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A month ago, President Nasheed of the Maldives gave a powerful speech to urge everyone about consequences of the talks in Copenhagen. This is his speech. If you are still unconvinced that the world’s climate is changing, let it be clear that it is. The world is intricately connected – actions of people in one country can affect another severely. The world is not just ours, as it is not just the developed nation’s. The world is also limited, and our resources finite.

Let it be clear that your lifestyles are key to this change. Let it be clear that people are suffering all over this world.

President Nasheed’s Powerful Speech

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

We gather in this hall today,
as some of the most climate-vulnerable nations on Earth.
We are vulnerable because
climate change threatens to hit us first; and hit us hardest.
And we are vulnerable because we have modest means
with which to protect ourselves from the coming disaster.

We are a diverse group of countries.
But we share one common enemy.
For us, climate change is no distant or
abstract threat; but a clear and present danger to our survival.

Climate change is melting the glaciers in Nepal.
It is causing flooding in Bangladesh.
It threatens to submerge the Maldives and Kiribati.
And in recent weeks, it has furthered drought in Tanzania,
and typhoons in the Philippines.

We are the frontline states in the climate change battle.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Developing nations did not cause the climate crisis.
We are not responsible for the hundreds of years
of carbon emissions, which are cooking the planet.

But the dangers climate change poses to our countries,
means that this crisis can no longer be considered somebody else’s problem.

Carbon knows no boundaries.
Whether we like it or not, we are all in this fight together.
For all of us gathered here today, inaction is not an option.

So, what can we do about it?

To my mind, whatever course of action we take must be based on the latest advice of climate scientists. Not on the advice of politicians like us.

As Copenhagen looms, and negotiators frantically search for a solution, it is easy to think that climate change is like any other international issue.

It is easy to assume that it can be solved
by a messy political compromise between powerful states.
But the fact of the matter is, we cannot negotiate
with the laws of physics.
We cannot cut a deal with Mother Nature.
We have to learn to live within the fixed planetary boundaries
that nature has set.

And it is increasingly clear that we are living way beyond those planetary means.

Scientists say that global carbon dioxide levels
must be brought back down below 350 parts per million.
And we can see why.
We have already overshot the safe landing space.

In consequence the ice caps are melting.
The rainforests are threatened.
And the world’s coral reefs are in imminent danger.

Members of the G8 rich countries have pledged to halt temperature rises to two degrees Celsius.

Yet they have refused to commit to the carbon targets, which would deliver even this modest goal.

At two degrees we would lose the coral reefs.
At two degrees we would melt Greenland.
At two degrees my country would not survive.
As a president I cannot accept this.

As a person I cannot accept this.

I refuse to believe that it is too late, and that we cannot do any about it.
Copenhagen is our date with destiny.
Let us go there with a better plan.

Ladies and gentlemen,
When we look around the world today,
there are few countries showing moral leadership on climate change.
There are plenty of politicians willing
to point the finger of blame.
But there are few prepared to help solve a crisis that,
left unchecked, will consume us all.

Few countries are willing to discuss
the scale of emissions reductions required to save the planet.
And the offers of adaptation support
for the most vulnerable nations are lamentable.
The sums of money on offer are so low,
it is like arriving at a earthquake zone with a dustpan and brush.

We don’t want to appear ungrateful
but the sums hardly address the scale of the challenge.
We are gathered here because
we are the most vulnerable group of nations to climate change.
The problem is already on us,
yet we have precious little with which to fight.

Some might prefer us to suffer in silence but today we have decided to speak.
And so I make this pledge today: we will not die quietly.

Ladies and gentlemen,
I believe in humanity.
I believe in human ingenuity.
I believe that with the right frame of mind, we can solve this crisis.

In the Maldives, we want to focus less on our plight;
and more on our potential.
We want to do what is best for the planet.
And what is best for our economic self-interest.

