Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Keeping Up with the Conservation-ians

by Gerald Singh

A feast of crab with Tom Sisk and Gerald Singh
At the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Baltimore, Maryland last week, I caught up with two conservation scientists associated with CHANS lab: Tom Sisk and Brett Dickson. Sitting down for a crab feast with Tom Sisk. Tom had some exciting news to tell me.

Tom produced a website with his colleague, photographer/writer/geologist Michael Collier, on the environmental, economic, and social impacts of oilsands development in Alberta and pipeline proposals in BC. With the prospect of oilsands exploitation in Utah, near their home in Flagstaff Arizona, they traveled up the proposed route of the Northern Gateway pipeline, from the coast to Ft. McMurry. It's a website full of awe-inspiring aerial photos (shot from Collier's tiny Cessna), and touching and thought-provoking excerpts from interviews with local residents, scientists, corporate spokespeople and conservation leaders. In Tom's words,

"We wanted to present the narrative as it emerged from a personal journey, exploring a bunch of interrelated issues from a scientifically grounded perspective. And we wanted it to be an aesthetic experience, not just a bunch of facts and spin." 

Check it out to learn a bit more about what underlies all the controversy:

Brett Dickson - who wouldn't
want to partner with this guy?
At the meeting I also caught up with Brett Dickson, a quantitative conservation biologist who has set up the Conservation Science Partners (CSP), an NGO established to be simultaneously a hub in a network of conservation researchers, and a legitimate research entity in its own right. The Conservation Science Partners is always interested in forming new connections with conservation researchers and practitioners. In Brett's words,

"We established CSP to raise the bar for conservation science and present a new paradigm for doing applied work in all sectors of society. We seek to enlist great minds to help us address some of the most pressing issues in conservation. Our core science staff also is available to serve the needs of our broader community of researchers where the capabilities that we offer can be of service."

Learn more about the Conservation Science Partners and see if you can connect with them:

And if you like these links, please share them far and wide.

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Seas will rise no more than 69 centimetres by 2100"--Wait, What??

When Science Media Coverage Fails Us

by Kai Chan
A recent NewScientist article claimed in its headline, "Seas will rise no more than 69 centimetres by 2100". Along with this rather spurious claim, the article is mute on the potentially dire implications of global mean sea-level rise of much less than 69 cm. To read the article is to immerse oneself in a bath of relief; the article starts with "It's not as bad as we thought." This kind of treatment of uncertainty (that is, suggesting there isn't any) and implications (omitting them)--especially in a highly reputable Science news outfit like NewScientist--calls for serious scrutiny of the media coverage of science.

This article covers a report from Ice2Sea that does discuss uncertainties and implications. The Ice2Sea report clearly states that their analysis is largely based on one global emissions scenario (A1B, "business as usual"), the uncertainty of which is discussed. The report includes an alternative expert-based approach to estimating uncertainty, based on which the report says, "there is only a low (1-in-20) likelihood that the ice sheets will contribute more than 84cm to sea-level rise by 2100." Critically, it it also says, "The collective opinion is that whilst high rates [of sea level rise] are unlikely, at present no absolute upper-bound can be put on the rate of sea-level rise by 2100." (italics added) The comparison with the NewScientist claim that sea level will rise by no more than 69 cm is stark, and problematic.

The 69 cm upper limit seems to be sum of the highest modelled outputs for each of the components (the Greenland Ice Sheet, West and East Antarctic Ice Sheets, etc.). What's missing from the Ice2Sea report is a clear expression of the uncertainty and how to interpret it, which has surely contributed to science journalists mistaking such a range of model outputs as the range of possible realities (a mistake that should be deeply troubling to most modellers).

Every model makes many assumptions that complicate the use of model outputs as truth, assumptions that are not represented in the range of uncertainty. In the Ice2Sea models, the level of greenhouse gas emissions is but one of many such assumptions. The Ice2Sea failure to represent these assumptions clearly and comprehensively in the interpretation of model output is not unusual. But it should be: as scientists, we need to be much better at communicating the bounds of our knowledge.

The focus of the NewScientist article on science overturning science (without discussion of the implications of the new projects for human suffering and upheaval) is also problematic. The article has no mention how much of the human-inhabited land would be uninhabitable with even 30 cm sea-level rise. it doesn't provide a basis for readers to compare the projected sea-level rises with recent historic ones (which have been much smaller). And it says nothing about the fact--well documented in the Ice2Sea report--that what  matters is not only mean sea-level rise, but also the storm-surge levels that will be exacerbated in other ways by climate change. Instead, the science-overturning-science theme risks over-inflating in readers' minds the lack of knowledge and the upheaval of understanding, which provides ample fodder for climate change deniers and skeptics. In covering science, researchers and journalists alike should remember that scientists are not the only audience. We should always ask ourselves, "How would a lay person take this? How could climate deniers, etc., use this?" With climate deniers being common in some circles including North American legislators, one can imagine this article's a "not so bad" theme serving as an excuse for further inaction on climate change.

Although I'm worked up about this NewScientist article, there's really nothing unusual about it. There are countless but critical ways that normal media coverage of science misrepresents uncertainty and distorts the societal implications of science. Research from students in my recent course reveals that when journalists report on events (like floods) that are, according to the best available science, expected to increase due to climate change by the best available science, these climate-change connections are rarely stated.

