Categories / Environment/Energy

Monkey business

My latest feature for Wired, “Law of the Jungle,” is out in the June issue. Seven months in the making, it’s the story of how an internationally renowned primatologist named Marc van Roosmalen went from being hailed as an environmental hero to being labeled Brazil’s foremost environmental criminal — sentenced to more than a dozen years in a dank prison in Manaus. Roosmalen, a Dutch-born researcher and naturalized Brazilian citizen, worked for a Brazilian government institute studying both the plants and primates of Amazon, and made a name for himself over the past two decades by discovering a half-dozen or more new species of large primates and other mammals. In an effort to link his science to conservation, he ran primate rehabilitation operations (including out of his backyard, in downtown Manaus), and set up non-governmental organization to raise money to buy and protect the habitats of his discoveries.

Along the way, however, he engendered a variety of enemies, some of them with the power to collapse his life’s work. The environmental authorities spent half a dozen years pursuing him for a shifting collection of environmental crimes that coalesced under one label: biopiracy. Released temporarily from prison, Roosmalen lives on the run in fear for his life. His final appeal is still to be decided.

Cellulosic ethanol makes the energy bill

It’s official: no more excuses for cellulosic ethanol. President Bush signed the new energy bill today, which contains the incredibly overdue provision raising CAFE (federal fuel) standards to 35mpg. That was probably the single most important action the federal government could have taken to push along new energy technologies. But the bill also raises the amount of mandated alternate fuels — “mandated” being used somewhat loosely since there is not a clear enforcement mechanism for the mandate — to 36 billion gallons by 2020. Of that, 16 billion gallons is required to come from cellulosic ethanol. There seems to be a good chance that next year’s Farm Bill will contain biofuel subsidies to go with those standards. The presidential candidates on the whole seem to be enamored with biofuels.

All of which means that the cellulosic researchers and entrepreneurs I wrote about two months ago — all of whom were arguing for a stronger federal mandate and more money to get cellulosic ethanol out of the lab — have gotten their wish: a chance to prove that a cellulosic-ethanol driven transportation system is viable. Now they’ve got to actually make it.

China’s syndrome

My latest piece for Discover, for their January issue highlighting the top science stories of 2007, explores the environmental challenges created by the blistering pace of development in China. It clocks in as the number one science story of the year, mainly because 2007 was likely the year when China passed the United States in greenhouse gas emissions.

Recounting the litany of environmental problems facing China can paint a pessimistic picture, to say the least. But there are some spots of hope to be found in the determination and limited success of the NGOs that have sprouted up in the last decade. And the 2008 Bejing Olympics — for which the head of the IOC has hinted at canceling the marathon, among other things, due to poor air quality — offers a moment in the spotlight that could drive the Chinese government to up their enforcement of environmental regulations.

But among the experts I talked to, the factor that could make the single biggest difference for China’s approach to global warming, in particular, is the U.S. finally taking some action to control its own greenhouse gas emissions. That looks unlikely to happen this year, but at least raises the hope that if the next president takes action on climate change, we could get a two for one with China doing so as well.

For more on this topic, it’s worth reading Jaques Leslie’s comprehensive piece in this month’s Mother Jones, and also the amazing New York Times series on China and the environment.

The NPR double

A little late posting this, but I made a pair of appearances on National Public Radio recently, both times discussing the ins and outs of cellulosic ethanol based on my Wired piece. Both shows are archived for your listening pleasure:

First off, “Talk of the Nation Science Friday,” on October 5.

Followed by “Fair Game,” November 15.