Protection Money

The Mexican government and insurance company Swiss Re have joined force to create an insurance policy for the coral reef off the coast of Cancun. This marks the first time something like this has happened, despite years of debate on the issue.

The plan is for hotels and tourists resorts to pay insurance premiums to the company Swiss Re, who will then pay out in the event of reef damage due to storms, shipping accidents and climate related damage. The premiums will likely be a combined total of a minimum of one million dollars per year, with expected pay-outs being in the region of twenty-five to fifty million dollars.

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It is an interesting plan, after all there would be far less tourism if there was no reef. No picturesque scenery, no colourful fish and no diving or snorkelling. It is clearly to the benefit of the companies in that region to preserve the reef. Many hotels are signing up to the scheme and will create a fund that pays the premiums. It is quite clever really, the hotels and resorts are protected by the reef, minimising storm damage. Losing the reef would likely mean huge amounts of damage from storms.  Keeping the reef and preserving it means protection, lower building insurance costs and, over time, a reduction in reef insurance premiums. Not all business pay the same premiums either and whilst it has not been announced you would imagine the larger businesses will pay more as they may own more of the coastline. The larger businesses are likely to be more powerful and may be more willing to protect the reef given the money they have put into it. It also creates a “Neighbourhood watch” culture will all business knowing that if another damages they reef they will all be hit with higher premiums. With everyone watching and lots of money at stake there will be far more objection to any hazardous marine plans and far greater likelihood of prosecution for any misdemeanours.

The main issue I can see however is what is stopping a business not paying the premium? If all the hotels and resorts pay it except one then that one still receives all the benefits but with none of the cost. The scheme is backed by the Mexican government and so there may be subsidies on offer but that is not yet clear. Also, who gets to decide who fixes the reef and how that is done? There will be a lot of legal work to be done and precedents to be set but none of the obstacles are insurmountable.

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The scheme is very practical and likely be to be rolled out worldwide eventually. Insurers are set to do very well out of this and it adds a financial incentive to protect the environment. Putting a cost on the environment is often seen as controversial but in many cases it is the only way to make businesses or governments actually care.  The Nature Conservancy, who helped create the scheme say that every metre of reef loss results in triple the amount of damage due to a storm. If the damage is as quantifiable as they believe then calculating an insurance premium is a relatively straightforward exercise. Swiss Re, the insurer have said ““Instead of taxpayers and citizens absorbing the cost of all kinds of natural disasters, including climate events, figure out a way to quantify the risk and then push it out into the private market.” If the idea works then you can expect the competition between insurance companies to increase as they push the idea as much as they can. After all, if they are making money out of it, why wouldn’t they do it elsewhere?

Insurers are set to be one of the biggest loser’s due to climate change and would have to pay billions out to clients who lose homes and land due to sea level rise and storm damage. As the Two Ronnie’s sketch goes:

“The principle of insurance is that you, the client, pay us, the insurer, lots of money…… and that’s it.”

This scheme means that insurers will not only be insuring the property, they will be profiting from clients insuring the things, such as reefs, which protect their property from damage. The ideal vision for them is that they receive two premiums whilst simultaneously reducing the likelihood that they will ever have to pay out on either. Privatising the environment is always a controversial move but it does seem that a scheme like this has the potential to work. The coverage is set to begin in January 2018, with many conservation and insurance groups watching closely to see how it goes.

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The Great Wind Debate

In Scotland over the last few weeks there has been a fair amount of controversy over four wind farms due to be constructed on the East coast of Scotland. These wind farms were initially approved, then were put on hold after the RSPB appealed, but have now been cleared to proceed once again after a recent court ruling.

4 wind farms proposed on the East coast of Scotland

4 wind farms proposed on the East coast of Scotland

This could be an issue as the wind farms, one in particular, are due to be constructed in the vicinity of some of the country’s largest seabird colonies, colonies which could be decimated by the wind farms. These colonies contain threatened birds such as puffins and kittiwakes along with the worlds largest Northern gannet colony.

The RSPB initially had their appeal upheld after pointing this out and calling for more evidence. Some new evidence arose which showed that gannets, previously though to fly too low to be affected, actually would be affected. The issue was still under investigation when the ruling was overturned last week meaning the windfarms can now go ahead.

