Monday, November 22, 2010

Pricing Carbon at Wesleyan U - and the Mournful Tale of a Forlorn, Rejected Fox

By way of introduction on this blogpost, I am going to paste my comment to a link initially provided by Highschooler, about a story that made the rounds on the web last week claiming that an experiment by Dutch researchers indicated that radiation from Wi-Fi networks is responsible for killing trees.  Here's my comment:

NASA, the EPA, and the US Dept. of Agriculture all report that toxic tropospheric ozone (the kind derived from fuel emissions, not the beneficial and naturally occurring stratospheric layer that protects from UV radiation) is the cause of BILLIONS of dollars in crop yield losses annually.

Ozone is poisonous to vegetation, visibly damaging the stomata of foliage.  Long-term, cumulative exposure such as is experienced by trees and other perennial vegetation is gradually, incrementally killing them.

check out  There's a link at the top to "Basic Premise" and a long list of peer-reviewed, published scientific research documenting this topic.

People notice that trees are dying and it's scary.  They latch on to crazy theories like contrail conspiracies and radiation because it's too painful to acknowledge that every day we pour tons of pollutants into the atmosphere to the point where the level is intolerable to the ecosystem.

Oh, the WHO estimates that ozone kills more Americans every year than breast and prostrate cancer combined - more than automobile accidents.  I guess that's the price we are willing to pay to live our cheap-energy-gobbling lifestyle.

Without any more ado, now to our weekend of non-stop fun at the Pricing Carbon Conference, which took place at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Anybody who knows me knows I am a timid paranoid driver so it always takes quite a bit of fortitude for me to undertake a long-distance trip.  But I had been working on my tree costume and hand-out for several weeks, not to mention the expenses were piling up between the sonotube and fabric, the printing, registration and hotel, and gas.  Auughh!  The total amount will go with me to my grave. I was committed.  I packed up the fox and left Friday, with spare needle and thread, anxious to explain to people that it's time to look beyond carbon.
So after all that, I'm still in a bit of a state of shock - since, if it weren't for a couple of stalwart friends and the impressive and inspiring presence of many student would have been a more-or-less unmitigated horror show.  I think I would have gotten a more welcoming reception at a tea party gathering than I received from the carbon cappers.  In fact, that may be my next appearance as a tree.

I asked one of the volunteers if there was some place in the lobby during lunch where I could hand out leaflets and not be in the way.  She took a copy (which is more or less identical to the "Basic Premise" page at the top of this blog, minus the list of links to scientific research) to one of the organizers who, after reading it, approached me with barely concealed outrage.  Here is what he said, staring at me with a withering intensity:

"This is not the appropriate venue for you to be pushing your own agenda."
...Whereupon I thought, a collapsing ecosystem is "my" agenda?  Really?

"This is a serious conference about putting a price on carbon."
Ah that makes me frivolous?...So, so reminiscent of Jim Bouldin telling me that "knowledgeable" people are the only ones deserving to make comments at Real Climate!

And lastly my favorite, pronounced without a hint of irony from the midst of reams of pamphlets and brochures and stacks of xeroxed directions and schedules:

"The University is very conscious of not wasting paper."

It's a safe bet he didn't personally pay for any of that printing, whereas I spent hours perfecting the proof at Staples and paid $.85 per copy x 500 copies = $425.00 to produce that if anybody thinks those pieces of paper are too valuable to be wasted, it's me!

I successfully resisted a fleeting urge to smack his supercilious, smug, condescending face and inquired as sweetly as I could muster, "Is it okay if I stay outside on the that university property or a public space?"

He conceded it probably is a public space where he couldn't prevent me from leafletting - but as a courtesy he thought I should let him consult with a University representative first.

I said, fine, that's why I asked in the first place.  To be courteous.

