‘Eat your dog’ meme Debunked


There is a viral meme in the blogosphere and mass media suggesting that a single dog has the same impact as an SUV.  We blogged about it here.  Well, this advice and comparison turns out to have been based on some really dodgy calculations and is officially debunked.  Hopefully nobody took our advice seriously.  (I smell lawsuit).

First, let’s look at that SUV.  The calculations behind the internet meme say that it’s driven about 6,200 miles per year (10,000 km).  And yet, according to the US Department of Energy, a real SUV in the US is driven an average of 13,700 miles annually.  Already, the internet meme is off by a factor of roughly 2.2.  … their mileage assumptions certainly skews the numbers in favor of SUVs, and against dogs.

And then there’s the total energy estimates.  The pet-pessimists estimate that an SUV (in their calculations, a 4.6 liter Toyota Land Cruiser driven about 6,200 miles) consumes 55.1 gigajoules of energy in both fuel and amortized manufacturing energy every year.  That, too, is low.  A Land Cruiser gets about 15.25 mpg in combined city/highway driving — meaning that if it’s driven 10,000 km, it consumes about 407 gallons of gas, or 53.6 gigajoules worth of energy.  …  Yet again, they’ve low-balled the impacts of the SUV in a way that makes dogs look worse by comparison.  (Here, I’m drawing from the data collection and calculations I did for our CO2-by-transportation-mode charts. And I’m looking only at energy, not at the additional climate and pollution impacts of emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks.)

So even before you start to look at dogs, the authors have underestimated the environmental impacts of SUVs by a factor of at least 3.  And that’s not including the indirect impacts of SUVs — the parking spaces we build for them; the roads and bridges they drive on; the impacts of insurance and licensing operations; etc., etc., ad nauseum.

Then there’s flip side:  the authors’ claims about the impact of feeding pets.  The anti-doggists estimate it takes .84 hectares — or about 2.1 acres of cropland — to meet a a pooch’s food needs for a year.  There are a little over 70 million dogs in the US (the Humane Society says 74.8 million, the veterinarians say 72.1 million, and the pet food industry says 66.3 million, for an average of 71.1 dogs).  So by the authors’ estimates it must take about 150 million acres of US farmland to feed our dogs.  In all, there are 440 million acres of cropland in the US — suggesting that the equivalent of one-third of all US cropland is devoted to producing dog food.

We use the equivalent of a third of all US cropland to feed dogs?  That’s barking mad!

To see why it’s wrong, you can look from the bottom up, at the foods that dogs eat.  Or you can look from the top down, at the aggregate sales of dog food vs. the entire agricultural economy.  I’ll do both.

First from the bottom up:  what, exactly, do dogs eat?  The anti-pet-ites seem do a good job of calculating dogs’ calorie requirements.  Canines wolf down a lot of food:  a mid-sized dog consumes roughly 30 calories per pound of body weight per day.  (Smaller dogs eat as many as 40 calories per pound of body weight, while larger dogs eat as few as 20 calories per pound.  Call it the yapping-to-napping spread.)  I couldn’t find the average weight of dogs in the US, but the median dog breed listed here has an adult weight of 47 pounds.  If that’s representative of US dogs, then the average dog will eat 1,410 calories today, give or take — which, as I read it, is roughly what the authors’ figures imply.

It always does seem to come back to facts and numbers.

My reactions when I first read about the original meme were: 1) Yeah, dogs have a negative impact (but so does lots of stuff, e.g., washing your clothes-although I hear Jez has sworn off this too), 2) but this seems really exaggerated, dog food is made from the scraps people wont eat after all, 3) this argument was surely dreamed up by a diabolical denier-I can’t think of a better formulated argument to turn people away from measures to reduce AGW.

As a rabid animal rights believer, I just don’t see the moral logic of arguing that humans have any more right to life than a dog or cat.  So if we are going to get this extreme about it, the answer isn’t eat your dog; it is eat yourself (or jump off a bridge).

As David Horton commented on the original post:

I’m searching for a phrase … oh yes, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. This is reminiscent of the nonsense proposition that because solar panels are black we shouldn’t use them because they absorb and radiate energy and so warm the planet.

I also think we run the strong risk of telling people that nothing they do in daily life can continue. And this is the kind of misconception that denialists prey on (back to the stone age etc). Telling people to kill and eat their pets because they are a major contributor to global warming is going to at best invite (quite rightly) derision and at worst have people say “oh stuff it, I’m not going to do anything if that’s what they are going to try to make me do”.

But I really like the overall idea Jez mentions, of calculating your own footprint, so that you can make your own decisions about how to change your lifestyle.  I do this exercise with  my marine ecology class, and the big surprises are always how big an impact air travel has and the importance of how much and fast you drive, not just the average mph of your car.

