Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New climate adaptation lawsuit in Louisiana

A flood protection agency in Southeast Louisiana is suing oil and gas companies including BP and Exxon Mobil for damages to wetlands caused by pipeline canals, and their case is making it above the fold of the NYT. Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East claims that the canals have altered hydrology in the area in such a way that has caused hurricane damage to increase and that, over time, will cause coastal lands to "slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner." Though they don't state it as such (itself interesting), the object in question in this case is ecosystem services: "BP and Exxon Mobil, you've destroyed the flood mitigation service these wetlands are supposed to provide to us, and we're going to hold you accountable for our loss" As cities and states attempt to preserve, design, and restore dunes, marshes, reefs, wetlands, etc. in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, SLFPAE's case will tell us more about the extent to which not just these habitats, but the climate-buffering services they provide will be treated by the courts (see Keith Hirokawa's work here and here for excellent first answers).

At first glance, a water agency in SE LA doesn't seem like the sort of entity to be bringing suit against some of the world's most powerful corporations. But they're pulling absolutely. no. punches. The gem of the case is here - to them, the oil/gas pipelines constitute a:

“mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction”

BOOM. So what are they asking for? 

"many billions of dollars. Many, many billions of dollars.”

Um...It's hard not to think of a certain late 90s comedy here, making it difficult to take the agency's case seriously. From the starting gates, the flood protection agency is equivocating on the role of the federal government, namely the Army Corps of Engineers, and why that entity shouldn't be held liable as well for its part in reworking the bayou's hydrology.

At any rate, it seems the lawsuit's hooks are not in the Clean Water Act per se, but in common law: negligence, nuisance, and some archaic LA code dating back to French rule called "Servitude of Drain" requiring downstream landowners to provide means for conveying water off adjacent upstream properties. It's not spelled out for us how SLFPAE thinks it applies to this case, but I suppose the argument is that BP and Exxon Mobil have altered the area's hydrology in a way that downstream areas too effectively drain, indeed conveying stormwaters onto higher ground than before.

Bringing it back: we can probably think of this as perhaps the US's second major climate adaptation lawsuit - NYT explicitly makes the link to the first: Kivalina, the Alaskan community that sued Exxon Mobil for the effects of climate-caused sea level rise on their village. The court there said that Kivalina's case was more a political question than a justiciable one. We'll see how SLFPAE's case pans out, but hopefully it'll regain some ground, as common law applications to the environment become increasingly tenuous, from Kivalina to Wisconsin.


I've been working for the past couple of years at the University of Kentucky on my master's thesis. Building from a bigger NSF-funded project on stream mitigation banking, my research has argued that market planning and design for wetland and stream ecosystem services in Oregon has not been as easy a task as some pundits might think it, nor has it as of yet been as devastating as others might imagine it. The thesis is available here:

I'll be moving to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to carry on with the Ph.D. I look forward to keep exploring and communicating how market environmental law and policy is (not) equipped to account for climate change and its effects on ecosystem services.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Optimal natures

Recently, the Natural Capital Project released its new tool for watershed-based ecosystem services decision-making, the Resource Investment Optimization System, or RIOS (spanish for rivers). It builds on InVEST, NCP's tool for mapping and valuing all sorts of services. Where InVEST could tell you for instance where to invest in a watershed to achieve the best water quality gains (efficiency), RIOS is geared to help you decide between different sets of investment (optimization).

RIOS joins a fast-growing cadre of other ecosystem services decision-making software tools. A short list includes:

Social Values for Ecosystem Services (SOLVES) - the USGS's tool of choice
Integrated Water Resources planning suite  - led by the Army Corps of Engineers
Simple and Effective Resource for Valuing Ecosystem Services (SERVES) - from Earth Economics
i-Tree - USFS built this one
ARtificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES)

These models literally instantiate ecosystem services as a framework by providing the means for framing services - ES is a framework for understanding tradeoffs in managing nature and here are the algorithms for modeling them. One of the key points the tools have in common is that they are spatially-explicit; what might distinguish them is whether they aim to inform either investment or policy decisions. Or, since ecosystem service policy tends toward treating nature as always already an investment (or lack thereof), the distinction is probably: what kind of investment (public or private)?

These tools parallel a number of data analytics firms working with so-called Big Data on the environment. Many, like Cloudera and Ayasdi work with oil and gas companies to visualize optimize the use of their drilling equipment, in the name of preventing future environmental catastrophes. Others, like Remsoft's suite of tools aim to improve forestry practices by incorporating extensive data on tree health, location, etc. - Google and Microsoft are working on similar software for "seeing the trees and the forest."