This is why, earlier this year, we announced plans
to become carbon neutral in ten years.
We will switch from oil to 100% renewable energy.
And we will offset aviation pollution,
until a way can be found to decarbonise air transport too.

To my mind, countries that have the foresight to green their economies today, will be the winners of tomorrow.
They will be the winners of this century.

These pioneering countries will free themselves
from the unpredictable price of foreign oil.
They will capitalize on the new, green economy of the future.

And they will enhance their moral standing,
giving them greater political influence on the world stage.
Here in the Maldives we have relinquished our claim to high-carbon growth.

After all, it is not carbon we want, but development.
It is not coal we want, but electricity.
It is not oil we want, but transport.

Low-carbon technologies now exist, to deliver all the goods and services we need.

Let us make the goal of using them.

Ladies and gentlemen,
A group of vulnerable, developing countries committed to carbon neutral development would send a loud message to the outside world.
If vulnerable, developing countries make a commitment to carbon neutrality, those opposed to change have nowhere left to hide.
If those with the least start doing the most, what excuse can the rich have for continuing inaction?

We know this is not an easy step to take,
and that there might be dangers along the way.
We want to shine a light, not loudly demand
that others go first into the dark.

So today, we want to share with you our carbon neutral strategy.
And we want to ask you to consider carbon neutrality yourselves.
I think a bloc of carbon-neutral, developing nations could change the outcome of Copenhagen.

At the moment every country arrives at the negotiations seeking to keep their own emissions as high as possible.
They never make commitments, unless someone else does first.

This is the logic of the madhouse, a recipe for collective suicide.

We don’t want a global suicide pact.
And we will not sign a global suicide pact, in Copenhagen or anywhere.

So today, I invite some of the most vulnerable nations in the world, to join a global survival pact instead.
We are all in this as one.
We stand or fall together.
I hope you will join me in deciding to stand.

——————–

Head here to sign a petition that will deliver your name to President Nasheed, who will speak at the Copenhagen conference.

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Anyone involved in conservation will know that poaching is a severe issue that has yet to be addressed in many countries. Animals made into commodities, perpetuated through their use as medicine, artefacts for display, or hunting enjoyment, is something that goes on still.

The first innovative approach to catch poachers I have heard of is taken by the company, Custom Robotic Wildlife.


Photo source: Wired.com

Creating remote-controlled animal decoys, they use a tag team of four-person sting operations to catch poachers in the act. One controls the robot animal, one videotapes the poaching, and the last two tackle the hunters, who then find themselves with fines, or jail time.

Are these decoys actually convincing?

Taxidermy is used to good effect here – corpses of the desired animal robot are taken and stuffed, with the wired devices hidden in parts of the animal least likely to be shot at by poachers.

Not that I could find any statistics on how successful these operations have been, but noting that they make coyotes, deer, elk, antelope and bears, it sure seems like more people are giving them a try. Of course, they also make these robots for people who just simply want to chase off annoying geese on their lawn, or to law-abiding hunters as decoys.

Interesting approach. I’m skeptical, but well, we could use all the creative approaches we can think of.

I just received news of this – do spread news of the program to people you know fit the bill!

Bayer Young Environmental Envoy program – welcoming youths between 17 – 24 years of age to apply with proposals of environmental projects they would like to see put into action – if they are selected for this program, together with 11 other Singaporeans they will join an environmental leadership camp in Singapore, and possibly an all expenses paid trip to Germany awaits them! 4 students from Singapore will be selected for the trip to Germany, which is there for the youths to gain exposure to wide number of environmental measures currently used by all levels of government and industry in Germany.

Find out more HERE.

Should you know any persons interested please do pass it on! The brochure can be attained through the website, and so is the application form available there. (: This seems like a really good opportunity for people passionately involved in environmental issues to channel their energies proactively.

I may be late in finding out about this organisation, but they are interesting. 350.org is co-founded by Bill McKibben, one of the first authors on global warming to the public, back when no one really knew much about it.