Anyway, for full disclosure, we have two dogs, two cats, two horses and three kids.  These things just happen.  My wife is a vet, so stray pets seem to find their way into our home.  I like dogs and cats, but have been lobbying for years to cleanse our family of them.  In part because of their environmental impact.  But really because I want to free us up to travel more, internationally, which will really do wonders for the planet…

Paul Gilding: Time to prepare for the “One Degree War”


Paul Gilding (activist, CEO, environmentalist and journalist) recently sent me this article:

Amidst the noise of the day-to-day debates, we have lost sight of the simple logic of the advice coming from the world’s top climate scientists. Despite the uncertainties in the details, the science carries one underlying message from which we can draw only one rational conclusion.

It is time to declare a global emergency and mobilise all available resources, political will and human ingenuity towards one task – to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change to an acceptable level.

Gilding and his co-author, Jorgen Randers have released what they call the ‘The One Degree War Plan’:

What would a rational response to the climate science look like? If you stripped away all the politics and debate and took a fresh look, what would be the logical action plan?

It is a plan that shows what humanity can achieve – and we believe will achieve – when it develops a rational response to the climate threat.

Building a robust plan and the support to implement it is of course an enormous task. So we think now is a good time to start.

The paper is a fascinating and surprisingly easy read – thoughtful, insightful and very well presented. Click here to download in the ‘One Degree Warplan’ in full (.pdf format, 21 pages), or follow this link to Paul Gilding’s website (Cockatoo Chronicles) to read the brief and background to the paper.

Corals likely to starve in a high CO2 world

This is a little late in posting, but here is a video from a few weeks ago on Australia’s Channel 7 national news interviewing Alicia Crawley, a PhD student from my lab on the impacts of CO2 and ocean acidification on photosynthesis in corals. In a nutshell, Alicia’s research indicates that under higher CO2 scenarios, the symbiotic algae in corals are unable to protect themselves from the high light levels found on coral reefs, leading to starvation of the coral itself (click here to read the full journal article in Global Change Biology, “The effect of ocean acidification on symbiont photorespiration and productivity in Acropora formosa”). Click here for a transcript of a radio interview on ABC national news interviewing Alicia and a host of Australian marine scientists on the very real impacts of ocean acidification.

Great effort Alicia!


Online Reefs (Part 2): Darwin and the ‘reef problem’ in the XXI century

In the second part of a series of videos and lectures on coral reefs and climate change (Online Reefs) is Dr Roberto Iglesias Prieto. Roberto is a lead research scientist at the Unidad Academia Puerto Morelos in Mexico, who has a long and distinguished career investigating the symbiont responses to coral stress. Roberto is a charismatic and captivating speaker, and his presentation is well worth watching for both scientists and anyone with an interest in coral reefs. Click here to see the first seminar in the series (Online Reefs (Part I): Climate change and ‘Survival of the Fittest’ among coral-algal symbiosis) by Todd LaJeunesse.


Preservation of coral reefs: why isn’t the majority heard?


A recent study done by the University of Oregon and the University of Hawaii shows that majority of people visiting the coral reefs in Hawaii deeply care about their protection.  This might not be surprising due to the large amount of money that tourism brings to the economy of Hawaii, and with over 80% of those tourists visiting the marine and coastal areas of Hawaii, the protection of the reefs should be of utmost importance:

“Virtually no one wanted expanded use of coral reefs to the extent it might degrade them for enjoyment by future generations, and many were willing to endorse any level of protection needed, even if it meant banning human use. These views toward coral reefs reflected peoples’ core personal values and are unlikely to change much, scientists said.”

“It was really quite astonishing, almost shocking how much people wanted this resource protected for its own sake,” said Mark Needham, an assistant professor of forest ecosystems and society at OSU. “We fish and hunt wildlife for food or sport, we cut trees for timber. In most natural resource issues, we find conflicts over management for economic value versus environmental preservation or protection, but we really didn’t see that here.

“Our surveys found overwhelmingly that people visiting coral reef areas did not think that human use and access were the most important issues when it came to these areas,” he said. “And if anything was to have a deleterious effect on reef ecosystems, they would want it stopped.” (Read more @ Science Daily)

The birthplace of an ocean


See that seemingly innocuous little crack in the desert of Ethiopia in the picture above? Apparently the ~55km long rift (which first appeared in 2005) is the birthplace of a new ocean. What’s even more impressive is that the rift tore open across it’s entire length in a manner of days, not geological timescales like millenia or ‘mya‘. More over at Livescience:

“We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this,” said Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.

The result shows that highly active volcanic boundaries along the edges of tectonic ocean plates may suddenly break apart in large sections, instead of in bits, as the leading theory held. And such sudden large-scale events on land pose a much more serious hazard to populations living near the rift than would several smaller events, Ebinger said.