Critics are extremely angry and point out though that the wind turbines may kill several thousand birds per year as they are located in a common flightpath and are constructed with the blades being at the height many birds fly at. One windfarm in particular is very close to the Firth of Forth and located very near to several special protection areas, special sites of scientific interest and special areas of conservation. The SPA status was set to be applied more widely to the area, something that was taken into consideration initially.

Recently though the court ruled that :

“this petition questions whether the respondents ought to have treated certain draft SPAs as if they had been approved”.

This means that as some of the SPA’s were still under consideration rather than set in stone, they should not have been included in the RSPB appeal and upholding the appeal was wrong since this was the case. The SPA is still under consultation and it is not clear what would happen if SPA status was granted after giving a windfarm permission. Given that the Scottish Government were the ones appealing against the RSPB you would have to think is likely the windfarm would be given the go ahead over the SPA if it ever came to that.

SPA Firth of Forth Wind farms

The existing SPA areas are marked in squares around the islands. The entire area is under consulation for SPA status with the Neart na Gaoithe wind farm being close to existing SPA’s and well within the newly proposed SPA.

Clearly this is a tricky issue. Many of the threatened birds are threatened due to climate change forcing fish stocks to change distribution meaning birds have to go further to get food and fewer survive. Wind power is seen as a green way of producing energy and would reduce fossil fuel usage which was the driver of the climate change that made the birds rare to begin with.  However the main problem with this is that we don’t know what will happen. Seabird mortality around windfarms is relatively unknown, as indeed are things such as the height birds fly at and their own ability to avoid the blades.

There are of course several ways to reduce bird strikes such as painting the turbines and technology that turns off the turbine when a bird strike is detected. A company even recently released a wind turbine that has no blades at all. It is not clear which, if any of these measures will be used, something which concerns the animal groups involved. Mainstream Renewable Power, the group in question say:

“We have worked closely with a range of partners on the project, including the RSPB and we look forward to continuing to do so as we take the development forward. Rapid advances in offshore wind technology have enabled us to reduce the number of turbines to be installed from 125 in the original consent application in 2012, to a maximum of 64 turbines today.”

The other proposed wind farms on the East of Scotland also had the number of turbines reduced meaning that, of the 488 turbines planned, 335 will be built.

The plus side of all this is that if the windfarms are built it is likely that mitigation measures will be put in to place. Given the scale of the objections to construction the companies involved would surely do what they can to avoid any more damaging news reports. If it turns out thousands of birds do die it will be disastrous for the energy company’s reputations now that they have spoken publicly about how they value the wildlife in this area. Proponents argue that fossil fuels and oil spills have killed more life than all the wind turbines combined. A point that is true though doesn’t actually prove that this particular farm should be built.

This isn’t to say the projects will necessarily be devastating. Evidence is lacking on both sides and there was an environmental impact assessment done by Marine Scotland who concluded that the project could go ahead. Admittedly this was before research showed that gannets fly higher than expected and could be at risk. All the major groups were involved in this and all official environmental procedures were followed as they should have been.

Regardless, we do need renewable energy and we do need to value our wildlife. Given the amount of locations available it seems a very strange decision to put a windfarm next to the “Nature reserve of the Year 2016″ and next to an area containing so many protected areas . The biggest problems though are the sheer lack of evidence, confusion amongst the judge’s ruling on the case and  no one really being clear on what is going to happen. Whilst lack of evidence does not mean guilty, it doesn’t necessarily mean innocent either and you’d have to think it is unlikely anyone will take down a wind farm if it did prove to have a negative effect.

Was Planet Earth 2 a Disaster?

BBC Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes Games has accused Planet Earth 2

of being “a disaster for wildlife” in a recent Guardian article which has sparked a bit of a debate. He has labelled the Planet Earth 2 series an “escapist fantasy” saying,

“These programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening,” he said. “The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling, fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”

Was Planet Earth 2 a disaster for animals like the snow leopard. (Photo credit BBC)

Was Planet Earth 2 a disaster for animals like the snow leopard. (Photo credit BBC)

Planet Earth 2 is the most watched nature programme in the last 15 years, drawing in audiences of around 12 million people. David Attenborough did mention on several occasions that humans were impacting the environment and talked of “our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth”. I agree that it wasn’t a nonstop narrative about the effect that humans were having on the environment but then surely that was never the intention? Criticising a show for not doing something that it didn’t intend to do seems unfair? Equally it is a claim that can be levelled at virtually any wildlife programme, indeed it is something that Martin Hughes Games himself has said about Springwatch.

