Document]. 4 June 2010.

A Global Economic Indicator?

Say what you will about the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and increasingly questionable global temperature trends, perhaps the detailed scrutiny on the growing amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere over the modern era can perhaps be directed toward a positive purpose: measuring the state of the global economy!

Here, we calculated the trailing twelve month average of the year-over-year change in the parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, as measured at Mauna Loa, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far away from the Earth's major centers of economic activity, and juxtaposed that data with the incidence of recessions in the United States.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, 1960-2014

The amazing thing that we see coming out of this juxtaposition is that it would appear that the trailing twelve month average of year over year changes in carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere would appear to be somewhat well correlated, in real time, with the incidence of recessions in the U.S. economy, which we see in either a falling or flat level of increase in CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere.

That makes sense in that a contracting economy is likely to reduce its energy consumption which, in our largely fossil fueled world, produces a negative change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Meanwhile, a growing economy is likely to produce a positive change in the measured amount of carbon dioxide.

However, the incidence of U.S. recessions does not correlate with all of the downturns in the year-over-year change in CO2 concentrations.

It occurs to us that these downturns in might be correlated with significant recessions elsewhere in the world. For example, the very large dip after 1992, which shows up after the U.S. has passed through a period of recession, would correspond to the economic distress that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which did not meaningfully affect the U.S. economy at the time, but most certainly affected a very large region in the world.

We suspect that this kind of correlation can be done to explain the other downturns, where events like Germany's, Australia's and New Zealand's 1967 recessions, or the one-two punch combination of Germany's 1996 recession that was followed by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The challenge is that from what we can tell so far, there isn't a comprehensive listing of when and where recessions or other economic downturns have occurred throughout the world, which would make a full correlation difficult to produce.

In the meantime though, we also suspect that a downturn in the year-over-year change in CO2 is signaling that there is some significant economic distress occurring somewhere in the world. And these days, that's much more likely to be China than the U.S.

World Carbon Emissions by Territorial Source, 1959-2012

So in case you were wondering about what's behind that latest downturn in the year-over-year growth of atmospheric CO2 levels....