Find out about them in 90 seconds, all images and 0 words.

As a platform to mobilise people to action all over the world creatively, 350.org has reached out to over 180 countries all over the world.

Ask them why 350 – and you’ll soon find out that 350 is the safe level of carbon dioxide to have in the atmosphere, as deduced by scientists (Hansen et. al., 2008) through environmental modelling. Don’t just take anyone’s word for it, read the actual paper through the reference.

One thing that resonates loudly with me, is that they are using 350 as a way to reach out to people of all countries and languages, because numbers, images and changes can be universally understood.

In the same vein that Win-Win Ecology by Michael Rosenzweig illustrates, sometimes movements have to be radically different (read: NOT revolutionary, because revolutions are dangerous) for people to sit up and take notice.

Focussing on positive action, Rosenzweig’s main opening in the book brings up an interesting idea. I am recalling this offhand, because I don’t have the book with me. His book opens by saying that there are, basically, two ‘R’s in ecology now. Reservation ecology, and restoration ecology. These terms are pretty self-explanatory. We reserve land for wildlife and biodiversity, in nature reserves and parks, botanical gardens and marine protected areas. Restoration biology talks about protecting new areas that were previously occupied, through active human intervention.

He then proceeds to call for the third ‘R’ in ecology: reconciliation ecology. If there is land to be used, man trumps wildlife – and the number of reserves and their sizes are likewise limited. Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of extinction. It has happened, and still is happening. So what happens to the wildlife then? According to Rosenzweig, this is where reconciliation ecology comes to the rescue. By designing and integrating reconciliation ecology in every aspect of building society, we can share our land with wildlife – so that land is not necessarily a mutually exclusive part of the earth anymore. Anthropocentric outlook, I know.

Still, it’s an interesting book to read, with many astonishing examples of reconciliation ecology, and a good concept to keep in mind – that said, it cannot be, as he proclaims, the way forward – simply because there are many animals that cannot share the same living space as us, as we in theirs. They require particular habitats, environmental conditions, etc. We cannot hope to occupy every bit of the earth and keep our biodiversity and ecosystems intact. A much more extended response to Rosenzweig’s rose-tinted ecology is written here, by Thomas Brooks in 2003.

Lastly, in this short update of mine, is on James Hansen’s desire for Copenhagen talks to fail – if they were fixated solely establishing a ‘cap and trade’ system, that is, in his view, fundamentally wrong as an approach.

What he says then, is intensely thought provoking:

“This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill. On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%.”

Read the complete interview with The Guardian here.

Norway now holds the world’s first power plant to create technology that uses osmosis to generate electricity. Sited in a bay in south-east Norway, the plant opened on the 25th of November.

Statkraft is the company behind this, and is the third largest energy producer in the Nordic Region. FYI, they are a state owned electricity company. Their first plant prototype has been unveiled, and it can is still undergoing testing.

What is all the fuss about? Well, no one has actually used osmosis to produce electricity before, so this technology is new. There are of course many obstacles, but with the first prototype now made, they can test the system and see if it works before scaling it up! That makes sense, but wait, what’s osmosis again?

Osmosis is a process of movement of water. It defines the spontaneous, or passive, water movement from a solution with a lower concentration of solutes (substances dissolved in water) to a solution with higher concentration of solutes, through a semi-permeable membrane. See the figure below for an example. The beaker holds two solutions, and the dashed line is the membrane. The solution on the left is more concentrated, and so water moves from the right into the left. See here for an animation on osmosis.


Using this concept, Statkraft intends to use salt and fresh water from the bay as the two solutions, creating a pressure gradient that pushes up the water level differences and eventually drives a turbine to generate electricity.

Still under testing, the prototype is able to produce enough energy to boil 2-3 kettle pots, and the company is still resolving problems of river bacteria and silt gathering on the membranes – their first obstacle before they scale up to produce energy for countries around the region.