So, we met about an hour later and he had grudgingly changed his tune.  "You can do whatever you like outside," he informed me stiffly.  Somebody affiliated with the university must have told him to stop parading around like a petty tin-pot dictator.  Free exchange of ideas, anyone?  Contrast that to what he might have said, alternatively:

"Gee, that's really interesting.  I didn't realize NASA has determined that ozone causes billions of dollars of damage to crops every year.  If cumulative damage to trees is enough to affect the forest carbon sink, that would have a very significant impact on climate change.  I would like to learn more about this after the conference when I'm not so preoccupied, to see how this information should be incorporated in our strategy.  Meanwhile please stay in the corner so you don't impede traffic."

Instead he kicked me outside on a cold blustery day.  Imagine my dismay, especially because I could have been at that very moment at the Metropolitan Opera with my dad, enjoying the matinee of Cosi Fan Tutte!  Oh did I mention that I could have gone that night with first two daughters to the Amwell Valley Hunt Ball, drinking champagne and dancing the night away, instead of sleeping in a hotel where all my belongings teetered on the teevee because I read that bedbugs can't climb up there?

Anyway...Soon enough I was established on the patio with my tree costume and my fliers and my daughter's stuffed fox, which she had taken to a taxidermist after finding it dead on the side of the road.  Next thing you know, along comes said organizer, to inform me I couldn't keep the fox because an animal rights person was complaining, which was really unfortunate, because the fox got a lot of attention.  People are so unfamiliar with nature these days.

Besides, was that really true?  If so, why didn't he say to that person, "I'm sorry, but this is not the appropriate venue to push your own agenda?"  He had no problem saying that to me, and at least "my" agenda is not tangential, but integrally related to climate change!  For that matter, why didn't he say, "I'm sorry, but I cannot tell her she cannot have a stuffed fox any more than I can tell her she can't wear a fur coat - or for that matter, tell every participant at the conference that they cannot attend sporting leather shoes, belts, wallets, purses or briefcases!"  He should have told them if they have a problem with the fox they could tell me directly about it, and then I would have explained of course, that the fox was roadkill by automobile, much as the trees.

All of this pales in significance of course to the massive failure of the conference, which with a few notable and heroic exceptions was mainly a useless parade of posturing, mewling pontificants, each so wedded to their own approach and branded organizations (not to say funding), that it was readily apparent that nothing significant is going to change despite the more honest speakers at the podium.
The most tragic aspect of all was the lack of anything other than lip service to the ideas presented by the valiant and earnest students - who to my mind had a right to feel chagrined at the glacial (or rather, what used to be thought of as glacial, before they sped up) pace of action.
Some of the speakers clearly understand the imminent enormity of catastrophic amplifying feedbacks, such as the methane from melting permafrost, not to mention the destabilization of society by climate refugees, but others appeared to believe we have decades to convert from burning fuel, and are oblivious to the determination of people to extract every last smidge of dirty fuel no matter the consequences to the environment and climate no matter how much we cajole them.
Luckily after Sunday morning's concluding session, the sky had cleared and it was a beautifully calm, sunny, pleasant afternoon to roam the Wesleyan campus.  This magnificent oak was the sight that greeted us when we emerged from the auditorium.
This institution was established in 1831, and so there are many very large old trees of quite a few varieties, and numerous younger trees planted more recently.  I couldn't take a picture of every single one, but if I had, every single one would exhibit serious, terminal, fatal damage. Following are the photos, one after the other, as I walked along...and some interesting stories that have emerged since my last post at Witsend.
The evergreens next to the big oak have peeling bark.
It is so raw, it is painful to look at.
I really do not know what exact mechanism is causing bark to split, peel, flake, and fall off.
It goes hand in hand with oozing sap - and the loss of needles.
These particular pines have almost none left.
Here's that big oak again.  The almost invisible "evergreens" are right next to it, on the left.
First in our roundup, a brief article from USA Today, contributed by Highschooler, adds ash trees to the near universal list of tree species dying off, of course blaming insects, drought and weather:

Ash trees already under attack by the emerald ash borer are dying at rate much faster than expected in Fort Wayne after a 2008 ice storm and a recent drought.