“The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it’s almost impossible for us to go,” says Ebinger. “We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous.”

The African and Arabian plates meet in the remote Afar desert of Northern Ethiopia and have been spreading apart in a rifting process — at a speed of less than 1 inch per year — for the past 30 million years. This rifting formed the 186-mile Afar depression and the Red Sea. The thinking is that the Red Sea will eventually pour into the new sea in a million years or so. The new ocean would connect to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, an arm of the Arabian Sea between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia in eastern Africa.


Why dolphins are deep thinkers


Did you know that the brain of an adult bottlenose dolphin is about 25% heavier than the average human adult’s brain? This article on why dolphins are ‘deep thinkers’  and how they manage to train their trainers is well worth reading:

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.

Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins. (Read more)

Eat your dog (or cat), save the planet


Here’s some sage advice from the Courier Mail, Brisbane’s very own tabloid newspaper:

THEY’RE faithful, friendly and furry – but under their harmless, fluffy exteriors, dogs and cats, the world’s most popular house pets, use up more energy resources in a year than driving a car, a new book says.

In their book Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, New Zealand-based architects Robert and Brenda Vale say keeping a medium-sized dog has the same ecological impact as driving 10,000km a year in a 4.6 litre Land Cruiser.

The average cat’s eco-footprint, 0.15 ha, weighs in at slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf, but still 10 times a hamster’s 0.014 ha – which is itself half the eco cost of running a plasma television.

Needless to say, it’s probably more ecologically sustainable to eat children instead, but if the calculations are correct, the ecological footprint of things we take for granted is pretty interesting. (Read the full article here)

Contrasting regional impacts of climate change upon fisheries

As the World continues to squabble about who might reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and people in the developed world become increasingly duped into believing media moguls over scientists, yet another assessment of the World in 2050 paints a harsh picture. Researchers from Canada, the UK and the US have published research in Global Change Biology (see here for the full article) that provides estimates of how climate change might have contrasting affects upon different regions of the fisheries of the world.

Whilst those countries largely responsible for initially causing global climate change (e.g. parts of Europe, the US and Australia) may have improved fisheries production in 2050, the tropical regions that contain the majority of the worlds developing nations could have fisheries declines of up to 40%. Nations at the forefront of debate in Europe about the need for climate change adaptation assistance (e.g. Brazil and Indonesia) may suffer huge socio-economic consequences of reduced fisheries production. Such impacts have the potential to particularly hit those vulnerable members of society most dependent upon seafood for daily subsistence protein requirements.

from Chueng et al. 2009 - Change in maximum catch potential (10-year average) from 2005 to 2055 in each 300 _300 cell under climate change scenarios: (a) Special Report on Emission Scenarios A1B and (b) stabilization at 2000 level.

Change in maximum catch potential (10-year average) from 2005 to 2055 in each 300 _300 cell under climate change scenarios: (a) Special Report on Emission Scenarios A1B and (b) stabilization at 2000 level (Chueng et al. 2009)

Whilst these proposed scenarios are only models, and may contain many inaccuracies, they do provide some of the most detailed levels of information available about what the direct consequences of global warming could be to the world’s fisheries. When you consider that factors such as ocean acidification, overfishing, pollution and coastal development are not included within these models, fisheries production in 2050 could be a lot worse with much greater socio-economic consequences.

These findings are of great importance at a time of continued debate about who should take what level of responsibility for emissions reductions and climate adaptation.

Letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the US Senate


There could not be a clearer message to the American Senate regarding climate change than the one below from the AAAS.  I guess we can only hope that the US Senate trust the leading scienctific organisation in their country and respond to this planetary emergency.

October 21, 2009

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Dear Senator:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades. If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced. In addition, adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already unavoidable. Adaptation efforts include improved infrastructure design, more sustainable management of water and other natural resources, modified agricultural practices, and improved emergency responses to storms, floods, fires and heat waves. We in the scientific community offer our assistance to inform your deliberations as you seek to address the impacts of climate change [1].

American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Chemical Society
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Meteorological Society
American Society of Agronomy
American Society of Plant Biologists
American Statistical Association
Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
Botanical Society of America
Crop Science Society of America
Ecological Society of America
Natural Science Collections Alliance
Organization of Biological Field Stations
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
Society of Systematic Biologists
Soil Science Society of America
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

[1] The conclusions in this paragraph reflect the scientific consensus represented by, for
example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.S. Global Change Research
Program. Many scientific societies have endorsed these findings in their own statements,
including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical
Society, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and American
Statistical Association.

1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005 USA
Tel: 202 326 6600 Fax: 202 289 4950 www.aaas.org