It reminds me of when they first came up with the technology for reverse osmosis, the process that Singapore now uses to produce Newater as well as for desalination of salt water, that was an exciting time!

Interesting stuff!

Email today brought a piece of interesting news – greenpost is an integrated billing system designed to rid ourselves of paper billing, by going digital.

Here’s a screenshot:

Googling the company only got me as far as their greenpost page again, and their facebook group. I’d have thought its an effective way to spread the message, at least by just facebooking it, but I had not heard of this, and it has been around since 2005 (the idea). GreenBills Pte Ltd is the startup firm who has gotten this going, and has four billers in its system now: Starhub, M1, Singtel and Singapore Power.

The three major telcos in Singapore have already signed up, and I think that’s a great step. Moving on to registering, I found it really easy to get myself an account. This is how it looks like at my homepage:

Now, as you can see, I don’t have anything billed to my name because they’re under my parents’ names, so here you see there’s N.A. for all the four billers. Of course, when I get back and when I start renewing my contracts and stuff, I’d eventually add the billers to my account. What I’m going to do next is to get my parents to sign up for this.

So do I need to go online every time I want to view my bill? Well here’s the great part: bills can be downloaded to your computer, so you can have an unlimited archive of all previous downloaded bills in pdf format stored in your computer. It makes me wonder if they have tied up with any company that provides programmes for budgeting and handling financial accounts – now that would be a cool system to get into. Imagine yourself being able to check your accounts on your blackberry/PDA whenever, wherever, that’s convenience at its peak.

But before I digress, I was thinking: there must be some catch, right? Turns out that this is a free system; no one is going to have to pay, and the site seems secure. Seeing how I got this email via NUS sources, I pretty much trust it already. So searching some more gave me this article reported in October 2009 by WILDSingapore.

If you search the site, and go to the FAQs, you’d also notice this little thing saying: earn credits while you save paper! Or something to that effect. Point is, they’re talking about carbon credits here. Every time you get a new bill online, they also tell you how much paper you would have saved. If greenpost can save 2 million sheets of pages per month, it can enable itself and its billers (its companies) to earn carbon credits.

That to me, is tough territory here. Carbon trading has been in talks since about 20 years ago, and carbon credits, carbon offsets, carbon neutrality, carbon taxes, all threaten to propagate the perception that pollution is OKAY, and instead give licenses for polluting companies to carry on. While I give it credit (pun intended) that this is a new field, we should be cautious about the assumptions it makes, and perceptions it perpetuates.

It doesn’t remove the source of pollution, but instead allows it carry on under a facade, a guise that they are somehow compensating and so do not need to cease their polluting ways. It’s the same as how Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is used by countries as an index of economic development – initially conceptualised to quantify social progress by the United Nations in 1945 – but does not really measure social progress, and instead becomes a larger value even when pollution increases, traffic accidents increase, and hospitalisation rates increase -> because GDP per capita increases whenever there is a monetary transaction, in other words, whenever money exchanges hands. As a result, industrialised nations increase their GDP per capita, but at what cost? That topic however, is for another time.

Carbon credits don’t weed out the source, but mediate symptoms instead. For information on carbon trading and its history, Larry Lohmann writes sharply, and his book is available here.

Back to the topic. While there are great advantages to a system such as this, tech-UN-savvy users who are not connected to the internet or don’t even have computers will be left out of the system. It addresses the majority of users yes, but we should be careful not to make certain factions of our society become passée. It doesn’t mean we don’t go ahead with these plans, but it means we should take steps to incorporate these people.

I applaud GreenBills on its commitment to its mission for a paperless billing system nationwide by 2012 – now remember to click on “Stop Envelope” when you sign up and add the billers to your account, because that tells the billers their customer’s demand to stop paper billing. It doesn’t mean you immediately stop getting paper bills – your biller will tell you when they are going to stop it – but it means you’re letting them know you want this.