The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reports that city arborist Chad Tinkel expects Fort Wayne to lose 3,000 ash trees through 2013 on top of the normal annual tree deaths of about 500.  That's twice as many as was projected two years ago.

The city's park board was told Monday it would cost more than $5 million through 2017 to remove and replace all of the ash trees along city streets and in city parks. Park officials said there isn't money to complete such a project.
In addition to damaged bark, gaping holes are to be found in almost every tree, old or young.
This maple has it all - holes and splitting bark.
Of course, there have always been trees with holes - where else would owls and flying squirrels live? - but they were centuries old trees, before clear-cutting.

Depending on the species, bark peels in different configurations.  The pine bark falls in patches that look like a jigsaw puzzle.  Maples peel off swirly writhing strips.  I think the vast majority of people have no idea how abnormal this is.

This sad story warns that chocolate trees are under attack.  I eat chocolate rarely, and only when it is very dark and rich.  The best place I have ever found is Woodhouse Chocolates in California.  They are very expensive to have mailordered, but so densely flavorful that 1/2 of one per day is pure unadulterated luxury.  I suggest you splurge now before the impending chocolate crisis hits as described at Alternet:
You can see how huge some of these trees are by comparing this sycamore to the pedestrian on the lower left.   It is truly humbling to see a life form so gigantic and heartbreaking to see them on the wane.
In a world that takes for granted the availability of delicious and affordable chocolate, it's easy to forget that the popular product actually comes from trees - not magical elves of free-flowoing cocoa rivers, sadly.  But, some experts are predicting that in a matter of decades a drop in production due to changing weather and agriculture incentives may make chocolate 'as expensive as gold'. "In 20 years chocolate will be like caviar.  It will become so rare and so expensive that the average Joe just won't be able to afford it," says one researcher...
This is typical of the crowns of trees.  Branches are missing or broken.
Cocoa production also faces competition from other crops which farmers may find more financially appealing, like for palm-oil, driven by an increasing demand for biofuels, and rubber.  Changes in weather patterns, too, have crippled production in places like Indonesia that might normally be there to pick up the slack.
High up, is a large hole.  They start from rot within.
In the last few decades, these factors have already led to higher cocoa prices, but in the coming years they could put chocolate out of reach for the average consumer.
Lovely example of missing bark, and garish green growth.
"Production will have decreased within 20 years to the point where we won't see any more cheap bars in vending machines," predicts Marc Demarquette, a British confectioner who a advised the BBC on a story about the coming chocolate crisis.

This tree has a hole in the very center at the top of this trunk.
Many of the high branches produced no new growth this season.
Highschooler also sent some links about the disappearing Amazon - a story from treehugger that validates the IPCC report:

Thomas Lovejoy, biodiversity chair of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, as well as biodiversity advisor to the World Bank, says the Amazon is "very close to a tipping point." By 2075 the forest could shrink to 65% of its original size.

Lovejoy says that the tipping point for the Amazon is 20% deforestation, and we are currently at 17-18% deforestation.

Main factors in the decline include climate change, deforestation and fire--sounds mighty like what the IPCC 4th assessment report said.

As for what the forest will turn into: "The forest eventually converts to cerrado (savannah) after a lot of fire, human misery, loss of biodiversity, and emission of carbon into the atmosphere."

The Wesleyan campus is spacious and elegant, but a little to the right of this view of the stadium, the entire row of hemlock and spruce is transparent.
Another study documents the rivers disappearing due to drought.  I have always wanted to go there and see the spectacular waterfalls, but I guess I never will:
In places throughout the Amazon, some stretches of the region's most important rivers and tributaries have dried up almost entirely, reducing the normally flowing waterways to a vast plain of broken clay and mud. For some people who live and work in this part of the world, life has come to a screeching halt amid the worst drought in recent memory. It is estimated that more than 62 thousand families have been affected by thelack of rainfall with over half the municipalities in the region having enacted a state of emergency. And, on the heels of a recent report about the global droughts to be expected due to climate change -- one can only wonder if such scenes will become more common elsewhere.