The aim of shows such as this are to show people things that have never been seen before, to attempt to inspire and inform without being overly depressing. David Attenborough has spoken on hundreds, probably thousands, of occasions about climate change and the impact that humans are having. To limit these comments and focus on the wildlife during Planet Earth 2 seems completely fair.

Martin Hughes Games has made this claim before and critics would argue that, as a presenter on a wildlife show, he is in a position to do more about it than any of us and is something of a hypocrite. He argues however that he is not against the shows being made, only that “fantasy should be balanced by reality” and that we should have more conservation programmes on TV. This is the point that I take issue with. If you are a going to label a show “a disaster for wildlife” whilst being a passionate wildlife supporter, then why would you support the making of that show? Surely this is where the hypocrisy lies.

He also presents a rather weak argument by suggesting that wildlife shows do no good as wildlife has declined over the last 30 years despite shows such as Planet Earth. I think that much of what was said I could nearly understand if it weren’t for this claim,

“These programmes are pure entertainment, brilliantly executed but ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over.”

At no point whilst studying for an ecology degree did anyone ever say to me that Planet Earth was contributing to animals going extinct. Indeed, virtually everyone in my class at university had applied to study based, at least in part, to having watched the many animal documentaries on TV when they were younger.  I understand his main point but can’t understand how you can support the making of a show if you believe it is a “significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife”.

Making a programme such as this is tricky. Too much negativity will drive people away so they have chosen to highlight what is good and incredible and make a show about that. Whether wildlife shows help wildlife is something that both I, and James Common have both written about previously and we have concluded that they do help to inspire and encourage people.

Of course, Planet Earth was, at least in part, about ratings and money and so it had to be entertaining to justify the effort produced in making it. Maybe it could have done more to explain about human impacts but would that have made in any better or any more inspiring?

Citizen Science: Are we missing out?

Recently there was some research done on Alzheimer’s disease using a game that collated data from a vast number of people. It was revealed that if the research had been done in a clinical, controlled trial it would have taken over 2000 years to collect the same amount of data. This is one of the best and most informative study’s ever done using citizen science, where “regular people” (non-scientists) collect the data and are actively involved.

Could citizen science like this be the way forward?

Could citizen science like this be the way forward? (Photo from Birdlife)

Unsurprisingly this led to a lot of hype and lots of people calling for more citizen science. All very admirable we can agree but it is not without its problems.

Citizen science is not easy.  The Alzheimer study was so good because it had been set it up with citizen science in mind and designed specifically for this purpose. This is a very important point and it  led to vast numbers of people being able to do something relatively simple to help. The medical world seems to have a better grasp on this than the world of conservation where citizen science is often dismissed for being poor quality and some key journals are allegedly refusing to publish papers based on citizen science derived data. Some think this is academic snobbery whereas others argue that often the projects are poorly run leading to errors which then cannot be published.

I follow a lot of marine science quite closely and regularly see citizen science crop up in one guise or another. Likely this is due to a lack of funding in this area which means researchers cannot afford full scale studies and must adapt. This is fine, but not all projects are being carried out in a useful way because the experimenters are not designing the project in the knowledge that it will be “normal” people who are doing the data collection. In some cases researchers are only offering advice to groups and then the groups do everything themselves, including publishing the results. The results are not published academically but are made publicly available and are then leading to people having incorrect ideas on the health of marine systems, particularly when the results make local or national news before anyone checks the facts. The purpose of academic publications is to have everything peer reviewed before publication to ensure that the details are correct, to skip this step really calls into question how scientific the project is and how much trust can be placed in its findings.

Marine and coastal science is often an exceedingly difficult area to get data from, seabird surveys for example are 70% accurate at best, sometimes as low as 30% and this leads to a huge issues with data analysis. Many people on this website are students and recent graduates who are all too familiar with statistical analysis and are aware of the degree of confidence required in your results prior to publication.

If you are unfamiliar then try this example. You count 5000 animals in 2015, alter conditions and count 5500 animals in 2016. The population has gone up by 500 and proves whatever you have changed has worked, right?

As you may have guessed that is not necessarily the case. To make that claim you would need to prove that the change wasn’t due to different people counting, different weather, time of year, and a vast, vast, number of other factors. In the case of seabirds if the very best studies are only counting 7 out of every 10 birds then there is clearly huge scope for error, error that needs to be statistically controlled for. But that is only to prove the population change, to prove that what you did caused the population change is a huge leap requiring compelling evidence. This level of analysis needs to be done in all research and yet it is missing in a great deal of citizen science. By no means is that the fault of the citizens, rather the motivation of the researcher(s) or the design of the project is the issue.