In short, the stated goal of these models is to "optimize" environmental management, which, for many of them, also means optimizing business practice. Is there a difference between optimal and efficient? For some, maybe not. But Remsoft's tools, they claim, allow you to "understand and manage the supply-demand balance, identify current and future supply chain bottlenecks, manage production and delivery capacity, forecast costs and revenues, and generate plans that stay within budget." Clearly something more than the sense of efficiency as input/output is going on here. Indeed, optimization, in the language of mathematics and computer programming, means to choose the best from among several alternatives given a particular criteria. Yes, the criterion for Remsoft might be $, but that may or may not be the case for USFS's community forestry tool, i-Tree.

Where does all this talk of optimization come from? That's hard to say, and 600 pg. tomes have been written about it. But there is a curious perpendicular conversation happening in the weird realm of biology, computer programming, and artificial intelligence themselves meet: where NCP, Remsoft, and others want to optimize nature, these researchers think nature optimizes. They "use and abuse" evolutionary concepts (note: optimization is not necessarily about selection pressure) as metaphor for informing tech design, their goals ranging from the everyday to the lethal. Researchers have found that ants respond to disaster and disruption - to their environment - in ways that may inform optimal transmission of information over internet protocols. The US military has enrolled apiologists to use bee swarms as an analogue for drone maneuvering. The goal, of course, being to optimize surveillance and kill rates. What brings together the "optimize nature" modelers and the "nature optimizes" researchers and designers is the idea that the environment serves as a model for our treatment of it.

This is not to get us lost in the thickets of environmental philosophy or social theory. The question is: on the ground, what is lost and gained by thinking in terms of optimizing ecosystem services? Who stands to win and lose? These models are meant to inform land use decisions, and in doing so, they help to bring about the optimized world they only purport to represent. If you model it, they will come. In this performance, the way the models are programmed matters. And what differences are there between the flavor of optimization led by the conservationists using NCP and the timber managers using Remsoft's Spatial Optimizer? One has to inform policy, the other business - can optimization serve as an adequate guiding concept for both?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Militant climate particularism?

Militant climate particularism: it's a mouthful, but it's an idea to follow-up on recent posts about the tensions between local and global problems and solutions when it comes to restoring ecosystem services in the face of climate change.

Flood mitigation is an ecosystem service that this driver who abandoned their Ferrari during some recent severe flooding in Toronto, ON, Canada sorely could have used. Poor guy.

Don't feel to bad for 'em. In an editorial, the National Post argues for bailing out that driver and all the rich dudes who in the future may face that most dreaded decision to ditch their $200k PCV. Why spend money on climate mitigation - wind turbines, solar panels, and carbon sequestration - the newspaper asks, when what these floods and those recently in Alberta tell us is that we need to adapt to changing weather patterns.

Ignore the gross misunderstanding of climate science here (i.e. their claim that there is no link between extreme weather and climate change and that such extreme weather events and the problems they cause are entirely predictable), and even set aside the fact that this is the worst of "climate resignation" - giving up on the goal of preventing high concentrations of GHGs. Whistle past the part about the limited growth in renewables. Just about the only thing the editorial might have right is that carbon sequestration and offsetting are rabbit holes not worth falling into.

But what the National Post is calling for is not any flavor of "climate protectionism" either. Yea, they'd rather keep money in the province, but they're proposing raising tariffs on goods coming in from countries without carbon markets, because they're arguing against setting up something like a carbon market to being with. They're not suggesting taxing imported turbines and panels - the NP would rather have the province abandon new renewable energy projects all together. The argument here isn't even "climate austerity", in which taking action on climate change is believed to be the fix for shoring up dwindling coffers.

So what's going on here with the newspaper's utter rejection of climate as anything but a very local problem? David Harvey uses the term "militant particularism" to describe social movements that are based on particular struggles in particular times and places. He worries that although such struggles can produce intense solidarities and achieve immediately positive and perhaps necessary results, they often aren't informed by - and in turn contribute to - broader movements and approaches. These particular struggles may tend toward single issues over a short time frame, employing responsive tactics rather than embracing a long term strategy.

That's exactly what's going on with the Post's editorial: let's fix the problems of climate - which amount only to extreme weather - here and now, and call it a day. Let the Pacific Islanders eat carbonated saltwater.

Now, the National Post is a conservative rag, and what their approach would hardly fall within the realm of what would be called socially progressive to begin with. But as the drive towards climate resilience and adaptation grows stronger, we may see a retreat from the left into a militant climate particularism, where all that matters is saving in particular the city (After all, with all the doom and gloom that surrounds impending climate change as an urban phenomenon, it's easy to think: we have to do everything we can, here and now!). The idea that cities - "smart cities" especially - are at the heart of responding to a changing climate - and may be best suited to addressing ecosystem service provision - is perhaps the germ of this. Maybe. But even the influential US Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement is primarily about reducing carbon emissions. The question is, to what extent can climate planning qua city design overcome that most perennial problem of urban planning: the idea that the city is a containerized unit apart from the rest of the world.

At any rate, I can't imagine that a Toronto-only strategy is something the city will ultimately benefit from, at least with this guy in charge.