Whereas this contradictory study from - who else? - researchers with the Smithsonian Institute claims that the Amazon trees can adjust just fine to higher temperatures and CO2.  All the evidence suggests that the SI is hopelessly corrupted by Koch brother financing.  It's interesting how they grasp at data from the past and hazard guesses as to what it means for the future, compared to the stories above that are based on empirical current observations.

It is generally acknowledged that a warming world will harm the world's forests. Higher temperatures mean water becomes more scarce, spelling death for plants – or perhaps not always.

According to a study of ancient rainforests, trees may be hardier than previously thought. Carlos Jaramillo, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), examined pollen from ancient plants trapped in rocks in Colombia and Venezuela. "There are many climactic models today suggesting that … if the temperature increases in the tropics by a couple of degrees, most of the forest is going to be extinct," he said. "What we found was the opposite to what we were expecting: we didn't find any extinction event [in plants] associated with the increase in temperature, we didn't find that the precipitation decreased."

Another reader forwarded this horrible article about birds disappearing, in England.  I know they are disappearing here as well.  I miss hearing their delightful songs.  We have taken what was literally paradise and trashed it.  There are more trees that follow, but only little else to say.  Scroll down to the beeches.

I'm not sure, this might be a fraternity.  Below are closeups of the two large trees in the foreground.
This is the maple, on the right.  It is seeping, bark is breaking off, you can see it on the ground.
Here's the tree on the left.  The entire outer layer has already fallen from the trunk.
The peeling is working its way up to higher branches.

Here's another big maple, close up below revealing holes.

The tree below has many small cankers, with suckers protruding from them, a signal of distress.
the high branches are dead.

This tree has a large patch of missing bark, on it's way to developing a big hole.

Lest anyone bring up the tired argument that trees are dying from old age, here's a row of recently planted young trees.
They have gaping holes also.
And their bark is splitting to the same degree as the old trees.
A tree tour just wouldn't be complete with some lichens.
It's interesting that they cluster around lesions.

Oh, perennial geranium is blooming in November but global warming is a hoax!
Many trees are stained in various shades from seeping sap.

This tree has lost the entire center of it's crown.

There is - or rather was - a spectacular collection of beeches in this area of the campus.
Upon closer inspection they are all dying back, the center of the crowns lost.
Cracking bark and below, a nascent canker protrudes.  These are growing on all species at a mind-boggling rate, and are generally from an opportunistic, lethal fungal infection.

This is some sort of fruit - a crabapple likely.  It too has suckers, and is an excellent demonstration of the degradation of bark.  The left limb has smooth bark along the right hand side - that's how it should be.  To the left and on the lower right limb, the bark is heavily corroded and coarsened.
Here is my favorite scene.  The romantic in me can imagine generations of passionate students stealing kisses concealed under the glowing canopy of these two weeping willows in the spring.
Now though, the nearest has cankers clustered up and down its trunk.

And the one on the left, further back, has lost so many branches it is lopsided.
This squirrel was quite annoyed by my camera...or perhaps because the pine tree in the back is almost completely bare.

This has to be the pinnacle - nadir? - of extreme tree bizarro.  Maybe we should have a contest?
Here are more of the pathetic beeches:

When I was heading back to my car for the long journey home, the light was fading and this tree was just a I debated whether it was worth climbing the marble stairs.
I did anyway, and sure enough, there was a hole at the base of the trunk.
 I just so happened to come across a macabre picture of a fallen tree that I rather like, so here it is, and that's all for now, folks...except this reminder:  Zawacki is a verb that means I Told You So.
Oh, and as a footnote, I did send a very rough draft of this post to the organizers of the conference, offering to incorporate their perspective - and have yet to receive a reply.  If they ever decide to respond, I'll update.

