We, Pine Beetles and Global Warming Make Three

Ed has a great review of a recent paper in Nature presenting new research that describes just how extensive the damage done by the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia. The culprit of the outbreak is most likely climate change since sudden drops in temperature common in northern areas like BC have historically been a check on the beetle's population; in recent years, the winters have been less intense and the beetle populations have benefited from the extension.

It immediately reminded me of the extinction-themed AAAS session I attended and blogged about last year, where ecologist Jim Collins described the chytrid fungus outbreak pushing amphibians to the brink of extinction:

Chytrid attacks the kerotin-rich skin of the frog, and since these animals respirate through their skin, advanced cases cause cardiac arrest and death. Chytrid has also been known to disrupt normal behaviors in frogs.

The idea of a pathogen driving its host to extinction seems contradictory; where's the benefit for the pathogen?

There are a few species of Chytrid resistant frogs in these communities that act as a reservoir species for the fungus. In other words, these frogs show no symptoms of infection, but still maintain the ability to spread the disease (a kind of Typhoid Mary). It's easy to see how this might cause a large extinction of frogs from the constant exchange of Chytrid between susceptible and resistant species.

And the whole bit might be caused by climate change, at least on the local level. As the microclimate shifts, certain pathogens seem to spread more effectively (as in the case of avian malaria in Hawaiian birds).

Collins and company were also able to predict the spread of the fungus to the next location south, more or less confirming the climatic/pathogenic threat of extinction.

When I see studies like these, it boggles my mind how people can be relatively unconcerned about climate change.

The Gallup Poll report linked above was hopeful in some respects and disheartening in others. Across the board there have been small increases in public knowledge and concern about global warming and environmental protection, but in certain cases there are just as many still don't see the problems. This particular chart was of interest to me:


What are we most concerned about? The basics: water, soil and air pollution. What puzzles me is the sudden jump in percentage of "Worry only a little/Not at all" as we move from air pollution to loss of rain forests, from 23 to 31 percent, as if those two concerns were not connected. Then even further below is how concerned people are with the extinction of species (37/31/31 percent) versus their more heightened concerns about animals losing habitat (44/33/23 percent). These stats are a bit bizarre when juxtaposed, but perhaps they're not meant to be in the first place.

It really bothers me that, in light of these recent studies showing how climate change and other anthropogenic forces can be so destructive to life, people, in general, can still be relatively unconcerned with or oblivious of losing an entire species.

I think that's why events like Earth Hour and the other back-patting, bullshit green/light-environmentalism/consumerism-in-disguise events from that crowd piss me off. We still have a lot of work to do in educating the public before we start declaring any sort of victories. There's a schism in this movement between those who want to throw money at the problem without changing their lifestyle and those who want to want to change how things are done without the resources to buy our way out of just plain mindfulness. A government that is actually willing to put pressure on industry to change their ways would be novel as well.

We have some big problems on the horizon. The sky isn't falling, New York City isn't under water, but there are hundreds of species of amphibians in danger of disappearing from the planet because of us. There are plagues of insects wreaking havoc on our forests because of us, and we're looking down the barrel of four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. How's that hybrid SUV treating you now?

I don't like scare tactics and I don't like the guilt and shame game that's played by some environmentalists. But I frequently wonder how much longer can we live the way we do without major, widespread changes to the way we conduct ourselves in business and at home.


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I think the truth is that we're not going to stop climate change.

But we'd rather pretend that changing light bulbs is going to make a difference than put in the large changes in our lifestyles that are necessary.

Maybe it is time we stopped pretending and started planning for the worst.