The purpose of this is not to shame the groups involved. It is unlikely that anyone is deliberately setting out to mislead, although there have been rare occasions when citizen science projects were created to “prove” certain things in order to influence decisions (a claim that can be levelled at academic research as well) . Some of the time it seems the projects are either without academic support at all or are not a priority for researchers which undermines the amount of work being put it.

Citizen science is not the problem, the problem is that it needs to be recognised as real research and treated as such. Researchers need to commit to their groups, provide any necessary training and design the experiment in such a way as to minimise data collection errors. This is not necessarily more difficult or easier than a fully academic project but it does require a different approach. If citizen science is going to make the same sort of positive contribution to conservation that it can make in other fields then it must be an all or nothing situation where it is done properly or not at all. Given that people are clearly willing to help then designing a project that takes advantage of this is surely the way forward.

There is a good summary of the issues, particularly in the comments section, in the Nature link below.

http://www.nature.com/news/rise-of-the-citizen-scientist-1.18192

As always, let me know what you think in the comments below.

Reindeer blamed for Anthrax outbreak

You may have missed the story lately that 2 people have died and many more have fallen ill with anthrax, a disease which had “died out”. The outbreak occurred in the Yamal Peninsula in Northern Russia which is experiencing warmer temperatures.

The disease, known locally as “Siberian Plague”, used to be highly prevalent in the area and led to a widespread immunisation campaign. The campaign focused on the people that lived there and reindeer, as most indigenous people keep reindeer in that area.  The campaign worked very well and led to reindeer populations increasing rapidly, so rapidly that it strained the environment. This area is usually covered in permafrost and so has very little vegetation for reindeer at the best of times.

Reindeers receiving a check up in Northern Russia

Reindeers receiving a check up in Northern Russia (Photo-ABC News)

Areas with vegetation have thicker permafrost as the plants provide shade which reduces melting. Reindeer have grazed the landscape to near barren levels and the lack of groundcover along with global warming has thawed out corpses of animals and humans which were buried in the ice, releasing anthrax spores that were previously buried. It all sounds pretty grim but Russia did very well and sent in soldiers who were trained in biological warfare to evacuate those at risk. They have also restarted vaccinating the people and animals and have proposed a very controversial reindeer cull.

Culling reindeer is much like culling deer. They both devastate the landscape but culling or removing the animals in any way is always frowned upon, regardless of the damage (a classic Bambi Effect scenario). There are around 750,000 reindeer in the affected area, an area which can only support 386,000 according to Russian scientists. The scientists propose culling at least 200,000 animals, not as many as would be ideal but still enough to have an impact on the degradation of the landscape. The authorities also plan on buying the dead reindeers from the locals, exporting the meat and then selling it to reimburse the herders. This is already done but currently they sell about 300 tonnes, with the cull the number would be around 800 tonnes. They haven’t yet explained how they are going to ensure the culled reindeer are not infected, presumably they would have an exclusion zone around the current outbreak.

Scientists warn that the Arctic circle is home to many diseases and has things such as smallpox and bubonic plague buried in the soil, “This is pandoras box” as one researcher put it. Whilst many are predicting an apocalypse, where humanity is wiped out as diseases rise from the ice, we do need to remember that many countries do actually have these diseases already. The diseases are returning to small pockets in the Arctic but have been present in many parts of the world for a very long time and were never actually gone.

Despite contributing to reawakening disease and degrading the environment, people are still objecting to the reindeer cull as many would be out of work and some simply like reindeer. Humans have driven the reindeer to an all-time high and removed the natural predators meaning that, like deer, in some cases they need to be removed. Culling is not very nice to say the least, but it seems strange for locals to object when it is them and their reindeer population which are at risk if the disease is not stopped. Vaccinating is effective but it will only take one human or animal to spread the disease and doesn’t help and already stressed environment.

Regardless though, overgrazing the environment will lead to a reindeer population crash anyway as eventually there won’t be enough food for the 750,000 animals. If the cull is blocked then there needs to be some sort of reindeer management plan put in place. If nothing else it is a warning that as things heat up more diseases will spread. Russia were surprisingly quick at stopping this but had it been a smaller, poorer country then the disease may have spread rapidly and been much harder to eradicate.

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