Update:  I received an email from the Wesleyan Grounds Manager in  response to my questions in which he stated:

Over the last 30+ years, we've had to take down the oldest trees, some with storm damage and some with terminal disease.  The estimated oldest that we have now is probably only around 150-175 years old.

Update 2:  Tom Stokes sent me an exceedingly kind and gracious response early on Thanksgiving Day morning, for which I am extremely humbled and grateful:

Dear Gail Zawicki,

I read your account of the Pricing Carbon conference,
and regret having caused you such grief. Rather than
trying to once again explain and justify the stance
we took re your efforts to convey justifiable alarm at
what is happening to our trees, I merely say that I
was trying to do a lot of things at once, adhere to
University ground-rules, and respond to multiple
concerns different people had. Had I not been under
so much pressure, overseeing many events at once, I
certainly would have taken more time to listen to you,
understand your cause, and to seek a mutual agreement
and accommodations that might have been more satisfactory
for you and for all of us concerned.

More that the understandable anger you feel toward
me, I regret the part that our interaction had in
contributing to your overall negative impression of
the conference. It was something that many of us worked
on extremely hard (with dedication approaching yours
towards threatened trees), and we remain heartened that
we were able to provide an event that so many found to
be worthwhile (notwithstanding a couple of notable

In my travels and work, I have often identified with
that forlorn and rejected fox.

A number of the pictures that you posted are beautifully
taken, moving and compelling. I admire your dedication
and wish you well.

Tom Stokes


  1. Coming soon to a pine forest near you:

    Oh hell and high water

  2. Oh Gail !!

    Superb trip report... don't you know that Wesleyan is the epitome of the split personality - both very conservative - old New England, religious fundamentalism - and yet very open, tolerant and even nurturing to radical new ideas.

    It really boggles the mind if you let it. You are way above it. Thanks for all that you do.

  3. The tree situation in the northeast is indeed haorrowing. First, there was the dutch elm epidemic of some forty years ago. If you think the scene at Wesleyan is heartbreaking now, you should have been around in the late sixties as the canopy that covered both sides of High Street (that street just beyond the fraternity you photographed) slowly disappeared with each severed trunk.

    Most of the elms on campus have been replaced by honey locusts, chosen for the similarity of their bell-shaped crowns to that of their predecessor's. It's interesting that none of them (that I could see) were among your photo-log "victims" because they really have been the replacement tree of choice at Wesleyan for nearly a half-century, now.

    Of course, I believe in saving as many of the older, native trees as possible rather than seeing them replaced. That huge sycamore adjacent to the Center for the Arts studio arts courtyard has been an iconic feature of those limestone monoliths since the center's construction in 1973 and would be a huge loss.

    The same with the stand of beech trees in front of West College. My biggest fear is that generations of kids climbing their wide, welcoming branches have contributed to their toll. Successive winter ice storms and at least one tornado (last September) may have been additional stressors.

  4. Thank you for your comment JohnWesley! I don't know about the honey locusts at Wesleyan but around here they are in the "worst" column. Leaves started falling off in July and by mid-September there were few left, unfortunately.

    On the other hand, I would hate to think children climbing on tree branches would harm them. When they are healthy they are very strong - they evolved with animals like mountain lions and bears climbing in them after all!

    here's a cute video of bears in trees (very thin trees).

  5. It would seem that this is an excellent time for a young person to be studying botany and the other plant sciences.

    Twenty years ago I thought that with climate change, non-predictability, and disruption on the horizon it would be a good idea to plant everything, everywhere. Something would grow no matter what happens (up to a point!) Invasive species would seem to be superior to bare earth. Not everyone would agree. But I'd rather be in a field of kudzu than a barren desert.

  6. Dear John Wesley:

    The trees you spoke about in front of West College are indeed gone. See for yourself.

  7. Tennessee J, that picture hit me like a violent death in the family.


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