Lastly with the money that companies are saving from not sending customers their bills by post, we should also insist that whatever polluting ways they have should stop. Corporations should channel this money responsibly, not into more pollution or more technology that brings pollution. Otherwise what we have done is not offset our increasing usage of the environment, but further increase resources used instead.

Onward!

Having just learnt about the Grants in community ecology class, who famously continued Darwin’s work in studying the finches of Galapagos Islands for some 36 years, I was bemused and surprised when WIRED reported a new species discovered by them yesterday. Topics brought up in community ecology class keep popping up in the news! Read about it here.


Source: Wired.com

So what is it with all this species talk? Here’s some quick background.

The systems of classification we have today in biological science for living organisms have many levels. They start from Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and finally Species. Of all of these levels, note that the only “natural” classification is species – why? Because we recognise the individual for itself, and the species is a fundamental unit that is not grouped together with other individuals based on a set of characteristics that people think is important, because this can be flawed. Note that classifications are a human construct after all, just as the theoretical science we make our rules in the world by are simply hypotheses that have yet to be proven wrong.
Source: Wikipedia
Scientists in the past first started classifying animals much like how a 5 year old kid naturally learns to put things together. If they look like the same thing, it makes sense that they are the same kind of thing. Fishes look like fishes, and insects look like insects. We call this morphology (structure, or external form). Are things really that simple though?

Source: Corbets.

As the earth aged and thousands and millions of years passed, species on different continents adapted to the different conditions present there. In certain parts of the world however, this set of abiotic conditions (things like amount of moisture, air, temperature, nutrients, etc) were similar – and living organisms living by this same set of conditions may have adapted to this set of conditions, growing to have the same kind of external form, and thus looking the same. We call this convergent evolution. Click here for more examples of convergent evolution.


Source: Ivana Stehlik’s lecture notes for Environmental Biology, University of Toronto.

Lineage-wise though, they may come from extremely different ancestors. Cacti are one example. Desert conditions are so harsh that only a certain set of characteristics have prevailed, and plants from different families (DNA-wise) in different deserts have the same characteristics: needle-like leaves, succulence, deep roots, etc. On the other hand, two individuals that look completely different can be the same species: a few cases in point are ants and termites. Ever see how different soldier ants are from worker ants? And look at the queen!

 
Soldier termite with big bulbous red head; alate reproductive is whitish in colour, worker termites are the rest in dull grey and cream colour. Picture by Nuwan, from my collection (for more termites, see my page here)

Okay, so we know morphology isn’t enough. So what exactly is a species? This kinda seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t
it? Well it actually is kind of fuzzy – though most scientists agree on
using the Ernst Mayr biological species concept:

“Groups of populations that can actually or potentially exchange genes with one another and that are reproductively isolated from other such groups”

Why is that unclear? It sounds like its pretty clear-cut. Theoretically, that is. Realistically, its difficult to actually determine if individuals from two populations are capable of reproducing together and producing viable offspring. Take for example some common birds of Singapore. To test with certainty if the mynahs, crows, sparrows and pigeons are different species (setting aside structural differences), one would have to place them together in a setting and allow for enough time to see if they would breed together. If they breed and produce infertile offspring, it’s ruled out. But if they do produce viable offspring, one would then have to follow the case back to the wild, to see if their territories overlap enough that copulation is possible, and then observe if breeding between the two occurs. Extrapolate that to birds of a country. To test this with all the birds of a country, would be a nightmare. Read more about other species concepts here.

It’s not so clear after all, and there are many other things to take into account. What about organisms that breed asexually, such as fungi and aphids? Or living things that hybridise? The picture gets more fuzzy as we consider more things. Remember though, that this is a human construct, and we can keep coming up definitions that fit best as they can; sometimes they don’t fit for all cases, and we may need separate definitions for others. It’s not made in stone! For a quick, easily absorbed lesson in speciation, go here (recommended!).