Science reporting must change. In its quest for novelty and brevity, science reporting must retain the context for readers to connect the news to its relevance and significance. There are three key ways this can be achieved. First, science that has major societal implications must never be reported without those implications. Second, events (like floods) or processes (like antibiotic resistance), should, if possible, always be connected to the likely underlying drivers (like climate change, and prophylactic use of antibiotics). Third, never say 'Never': natural science is not exact enough to support such certainty.

[This isn't the last you'll hear about these issues of modelling and uncertainty or media coverage of science. Students working with me (e.g., Edward Gregr, Natascia Tamburello, Devon Deckant) are working hard to explore these topics and identify solutions. So please watch this space, e.g., by subscribing to this blog and following @KaiChanUBC on Twitter.]

Kai Chan is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at UBC. He wrote the Eco-Minded column in the Vancouver Metro for 3 years.

Friday, July 5, 2013

What do Epigenetics have to do with Conservation? (And what are epigenetics?)

by Adrian Nel - visiting PhD student from the University of Otago, brief bio at end of post.

I have an interest in both false dichotomies and non jokes (what has two paws and hangs from a tree? – a paw paw (papaya)). Both of these came together in an article in Discover (May 2013) which got me thinking. It began...

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar. Two alcoholic mice — a mother and her son — sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles. The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”
Bad inheritance,” says Darwin.
Bad mothering,” says Freud.

The Discover article proceeds to lay out that for over a hundred years, those two views — nature or nurture, biology or psychology — have offered dichotomous explanations for the development and persistence of behaviours, not only within a single individual but across generations. Two scientists from from McGill UniversityMoshe Szyf, a molecular biologist, and Michael Meany, a neurobiologist (they fittingly met in a bar)have bust open the nature vs. nurture debate through their study of epigenetics. Epigenetics explores how methyl group 'cookbooks' attached to DNA tell nuclei which genes to transcribe. The two explored that these epigenes can be changed not only during foetal development, but during a lifespan, and, importantly passed from parent to child. They hypothesise for instance that children of holocaust survivors inherit not only the retold memories of traumatic experiences but their epigenetic emotional scars; more positively, they speculate that you may benefit from a boost if your grandmother was loved as a child.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioural tendencies are inherited” (Hurley, 2013). Basically, it’s not nature vs. nurture, it’s both, and interestingly intertwined ways, and as the Discover article concludes  “if the genome is the blueprint for life, then the epigenome is life's etch-a-sketch 'shake hard enough and you can wipe clean the family curse”.

How does this apply to my research and what brought me here to IRES?

The analogy of nature-nurture does not translate directly to carbon forestry in Uganda, or other conservation interventions. But let us assume for argument’s sake, that the 'nature' here relates to what practitioners perceive as the historical context of forestry governance. These are the 'experiences of our forbears', and practitioners are often wrong to assume they are mere 'context', as the epigenetics analogy shows, within which Nurture then unfolds. Let us assume also that the 'nurture' in this light relates then to the current interventions, those of the individual carbon forestry PES projects I study, framed as technical activities to address the specific, codified problems of deforestation and climate change through carbon sequestration.

The problem arises when the interventions are implemented relying solely on the 'Nurture', without seeing how the historical context (‘nature’) shapes the current program design and the context within which it interpreted and framed (‘nurture’). For example, often overlooked is the relationship between forestry and the colonial state, and the displacement and disposession that accompanied its processes of internal territorialisation.

Take a project on a protected area, as an example, in which the design of the project involves a simplistic acceptance, on the part of the private implementers leasing the land for the purposes of reforestation (which incidentally includes a carbon offset component), of the de-jure boundary of the area. The reality is however that 90% of protected areas in Uganda are contested and 'encroached', for a variety of complex reasons, and include historically unresolved and contested land claims by people in the area.

In project design documentation, these sorts of issues – and the current institutional structure – is simplistically taken as an unquestioned given, an a priori 'context' which is removed of any immediacy. This Achilles heel often ends up exacerbating existing conflicts during project implementation, and undermining the projects themselves, despite the (mostly but not always) best of intentions. There is thus an apparent disjuncture between the rationality within the system, and the irrationality of the system of contemporary forestry governance in the country.

A current interest, which has very much been spurred through interactions with CHANS lab is thinking through how my own research can be translated for practitioners in ways that draw in and make sense of socio-natural histories and 'contexts' more deeply when thinking about projects and policies. While critical studies of conservation have succeeded in establishing a dialogue with ecology and conservation biology, this intellectual production is not influencing conservation policies, design, and management in the field, and antagonisms between policies and local peoples persist (Vacarro 2013). Critical political ecology thus has much to contribute to the design of contemporary interventions in places such as Uganda, where high population growth rates and an already contested land politics repeatedly complicate conservation practise.

Adrian Nel is in the process of writing up his PhD dissertation from the University of Otago (New Zealand) on carbon forestry and forestry governance in Uganda, and is an enthusiastic visitor of the CHANS lab this summer.  He likes the fact that it is summer here, and that the inside of the house is warmer than the inside of the fridge (not so in Dunedin). 


Hurley, D. (2013) Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes. Discover. May Issue 2013. Available:

Vaccaro et al. (2013). Review: political ecology and conservation. Journal of Political Ecology Vol 20:264.